Broadside against the Progressives

Article excerpt


In recent years, the American left has increasingly styled itself progressive. This trend reflects the public repudiation of the moniker liberal - a term U.S. social democrats had previously expropriated and shorn of its original commitment to economic liberty - but also harkens back to the early-20th century Progressive Movement that sought to expand the federal government's role vis-a-vis the states, businesses and individuals.

This movement is personified by the 26th and 28th presidents of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Born into extraordinary privilege in Manhattan, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1898 before his own party bosses sought to limit his influence by nominating him for vice president on the ticket headed by incumbent William McKinley in the election of 1900. Within a year, McKinley was assassinated, and the Progressive Era was born.

Wilson was born in Virginia to a slave-owning Presbyterian minister, earned a doctorate in history and political science at Johns Hopkins University, and became the president of Princeton in 1902. He was elected president just two years after winning election as New Jersey's governor in 1910. Wilson was enabled by Roosevelt, who had opposed the Republican incumbent president, his former Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Roosevelt ran separately atop the Progressive Party ticket. Though Wilson campaigned as more centrist than Roosevelt, he ultimately led the enactment of most of his rival's agenda.

Academic historians have generally been kind to Roosevelt and Wilson, typically ranking each among the 10 best American presidents in various surveys. Enter the fray Andrew Napolitano, who offers a searing indictment of these two U.S. heads of state in an engrossing book that combines the former New Jersey judge's erudite mastery of law and history with the common touch he regularly displays in his current role as a Fox News analyst. By its own terms, Mr. Napolitano's book is a polemic broadside rather than a history, and in that role it succeeds quite well.

Mr. Napolitano is indisputably correct that Roosevelt and Wilson profoundly altered our constitutional republic. Of course, it was in forever changing the American constitutional structure that Roosevelt and Wilson earned the admiration of university scholars. Today's progressives will doubtless be unpersuaded by Mr. Napolitano's brief against the Progressive Era embrace of labor unions, the seizure of private lands for federal conservancy and the passage of constitutional amendments that established the federal income tax and that ripped from state legislatures the power to pick U.S. senators.

Still, most of today's progressives could not read the entirety of Mr. Napolitano's account without taking pause. …