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.



What’s Wrong With Progressivism? What’s Wrong with the Claremont Criticism of Progressivism? by David Tucker

The “Claremont criticism” of Progressivism is that it replaced the natural rights understanding of the Founding and Lincoln with an historical account of the origins of government. This change in Founding principles provided the rationale to change limited government into “big government.” In the natural rights account of politics, individuals have rights by nature, prior to the establishment of government, that governments are created to protect and serve. Government is subordinate to these rights. Its power should be limited by them.

The historical account denied that individuals had rights prior to or outside of government. It understood humans to be social animals and society to require government. Humans cannot exist without society and society cannot exist beyond the bare subsistence of a family hunter-gatherer group without government. (Agriculture, and thus higher forms of civilization, implies stable property and only government or law and its administrative and coercive power can make property stable.) Society not individuals, and thus the rights of society, not of individuals, are prior in importance because individuals could not exist without society. In turn, society could not exist without government. Hence, government and the power of government are no more artificial than humans and society themselves, and, more important, create the possibility of freedom for individuals. Because individuals depend on society, and society on government, whatever liberty or rights people have are not natural, at least as existing in individuals prior to and limiting government, but made possible and in that sense created or granted by government. Because government itself is not given in some definitive form by God or nature but is the changing result of organic growth and historical processes, rights are historical not natural. This includes the right to property. Private property too is made possible only by government and its extent and use are therefore properly regulated by the government. This regulating, and all efforts to guarantee historically developing rights, requires the experts whose authority and efforts constitute the administrative state or “big government.”

The progressive line of reasoning informed President Obama’s argument in his infamous “You didn’t build that” speech, July 13, 2012. In this speech, Obama was echoing earlier remarks by then candidate Elizabeth Warren made in a speech in August, 2011. Both Obama and Warren acknowledged the role of individual effort but were clear that entrepreneurial success was only possible because the government had previously created the conditions for it. Entrepreneurial success is a creature of government and ultimately, therefore, properly controlled by government, as is the wealth that results from it.

As a matter of historical fact, the Claremont criticism is correct. Progressives did criticize and seek to replace the natural rights understanding of the origin and power of government in an effort to clear the way for a more activist, interventionist government.[1] But the historical priority of the Founding account by itself does not mean anything. If the Founders were wrong, then the Progressives were right to correct them. If the Progressives were wrong, then we should reject their re-founding of the country. Which is right then, the natural rights or the historical understanding of government? Addressing this question will lead us to other questions. Is the historical approach of Progressivism the core of its argument? Is it responsible for “big government”? Does the natural or individual rights approach necessarily argue against “big government”?

To anticipate, we will argue that the Claremont school is wrong to the extent that it cites the historical approach of the Progressives as the source of the argument for big government. It is also wrong to the extent that it claims that the natural rights understanding argues necessarily against “big government” and the administrative state. We will conclude that the proper understanding of the size and role of government derives not from theoretical arguments about the state of nature and the historical understanding but from differing answers to the question, what is the best life humans can live?

The Claremont Argument

To support the priority of individual rights, the Claremont school appeals to both the authority of the Founding and the self-evidence of human equality.

Whatever may be the rhetorical effectiveness of the appeal to the authority of the Founding, as an argument it is, of course, useless. It begs the question by assuming that the Founders were right.

The argument of the Claremont school, as opposed to its rhetorical appeal, is that, as the Founders claimed, individuals do possess rights apart from society or government because of the self-evidence of human equality. Humans are an identifiable class, evidently different from animals and God, and therefore evidently the same one to another such that no human being has a right to rule another human being as all human beings have a right to rule animals and God a right to rule all humans. Rule among humans must rest on consent, therefore. Humans do not ask for the consent of animals; God does not ask for ours. Natural human equality is simultaneously natural human freedom: we are free because no other human has a right to rule us without our consent. The Declaration of Independence specifies our natural freedom by stating that we are endowed with unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.[2]

An important part of the Claremont argument is to insist, as Harry Jaffa did and some of his students still do, that Locke is central to the Founding.[3] Locke argued for the state of nature, and thus the priority of individual rights, which the Progressives denied, so arguing for Locke as essential to the Founding is part of the refutation of the Progressives.

In this instance, the Claremont argument is at variance with the historical record. Jefferson thought man social by nature, and never used the “state of nature” in his reasoning about politics. In fact, he disparaged state of nature theories. His great successors, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, shared these views. Jefferson of course was not the only Founder, nor were Adams and Lincoln his only successors, but no account of the Founding that ignores Jefferson is adequate. Moreover, in Jefferson’s view, the election of 1800 was a re-founding on correct principles.[4] All American political thinking after 1800 is in a decisive way Jeffersonian, as Jefferson’s influence on the Whigs Adams and Lincoln shows.

