The Evolution of Political Principles in the United States


The Founders established the United States on a series of governing principles based upon the theories of natural law and limited government. As the country grew, its political doctrines underwent a series of changes, and by the early 1900s the Progressive movement emerged as one of the most important ideologies in the nation. While Progressivism purported to support many of the ideals the Founders had, such as freedom and individualism, it viewed government and its purpose in a very different manner than Jefferson or Hamilton did. Thus, Progressive intellectuals and politicians carried out affairs in ways that differed significantly from the country’s original policies by supporting a larger, more active government that could better secure freedom for citizens at home as well as humanity abroad.

The Declaration of Independence served the United States by not only declaring the official separation of the colonies from Britain but also stating the purpose of government for the new country. The Preamble to the document asserts, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The central principle behind the Founders’ political theory was the idea that rights come from God. This set the young nation apart from the rest of the world at a time when the only rights people exercised were those that the State granted. Thus, American Exceptionalism rested on the foundation that the purpose of government was not to grant rights but instead to “secure” those rights that men already possessed naturally. This principle established the foundation for the U.S. Constitution and the initial laws the government passed. The unalienable rights listed in the Declaration of Independence that needed protecting were largely negative rights. Simply put, men have the ability to exercise these rights in a state of nature and government merely needs to prevent injustices from occurring that would threaten them. The right to life, to freely associate with other citizens, to speak openly and many others are negative rights according to the Founders’ theory. For example, the Founders believed that to secure a citizen’s right to life, government needed to prevent others from harming him, thus acting as a negative force. Therefore, the government primarily exists to protect those rights that would be threatened in a state of nature.

The Founders also believed government has a responsibility to provide some positive rights by giving its citizens benefits that they would not have access to in a state of nature. Whereas negative rights simply require the government to prevent an injustice from occurring, positive rights require an active force that promotes justice. For example, the U.S. Constitution requires the government to provide a lawyer to all defendants, imposing a burden on taxpayers in order to ensure that a fair trial will be carried out. The Founders understood that civil society required the government to provide for positive rights in some cases. However, they argued, government should create positive rights only to better protect negative, natural ones. Thus, they preferred that the U.S. government generally operate as a negative force against injustice as this required a smaller, less intrusive ruling force than one that actively developed and encouraged justice. As Madison wrote in his essay, Property, “that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.If all men are created equal, they argued, then the government needs to provide its citizens with uniform protection under the laws. This is best done by preventing injustices from removing what naturally belongs to a citizen, such as his life or property.

The Founders believed that government should protect a citizen’s natural rights not only from other countrymen’s aggressions, but also foreign invasions. Thus, they carried out foreign affairs with the primary goal of guarding their homeland in order to secure citizens’ rights. Washington urged his country to continue this course in foreign policy in his Farewell Address when he wrote, “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible…Europe has to us a primary set of interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation.” Thus, the Founders believed the U.S. government had no responsibility to fight for the freedom or rights of the citizens in other nations. For example, Washington maintained neutrality during the European wars in the 1790s despite some Americans demanding he support the French and their battle for liberty.

The Founders argued that involving the U.S. in another nation’s internal affairs would actually be a violation of the principles in the Declaration of Independence. Just as the U.S. government had a responsibility to secure the rights of its citizens, foreign governments should do the same. To intervene in the name of freedom would be to deny self-government to another nation’s people. The liberators would become the very tyrants they purported to destroy. In 1821 John Quincy Adams gave an address exemplifying this principle, stating:

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [United States] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. (An Address Delivered in Washington)

To be the “vindicator” of its own freedom, the Founders believed the United States needed a sufficiently large military to defend the country against attack. They justified military spending as a means to secure U.S. citizens’ natural rights to life, liberty and property from foreign assault.

Although the pre-1970 Progressives claimed to desire a system formed around the principles of freedom and equality much as the Founders had, their conception of political philosophy and its application to domestic affairs differed in multiple ways from the country’s original thinkers. John Dewey, author of Ethics, outlined his dispute with the Founders’ concept of negative rights when he wrote, “The freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty.” He argued that positive rights are necessary for men to truly have liberty, asserting that individuals need to have the resources and education to be free from the bondage of masters such as hunger or ignorance. Woodrow Wilson, one of the early Progressive presidents, began to put this political principle into action. He rejected the Founders’ beliefs on the concept of freedom, stating in a speech:

We used to say that the ideal of government was for every man to be left alone and not interfered with, except when he interfered with somebody else…But we are coming now to realize that life is so complicated that we are not dealing with the old conditions, and that the law has to step in and create new conditions under which we may live, the conditions which will make it tolerable for us to live” (The New Freedom)

Ensuring that all citizens could truly exercise this “effective freedom” required a new government structure containing expert administrators. Citizens would now be free because of government and its actions. While the Founders feared that an expansive government would violate citizens’ rights through excessive regulations, the Progressives argued that the unique circumstances of the time required an administrative state with broad powers in order to better secure this new type of freedom for U.S. citizens.

