The View From 1776

Progressive Era Scholars: The Socialist Paradigm

To understand present-day education, study university professors of the Progressive era.

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This article is scheduled for publication in the upcoming edition of the RepublicanVoices newsletter.

The first two decades of the 20th century were the period of maximum influence of the Progressive movement in politics and education.  Progressivism arose out of the collapse of the Populist Party after it was trounced by Republican William McKinley in the 1896 presidential election.  In the 1920s the Progressives merged with the American Socialist Party.

Progressives, in those first two decades of the 20th century, established the social, political, and educational paradigm that persists today.  Its hallmark was, among other things, rejection of the original ideas about constitutional government, particularly of the idea of natural law rights, which were the basis of the Declaration of Independence, the original Constitution, and its first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights.  As a result, Federal courts have degraded the Bill of Rights into a license for any form of gross hedonism, no matter how disruptive to social life or how offensive to other people.

Historian Richard Hofstadter’s “The Progressive Era Historians” provides valuable insights into the thinking of three of the most influential of the Progressive scholars: Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, and Vernon L. Parrington.  Of the three, Beard most completely embodies the essential characteristics of Progressive era thinking.

Beard’s outlook was molded directly by the diffusion of socialist theory and Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity from continental Europe into England during the 19th century.  Professor Hofstadter writes that, in 1898, Beard moved to England to study at Oxford, in the midst of the ferment of socialist activity.  Sidney and Beatrice Webb had just published their book on trade unionism and industrial democracy, and their Fabian socialist group was gaining important converts in government and academia.  At the same time, the new Labour party was taking shape out of the trades unions. 

Most influential on the development of Beard’s educational and social paradigm, according to Professor Hofstadter, was John Ruskin’s “Unto This Last,” which had been published forty years earlier.  Ruskin’s thesis was that the political state should provide free education, vocational training workshops, guaranteed employment, job security, housing and social security for the old and poor, minimum wage laws, rent control, income ceilings, and public ownership of transportation.  In short, John Ruskin should be the patron saint of the Democratic Party, not Thomas Jefferson, the advocate of limited government.

As was typical of socialist sentiment in 19th century England, ideas such as Ruskin’s were presented as true Christian morality, merely the logical implications of brotherly love.  Very few upper-class Englishmen who espoused socialism had even the vaguest understanding that it was an atheistic doctrine that could be implemented only with some degree of political tyranny.

During the three years or so that Charles Beard spent in England, he became very active in organizing groups to promote socialist doctrine.  He also wrote several essays about the theorists who had been most helpful in furthering the cause of socialism, among them, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, and Robert Owen.  Professor Hofstadter quotes one line from these essays: ” The concept of God and the individual is being supplemented by the more glorious concept of God and the collective life of man.”

After his return to the United States, Beard joined the faculty at Columbia University.  In 1901, he published his first book, “The Industrial Revolution.”  At this stage of his socialization, he was more concerned with economic theory than class warfare.  He promoted the theory of Henri de Saint-Simon and his colleague August Comte that free-market competition wasted economic resources, which state planners could put to better use helping the poor.

Like all socialist theories, this doctrine had a degree of plausibility at first glance, but proved to have the opposite of desired results in practice.  Socialists believe that middle-man units in an economy, such as wholesale distributors and advertising businesses, are unnecessary and tend to promote a wasteful proliferation of products.  Socialists were confident that people need only one standard product in each category designated by planners.  Moreover, according to theory, planning engineers would be much more efficient than private businessmen in manufacturing the products needed by society.

Though it is seldom articulated by socialists, the underlying presumption of all socialist planning is that an economy is a static phenomenon, with fixed production facilities, distribution and transportation, and fixed demand for products.  If that were true, which of course it isn’t, presumably social engineers could optimize availabilities of goods and services for every person on an equal basis.  The laboratory of real life, from Revolutionary France to Soviet Russia, has emphatically demonstrated the falsity of this doctrine.  Yet it remains the fundamental belief of American liberals and most Western European governments.

In 1913, Beard published his most notorious and most influential book, “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.”  The book asserted that the Constitution was far from a document crafted by patriotic statesmen to promote the general welfare of the nation.  It was rather an inside job by connivers to promote their own personal financial interests.  Equally reprehensible, the Constitution was drafted by the Philadelphia Convention and ratified by the states in an anti-democratic manner that excluded what he called “the propertyless masses.”

The most succinct and appropriate reaction to the work is the remark attributed to Nicholas Murray Butler, then president of Columbia University.  When asked, “Have you seen Beard’s last book?”  Butler replied, “I hope so.”

In the intervening years, Beard’s assertions have been completely discredited, indeed demolished.  Even Professor Hofstadter, whose views were left of center, said that Beard’s works “...do, however, show that capacity that Beard would always have in generous measure for a selective use of historical facts in order to put across his message.”  Princeton’s Edward S. Corwin, the Democratic party’s principal theorist of Constitutional law during the New Deal, wrote that had Beard “been less bent on demonstrating the Socialist theory of economic determinism and class struggle as an interpretation of history, his own performance would have been less open to criticism.”

Young Forrest McDonald, later a distinguished historian, burst upon the academic stage with his PhD thesis based on exhaustive research of original colonial documents that revealed no basis in fact for Beard’s assertions.  One of the works that shredded Beard’s contentions is Robert E. Brown’s “Charles Beard and the Constitution: A Critical Analysis of ‘An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution’ .”

A few points from historian Brown’s book reveal the sloppiness and outright misrepresentation that characterize Beard’s book. 

First, with regard to Beard’s description of “the masses” as unable to vote because they were propertyless, research by numerous scholars has shown that more than 90 percent of all males in colonial times had enough property or income to qualify for voting.  This is not hard to understand when we note that most people owned their own businesses or farms, and very few people worked in cities for wages low enough to be classified as propertyless.

