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Charles E. Merriam (1874–1953) was a professor at the University of Chicago and an early leader in the twentieth-century academic study of political science. A public intellectual in the progressive movement, Merriam held local office in Chicago, served as a presidential adviser to several administrations, and sat on numerous federal commissions during his career. Often cited as one of the founders of the “behavioral approach” to political science, he argued against the usefulness of “mere” theory or formal law and institutions in understanding politics. Rather, Merriam claimed, political scientists ought to derive data from the behavior of political actors and subject it to quantitative analysis. For Merriam, if it was to be in any way useful, the academic study of politics had to lend itself to political practice. The professional expertise of political scientists could be used to help citizens, politicians, and administrators realize progressive reform.
Merriam surveyed the historical development of American political principles and ideologies in his 1903 book, A History of American Political Theories. He saw this development as setting the stage for the progressive movement. In chapter 8, excerpted below, Merriam examined “recent tendencies” in contemporary social science research. Among these recent tendencies, he argued, was the willingness of progressive scholars to reject many of the theoretical principles associated with the American founding, such as the state of nature, natural rights, social contract theory, limited government, and separation of powers.
Source: Charles E. Merriam, A History of American Political Theories (London: Macmillan, 1903), 305–33, available online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library: https://babel.hathitrust. org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015030798600;view=1up;seq=7. We have edited the author’s original footnotes, omitting some. We have added several explanatory notes, preceded by “Ed.”
In the last half of the nineteenth century there appeared in the United States a group of political theorists differing from the earlier thinkers in respect to method and upon many important doctrines of political science. The new method was more systematic and scientific than that which preceded it, while the results reached showed a pronounced reaction from the individualistic philosophy of the early years of the century.
Much of the credit of the establishment of this new school belongs to Francis Lieber, a German scientist who came to this country in 1827 and, as an educator and author, left a deep impress on the political thought of America. His Manual of Political Ethics (1838–39) and Civil Liberty and Self-Government (1853) were the first systematic treatises on political science that appeared in the United States, and their influence was widespread. Following Lieber came a line of American political scientists, many of whom were trained in German schools, and all of whom had acquired a scientific method of discussing political phenomena. Among the most conspicuous figures in the new school are Theodore Woolsey, whose Political Science appeared in 1877, and John W. Burgess, who wrote, in 1890, Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law, and a number of others who have contributed materially to the development of the subject. . . .
The doctrines of these men differ in many important respects from those earlier entertained. The individualistic ideas of the “natural right” school of political theory, endorsed in the [American] Revolution, are discredited and repudiated. The notion that political society and government are based upon a contract between independent individuals and that such a contract is the sole source of political obligation, is regarded as no longer tenable. Calhoun and his school had already abandoned this doctrine, while such men as Story had seen the need of extensive qualification of it. Objections to the social contract were strongly urged by Lieber, and were later more fully and clearly stated by others. In Lieber’s opinion, the “state of nature” has no basis in fact. Man is essentially a social creature, and hence no artificial means for bringing him into society need be devised. Lieber condemned the contract theory as generally held, on the ground that it was both artificial and inadequate. Such an explanation of the origin of the state can be regarded as true only in the sense that every political society is composed of individuals who recognize the existence of mutual rights and duties. Only in the sense that there is a general recognition of these reciprocal claims can we say that the state is founded on contract; and this, of course, is far from what the doctrine is ordinarily taken to mean. As a matter of fact, the state may originate, and has originated, Lieber said, in a variety of ways, as, for example, through force, fraud, consent, religion.
Still more strongly is the opposition to the social-contract theory stated by Burgess. The hypothesis of an original contract to form the state is, as he reasons, wholly contrary to our knowledge of the historical development of political institutions. The social-contract theory assumes that “the idea of the state with all its attributes is consciously present in the minds of the individuals proposing to constitute the state, and that the disposition to obey law is universally established.” These conditions, history shows, are not present at the beginning of the political development of a people, but are the result of long growth and experience. This theory therefore cannot account for the origin of the state. Its only possible application is in changing the form of the state, or in the cases when a state is planted upon new territory by a population already politically educated.