This difference serves as another sharp contrast from the Founders’ principles of domestic politics. The original theory in the U.S. contended that government existed first and foremost to protect the natural rights of citizens. Thus, the Founders argued, as long as government focused on carrying out this duty, its size and scope would remain the same no matter the situation the country faced throughout time. Progressivism rejected this form of limited government, arguing instead that government needs to have the ability to exercise power to solve new problems that emerge with ever-changing situations. James Landis considered this theory in one of his books, arguing that “In terms of political theory, the administrative process springs from the inadequacy of a simple tripartite form of government to deal with modern problems. It represents a striving to adapt governmental technique, that still divides under three rubrics, to modern needs…” (The Administrative Process). The Founders and the Progressives thus held entirely different philosophies on the purpose of government and the securing of domestic freedom. While the former believed government secures rights and freedom by acting in a limited manner to prevent injustice, the latter re-interpreted the meaning of liberty and concluded that a large, administrative body was needed to actively provide all of its citizens with equal opportunities. For example, the Progressives supported government programs that educated farmers on the most efficient ways to grow crops, arguing that food and knowledge are essential for citizens to truly be free. A program such as this would have been an affront to the Founders as it violated their basic principles of government and its purpose. This administrative state, they would argue, violates a citizen’s natural right to liberty from unnecessary government regulation and intrusion that does more than secure basic rights. Thus, by breaking from the principles of the Declaration of Independence, this new form of government is actually detrimental to freedom.

The Progressives applied their conception of political philosophy to foreign affairs as well, resulting in a new set of policies that rejected the Founders’ principles. They believed the U.S. government had to become more efficient and active not only in domestic policies but also in international affairs. Teddy Roosevelt, the first Progressive president, supported a strong foreign policy through which the U.S. could promote freedom and civilization to the world. As Vice-President to William McKinley, Roosevelt argued in a speech that “every expansion of a great civilized power means a victory for law, order, and righteousness” (Expansion and Peace). Multiple factors, including the prominence of the theories of Social Darwinism and Evangelical Christians, led many in the U.S. at the time to believe that their nation had a responsibility to civilize the “backward” people of the world. The Progressives, excited at the prospect of employing the U.S. government to provide freedom and equality to the world, gladly took on the task and added it to their conducts in foreign policy.

Thus, the Founders’ foreign policy principles of self-government for all nations and non-interventionism were replaced with unabashed imperialism. The Spanish-American War in 1898 provided Progressives with their first chance to mediate in another nation’s affairs in order to ensure that freedom and civilization for an oppressed people would prevail over tyranny. Less than two decades later, Woodrow Wilson embraced an opportunity for the U.S. to promote freedom and equality on a truly global level by entering the first World War. In his war message to Congress, the 28th President hardly discussed the destruction of U.S. property and lives at the hands of the Germans. Instead, he asserted that his country need not enter the war for “revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion” (War Message to Congress). Wilson and the Progressives rejected the Founders’ unilateralism as selfish and isolationist. Not only does the U.S. government have an obligation to protect its citizens’ rights, they contended, but also humanity’s rights. Thus, Wilson concluded that the coming war was not to be fought for U.S. interests, but instead “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations…and make the world itself at last free” (War Message to Congress). In a similar manner, the Progressive Franklin Roosevelt characterized the Second World War as a “war against human slavery” (Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union). Governments around the world would no longer be established with the consent of their indigenous populations as the Founders stated in the Declaration of Independence, but instead by the U.S. government and its forces.

The pre-1970 Progressive movement forever changed the general consensus in the U.S. on the purpose of government and the definition of freedom. It rejected the Founders’ political philosophy and established a new system for both domestic and foreign affairs. At its foundation, the original purpose of government in the U.S. was to protect the rights of its citizens from injustices, whether it be another citizen or a foreigner that posed that threat. Securing natural rights like life, liberty and property required a limited government that provided equal protection under the laws, ensuring that each citizen could be free to live out his or her life in a tranquil, lawful society. Foreign affairs were carried out in a similar manner as government simply needed to defend against invasions that would threaten citizens’ rights. To do anything more, such as partaking in nation building, would be a violation of the principle of self-government. Progressivism in the early 1900s asserted that new factors like the rise of large corporations and an apparent concentration of power in the hands of a few wealthy businessmen required a new system of government. This administrative state aimed to establish freedom and equality for all of its citizens much like the Founders had, but it went about it in a far different way. A larger, more efficient government that sought to not merely prevent injustice but to actively promote justice was the end result of this new political philosophy. In handling foreign affairs, the Progressives also called for more intervention on behalf of the U.S. government. It would no longer fight merely to protect its citizens’ lives and property, but also to promote freedom and equality around the world. World War I and the Iraq War are just two of many examples of this new policy in action. For better or worse, the pre-1970 Progressive conception of politics radically altered the size and purpose of government in the U.S. and continues to impact the country to the present day.



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