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Woodrow Wilson Asks “What Is Progress?”

Woodrow Wilson Asks “What Is Progress?”

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Published by John Malcolm
In this 1912 presidential campaign speech Woodrow Wilson, the governor of New Jersey, frankly describes his principles for the revolutionary reform of America. Wilson seeks no less than to sever America from the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Wilson’s speech distills a distinguished career of Progressive scholarship that would replace the old Constitution of individual rights and the separation of powers with an evolving, “living Constitution” of growing and virtually unlimited powers.

After all, Wilson remarks, Americans have never been “stand-patters” who resist change. And “Progress
is the word that charms their ears and stirs their hearts.” Wilson would therefore “like to make the young gentlemen of the rising generation as unlike their fathers as possible.” His speech outlines the political education for these young men: they must reject their fathers’ ways and the Founding Fathers’ ideas, thereby leading to a renewed America. Wilson, like other early Progressives, was clear in his contemptfor the “conservatism” of the Constitution.
In this 1912 presidential campaign speech Woodrow Wilson, the governor of New Jersey, frankly describes his principles for the revolutionary reform of America. Wilson seeks no less than to sever America from the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Wilson’s speech distills a distinguished career of Progressive scholarship that would replace the old Constitution of individual rights and the separation of powers with an evolving, “living Constitution” of growing and virtually unlimited powers.

After all, Wilson remarks, Americans have never been “stand-patters” who resist change. And “Progress
is the word that charms their ears and stirs their hearts.” Wilson would therefore “like to make the young gentlemen of the rising generation as unlike their fathers as possible.” His speech outlines the political education for these young men: they must reject their fathers’ ways and the Founding Fathers’ ideas, thereby leading to a renewed America. Wilson, like other early Progressives, was clear in his contemptfor the “conservatism” of the Constitution.

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Categories:Types, Speeches
Published by: John Malcolm on Jul 04, 2012
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The Heritage Foundation’s First Principles Series explores the undamental ideas o conservatism and the American political tradition.For more inormation call 1-800-544-4843 or visit
heritage.org/bookstore.
Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily refecting the views oThe Heritage Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage o any bill beore Congress.
Published by 
214 Massachusetts Avenue, NEWashington, DC 20002-4999(202) 546-4400
heritage.org
Woodrow Wilson Asks “What Is Progress?”
1912
FP_PS_21
In this 1912 presidential campaign speech Wood-row Wilson, the governor o New Jersey, rank-ly describes his principles or the revolutionaryreorm o America. Wilson seeks no less than tosever America rom the Declaration o Indepen-dence and Constitution. Wilson’s speech distills adistinguished career o Progressive scholarship thatwould replace the old Constitution o individualrights and the separation o powers with an evolv-ing, “living Constitution” o growing and virtuallyunlimited powers.Ater all, Wilson remarks, Americans have never been stand-patters” who resist change. And “Prog-ress is the word that charms their ears and stirs theirhearts.” Wilson would thereore “like to make theyoung gentlemen o the rising generation as unliketheir athers as possible.” His speech outlines thepolitical education or these young men: they mustreject their athers’ ways and the Founding Fathers’ideas, thereby leading to a renewed America. Wilson,like other early Progressives, was clear in his con-tempt or the “conservatism” o the Constitution.Wilson maintains that both the Declaration o Inde-pendence and the Constitution have outlived theiruseulness—and their now outmoded truths. Thescientic acts, Wilson coldly concludes, call or coop-eration among the parts o government, not checksagainst one another.Living political constitutions must be Darwin-ian in structure and in practice. Society is a liv-ing organism and must obey the laws o lie,not o mechanics; it must develop. All the pro-gressives ask or desire is permission—in an erawhen “development,” “evolution,” is the scien-tic word—to interpret the Constitution accord-ing to the Darwinian principle….Wilson’s Darwinian constitutionalism means thatan evolving human nature wipes away the need orthe protection o individual rights by the separation opowers. Liberated rom the old constraints demanded by an unchanging and fawed human nature, a gov-ernment o now unlimited powers is unleashed to deal
Progressivism and Liberalism
Primary Sources
introduction
 