In the refusal to accept the contract theory as the basis for government, practically all the political scientists of note agree. The old explanation no longer seems sufficient, and is with practical unanimity discarded. The doctrines of natural law and natural rights have met a similar fate. . . .
By the later thinkers the idea that men possess inherent and inalienable rights of a political or quasi-political character which are independent of the state, has been generally given up. It is held that these natural rights can have no other than an ethical value, and have no proper place in politics. “There never was, and there never can be,” says Burgess, “any liberty upon this earth and among human beings, outside of state organization.” In speaking of natural rights, therefore, it is essential to remember that these alleged rights have no political force whatever, unless recognized and enforced by the state. It is asserted by Willoughby that “natural rights” could not have even a moral value in the supposed “state of nature”; they would really be equivalent to force and hence have no ethical significance. . . .
The present tendency, then, in American political theory is to disregard the once dominant ideas of natural rights and the social contract, although it must be admitted that the political scientists are more agreed upon this point than is the general public. The origin of the state is regarded, not as the result of a deliberate agreement among men, but as the result of historical development, instinctive rather than conscious; and rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law. This new point of view involves no disregard of or contempt for human liberty, but only a belief that the earlier explanation and philosophy of the state was not only false but dangerous and misleading.
The modern school has, indeed, formulated a new idea of liberty, widely different from that taught in the early years of the Republic. The “Fathers” believed that in the original state of nature all men enjoy perfect liberty, that they surrender a part of this liberty in order that a government may be organized, and that therefore the stronger the government, the less the liberty remaining to the individual. Liberty is, in short, the natural and inherent right of all men; government the necessary limitation of this liberty. Calhoun and his school, as it has been shown, repudiated this idea, and maintained that liberty is not the natural right of all men, but only the reward of the races or individuals properly qualified for its possession. Upon this basis, slavery was defended against the charge that it was inconsistent with human freedom, and in this sense and so applied, the theory was not accepted outside the South. The mistaken application of the idea had the effect of delaying recognition of the truth in what had been said until the controversy over slavery was at an end.
The Revolutionary idea of the nature of liberty was never realized in actual practice, and recent political events and political philosophy have combined to show that another theory of liberty has been generally accepted. The new doctrine is best stated by Burgess. By liberty he understands “a domain in which the individual is referred to his own will, and upon which government shall neither encroach itself nor permit encroachments from any other quarter.” Such a sphere of action is necessary for the welfare and progress both of state and of individual. It is of vital importance to notice, however, that liberty is not a natural right which belongs to every human being without regard to the state or society under which he lives. On the contrary, it is logically true and may be historically demonstrated that “the state is the source of individual liberty.” It is the state that makes liberty possible, determines what its limits shall be, guarantees and protects it. In Burgess’s view, then, men do not begin with complete liberty and organize government by sacrificing certain parts of this liberty, but on the contrary they obtain liberty only through the organization of political institutions. The state does not take away from civil liberty, but is the creator of liberty—the power that makes it possible.
Liberty, moreover, is not a right equally enjoyed by all. It is dependent upon the degree of civilization reached by the given people, and increases as this advances. The idea that liberty is a natural right is abandoned, and the inseparable connection between political liberty and political capacity is strongly emphasized. After an examination of the principle of nationality, and the characteristic qualities of various nations or races, the conclusion is drawn that the Teutonic nations are particularly endowed with political capacity. Their mission in the world is the political civilization of mankind.