Beard wrote, “How extensive the disenfranchisement really was cannot be determined,” yet he flatly asserts that the process of ratifying the Constitution was undemocratic because most people could not vote.  He ignores one readily available piece of documentation, Madison’s notes on the debates in the Constitutional Convention.  There was extensive and repeated discussion of personal voting rights in the states, because this was the bedrock of the representational structure in the states and the Federal government that constituted the Constitution’s check and balances.  It is clear from delegates’ statements that suffrage among adult males was nearly universal.  Supporting this is the continual concern in the Convention about what the people of the thirteen states would accept.  If very few people could vote, there was no point in Jay, Madison, and Hamilton laboring for nearly a year to write and publish the 85 “Federalist” papers, which were aimed at individual voters.  There would simply have been private conversations within an “old boys” network to get ratification

Second, Beard explicitly adopts the atheistic Marxian theory that all human conduct, including the unfolding of a predictable future, is the product of economic determinism.  That is, ideals and morality or religion play no real role in human conduct; they are merely the opium of the masses fabricated by the wealthy oppressors to subjugate the workers.  Only material and secular forces influence human conduct.  In support of this thesis, Beard abstracts certain passages from James Madison’s “Federalist No. 10,” in which Madison notes that historically contention in political societies arises from the unequal natural abilities of individuals, which in turn produce unequal distribution of incomes.  Not only does Beard ignore other parts of “Federalist No. 10” that counter his thesis, but he simply ignores the other 84 “Federalist” papers which in no way present a Marxian theory of economic determinism.

Third, contrary to popular impression, Beard doesn’t simply assert that the Constitution pitted property owners against non-property owners, and for a very good reason.  As noted above, nearly 90 percent of voting-age males owned property.  Beard asserts instead a split between the small farmers and businessmen and the wealthier merchants and bankers, people who owned debt instruments, such as paper money, bills for merchandise sold to farmers and small businesses, and bonds issued by the states and the Continental Congress during the War of Independence.  The Constitution, said Beard, was a conspiracy to force honest workers to enrich these wealthy merchants and lenders by paying off the debts, which they had speculatively bought at huge discounts when it appeared that the government under the Articles of Confederation would fail to honor them.  This, of course, presumes that these “speculators” had advance knowledge that Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, after the Constitution was ratified in 1789, would lead the Federal government to honor state and national debts.

Beard says that farmers were “a large debtor class,” but offers no support at all for his statement.  State and local records from 1787 do not support this assertion.

Even with regard to the most central proposition in his book, Beard admits that he has no proof of it.  After declaring that the Constitution was a conspiracy of owners of currency and other debt instruments against farmers and small businessmen, he says that the ownership proportions of debt instruments by delegates had never been determined, and probably could not be determined.  Where he does offer inferential evidence, it is based, not on ownership records, but on taxation figures from 1792 to 1804, five to seventeen years after the drafting of the Constitution.  All available state records from 1787 show that ownership of property was overwhelmingly in real estate, not debt instruments.

Having no specific evidence of what amounts of debt instruments the individual delegates owned in 1787 at the time of the Constitutional Convention, Beard lists ten of the delegates who, under the Articles of Confederation four years earlier, had voted to give the government more power over finances.  But of the ten, four were not at the Constitutional Convention at all, three owned securities four years after the drafting of the Constitution, and only one probably owned securities in 1787.  Beard offers no evidence that other Convention delegates owned securities, yet eighteen of them voted for the Constitution.

Tellingly, liberal academics and politicians of the day eagerly grasped Beard’s “Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” as proof of socialism’s doctrine of economic determinism, completely ignoring its sloppiness and lack of supporting evidence.  The “New Republic,” the leading liberal publication of the early 20th century, found in a 1938 poll that Beard’s “Economic Interpretation” was regarded by intellectuals as one of the two most influential works of the modern era.

The paradigm that Beard was so instrumental in establishing has had lasting and devastating effects on education. 

In Professor Hofstadter’s words, “... he argued that old modes of explanation were no longer usable: Darwin had undermined natural rights, for example, as a fixed and eternal scheme of things, by showing that all things change…”  But if this is correct, the famous words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident…” are now invalid nonsense.

Hofstadter continues, “Political and legal institutions were beginning to be seen as products of the whole social process, not as consequences of some self-sustained process of abstract reasoning [like the Constitutional Convention?].... Political philosophy, far from being the product of pure reason, must be seen as the product of the political system.” 

He quotes Beard:

“It would seem that the real state is not the juristic state but is the group of persons able to work together effectively for the accomplishment of their joint aims, and overcome all opposition on the particular point at issue at a particular period of time.”

Now, in practical terms, this means that the Constitution and established legal precedent are to be interpreted to mean whatever the victorious special interest group decrees.  The Constitution is to be subordinated to the law of the jungle, pure power politics. 

Nobody’s rights may stand in the way of Darwinian evolution of public opinion, because the idea of natural rights is outmoded.  If liberal-socialists can effectively work together as a special interest group and gain control of the Federal judiciary, then judges can simply by fiat “discover” new “rights” to socialism’s latest variety of hedonism, such as unlimited abortion to facilitate sexual promiscuity.

As Madison and Hamilton note in the “Federalist” papers, there will always be special interest groups (factions, as they were called in 1787).  The point of the checks and balances in the Constitution was to neutralize them and to prevent any faction from taking control of the government. 

Doing away with those checks and balances is precisely the objective that Charles A. Beard espouses, and the reality that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal established in the 1930s.

This doctrine is now taught almost universally in American colleges and universities, and it is the driving force behind liberals’ blocking the appointment of cabinet officers and Federal judges who are not atheistic socialists.

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