Not only history but logic is against the Claremont insistence on the importance of Locke.[5] The state of nature is not an assumption necessary for the refutation of the Progressives. Individual natural rights imply the state of nature, not the other way around. As we have just seen, equality is the source of natural freedom or rights, and thus ultimately the source for the claim that there is a state of nature. If, however, humans are equal, then they are so whether their origin, or natural condition, is in or out of society. This is also true if we understand the state of nature to be a social state and government as inherent in any social organization beyond the extended family or small tribe, a view that both Jefferson and the Progressives shared. There is no logical inconsistency in declaring men both social by nature, possessing natural rights by nature, and always living under some kind of government. Therefore, there is no need of Locke (= state of nature) in the Founding. (The state of nature is, of course, not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.) To declare men equal is to declare the primacy of the individual, no matter what social or institutional setting we imagine to be his natural or historic condition. This also removes the requirement to turn Locke into an Aristotelian – as if the state of nature were the agora – to save Locke, and thus the Founding, from expressing pernicious modern views. Besides, the doctrine of equality and individual rights rests on a higher authority than Locke. Its best support comes from the Bible, which, in opposition to classical antiquity, elevated each individual because each individual was the separate, special creation of God.[6] This is one reason why Jaffa insisted on the importance of the Biblical God.

The fact that there is no logical inconsistency in declaring men both social  by nature and possessing rights by nature points to an error in the Progressive’s argument. The Progressives were wrong to think because individuals require society, and society requires government, that individuals and their rights were necessarily subordinate to society and government and meant to serve society and government. If individuals are understood to be most important, this train of dependencies (individuals depending on society, and society on government) could as easily be seen in an order of means and ends that reversed the Progressives account: government is subordinate to or serves society, and society is subordinate to and serves individuals. This was in fact the view of Jefferson, J. Q. Adams, and Lincoln.

The subordination of individuals and their rights in progressivism depends on an argument or assumption that demotes the status of individuals relative to society and government. This is the difference between the Founders and the Progressives: the Founders saw individuals and their rights as paramount; the Progressives did not. In this light, the statement that individuals are equal and have natural rights is a claim that individuals are of paramount importance. This means that, contrary to the Claremont school, the historicism of the Progressives is not the key difference with the Founders. Jefferson and Wilson shared the same view of the historical development of human society and government.[7] One can hold that view and still claim that individuals and their rights are paramount, as Jefferson did. The Progressives did not hold that individual rights are paramount because above all they wanted to correct what they saw as the harm that the commitment to individual rights (= laissez-faire, another name for “limited government”) had done in America as it industrialized. This moral claim, not “historicism,” was the source of their political program. It has remained the core of Progressivism.

Individual Rights and Big Government

Even if the Claremont school is wrong about the role of historicism in Progressivism, it might still be right in claiming that the priority of individual rights argues against “big government.” Granting that the argument from human equality and individual natural rights is sound, that it establishes that individuals are paramount or have priority over society and government, we must ask whether that priority provides a good argument against “big government.”

As a matter of both historical fact and logic, the priority of individual natural rights does not provide a sufficient or necessary argument against “big government.”

In his opinion on the constitutionality of a Bank of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, who acknowledged the paramountcy of individual rights, argued that every power vested in a government is in its nature sovereign, and includes, by force of the term, a right to employ all the means requisite and fairly applicable to the attainment of the ends of such power, and which are not precluded by restrictions and exceptions specified in the Constitution, or not immoral, or not contrary to the essential ends of political society.

In other words, if we will the ends, we will the means. If the ends of government are broad, then the means or the power of government, will be broad. If the ends are all-encompassing, then the means or the power of government will be all-encompassing. Hamilton and all the Founders accepted the ends of government as the Declaration expressed them: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or as it abbreviates this, the safety (protecting the lives and liberty) and happiness of the people. It is difficult to imagine more all-encompassing ends than safety and happiness. Arguably, they exclude only religious and certain other beliefs from the power of the government, but even that is not clear, except as a practical conclusion required by the strength of religious belief in the souls of men and the multiplicity of religions in the post-Reformation world. Hamilton, then, was advocating a government of all-encompassing power, limited only by specific limitations in the Constitution, morality, and the ends of government.