From this as a premise are deduced further conclusions of the utmost importance. The first of these is that in a state composed of several nationalities, the Teutonic element should never surrender the balance of power to the others. Another is that the Teutonic race can never regard the exercise of political power as a right of man, but it must always be their policy to condition the exercise of political rights on the possession of political capacity. A final conclusion is that the Teutonic races must civilize the politically uncivilized. They must have a colonial policy. Barbaric races, if incapable, may be swept away; and such action “violates no rights of these populations which are not petty and trifling in comparison with its transcendent right and duty to establish political and legal order everywhere.” On the same principle, interference with the affairs of states not wholly barbaric, but nevertheless incapable of effecting political organization for themselves, is fully justified. Jurisdiction may be assumed over such a state, and political civilization worked out for those who are unable to accomplish this unaided. This propaganda of political civilization, it is asserted, is not only the right and privilege, but the mission and duty, the very highest obligation incumbent on the Teutonic races, including the United States. Such action is not unwarrantable or unjustifiable interference with the affairs of those who should rightly be left unmolested, but is the performance of the part marked out for the Teutonic nations in the world’s development.
Closely related to the theory of liberty is the doctrine as to the purpose or function of the state. In the days of the Revolution, it was thought that the end of the political society is to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens, and beyond this nothing more. The duty of the state was summed up in the protection of individual rights, in harmony with the individualistic character of the philosophy of that day. In the theory of Lieber, this idea was broadened out, and, as he phrased it, the duty of the state is to do for man: first, what he cannot do alone; second, what he ought not to do alone; and third, what he will not do alone. In more recent times there has been in America a decided tendency to react against the early “protection theory” of government, and to consider that the aim of the state is not limited to the maintenance of law and order in the community and defense against foreign foes. In the new view, the state acts not only for the individual as such, but in the interests of the community as a whole. It is not limited to the negative function of preventing certain kinds of action, but may positively advance the general welfare by means and measures expressly directed to that end. This opinion is shared by such authorities as Woolsey, Burgess, Wilson, Willoughby, and others. To these thinkers it appears that the duty of the state is not and cannot be limited to the protection of individual interests, but must be regarded as extending to acts for the advancement of the general welfare in all cases where it can safely act, and that the only limitations on governmental action are those dictated by experience or the needs of the time.
Woolsey took the position that the state cannot be limited to restraining individuals from injuring each other, but may justly act positively for the general welfare. “The sphere of the state,” he said, “may reach as far as the nature and needs of man and of men reach”; and this each people decides for itself in accordance with its own peculiar conditions. In general the actions of the state fall under four groups: (1) the redress of wrongs; (2) the prevention of wrongs; (3) a degree of care for the outward welfare of the community, as in respect to industry, roads, and health; (4) the cultivation of the spiritual nature, “by educating the religious nature, the moral sense, the taste, the intellect.” The general limitation on the power of the state is that there shall be no act in restraint of the individual, except where there is imperative reason for such restriction. He also enumerates a series of individual rights which no just government ought to take away.
Woodrow Wilson asserts that the objects of government are the objects of organized society. The great end for which society exists is “mutual aid to self-development,” and this purpose, therefore, is the proper function of government. With particular reference to modern industrial conditions, a distinction is drawn between what is termed “interference” on the part of the state, and what is called “regulation,” by which is meant an “equalization of conditions in all branches of endeavor.” The limit of state activity is that of “necessary cooperation”—the point at which such enforced cooperation becomes a convenience rather than an imperative necessity. This line is difficult to draw, but may nevertheless be drawn. In general, we may lay down the rule that “the state should do nothing which is equally possible under equitable conditions to optional associations.”
A still broader view is that taken by Burgess in his discussion of the ends of the state. These may be considered, he says, under three heads: the primary, the secondary, and the ultimate. The ultimate end of the state is defined as the “perfection of humanity, the civilization of the world; the perfect development of the human reason and its attainment to universal command over individualism; the apotheosis of man.”  This end can be realized, however, only when a world-state is organized, and for this, mankind is not yet ready. Men must first be organized into national states, based on the principle of nationality. The proximate ends of the state are the establishment of government and liberty. The state must first of all establish peace and order; and in the next place mark out a sphere of liberty for the individual and later for associations. These are then the great ends of the state; the establishment of government and liberty, so that the national genius may find proper expression; and finally, the perfection of humanity. These objects must be followed, moreover, in an historical order which cannot be successfully reversed. Government must precede liberty, government and liberty must precede the final purpose for which the state exists. In the present stage of development, only the realization of government and liberty through the national state are proper objects of state activity. Beyond this broad outline Burgess makes no other attempt to mark out the limits of the operation either of state or of government. . . .
