Since Thomas B. Silver left off writing The Liberal Century, back at the beginning of the 21st century, the Claremont Institute, of which he was then president, has become well-known nationally for the analysis of liberalism or progressivism advanced by its fellows and affiliated scholars. The “Claremont School” generally holds that “modern liberalism, beginning with early 20th century Progressives, succeeded in overthrowing the political philosophy on which the Founders built American constitutional government.”

To continue the conversation about the meaning of America that Dr. Silver wanted to stimulate, we offer responses to his analysis and more generally to the “Claremont criticism” of progressivism.


Progressivism and the New Deal by John Moser, Ashland University

In the years after World War II, the University of Chicago political scientist Leo Strauss revolutionized the study of political theory by applying the technique of close analytical reading of texts by thinkers from Plato to John Locke. In the late 1950s Strauss’s most famous student, Harry Jaffa, applied the same method to important political actors of U.S. history, including the Founders and, most notably, Abraham Lincoln. In his 1959 work Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Jaffa argued that the sixteenth president should be understood on his own merits, leaving behind the vanity that his modern-day interpreters knew more than he did. Lincoln’s moral arguments and claims about justice, he insisted, should not be reduced to class or regional prejudices, but deserved to be taken as seriously as those of Aristotle or Machiavelli. More recently some of Jaffa’s students, most notably Ronald J. Pestritto, have done the same for prominent Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, arguing that they represent the repudiation of the ideals of the Founders and Lincoln.

Thomas B. Silver, writing in his unpublished manuscript “The Liberal Century: How Progressivism Transformed America,” falls very much into this tradition. However, Silver goes further than Pestritto by applying the same close readings to the speeches of Franklin D. Roosevelt. His argument is that Roosevelt’s rhetoric during his 1936 campaign for reelection represented the apotheosis of progressive thought. Challenging those who seek to portray the thirty-second president as the consummate pragmatist with little interest in theory, Silver insists that Roosevelt “maneuvered within a consistent framework of progressive principles.” He focuses on four particular 1936 addresses: his January 3 Annual Message to the Congress, his June 27 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, and his campaign speeches at Syracuse (September 29), and Madison Square Garden (October 31). These Silver compares to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “meant to lay the foundation for a new order of things in American political life.”

Silver is no doubt correct in noting the rhetorical force of these speeches, all of which champion the regulatory state and the managed economy as an alternative to rule by “economic royalists”—his term for the wealthy financiers and business executives who opposed him. In doing so he put himself forward as the consummate democratic “manager,” wisely steering the body politic past the twin evils of capitalist reaction and communist revolution. But how much can a close reading of such speeches tell us about Roosevelt as a political thinker? In other words, what can political theory teach us about the actual politics of the New Deal?

My answer to the questions is, “not much.” We get far less from a “Straussian” examination of FDR than we do of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln or the American Founders, because, as many historians have noted, it is notoriously difficult to get at the “real” Roosevelt. A scholar seeking a deeper understanding of Woodrow Wilson has access not only to speeches, but to a number of academic works; a student of Lincoln, Jefferson, or Washington may fall back on their voluminous correspondence. But FDR has left little that would provide us with deep insight into his true beliefs. While he wrote thousands of letters, they reveal little about the man, who seems to have had countless acquaintances but no close friends in whom he confided. Even his letters to his family seem surprisingly devoid of warmth or candor. Nor did he leave behind any diary or memoirs that would give us some glimpses of the inner man.

Of course, we do have the president’s speeches, and these Silver uses as the basis for his argument. Yet Roosevelt, far more than his predecessors, relied on speechwriters to craft his addresses. Among the most notable were the poet Archibald MacLeish, the playwright Robert Sherwood, Judge Samuel I. Rosenman, and Harry Hopkins, perhaps the president’s most trusted adviser. It is likely, however, that he used many others, since he often preferred to work with men who had—in the words of one Roosevelt adviser—“a passion for anonymity.” Frequently his addresses were collaborative efforts involving more than one speechwriter. This is not to suggest that the president was a cipher—a ventriloquist’s dummy through which someone else spoke. Original copies of his speeches found in the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York show extensive editing and marginal notes in Roosevelt’s own hand. Surely he gave no speech in which he did not substantially agree with the sentiments expressed. However, any examination of Roosevelt’s public rhetoric must raise questions of which words were genuinely his.

