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The Return of the Jeffersonian Vision and the Rejection of Progressivism

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We are once again—as in the days of the early republic and not in the heyday of the Progressives and the New Dealers—a republic of property owners.

“No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” So reads a portion of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights passed by the First Congress and ratified by state legislatures, sponsored originally by Thomas Jefferson’s friend and political ally James Madison. It echoed, of course, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Madison and Jefferson followed the tradition of John Locke, the British philosopher whose Two Treatises on Government was taken as the justification for the transfer of power known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89—the subject of my 2007 book, Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America’s Founding Fathers. Locke believed that men could be free only if their lives, liberty, and property were protected by the rule of law. And he believed that only men with property could be relied on to self-govern.

Locke, therefore, thought that the responsibility for choosing legislators in representative government should be limited to property owners, as it was in elections to the House of Commons. In English counties, the franchise was limited to 40-shilling freeholders—owners of property that brought in two pounds a year. The franchise in the more numerous boroughs was limited in different ways, in some cases to the owners of specific pieces of property.

The American people, the property-owning majority, even in this time of economic distress, seem to be embracing instead a culture of independence, a culture as old as the republic itself.

The Founders anticipated a limited but broader franchise in America. They provided that senators should be chosen by legislatures, whose members were typically selected by a large electorate, and that members of the House should be chosen by voters with “the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.”

The Founders had different ideas of the worthiness of commerce. Jefferson envisioned a republic of freeholding egalitarian farmers. Alexander Hamilton envisioned a republic on the path toward commercial and industrial preeminence. But Jefferson’s vision was a more accurate picture of the United States in the early years of the republic, where land was plentiful and labor scarce, where the large majority of white men were farmers and most of them owned the land they worked.

In this freeholders’ republic, it was natural to move toward universal manhood suffrage, to allow every white male adult to vote. Some states took longer than others to reach this goal—South Carolina still had the legislature choose its presidential electors until 1860. But the principle was widely accepted elsewhere: since almost everyone owned property, everyone should be allowed to vote. There was a danger, recognized by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, that the poor would vote to strip the rich of their wealth and, in President Obama’s words to Joe the Plumber, “Spread the wealth around.”

The New Deal was an attempt to freeze an economy, then in a downward spiral, into one place.

Tocqueville pointed to another danger as well, the danger of what he called “soft despotism,” in which a seemingly benevolent government would channel citizens into docile obedience like a herd of sheep. But that danger seemed distant, even to Tocqueville, in an America whose dominant and more populist party, Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, opposed government spending on public works projects and feared the power of a central bank.

Up through the end of the 19th century there did not seem to be a significant tension between universal democracy and property rights. The Founders’ vision prevailed.

A New Vision Based on Fear

But that was no longer the case in 1910. By then, another vision was being advanced, the vision of the Progressives—the vision of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, of political philosophers Herbert Croly and John Dewey.

The Progressives explicitly repudiated the Founders’ vision of limited government. They argued that government needed to redistribute property, to take money from one group of citizens to help others, and to regulate economic activity in ways previously considered unconstitutional. The Constitution, they said, was a “horse and buggy” document, suited perhaps to the simpler society of the 18th century, but dangerously out of date in a complex industrial society which could not expect ordinary citizens to make their way without government guidance and assistance. They were acting, they said, in the interests of the people. Their critics said they were acting out of hunger for power.

I want to advance another thesis: That they actually acted more out of fear than of benevolence. They feared revolution.

I want to advance another thesis: That Progressives actually acted more out of fear than of benevolence. They feared revolution.

They did not know what we know today: that revolution wasn’t going to occur in America, as it had so often in Europe (multiple times in France, in many European countries in 1848, and as recently as 1870-71). Revolution would transform Russia in 1917-18. In the chaos and violence that followed World War I, Marxist revolts broke out in cities as productive and sophisticated as Munich and Budapest; Benito Mussolini’s fascists marched on Rome. The Progressives did not take the Marxist view that revolution was inevitable, but they certainly believed it was possible; Theodore Roosevelt was quite explicit about this threat. And they believed it a serious menace, as avowedly Marxist socialist parties gained millions of adherents in the expanding electorates of Europe.

The Challenges of Urbanity

This is understandable if we go back to 1910, and look at the America the Progressives faced. It was increasingly an urban country with an increasingly industrial economy, a country where great masses of people did not own significant amounts of property.