Compared to what came to pass 150 years later, it might not seem credible to claim that Hamilton was a proponent of big government. We must consider his political program in its 18th century context, however. In establishing a debt funded or supported by excise taxes (as well as a national bank and in his efforts to promote manufacturing), Hamilton was attempting to establish in the United States the system of “big government” that the British had invented about a century before and which had helped propel Great Britain to world power. The British excise tax system worked because it was run by experts (among the first recruited, tested, trained civil servants) who had the power to enter business premises and enforce their exactions with an administrative judicial system independent of the regular British courts. Parliament set up this administrative state but did not directly control it. Such was the power of this administrative system and so attenuated were its protections for the “accused,” that in his Commentaries, so favorable generally to government power that Jefferson did not want them studied in the United States, William Blackstone wrote that the excise system was “hardly compatible with the temper of a free nation.”[8] In the 18th century context, Hamilton was clearly an exponent of “big government.”

Jefferson, famously, was not. Jefferson rejected the principle that the ends of government justify whatever means may serve them. Yet, the Louisiana Purchase shows that Jefferson was not able to act without adopting Hamilton’s principle. Jefferson acknowledged that the Constitution did not give him the power to purchase territory and add it to the Union. The safety and happiness of the people required it, however, so he did it, the end justifying the means. According to Jefferson, a statesman must do what he believes necessary for safety and happiness. If for the sake of these ends he is compelled to act beyond his specifically granted powers, he must then submit his actions to the people or their representatives for approval.

Post-facto approval does not change the fact, however, that the ends justify the means. Jefferson was ultimately compelled to accept Hamilton’s view. Only two differences remained between them: first, the prudential judgment about when the ends of government required extraordinary means; and second, when and how the approval of the people was to be granted or denied for the use of such means. With regard to the latter point, the Hamiltonian statesman faced regular elections; the Jeffersonian statesman plebiscites perhaps, in addition to regular elections.

Jefferson lived in a simple society, where he believed “extraordinary” governmental means would seldom be necessary. His political program was to keep America a simple society as long as possible, since this was most likely to preserve both equality and liberty. He thought, however, that social complexity was inevitable and that as it came about, government would necessarily get “big.” When it did, “extraordinary” means would become ordinary. According to one historian, Madison, thinking as Jefferson did about these issues, predicted that republican government in the United States would end in 1930![9]

If we conclude, as it seems we must, that Hamilton explicitly and happily and Jefferson implicitly and reluctantly were advocates of “big government,” this means that the Claremont school contradicts itself, a contradiction like the one that Jaffa’s work on Lincoln ran into:[10] Claremont tells us to return to the Founding as an antidote for big government and progressivism, only to find there Hamilton (an advocate of big government) and Jefferson (a reluctant advocate of big government, and someone who believed in indefinite moral and political progress; emphasized reason, science, and efficiency; and prescribed government by experts [the natural aristoi] – all characteristics of 20th century progressivism). In this connection, it is useful to remember that both Jefferson and Franklin anticipated the Progressive argument in an important way, since both believed that property was not a natural, but only a civil right.[11]

But what of the constraints that Hamilton placed on the means or size of government: limits in the constitution, morality, and the ends of political society? The first and last provide no effective limit. We have seen that rather than limiting government the ends of safety and happiness may justify big government. As for the constitution, it provides few specific limitations on the power of the government. All the powers it grants may be expanded to meet one or another perceived need. Some interpretations of the commerce clause may be outlandish, but would even a small government advocate now say all are? And if so, what about state government, unconstrained by the federal constitution? The growth of big government began in the states, whose reforms were then carried to the nation. Also, of course, the state and federal constitutions can be amended. At best, our constitutions provide only a temporary, not an absolute, limit on the power of government (the Progressives did amend the constitution four times).

The Limit on Big Government

What of morality, the third restraint that Hamilton placed on the power of government? This might be an effective curb to big government, but only if we understand morality to mean not just the right or wrong of specific acts but more broadly the right way of life. Underlying the differences in prudential judgment between Hamilton and Jefferson about the power of government or the means it might use were different views about the good life and what was conducive to it. Jefferson saw manly (i.e. virtuous) independence in relative poverty, both personal and national, as the best way of life, whereas Hamilton saw as best participation in national greatness through the assisted-market organization of desire. As we have noted, Jefferson wanted small government because he saw such government as most compatible with the manly independence that was the best life possible.[12]

An understanding of the human good was the issue between the Progressives and those like Coolidge who held a different conception of the role of government in American life. Franklin Roosevelt presented himself as someone serving in new circumstances the ends of government as declared in the Declaration. (As Tom Silver pointed out, one can understand Roosevelt’s talk of economic rights as based in a conception of an economic state of nature and thus based in nature, not history.[13]) He made a moral argument, not a theoretical one.[14] Hoover’s objections to Roosevelt’s program were moral, not theoretical. Hoover thought Roosevelt was changing the character of Americans for the worse. The rugged individualism that Hoover championed was a modern version of Jefferson’s manly independence.