This problem is magnified by the fact that FDR was known for surrounding himself with advisers who held wildly differing views. For secretary of state he tapped the committed free-trader Cordell Hull; yet Roosevelt appointed Raymond Moley, a thoroughgoing economic nationalist (and informal head of his “Brains Trust” of campaign advisers) as assistant secretary with authority over international economic policy. The president’s choice for undersecretary of agriculture was another member of the Brains Trust, Rexford Tugwell, who was devoted to centralized economic planning (indeed, he was one of the driving forces behind the National Industrial Recovery Act). Yet a critical seat on FDR’s newly created Securities and Exchange Commission went to William O. Douglas, who was more interested in breaking up business combinations than in encouraging them (as the NIRA tended to do). For monetary advice Roosevelt turned to Cornell University economist George F. Warren, who believed that recovery could only come by manipulating the price of gold, but the president’s primary financial adviser was James Warburg of the Bank of the Manhattan Company, who was committed to a sound (i.e., gold-backed) dollar. Given that FDR’s favorite strategy for ironing out differences among advisers was to put them in a room together and demand that they come up with a policy that they could all accept, it is understandable that historians see little ideological consistency in the New Deal program.

None of this is to deny that Franklin Roosevelt was a progressive by inclination. His tenure as governor of New York was marked by a commitment to reform through public administration. He championed the development of hydroelectric power on the St. Lawrence River, and sparred with the famously corrupt Tammany Hall machine. He created the state’s first Public Service Commission, as well as its first relief agency. In 1931 he told the legislature that one of the government’s primary responsibilities was “caring for those of its citizens who find themselves the victims of such adverse circumstances as make them unable to obtain even the necessities of mere existence without the aid of others.” Yet the term could equally be applied to his Republican opponents in 1932 and 1936, Herbert Hoover and Alf Landon, who supported Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1912 and saw an expansive role for the federal government in solving the nation’s problems. Indeed, in the 1920s even the Ku Klux Klan had taken to referring to itself as a “progressive” organization.

One way of testing Silver’s claim that Roosevelt represented the “highest political articulation” of progressive thought would be to ask what those who had identified as progressives in the 1900s and 1910s thought of the New Deal. Of course, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were long dead by the 1930s; however, thanks to historian Otis L. Graham, Jr., we know how scores of lesser-known progressives felt. Graham, in his 1967 book An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal, studied the public writings and private papers of more than 160 prominent Progressive-Era reformers who were still alive in 1936. A significant number, he found, had been wholehearted supporters of Roosevelt’s agenda, while a handful of others faulted it for not going far enough in the direction of socialism. The majority, however, had emerged as opponents of the New Deal by the end of Roosevelt’s first term. Nearly all of them, it should be noted, denied having changed their basic political views. In the words of former Wisconsin Senator Irvine Lenroot, “I was for old Bob La Follette and I have not changed in any way my views that I held then concerning abuses in our economic life.”

What caused these reformers to reject Roosevelt? There were a variety of reasons. Some, like Gifford Pinchot, were Republicans who had honestly sought a bipartisan alliance with Roosevelt, but threw their support to Landon when the president rebuffed them. Most, however, had substantive objections. Many disliked the element of coercion that accompanied so many New Deal programs. The muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, who had savaged Standard Oil in 1904, rejected the idea that government could force men to live up to their civic responsibilities, preferring instead “the education of the individual to self-control and right-doing.” Others opposed what they saw as Roosevelt’s rhetoric of class warfare; rather than promoting a sense of the national interest, they claimed, the president was deriving political benefit from playing one organized minority against another. Ray Stannard Baker, close friend of Woodrow Wilson, lamented that in the 1936 campaign “there was almost no call to any kind of unselfish service; everywhere group demands for special favors, and career politicians promising to grant them.” Irvine Lenroot wrote, “I have always believed that a thing that was wrong when committed by capital and industry did not become right if committed by large groups who were able to swing elections.” Still others faulted FDR for encouraging monopolies through the National Recovery Administration; among these was the old Wilsonian Democrat Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, who called the NRA “arbitrary, senseless, and brutal.”