Among the authorities on political economy, the early idea of laissez-faire, at least in its extreme form, has been subjected to severe criticism, and in general has been abandoned. The new position is a mean between socialism and extreme individualism. Francis A. Walker characterized the situation when he spoke of “those of us who discerned the coming storm and removed ourselves and our effects from the lower ground of an uncompromising individualism to positions somewhat more elevated and seemingly secure.” He declared, and this statement is typical of the general attitude of the economists, that he believed “a large practical gain to the order of society and the happiness of its constituent members would in the long result accrue from the interposition of the state.” Every proposal, however, for the extension of the powers and duties of the state should be subjected to careful scrutiny, and the burden of proof should be thrown upon those who advocate the innovation. Furthermore, no changes should be made in the direction of state regulation for transient causes or doubtful objects. The principle of action would seem to be to consider each case on its own merits, without reference to the question of individualism or socialism. In cases where the economic principle of competition appears to be threatened, the interference of the state seems to be most cheerfully welcomed.
From a consideration of these various opinions, it is evident that the modern idea as to what is the purpose of the state has radically changed since the days of the “Fathers.” They thought of the function of the state in a purely individualistic way; this idea modern thinkers have abandoned, and while they have not reached the paternalistic or socialistic extreme, have taken the broader social point of view. The “protection” theory of the state is on the decline; that of the general welfare is in the ascendant. The exigencies of modern industrial and urban life have forced the state to intervene at so many points where an immediate individual interest is difficult to show, that the old doctrine has been given up for the theory that the state acts for the general welfare. It is not admitted that there are no limits to the action of the state, but on the other hand it is fully conceded that there are no “natural rights” which bar the way. The question is now one of expediency rather than of principle. In general it is believed that the state should not do for the individual what he can do as well for himself, but each specific question must be decided on its own merits, and each action of the state justified, if at all, by the relative advantages of the proposed line of conduct.
At yet another point the drift away from the Revolutionary theory is evident; namely, in relation to the division of governmental powers. The generally accepted theory since the eighteenth century has been that all governmental powers may be divided into the legislative, the executive, and the judicial; that in every free government these powers should be carefully separated and a distinct set of officers should administer each class of them. This has long been regarded as a “fundamental” of political theory and of constitutional law as well. Viewing the situation from the standpoint of administrative law, however, a new line of division has been recently drawn by Goodnow. In Politics and Administration Goodnow criticizes the theory of the tripartite division of governmental powers as an “unworkable and unapplicable rule of law,” and proposes to substitute another classification in its place. The primary functions of the state may be divided, he maintains, into politics, “the expression of the will of the state,” and administration, “the execution of that will.” “Politics” includes constitution-making, legislation, selection of governmental officers, and the control of the function of executing the will of the state. This function of politics is discharged by constitutional conventions, legislatures, the judiciary, and the political parties. “Administration,” on the other hand, may be divided into two classes: the administration of justice, commonly called the judicial authority, and the administration of government, which includes what is ordinarily termed the executive authority, together with other functions of a quasi-judicial or semi-scientific or statistical character. The method of control over the administration is discussed, and the highly decentralized system adopted in Revolutionary times is subjected to severe criticism. The conclusion drawn is that the present administrative system of the various states should be much more centralized and consolidated than at present; and in the second place that the political party should receive legal recognition as a governmental organ. The fear of centralization which our fathers entertained is, he holds, under modern conditions no longer reasonable. It is a “battle-cry suitable only to an age that has already passed away,” “a bogie which has been conjured up by designing persons conscious that a proper organization of our administrative system will work to their disadvantage.” The party, furthermore, must no longer be regarded as a purely voluntary association but as a political body subject to public regulation and control, constituting, in fact, a part of the government. In this way the party may be made responsible, and the danger, that under a more centralized system party bosses would wield still greater power, may be averted. . . .
