History, Seen and Used Progressively

by Martin Harris

With all the anecdotes of the ideological leanings on college campi circulating in recent years, your Humble Scribe takes some solace in reporting on an eight-year-old book written by a professor at the University of Dallas (in academia, the “publish-or-perish” mandate has deeper historical roots than recent practices for viewing and teaching such non-engineering “soft” subjects as history in de-constructionist manner) which offers a heavy-with-quotations analysis of the Progressive Movement as theorized by its most iconic figure, Woodrow Wilson. Even for those of us who journeyed through lower and then higher education in the pre-ideology decades, Ronald Pestritto’s “Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism” offers a heavily-documented comparison of the Founding Fathers’ governance theories with those of the later Progressives, major differences on which we weren’t then enlightened. Wilson, back then, was more typically presented to us as a noble follower of such as Jefferson and Hamilton, not at all as their critic and replacement. So deeply ingrained in most of the US population (at least, those of us who made it through schooling into earning a living and voting for (mostly) non-“free-stuff” candidates) is the image of Progressive Prez 28 as the legitimate inheritor and defender of the Founding Fathers’ governance vision that even more recent Progressives (e.g.,Prez 44) are recently quoted as complimenting such foreign leaders as Viet-Nam’s Ho Chi Minh by favorably linking him to Jeffersonian ideals. But Wilson’s Progressive view was quite negative: while the Founding Fathers’ theories of individual liberty, factions, and minimal government were OK for those long-vanished primitive times, they were no longer relevant in such a more sophisticated and advanced society as the united-by-Progressive-leadership America in the early 20th century.

“The Founders’ Constitutionalism” , RP writes in his Introduction, “is designed to limit the power of government over the rights of individuals, even when that power is energized by a majority. Several institutional features were implemented to achieve this purpose. Each of these features, in Wilson’s mind, made American government inflexible and incapable of adjustment to necessary historical change.” RP’s Wilson quote denigrating the Declaration of Independence is one we never heard in Am,Hist 101: “…the rhetorical introduction of the Declaration of Independence is the least part of it…” and so on. And RP goes on how to explain how, in the Progressive view, the liberty concerns of the Founders become irrelevant because, “…as history marches forward, so protections built into government against the dangers of such things as faction become unnecessary and increasingly unjust. … history brings a unity of sentiment and fundamental will to the nation… government in such an age of unity is not a threat to the individual that has to be checked; rather, the State is an organ of the individuals in society…” using another Wilsonian quote, “beneficial and indispensable”.

The rejection of permanent “natural rights” as embraced by the Founding Fathers (and carefully not overtly rejected by Progressives today) in favor of whatever history evolves into, as “the spirit of each age is different and more advanced than the one preceding it” wasn’t Wilson’s invention, RP writes; it came out of his collegiate studies of early-19th-century German philosopher Georg Hegel. RP summarizes thus: “for Hegel, history is going somewhere, a particular end-point toward which world history is directed…rights cannot be natural or inalienable, but must come from the current state”. RP quotes Hegel thus: ”the State, in its laws, its arrangements, constitutes the rights of its members…” and summarizes thus: ”the State, according to Hegel, is the manifestation of the people’s objective will; it must be managed by those who best understand that will and best know how to put it into practice.”

And, indeed, there are lots of references in RP’s books to the Progressive insistence on the necessity for only “the best and brightest” (themselves, of course) to be in charge and run things. He writes (p.128) “Wilson’s popular-leadership model, while democratic on the surface, is really a means for elites to govern the people”. The goal, he argues earlier (p. 55) is “Wilson’s particularly Hegelian understanding of what this modern concept of liberty actually means. Liberty, he (Wilson) explained, is not found in freedom from State action but instead in one’s obedience to the laws of the State… Wilson contended that ‘law is the external organism of human freedom’”. To get public acceptance of this then-new progressive concept, Wilson argued that (p.209) “education must prepare the people for accepting leadership”, as you can read in his own book, “The Modern Democratic State”, and, in another Prez 28 quote, there’s his assertion that democracy requires “strong, visionary leadership by the few men who have the capacity for it”. Like WW himself, presumably. On p.231 RP explains, “this is where elite leadership becomes so important. Those who lead must have the keenest insight into what Progress requires. Political leadership consequently must practice the popular arts, using its close connection to the people as a means of moving them in accordance with the leaders’ own vision of where history is going. On the administrative side, administrative study must teach the people what sort of administration to desire and demand.”

That includes advancing two themes simultaneously, RP observes. “Whereas in his political rhetoric, Wilson frequently placed himself in the tradition of prominent Americans who had preceded him, his academic writings are far more candid about the novelty of his ideas.” Tell the masses you’re Jeffersonian, while telling your halls-of-ivy colleagues you’re Hegelian. Maybe the present state of affairs on American campi is Wilsonian in origin?

One thought on “History, Seen and Used Progressively

  1. Wilson was probably our worst modern president, in terms of the damage he did to American liberty. However his New Freedom speeches of 1912, said to have been written by Brandeis, were very Jeffersonian – although Wilson certainly wasn’t. We can thank egotistic Hamiltonian Teddy Roosevelt for giving us Wilson, and he probably wasn’t too upset about that outcome.

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