Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Anti-Federalist Strand in Progressive Politics and Political Thought

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Anti-Federalist Strand in Progressive Politics and Political Thought

Article excerpt


In this article, the author argues that the Progressives can be as much characterized as the antistatists of the nineteenth century as the statists of the twentieth century because their overriding goal was the destruction of the party state and not, directly, the creation of the bureaucratic state. They found in Anti-Federalist political thought a general antistatist template that they used to articulate their specific objection to the nineteenth-century party state. This template comprised a mutual commitment to simple government, the common good as a preinstitutional reality, democracy, direct and responsive government, fear of elite rule, civic education, and cultural homogeneity.


Progressivism, Anti-Federalism, anti-statism

If the Federalists' conception of federalism and the value of a central government was victorious over the Anti-Federalists' conception-now known as "confederalism"- in 1789, the depth and scope of this victory has only expanded through the course of history (Storing and Dry 1981; MacDonald 1963). The conventional view-accurate in my opinion-is that the New Deal not only executed the Federalists' vision of a stronger and more expansive federal government but also went beyond it, altering the balance of power between the federal and state governments and effectively ending the doctrine of "dual sovereignty" that had existed until then (Corwin 1950, 1-24; Mettler 1998). Attached to this conventional view is the interpretation that the Progressives were the forerunners of the New Dealers, partners in crime and descendants of the Federalists in their partiality to the powers of the federal government over those of the states (Mann 1963; Graham 1967; Dionne 1996; Derthick and Dinan 1999). I challenge this neat liberal-Progressive connection, a result of ex post facto reasoning, in this article.

The Progressive scholar and Pulitzer Prize winner Vernon Parrington (1927, i) freely admitted in the foreword to the first volume of Main Currents, "[T]he point of view from which I have endeavored to evaluate the materials, is liberal rather than conservative, Jeffersonian rather than Federalist." He meant "liberal" in the eighteenth-century sense. If this observation seems odd today, it is because later generations of scholars have been too quick to draw the connection between the Progressive case for a stronger central government and the New Deal's delivery of it. Yet if we unpacked what the Anti-Federalists were for rather than cast them in the crude terms of merely what they were against, there are striking parallels to Progressivism worth exploring.

It would be difficult to deny that the Progressives initiated the bureaucratic state-building trajectory that the New Deal would follow, but it would be equally difficult to argue that the Progressives would have welcomed New Dealism as the perfect fruition of their ideals. After all, the Progressives had their eyes set on dismantling a party state and replacing it with a more efficient and responsive one. This negative thrust of Progressivism is sometimes understated, yet here is where its debt to Anti-Federalist political thought might be discerned. If hindsight is twenty-twenty, we cannot understand the Progressives only according to what became of their ideas in the future which they could not have foreseen. It may be helpful to understand Progressivism also in terms of what they borrowed and emulated from the first Americans before themselves who had dared challenged the wisdom of the founding and Madison's "new science." And when we see that Progressivism traces some of its roots to the most unlikely of places, Anti-Federalism, we may come closer to unpacking its enigmatic philosophy. Here then is my two-part thesis: First, what unified the various strands of Progressive thought was its fundamental revulsion of the party state-the regnant state that preceded the modern bureaucratic state. When we focus our attention on this negative goal of Progressivism, we can then perceive its kinship to the Anti-Federalists' antistatism of the eighteenth century that had, we sometimes forget, also rejected one state in favor of another. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.