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Progressive Era: Suggested Answers

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  1. Progressives championed the notion of democracy and called for its global expansion. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, for example, saw democracy as the natural expression of free individuals who had won a continent and the result was a “new man” that had overspread the continent. Similarly, Albert Beveridge believed in American individualism and the destiny to which providence had called the young republic. In the selection from Beveridge we find the clear expressions of Anglo Saxonism and Social Darwinism to which so many progressives subscribed. Thus, America must expand to the Orient, carrying its ideals and institutions with it, to those less developed peoples whose markets might also be exploited. Further, America must stand as the guardian against those nations that might threaten the stability of the Western Hemisphere as is evident in TR’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Finally, Wilson’s Fourteen Points provides the most famous, far-reaching call for the expansion of the liberal internationalism progressives sought.
  2. Progressives called for an equalitarian society based on the democratic principle whereby the fair and equal distribution of property would be guaranteed through governmental control of the economy. This meant government must have the power to intervene aggressively to redistribute property through various means, thus ensuring that capital was not concentrated among a relatively small number of persons. As Wilson noted in his New Freedom, this meant a program of laws that reflected the “changed economic circumstances of the country.” As TR forthrightly put it in his New Nationalism, the government must assume the power to determine which “fortunes” were of legitimate “benefit to the community,” which necessitated “a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had.” Anything, then, which stood in the path of such expansion of governmental powers of regulation, oversight, and redistribution of wealth were ultimately obstacles to the progressive ideal for America.
  3. Such constitutional flexibility as the Progressive reform agenda required meant the Constitution could no longer be held as a sacrosanct document, informed by the timeless truths of the Declaration of Independence. In Chapter 2 of his New Freedom, for example, Wilson argues against a “Newtonian” understanding of the Constitution which, he lamented, had been the work of a well-meaning but ultimately misguided generation of men who saw government in “mechanistic” terms, setting off one part against the other through a system of checks and balances. Such a system, Wilson intoned, was incapable of change and thus doomed to failure with the enormity of changes brought on by industrialization. Both society and the Constitution were organic, and progressives insisted upon the right to interpret America’s fundamental law “according to the Darwinian principle.” Such a view stands in sharp contrast to the Founders’ reliance upon natural rights as the foundation of American freedom. Whereas Wilson once said the really important part of the Declaration was everything but the preface, which contained the references both to human equality and to the inalienable rights enjoyed by every person by virtue of their birth, Calvin Coolidge finds in those same sentiments the very locus of American freedom and the bulwark against tyranny.
  4. Progressives generally viewed the period from 1865-1900 as mostly one of congressional supremacy, a weak presidency, and virtually no accomplishments central to their reform interests. Beginning with TR, however, the executive authority was boldly asserted in the service of progressive goals. TR’s vision of presidential powers is best expressed in his “Stewardship” theory in which he maintains the president is not restricted by the enumerated powers of the Constitution, but has it within his power to act in the national interest unless expressly “forbidden by the Constitution or the laws” as he stated in his Autobiography. Such bold assertion of plenary, as opposed to enumerated, powers underlay his Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Similarly, Wilson saw a strengthened executive as the best means to overcome the separation of powers and constitutional checks and balances he decried. Relying heavily on his organic conception of government and law, Wilson maintained the president must transcend constitutional limitations to reflect the peoples’ will. Only then could he bring the various parts of the whole to move in concert toward his progressive agenda. Thus the president, rather than being bound by the chains of the Constitution, must reflect the changed circumstances of his own era and channel public opinion accordingly.
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