2
Primary SourceS
Progressivism and Liberalism
with the new political and economic conditions o cor-porations and political bosses.Wilson laments that “Some citizens o this countryhave never got beyond the Declaration o Indepen-dence” ; they are not ghting today’s tyrants. The Dec-laration o Independence was an “eminently practicaldocument…not a thesis or philosophers, but a whipor tyrants; not a theory o government, but a programo action.” His “new declaration o independence”enables Americans to ght the tyranny o “specialinterests,” o political machines and “selsh business.”Whatever the ills o the early 20th century, one mightask Wilson whether replacing the Declaration and theConstitution would not lead to even worse evils.Despite his trust in evolution, Wilson wouldnot reconstruct the house o America overnight.Ater all, we must still live in it, making such homeimprovements a “very dangerous task.” But we polit-ical architects and engineers today should steadilyrebuild our house “until nally, a generation or tworom now, the scaolding will be taken away, andthere will be the amily in a great building whosenoble architecture will at last be disclosed, wheremen can live as a single community, cooperativeas in a perected, coordinated beehive….” Wilsonwould transorm Jeerson’s “empire o liberty” intoa beehive. Earlier, in his essay on Public Adminis-tration, Wilson justied rule by a class o experts. Asdrones in a beehives, men would submit to centralauthority.Proessor Wilson had bold ideas. Presidential can-didate Wilson was bolder still.
 
3
Primary SourceS
Progressivism and Liberalism
In that sage and veracious chronicle, “Alice Throughthe Looking-Glass,” it is recounted how, on a notewor-thy occasion, the little heroine is seized by the RedChess Queen, who races her o at a terric pace. Theyrun until both o them are out o breath; then they stop,and Alice looks around her and says, “Why, we are just where we were when we started!” “Oh, yes,” saysthe Red Queen; “you have to run twice as ast as thatto get anywhere else.”That is a parable o progress. The laws o this coun-try have not kept up with the change o economiccircumstances in this country; they have not kept upwith the change o political circumstances; and, there-ore, we are not even where we were when we started.We shall have to run, not until we are out o breath, but until we have caught up with our own conditions, beore we shall be where we were when we started;when we started this great experiment which has beenthe hope and the beacon o the world. And we shouldhave to run twice as ast as any rational program Ihave seen in order to get anywhere else.I am, thereore, orced to be a progressive, i or noother reason, because we have not kept up with ourchanges o conditions, either in the economic eld orin the political eld. We have not kept up as well asother nations have. We have not kept our practicesadjusted to the acts o the case, and until we do, andunless we do, the acts o the case will always have the better o the argument; because i you do not adjustyour laws to the acts, so much the worse or the laws,not or the acts, because law trails along ater the acts.Only that law is unsae which runs ahead o the actsand beckons to it and makes it ollow the will-o’-the-wisps o imaginative projects.Business is in a situation in America which it wasnever in beore; it is in a situation to which we have notadjusted our laws. Our laws are still meant or busi-ness done by individuals; they have not been satisac-torily adjusted to business done by great combinations,and we have got to adjust them. I do not say we mayor may not; I say we must; there is no choice. I yourlaws do not t your acts, the acts are not injured, thelaw is damaged; because the law, unless I have stud-ied it amiss, is the expression o the acts in legal rela-tionships. Laws have never altered the acts; laws havealways necessarily expressed the acts; adjusted inter-ests as they have arisen and have changed toward oneanother.Politics in America is in a case which sadly requiresattention. The system set up by our law and our usagedoesn’t work,—or at least it can’t be depended on; itis made to work only by a most unreasonable expen-diture o labor and pains. The government, whichwas designed or the people, has got into the hands o bosses and their employers, the special interests. Aninvisible empire has been set up above the orms odemocracy.There are serious things to do. Does any man doubtthe great discontent in this country? Does any mandoubt that there are grounds and justications or dis-
“What Is Progress?”
Woodrow Wilson
1912 campaign speech published in 1913 as chapter 2 of 
The New Freedom

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