Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution

“The Progressive Rejection of the Principles of the Declaration”


In the early 20th century, a new political theory—known as Progressivism—rose to prominence in America. This theory held that the principles of the American Founding, expressed most eloquently and concisely in the Declaration of Independence, were irrelevant to modern life. Progressives taught that stringent restrictions on government power were no longer necessary to protect liberty, since human nature and science had advanced greatly during the 19th century. Progressives did not believe that individuals are endowed with inalienable rights by a Creator; rather, they believed that rights are determined by social expediency and bestowed by the government. In conjunction with this new theory of rights, Progressivism holds that government must be able to adapt to ever-changing historical circumstances.


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Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways did Progressives reject the principles of the American Founding?
  2. Why is it important for us today to know about the Progressive rejection of the Declaration of Independence and the Progressive concept of rights?
  3. What does Woodrow Wilson mean when he states that government should be accountable to Darwin instead of Newton? What does this accountability to Darwin have to do with the idea of a living Constitution?

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 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.