In conclusion, it appears that recent political theory in the United States shows a decided tendency away from many doctrines that were held by the men of 1776. The same forces that have led to the general abandonment of the individualistic philosophy of the eighteenth century by political scientists elsewhere have been at work here and with the same result. The Revolutionary doctrines of an original state of nature, natural rights, the social contract, the idea that the function of the government is limited to the protection of person and property—none of these finds wide acceptance among the leaders in the development of political science. The great service rendered by these doctrines, under other and earlier conditions, is fully recognized, and the presence of a certain element of truth in them is freely admitted, but they are no longer generally received as the best explanation for political phenomena. Nevertheless, it must be said that thus far the rejection of these doctrines is a scientific tendency rather than a popular movement. Probably these ideas continue to be articles of the popular creed, although just how far they are seriously adhered to it is difficult to ascertain. As far as the theory of the function of government is concerned, it would seem that the public has gone beyond the political scientists, and is ready for assumption of extensive powers by the political authorities. The public, or at least a large portion of it, is ready for the extension of the functions of government in almost any direction where the general welfare may be advanced, regardless of whether individuals as such are benefited thereby or not. But in regard to the conception of natural right and the social contract theory, the precise condition of public opinion is, at the present time, not easy to estimate.
- 1. Ed.: Francis Lieber (1798/1800–1872) was a German American legal scholar and diplomat. He is perhaps best known for the “Lieber Code” (a.k.a. General Order No. 100), the first modern codification of the rules of war. The order was signed by President Lincoln in April 1863.
- 2. Ed.: Theodore D. Woolsey (1801–1889) was an American political scientist and president of Yale College. John W. Burgess (1844–1931) was an influential political scientist at Columbia University, where he taught, among others, Theodore Roosevelt, famed progressive historian Charles A. Beard, and Frank J. Goodnow (see Document 25).
- 3. Ed.: South Carolina senator and political theorist John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) and American legal scholar Joseph Story (1779–1845). For an example of Calhoun’s thinking on these issues, see his Speech on the Oregon Bill, June 27, 1848. Also see Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833), book III, ch. 3, especially §338–39.
- 4. Merriam cites Lieber’s Manual of Political Ethics, vol. 1, pp. 288ff. (1890 ed.).
- 5. Burgess, Political Science, vol. 1, p. 62.
- 6. Burgess, Political Science, vol. 1, p. 88.
- 7. American historian and economist Westel W. Willoughby (1867–1945). Merriam cites Willoughby’s book, The Nature of the State (1898), p. 109.
- 8. Burgess, Political Science, vol. 1, p. 175.
- 9. Burgess, Political Science, vol. 1, pp. 44ff.
- 10. Burgess, Political Science, vol. 1, pp. 44ff.
- 11. Lieber, Political Ethics, vol. 1, ch. 5.
- 12. Woolsey, Political Science, vol. 1, book 2, ch. 4.
- 13. See Woodrow Wilson’s book, The State (1889), p. 67ff.
- 14. Burgess, Political Science, vol. 1, p. 85.
- 15. American economist Francis Amasa Walker (1840–1897). Merriam here cites Walker’s book Discussions in Economics and Statistics (1899), vol. 1, pp. 344 and 271.
- 16. On Frank J. Goodnow, see Document 25.
- 17. Merriam refers the reader to Goodnow, Politics and Administration (1900), chs. 2 and 4.
- 18. Goodnow, Politics and Administration, pp. 261 and 130.