Above all, however, the Old Progressives claimed that the New Deal transferred too much authority to the federal government, and in particular to its Executive Branch. Journalist Walter Lippmann, who with Herbert Croly had cofounded The New Republic in 1913, was shocked by Roosevelt’s Annual Message to Congress in January 1936; “never before,” he wrote, “has the radio been used in America with such calculated purpose to establish any one man’s dominance of public opinion.” Amos Pinchot, brother of Gifford and a hardcore Bull Moose Republican (indeed, Theodore Roosevelt had once joked that Amos was part of the “lunatic fringe” of the Progressive Party), wrote to FDR personally about this. “What has happened in Europe,” he warned, “makes it clear enough, that, if a leader pursues the path of bureaucratic regimentation of industry and agriculture, he must go forward into dictatorship, whether he wants to or not.” California’s Senator Hiram Johnson, who had been Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate in 1912, wrote in alarm in February 1937, “The power we are giving [the president]…is mighty ominous, and frankly, I fear for my country.” Roosevelt’s so-called “court-packing scheme,” in which he proposed to add a justice to every federal court (including the Supreme Court) for every sitting justice over the age of seventy, set off particular alarm bells. Oswald Garrison Villard, a former editor of The Nation and a founding member of the NAACP, put the matter succinctly: “this proposal opens the way to a dictatorship.”

What are we to make of all this? Were Silver still with us, he might argue that Franklin Roosevelt and his closest allies simply understood the essence of progressivism better than did his critics. This would be difficult to prove, but equally hard for the historian to disprove, as we are trained to avoid what David Hackett Fischer called the “fallacy of essences.” An alternative possibility is that at some point Roosevelt abandoned his former progressivism in favor of something else entirely; indeed, the fact that he studiously avoided the term (preferring instead to revive the term “liberal” to mean something very different than it once had) would seem to lend credence to this interpretation.

Then there is a third possibility: that in the hands of historians and political theorists alike “progressivism” has been built into an ideological construct that cannot bear the weight that has been placed upon it. Ultimately there seems to be little ideological coherence to the term; after all, it encompassed everything from Prohibition to eugenics, from primary elections to Settlement Houses, from city managers to women’s suffrage. The name has been applied to figures as diverse as William Jennings Bryan and George Perkins, Jacob Riis and Madison Grant, Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama. Of course, it would be neither possible nor desirable to jettison the term altogether, so ensconced has it become in our political lexicon. But perhaps it is time to broaden the definition. Jaffa tells us that we must strive to understand the thinkers of the past as they understood themselves. When we learn that so many of those who considered themselves progressives (and were so regarded by others) faulted the New Deal for its expansion of national government, then surely there must be a problem with Silver’s definition of progressivism as “the mating of advanced academic ideas and enhanced federal power.” Could it be that there is no such thing as a monolithic Progressivism, but instead many progressivisms, frequently working at cross-purposes?

In his path breaking history of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, Strategies of Containment, John Lewis Gaddis divides those who study the past into “lumpers” and “splitters.” The former tend to organize scattered evidence into broader patterns, although at the cost of oversimplifying. The latter, on the other hand, tend to distrust moves toward synthesis, focusing on the specific rather than the general, but in doing so they run the risk of blinding themselves to patterns and meaning in history. In the end, though, the discipline needs both. Unfortunately among political theorists studying progressivism it has so far largely been the lumpers who have had their say. A few splitters might go a long way.


Read The Liberal Century by Thomas B. Silver:

Table of Contents & Introduction

Chapter 1: Natural Right and History, A Preview

Chapter 2: 1936

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