Constitution 201: Founders vs. Progressives

article top

By Stephen Zierak

This lesson is taught by Dr. Thomas West, the Paul & Dawn Porter Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College.  Dr. West teaches courses in American politics, focusing on the U.S. Constitution, civil rights, foreign policy, and the political thought of the American Founding.  He also teaches the political philosophy of Aquinas, Hobbes, and Locke.  Dr. West is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and he has previously taught at the University of Dallas.  He received his BA from Cornell, and his PhD from Claremont Graduate University.  Those interested in seeing and hearing this lecture, or any of the others in the series, may register at  There is no fee.



The Founders believed that the purpose of government was to secure the unalienable rights of American citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by protecting against violations by foreign or domestic enemies.  The Progressives believe that the purpose of government is to give you the benefit of government programs, while changing you into a more socially responsible individual.

As we watch the Founder’s vision slip away with the advent of big government and the welfare state, we might wonder what went wrong.  Some American conservatives blame the language of the Founding.  They believe that the equality and rights talk has led to Obama, that Progressivism was derived from expressions in our revolutionary documents.  Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Progressivism was a radical departure from the Founding, as can be seen in comparisons around six points of contrast:  (1)  What is freedom?  (2)  Purpose of government?  (3)  Domestic policy?  (4)  Foreign policy?  (5)  Consent of the governed?  (6) Government limited or unlimited?

The key Founding principle is that humans are created equal with unalienable pre-political rights.  These accord with the laws of nature and nature’s God, and are discoverable by reason.  All must respect these natural rights of others as they are valued by all.  We are all part of a natural, unchanging moral order.  Adults possess from their nature as humans the right to be free from the rule of others.  That individual right of freedom is what the Founders meant by political equality.

Progressives believe that the individual is not born free, but that freedom is a product of human making.  They reject the Founders for not accepting historical relativity, that standards of right and wrong change over time with changing social conditions.  John Dewey, educator and social philosopher, argued that the Founder’s “freedom from” was negative freedom, a mere first step on the road to positive freedom that required control over resources and mind.  The purpose of government was to transfer wealth and educate the mind for the sake of development.  “Liberalism has to gather itself together to formulate the ends to which it is devoted in terms of means that are relevant to the contemporary situation.  The only form of enduring social organization that is now possible is one in which the new forces of productivity are cooperatively controlled and used in the interest of effective liberty and the cultural development of the individuals that constitute society.  Such a social order cannot be established by an unplanned and external convergence of the actions of separate individuals, each of whom is bent on personal private advantage….Organized social planning, put into effect for the creation of an order in which industry and finance are socially directed in behalf of institutions that provide the material basis for the cultural liberation and growth of individuals, is now the sole method of social action by which liberalism can realize its professed aims.”  (John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action, 1935).

Progressive economist Richard Ely held that positive freedom would require (trans)forming individuals in the name of social ethics, “self development for the sake of others”.  We must develop an individual’s talents and mind so he could participate in the development of others.  Progressive government seeks to create individuals in two ways:  (1)  Redistribution of resources to maximize everyone’s development potential; (2) Transformation of the character of inferior citizens, what was termed “uplift.”  (Source of the “reeducation camp?”)

Protecting individuals vs. “creating” individuals sums up the differences between Founders and Progressives.

The Founders believed it was best that individuals and civil society be free to organize affairs on their own.  They realized that in a free society there would be inequality of wealth, based on the free choices of individuals, and ameliorated in large part by family, church, and civic society in assistance to those who could not take care of themselves even with best efforts.  If private help was unavailable, the Founders saw a place for government provision of minimal assistance (by local governments, best able to assess the situation).  Government should protect the exercise of unequal talents.  Failure is an incentive to more responsible future action.  The Founders never confused political equality with economic equality.

Some of the Progressives pretended that their positive freedom was merely an extension to negative freedom.  John Dewey again:  “…after early liberalism had done its work, society faced a new problem, that of social organization.  Its work was to liberate a group of individuals, representing the new science and the new forces of productivity, from customs, ways of thinking, institutions, that were oppressive of the new modes of social action…”  The only possible way to realize the Progressives’ “positive” freedom is to take away the “negative” freedom of unalienable rights promised in our Founding documents.  “Positive” freedom is always at someone else’s expense, and arranged by an ever more powerful government.

When President Obama said, “You didn’t build that,” he was reflecting the Progressive idea that it is up to government to create individuals.  God and nature gives us nothing at birth.  It is only government that can facilitate human effort into productive outcomes.  Without government, you are alone and helpless.  The Founders believed that the way to help those behind is not to take from those ahead through coercive government power, but to create a society in which every person is free to sell his labor or go into business—that this should be on equal terms with no government favoritism.  The most capable will create efficient businesses that will be able to employ the rest of us.  And America took root and grew not because of a Progressive welfare state, but because of its absence.