The United States in 1910 had 92 million people—it would pass the 100 million mark in 1915. This seems like a small number to us, living in a nation of 310 million, but it was an enormous multitude to the Americans of that time, a huge increase over the 3.9 million recorded in the first Census just 120 years before, in 1790.

Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to another danger as well, the danger of what he called “soft despotism,” in which a seemingly benevolent government would channel citizens into docile obedience like a herd of sheep.

It was an America with huge and rapidly growing cities. New York City had 4.8 million people in 1910, nearly half of them in Manhattan—almost a million more than live there today—and half of those lived south of 14th Street. The subways were being built that would spread the city out in the next decade to Brooklyn and the Bronx, each of which gained more than half a million people in the decade, during which the population of New York City rose to 5.6 million. Behind New York in 1910 were Chicago with 2.2 million, Philadelphia with 1.5 million, and St. Louis, Boston, Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Detroit each with about half a million or more. Altogether, one out of eight Americans lived in these nine cities, America was rapidly moving to a time—reached by the 1920 Census—when a majority lived in cities.

And these cities were filling up with immigrants. In the 1900-1910 decade, America grew from 76 million to 92 million and welcomed some 9 million immigrants. Four million more would arrive in the next four years. More than half of America’s population growth came from immigrants, and for the first time many came from Eastern and Southern Europe, the vast majority of whom settled in big cities. It was a time when America’s giant factories employed great masses of immigrants. Henry Ford’s Highland Park plant was churning out hundreds of thousands of Model Ts—and Ford was organizing English and civics lessons for his workers, many of whom had little command of English.

In America, most farmers owned their farms. But most city dwellers did not own significant property at all. Most city residents rented rather than owned their homes; they cashed their paychecks for cash rather than have bank accounts; they depended on charity if they became disabled or widowed. It was the America of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie—a very hard America (as I used the term in my 2004 book, Hard America, Soft America), an America with plenty of competition and accountability, but which could be very unforgiving of mistakes and misfortunes. Millions made their way upwards, but most never accumulated significant wealth. They lacked the stake in their communities and in the larger society that property provides.

The Obama Democrats came to power with an assumption that in times of economic distress Americans would be more amenable to or supportive of big government programs.

For the Progressives, this was scary. Who could tame the urban masses? The post-Civil War politicians who built Fort Sheridan and Great Lakes Naval Station located them near Chicago to stamp out revolution if it came. And indeed there was rioting in the streets of Chicago during the Pullman strike of 1893, when President Grover Cleveland superseded the governor of Illinois and mobilized federal troops.

The Progressives and their progeny, the New Dealers—whether acting out of benevolence, hunger for power, or fear—were paternalistic; but they were also precautionary. Give the masses work relief, Social Security, deposit insurance, a floor on wages and prices, they thought, and the masses will not revolt or be attracted to the totalitarian faiths advancing in the Old World—the Communism that many intellectuals championed, the fascism that Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote was “the wave of the future.”

The Progressives argued that economic freedoms were unimportant because ordinary people, lacking property, didn’t really have much economic freedom anyway. As such, property rights must be subordinated to human rights. It was better to guarantee people education, healthcare, food, housing—the domestic programs that Franklin Roosevelt advanced as victory in World War II neared in 1944 and 1945. Economic growth was a secondary concern at best. Roosevelt seems to have believed, as many Americans did at the time, that the era of economic growth was over and that the postwar years would see a return to economic depression. In any case, he was clearly focused on economic redistribution rather than growth.

The New Deal was an attempt to freeze an economy, then in a downward spiral, into one place. It envisaged not growth but stasis. It was widely believed that capitalism had failed and economic growth was a thing of the past.

Misreading History and the Progressive Overreach

Today we have a presidential administration and a congressional leadership which consciously seeks to expand the size and scope of government in the tradition set out by the Progressives and New Dealers. They came to power assuming that in times of economic distress Americans would be more amenable to or supportive of big government programs. This was a lesson they absorbed directly or secondhand from the great New Deal historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and James McGregor Burns, and from Franklin Roosevelt himself.

Progressives argued that government needed to redistribute property, to take money from one group of citizens to help others, and to regulate economic activity in ways previously considered unconstitutional.

