The story of big government in America begins in the Progressive Era, stretching from the 1880s through World War I. Enamored with 19th-century European historicist philosophy and unwilling to hold any truths as self-evident, American Progressives thought the natural right principles of the Constitution represented the greatest obstacle to political "progress" and "evolution." In place of the Constitution, Progressivism proposed an administrative state whose purpose would be the unending quest of evolutionary "progress" and whose powers therefore would be unlimited.
More than anyone, Woodrow Wilson advanced the new Progressive theory of human nature and human institutions and the corresponding Progressive critique of the principles of the American Founding and the Founders' Constitution. Wilson, who was president of Princeton and of the American Political Science Association before becoming President of the United States, was the first Chief Executive to openly criticize the Constitution, once comparing it to "political witchcraft." So hostile was he to the self evident truths of the Founding that in a 1911 address he remarked, "if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface."
Wilson above all others deserves credit for the notion that the Constitution is a "living" or "evolving" document. As he wrote in 1908, "Government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin." Insisting that the Constitution does not contain any theories or principles, Wilson argued that the Constitution has a "natural evolution" and is "one thing in one age, another in another." "Living political constitutions," he wrote, "must be Darwinian in structure and in practice."
In the course of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, Wilson's interpretation of the Constitution has served the cause of big government, eventually dropping the self-description of "progressive" for the more marketable label "liberal." But whether they call themselves progressive or liberal, whether they are Democrat or Republican, the advocates of big government are unified in their belief that the principles of the Founding are irrelevant and the meaning of the Constitution can be easily stretched to justify any exercise of government power.
Americans who want to recover limited constitutional government must confront the ideas of Woodrow Wilson. To facilitate that civic education, we are proud to announce two new books by Claremont Institute Fellow, R. J. Pestritto. In Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of American Liberalism, Dr. Pestritto offers a penetrating account of Wilson's historicist political philosophy and its influence for American politics. Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings is the first one-volume collection of Wilson's seminal political works and will be especially useful for educators who teach Wilson and progressivism in the classroom.
Both books are now available. We encourage our friends and supporters to purchase and read them, equipping them with knowledge of the intellectual foundation of modern liberalism. Without this knowledge, no successful strategy can be formulated for dismantling the liberal administrative state and restoring the principles and institutions of American constitutional government.