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Essay: A Fundamental Difference – The Founder's and Progressive's values

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  • Published: 16 November 2015*
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Overarching Statement: The Founder’s and Progressive’s values differ in two main categories- human nature and natural law-causing a major difference in the way the two groups set up their ideal government, which is with or without a separation of powers.
Two key ideas were used to set up the differentiating governments of the two groups: human nature and natural law, which set ups whether or not the group is supportive of a separation of powers.
First, is the opposing human nature beliefs between the Founders and Progressives. For the Founders they consider man fallen, evil, corrupt, selfish and imperfect, while the Progressives believe man is good and that he can reach a perfect, ideal state of being.
In an article written by Robert Middlekauff, titled ‘The Assumptions of the Founders in 1787’ he discusses how the Constitution, and the questions it has generated, has shaped today, as well as the history and ideas the Founders had on natural man. Middlekauff found in the Federalist papers, No. 6, 37, and 76, implications of the Founders belief on the natural man: ‘Man, they believed, was self-interested and selfish. He was prone to be unstable in his behavior, to value his own interest over others, including society’s, to prefer the immediate, the ephemeral gain to the long-term achievement. He was easily corrupted (because he was essentially selfish) and willing to shed his ethical standards to increase his power or to fatten his purse’ (661).
This confirms that the Founders believed man to be fallen. It also shows why the Founders set up a government with separation because since man was corrupt he would ultimately try to take all the power possible. The Founders wanted to stop man eventually setting up a separation of powers.
As time went on, new presidents took oath and began to give more influence and power to a new progressive movement. The Progressives had a different look on man, which was that he could be perfected. Three major contributors to this movement included Sir Thomas More, Karl Marx and John Dewey. Each man refers to ideas that require a perfect state of human nature. More, wrote Utopia, which would require for no flaws- no one rebelling, everyone agreeing, no difference in thought, etc.- in society (Levin 3,4). Marx’s idea of socialism, in the Founding Father’s eyes, puts all trust in those running the government, inferring that those who run the government have no flaws because they will distribute things evenly with no bias (Byron 6, 7). Dewey takes the theory that the government should have more power through giving the people more power (Thayer-Bacon 22, 23). Trusting the people, shows that Dewey believed man could be perfect because he was giving them more power, which goes against what the Founding Father’s said. This goes to show that Dewey does believe man can reach a perfect state. These three men advanced progressive movement, especially within their ideas that man was good and could reach a perfect state.
Since the progressives believed they could create a perfect society and the Founders did not, the groups would set up their governments differently. This conflict on the idea of human nature, along with where the people receives rights, are key ideas that play into whether or not the groups would include or exclude a separation of powers.
Second, the Founders believed people are given rights from God; while the Progressives believe that the people’s rights came from the government.
Within the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence it states ‘[T]o assume among powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of nature and of Nature’s God entitle them[‘]’ (1). This is the first place that shows the Founders ideas of receiving rights is from a Creator. It clearly shows the Founders belief that every man is entitled to rights given not from man, but a higher being. To be able to understand why the Founding Fathers believe rights come from God, it is essential to look at the Founding Fathers beliefs.
In an essay written by Kenneth Keskel, called ‘The Oath of Office,’ he discuss the importance of the oath for an officer, within the government and military. Keskel brings light to the significance of why the Founding Fathers say God, explaining, ‘[T]he oath represented more than a simple, ceremonial formality; rather, it provided overarching guidance and a standard of moral conduct, as opposed to dictating specific, limited criteria’ (Keskel 48). The Founding Fathers wanted men in military, as well as governmental, positions to be of a moral standing. These oaths rely on the fact people understand the essentiality of the term God. Keskel goes on to explain that ‘So help me God’ acknowledges for no stronger commitment to exist (54). This helps to show why the Founding Fathers use the term God because it provided people with a higher commitment. By using God in the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers show that they believe a Supreme Being has given all men rights and that no one can take these rights away. As well as that the people’s rights don’t last for only an era or two, but that they are timeless.
This information shows that the Founders believed that a Creator gave rights, which also inferred a moral conduct to oaths. The Founders believed that since God gave the people rights that the government needed to protect those rights, from the natural man; and thus the separation of powers was put into place.