Hoover failed to persuade the American people. Can they be persuaded now? The task is more difficult now than in Hoover’s time for two reasons. First, the socio-economic conditions that made Jefferson’s moral vision plausible (vast western lands and little industrialization) no longer obtain. They did not obtain even in Hoover’s time, one reason perhaps his rhetoric failed. As Silver explained, conservatives have found no effective response to Progressivism.[15] Second, what we call “the 1960s” damaged significantly, perhaps fatally, the authority of Biblical morality among the American people. Reflecting this, Silver argued that the liberal utopia, the liberal vision of the good, was “a country in which individuals shared the maximum social and economic equality consistent with economic growth, so that all would have the broadest possible opportunity (equal means) to pursue their own lifestyles (equal ends).”[16] This vision of the “good,” which separates the priority of the individual from any constraint on the desires of the individual, sanctions big government, for any government aiming to bring about shared maximum social and economic equality consistent with economic growth will need to be big and intrusive. Ultimately, this vision of government cannot be defeated unless its moral vision is discredited and replaced. That is the task that remains. It is a version of the task that Lincoln undertook: the only effective limit on popular sovereignty, he argued, was a moral limit. The same is true of the limit on big government. Without accomplishing this moral task, there is no good argument against “big government” and the administrative state. Indeed, arguing against “big government” on mere theoretical grounds – state of nature, natural rights, historicism – in the absence of the moral argument is to build a house on sand.

[1] Charles Merriam, “Recent Tendencies,” A History of American Political Theories (New York: MacMillan, 1903).

[2] Tom Silver quotes Harry Jaffa to show the logical derivation of natural rights from equality, Tom Silver, The Liberal Century: How Progressivism Transformed America, 28–29. Note, however, that whereas in his text Silver begins with equality, Jaffa (in How to Think About the American Revolution, 110–111) begins with self-preservation.

[3] For example, Edward J. Erler, “Aristotle, Locke, and the American Founding: The Real Truth about Leo Strauss,” Interpretation 40–41, 3–4 (Winter–Spring 2014), 343–375.

[4] Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, March 6, 1801.

[5] Thomas G. West accepts the Claremont criticism of the Progressives. In his latest account of the Founding he says, however, that he is not concerned with the provenance of the Founders thought in Locke or any other authors and adds, sensibly, that “the Founders views must be accessed first through their own words.” He then goes on, however, to cite a number of references to Locke to show that the idea of equality had long been embraced in what became the United States. Thomas G. West, The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 11, 21–22, 46.

[6] The difference between pagan and Biblical morality is made clear in Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: the Clash of Ancient Civilizations (New York: Vintage, 2008). Creation of individual souls by God explains the connection in contemporary politics between those who believe in natural rights and those opposed to abortion, euthanasia and all other claims that rest on the “Lockean” idea of self-possessive individualism.

[7] Woodrow Wilson, The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1898), 14; Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow, September 6, 1824.

[8] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, quoted in John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688–1783 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 113.

[9] Douglas Adair, The Intellectual Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy: Republicans, the Class Struggle, and the Virtuous Farmer (Ph. D. dissertation, Yale University, 1943), 291.

[10] David Tucker, “Political Philosophy, Education, and Statesmanship,” Perspectives on Political Science DOI: 10.1080/10457097.2017.1288496.

[11] Benjamin Franklin, “Private Property is a Creature of Society,” November, 1789, in Benjamin’s Franklin’s Autobiography, ed. by J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1986), 222; Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 28, 1785; Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813.

[12] Silver argues that natural rights thinking limits the power of government but he defines nature, at least at first, in moral terms. See Silver, The Liberal Century, p. 5.

[13] Silver, The Liberal Century, 58.

[14] See the quotation from Roosevelt in Silver, The Liberal Century, 57. Also, consider John Moser’s analysis of Roosevelt,

[15] Silver, The Liberal Century, 8–9.

[16] Silver, The Liberal Century, 111. Equality of ends was not a premise of either Wilson’s or Roosevelt’s. It is the premise of the “1960s.” Consider Shulamith Firestone’s advocacy of polymorphous sexuality. In so far as Pragmatism is relativism with regard to ends, as Silver demonstrates, Pragmatism is the philosophy of the New Left, not necessarily of Progressivism.


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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