The Founders ceded most domestic policy to the states.  The Founding generation believed the states, closer to the people, were best positioned to provide tough criminal law, civil law to deal with contract violations and civil wrongs, family law protective of women and children, a minimal safety net, and the encouragement of schooling and (non-denomination specific) religious sentiments among the people.  The only domestic responsibility of the federal government was the maintenance of a national free market (to prevent states from interfering with trade), and the definition of money as gold and silver (to prevent the government from inflating the currency).  Beyond these state and federal functions, the Founding generation believed in leaving citizens alone to tend to their own affairs.  Government would advocate for the virtues of justice, moderation, frugality, self reliance, courage, and vigilance in defense of freedom.  It would expect citizens to be aware of their basic rights and duties.  But government would respect the rights of citizens to chart their own courses, and would protect the liberties that made that possible.

The Progressive vision is quite different.  Their positive freedom requires ever more income and wealth redistribution, welfare and services, and business regulation to stop what bureaucrats consider “unfair” trade practices—something too often suspected of any successful business.  “Uplift” would be provided by ever greater support to schools and universities.  Schools have been reorganized to promote Progressive doctrine.  Universities have become the modern churches of Progressivism.  The professors are the high priests who teach Progressive doctrine to the rising generation of teachers, bureaucrats, and citizens.

One dark side of the uplift agenda has slipped through the memory hole of politically correct history.  Prior to World War 2, many Progressives supported the segregation of black citizens by government mandate, under the “scientific” theory that blacks were at a lower level of civilization and needed to develop separately.  Woodrow Wilson introduced segregation throughout the federal government.

The Founders believed that foreign policy served the same objective as domestic policy:  protection of the rights of citizens.  They were not isolationists, as they were willing to make alliances with foreign powers (France, during the Revolutionary War, for example) if in service to defense purposes.  The Founders did not think it the responsibility of the federal government to secure the rights of people in other nations.  Another country, no matter how bad its government, was an enemy in war and a friend in peace.  Overseas nation building would have been inconceivable.

Progressives advocated “benevolent” imperialism, that America has a mission to engage in imperialism and nation building for the benefit of the uncivilized societies.  The U.S. acquired colonies in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba; and invaded Mexico.  All of this while nominally at peace.  Progressive Senator Albert Beveridge, when asked if it was right to govern the Philippines without Filipino consent, responded that it is okay to govern children without consent—and that Filipinos were like children.  They were not capable of self government, were dull and stupid, and were incurably indolent due to the Oriental quality of their blood.  This is what passed for science among Progressives of the period.  So how did this all work out, this bringing of civilization to foreign shores? Cuba today is communist, and the Philippines continues to be badly governed—all this despite the best efforts of Progressive “experts” sent to reform those societies.

Progressives have denigrated the Founding idea of government legitimacy through the consent of the governed in a representative republic.  A voter can be a slave to his instincts.  For Dewey and other Progressives, government authority must extend to all areas and ways of living among the people. It is of secondary interest whether such expansion into private life is approved by elected officials.  The Progressives are remembered for increasing the opportunities for consent, via direct election of senators and party primaries.  But the most important and lasting contribution of Progressivism is the growing power of the administrative state, separated from political control.  Separation of powers is replaced by separation of administration from politics.  When candidate Obama expressed his disdain of small town America in his observation of how people cling to their guns and religion instead of the blessings of big government, he was echoing the Progressive zeitgest.

The Founding generation believed that government must be limited, but also must be strong in areas where it is meant to be strong:  national defense, tough law enforcement, and the protection of private property and free markets—all as applications of the protection of unalienable rights.  Progressivism is dedicated to an unlimited government that is to do good.  As western states came into the Union after the advent of Progressivism, the federal government maintained control of western lands.  Today, the feds own over 50% of western land, compared to ownership of only 3% in the Northeast.  Indeed, today private ownership is often looked on as an environmental threat.  Progressives have been impatient with democratic institutions, and have disregarded Madison’s warnings that men are not angels and should not be entrusted with unlimited power.  This unlimited power to do good has actually been used as it was prior to 1776:  to advance the interests of the ruling class by extracting vast sums of money from the productive to fund an inefficient bureaucracy and its pet programs.  Progressivism is in reality reaction.  It looks back to pre-1776 government power over the individual, and it delivers similar results.