On the other hand Progressives, believing man is perfect, also believes that the government gives rights to the people and that they do not come from a Creator. Herbert Croly, a Progressive, wrote a book on the Progressive ideas. In the book he talks about the need to change, direct democracy, and the government’s rights. When Croly talks about the government rights he states, ‘The government must have the power to determine the Law instead of being circumscribed by the Law’ (Croly 700). This statement clearly shows the Progressive idea of allowing the government to make and rule the law. The Founding Fathers set up the governmental system to protect the rights of the people, which they believed the people already had. The law was to restrict the government. This Progressive view point is clearly differential to the Founding Fathers. When the Progressives state that the government makes the laws, it can be inferred that the people are not born with rights, but that they are given rights.
Another key idea the Progressives hold, that supports the idea of the government over the law, is a living Constitution. President Wilson introduced this idea, which Ronald J. Pestritto explains in his essay, ‘Birth of Administrative State’ where he discusses the differences of the Founding Fathers and Progressives:
This new understanding required an evolutionary understanding of the Constitution– one in which the ends and scope of government are determined by looking not to the pre-established law of the Constitution, but instead to the new demands placed upon government by contemporary historical circumstances. [‘] Wilson also blamed separation-of-powers theory for what he believed to be the inflexibility of national government and its inability to handle the tasks required of it in the modern age: (5)
This change in the modern world, which the Constitution does not cover, proves and gives reason to the Progressive idea of the government over the law. The Progressives believe those in the government will help the changing times because the Constitution is worthless to today’s issues. This fits into the Progressive idea of government over law because it verifies that they see the law as restrictive and unchanging, which leads them to the conclusion that if the government can create the laws, and amend the Constitution, then legislation will be up with the times. These ideas are all done to benefit the people and to help equalize them as the government and Constitution would be changing with the people.
The Progressives put the government above the law and deemed the Constitution living; which is all contradictory to the Founders way. The Progressives believe that putting the government over the law and changing the Constitution to fit with the times would help equalize and benefit the people.
Since the Founders and Progressives have contradicting ideas on whether God or the government gave rights, and whether or not humans are fallen, the two groups set up their governments including or excluding a separation of powers.
Third, the Founders saw that a separation of powers would slow any ultimate control, while the Progressives would like for a more complete control from the government.
The Founding Fathers believing that human nature is fallen, so men will give into the temptation of power, and believing God gave rights, which the government should protect, set up their government with a separation of powers. This would slow men who craved all the power of the government, obstructing the purpose government. Three branches, executive, legislative and judicial, were set up to be checks and balances with each other, so they would not encroach upon each other (Coolidge 713). This would continue to allow the people liberty and keep them from oppression (713). In Ronald J. Pestritto’s essay, ‘Birth of Administrative State,’ where he discusses the Founding Father’s ideas he states ‘If the separation of powers means anything at all, it means that one branch of government may not permit its powers to be exercised substantially by another branch’ (Pestritto 2). It is clear the Founding Fathers did not want powers to mix and so that no person or group could gain complete control.
Another example of how the separation of powers protects the people from the government is that the Rule of Law, and laws of previous establishment. The Rule of Law keeps the government equally protecting its citizens, which makes it harder for the government to help or harm their personal friends and enemies (2). Laws of previous establishment keep the government honest in all their dealings. When situations arise laws are not made up, but are enforced (3). The laws are created and already established (3). The process that goes with this includes separate authorities dealing with the different areas, so no single authority can take control (3). These ideas, within the separation of powers, keep the people safe from the government and holds the government accountable to the law.
These examples show that the Founders believed that the separation of powers would slow any person or group from gaining all control of the government and corrupting it, since the natural man is fallen. The Founders set up branches and established laws restricting the government’s power, specifically setting up the government to protect the rights of the people.
The Progressives belief that man can reach an ideal state and that the government is over the law leads them to create a government that has no separation of powers. In President Roosevelt’s ‘Right of the People to Rule’ he brings forth the idea of the people being more involved in the legislative process. Roosevelt says that this will bring the people closer to the government, and make the government more democratic (Roosevelt 684). In this way the Progressives want to serve the people through their bureaucracies, experts appointed to specific fields. In this government the people would be at the mercy of ‘the good will of the magistrate’ (Pestritto 2). Meaning that since man is good the ruler will be able to have a living government, through modifications and shaping in the environment and needs, which will allow the ruler to decide things on a case by case point of view (2, 5). This state truly represents the Progressives belief that man is good and that one man or group can be trusted to handle the government. This also exemplifies the difference from the Founding Fathers government.
The Progressive idea is a belief that the government should rule as one and that there should be no separation of powers to keep the government restricted, since man is not fallen. Progressives say the people should have more influence over laws, while bureaucracies take control because they are the experts, which is contradictory to the Founders ideas.

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