Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution

"The Progressive Assault on the Constitution"

Overview

Building on their rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, Progressives worked to remove constitutional restrictions on government’s power in order to institute their programs and policies. The 16th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution fundamentally transformed the federal government, but most Progressive policy successes occurred at the state and local levels.

Leading Progressives, especially Theodore Roosevelt, chided the courts—which were initially defenders of limited government—for failing to interpret the Constitution as a living document. Progressives also believed that direct democracy—including new mechanisms such as the ballot initiative, referendum, and recall—was superior to the Founders’ concept of representative government.

Woodrow Wilson emphasized that the constitutional separation of powers was both inefficient and irresponsible. Wilson’s solution was an empowered and greatly enlarged national administration, free from the influence of politics.

Both Wilson and Roosevelt held a new view of the American presidency. No longer would the president be merely the head of the Executive Branch; rather, he would be the political leader of the country and use his personal influence to direct the entire government.

Lecture

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Discussion Questions

  1. What is the Progressive view of the presidency? What are the major differences between the Progressives and the Founders regarding the Executive Branch?
  2. What kinds of Progressive reforms were instituted at the state level during the Progressive Era? How do these reforms embody a rejection of the Founders’ principles?
  3. What is the fundamental difference between the Founders and the Progressives regarding the powers of government?

Readings

Q & A Session

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Ronald J. Pestritto holds the Charles and Lucia Shipley Chair in the American Constitution at Hillsdale College, where he is also the Dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship. He is the author of Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism; editor of Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings; and co-editor of American Progressivism: A Reader. He received his B.A. from Claremont McKenna College, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Government from the Claremont Graduate University.