Progressivism took hold after 1900, increased in power during FDR, and reached its peak with the Great Society.  After 1965, however, Progressivism was transformed into modern liberalism.  Modern liberals may continue many Progressive policies, but they put a somewhat different spin on them.

Progressives believed they were promoting the values of science and civilization, while modern liberals have elevated various groups to “victim” status.  Uplift has been abandoned as multiculturalism is embraced, beneficiaries are no longer expected to learn and exhibit good behavior as a part of social ethics, and any group with less is automatically considered a victim of the wealthy.  In our nation building exercises in Libya,Iraq, and Afghanistan, where is the uplift?  We establish governments that persecute Christians and Jews, and that establish Islamic law.  Modern liberalism is Progressivism without seriousness of purpose.

Progressives did support the idea of the family.  They accepted differences between the sexes, and expected assistance to be combined with discouragement of sex outside marriage.  The modern liberal considers sexual liberation a main value, and is unconcerned about the impact of related policies on family stability.

Finally, the environmentalism of the modern liberal goes far beyond anything contemplated by the Progressives.  Conservationist Gilbert Pinchot argued that public lands needed to be managed for the current and future use of humanity.  Liberals view subhuman life as sacred, and are indifferent to human costs.  A Pinchot would never have approved the policy implemented in California that denies irrigation water to farmers in order to reduce the decline of the Delta Smelt.

Many people who call themselves conservative today are actually Progressives.  They accept an expanded role for government.  However, they oppose the main features of modern liberalism:  the moral superiority of minorities, women, disabled, and other supposed victim groups; sexual expression as a basic right; and treatment of animals, plants, and the earth as sacred.  They must come to understand that it is the very abandonment of Founding principles by the Progressives (historical relativity, assaults on property rights and free markets, bureaucratic government, celebration of a “freedom” detached from human nature) that has led to the possibility of modern liberalism.  In stepping away from a government dedicated to the protection of unalienable rights, the Progressives launched a movement that could only result—as it always results—in a government of irrational principles embedded in the actions of an arbitrary, uncontrolled bureaucracy.

The Founding is not yet quite dead.  When you get beyond the universities and the media, there are still some ordinary Americans with regard for God, property rights, virtue of self reliance, the importance of the family, and the unapologetic willingness to use armed forces in defense of the nation.  The first great battle for America’s soul over slavery was settled by the Civil War.  The second great battle, Constitutionalism vs. the Progressive concept of the state, still remains to be resolved.  As our government careens ever more out of control, can the occasional sparks of the Founding be fanned into flames of recovered liberty?


Stephen Zierak, CPCU/ARM, graduated from Boston University with a BA in Political Science in 1969.  After a forty year career in property casualty insurance underwriting, Mr. Zierak retired as a Vice President of Swiss Re America in 2010.  At that time, he relocated to Hawaii, a move he had always wanted to make, but had delayed due to lack of appropriate professional opportunities here.  Mr. Zierak plans to continue his studies in Political Science, never really abandoned even during his professional career, and to write on matters of public policy.  Recently, he produced for Grassroot Institute summaries of Hillsdale’s ten part internet course on our Constitution.  Stephen Zierak is married to the love his life, Teodora, and they reside in Honolulu.





  1. "Progressives have denigrated the Founding idea of government legitimacy through the consent of the governed in a representative republic."
    Women were 'governed" without consent.
    Slaves were 'governed" without consent.
    Explain how people today agreed to be governed by the ideas of dead people. Why ideas of the rich, propertied, white, ruling, slave-holding, or slavery-countenancing class bind those not living at the time.
    Progressives have not denigrated such an idea. They attempt to improve the obviously primitive representativeness of a republic governed only by white males of property.

  2. dr.west writes, in part …."the Founding generation believed that government should be limited, but also must be strong in areas where it was meant to be strong: national defense,tough law enforcement-" tough law enforcement? that doesn't sound too freedom loving to me.and the Founding generation did not plan for a police-state,miltarism in federal domestic law-enforcement agencies either.we see those things happening to us incrementally.tough "law enforcement and a "strong national defense" is actually being abused by the feds in our country.the Patriot Act,Homeland Security,domestic surveilance without warrants,the president ,who is sworn to up hold the constitution can now arrest american citizens anywhere in the world without due-process and tried in military courts.progressives/conservatives and all the other "ives" are violating our individual liberties thru an agressive government.

  3. the president of the united states , who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and shamelessly accepted, he can now actually KILL american citizens.and has already done so,including a teen-ager.americans that are in disagrement with our federales have no legal recourse,no due process if the government wwants to take you out.

Comments are closed.