But as I argued in my 1990 book, Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan, and as Amity Shlaes argues differently in her book on the 1930s, The Forgotten Man, those lessons were misleading. It’s true that American voters in the 1934 and 1936 elections endorsed the policies of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. But as the 1930s went on, opinion shifted. By 1937, most Americans opposed Roosevelt’s plan to pack the Supreme Court and were repelled by the sit-down strikes that resulted in unionizing the auto and steel industries. Majorities favored reducing government spending and controls, limiting the power of labor unions, and paring welfare programs—this was when the word “boondoggling” was added to the English language.

It is true that Roosevelt was re-elected in 1940 and that Democrats retained majorities in Congress. But polling suggests that if the 1940 election had been decided on domestic issues, the Republicans would have won. Roosevelt was nominated for a third term weeks after the fall of France, when Hitler and Stalin and Imperial Japan were allies in command of most of the land-mass of Eurasia—the closest the world has ever come to George Orwell’s vision in 1984. Roosevelt was an experienced and tested leader; the Republican candidate, though talented, was a former utility executive who had never held public office and had no experience in foreign or military affairs.

Most Americans have accumulated—or will, during the course of their working years, accumulate— significant amounts of wealth.

The Obama Democrats today believe they have progressed toward the goals Roosevelt outlined for domestic policy in his last year as president, and are puzzled by the adverse public reaction to their programs. But the America we live in is a very different country from the America the Progressives and New Dealers knew and, in part, because of the impact of some of the public policies set in place by the New Dealers and their opponents.

Those policies—as modulated by the Republican Congress in 1947 and 1948, which eliminated wage and price controls, cut taxes, limited the powers of labor unions, and rejected public housing programs—helped to produce the postwar prosperity which neither the New Dealers nor their political opponents predicted. The housing policies of the New Deal helped to make a majority of Americans homeowners while the bipartisan G.I. Bill of Rights, shaped in large part by the American Legion, enabled millions to attend college. These policies helped produce the postwar prosperity that neither Roosevelt’s admirers nor most of his opponents anticipated.

And when macroeconomic policies produced the stagflation of the 1970s, politicians, Democratic as well as Republican, embraced deregulation, which squeezed out huge costs in transportation and communication. This reduced the costs of life’s necessities, which enabled more Americans to accumulate significant wealth over a working lifetime.

John Locke believed that men could be free only if their lives, liberty, and property were protected by the rule of law. And he believed that only men with property could be relied on to self-govern.

We live now in a moment where it is clear that some of these policies went too far. Policies to increase homeownership helped produce the housing-price crash of 2007. Poorly understood innovations in finance led to the financial crisis of 2008. The resulting recession is painful and is, I believe, being prolonged by the economic policies of the Obama Democrats.

But the fact is that we are once again, as in the days of the early republic and not in the heyday of the Progressives and the New Dealers, a republic of property owners. Most Americans have accumulated—or will, during the course of their working years, accumulate— significant amounts of wealth. And that is why, I believe, American voters seem to be rejecting the policies of the Obama Democrats. Those policies, rooted in the Progressive and New Deal tradition, are designed to encourage a culture of dependence. It is the “soft despotism” of which Tocqueville warned us 175 years ago. The American people, the property-owning majority, even in this time of economic distress, seem to be embracing instead a culture of independence, a culture as old as the republic itself.

The major political development of the last 17 months has been an inrush of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans into political activity, an inrush symbolized by but not limited to the tea party movement. It is fascinating to me that the tea partiers have adopted the language and in some cases even the costumes of the Founders. While the Progressives’ descriptions of a “horse and buggy” Constitution and their sense that giant auto factories and steel mills were the harbinger of the future seem tinny and out of date, the language of the Founders continues to resonate with the clear timbre of a silver spoon tapping a crystal glass. The majority of the American people seem to firmly agree with the Founders’ insistence that no one should be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. And so we can take satisfaction that most of our fellow citizens in our freeholders’ republic still hold these truths to be self-evident.

This article is based on a speech delivered at the Jack Miller Center Summer Institute, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone recently detailed the tea party as “More Anti-Democrat than Anti-Incumbent” and examined “What 1946 Can Tell Us About 2010.” He has asked “Why Do Parties Last Longer in Britain,” and noted “The Coastal Conundrum.” He also co-authored The Almanac of American Politics 2008. You can catch him at AEI’s Election Watch 2010.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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