The Roots of Progressivism Lie in . . . the Republican Party?

Tonight, when President Barack Obama delivers his third State of the Union address, he is widely expected to channel the progressive rhetoric of Theodore Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech in 1910 (quoted in my previous post here) that called for the federal government to play an active role in regulating the economy. When he speaks to the nation tonight, President Obama is likely to push back against the demand to shrink the federal government – a common refrain among the current crop of Republican presidential candidates — by pointing to Theodore Roosevelt’s call for an active federal government.

It is certainly true that, in his “New Nationalism” speech, Theodore Roosevelt developed the theme that elite special interests had come to dominate government at all levels, thereby turning government into a tool for their own narrow purposes. President Obama is hoping that a return to this theme will resonate with voters today. However, while the connection between President Obama and Theodore Roosevelt has been widely reported, few commentators have recognized that these same ideas actually can be traced back to an earlier Republican president . . . Abraham Lincoln.

First of all, let us consider Theodore Roosevelt’s defense of an active federal government. In his “New Nationalism” speech in 1910, Roosevelt argued:

The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to[day] is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows. . . . We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

In Roosevelt’s view, the great industrialization of the America economy following the end of the Civil War had created an unprecedented degree of economic inequality. This economic inequality created a threat to democratic self-government:

At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.

The solution, according to Roosevelt, was for the federal government to police the private markets on behalf of the “have-nots,” in order to ensure that the “haves” do not use their concentrated economic power for objectives that are destructive to the common good. Theodore Roosevelt returned to this theme of the federal government as a counterpoint to the economic elite in his “Autobiography.” In that book, he summarized the evolution in his thinking that led to the “New Nationalism” speech:

[A] few men recognized that corporations and combinations had become indispensable in the business world, that it was folly to try to prohibit them, but that it was folly to leave them without thorough-going control . . . They realized that the government must now interfere to protect labor, to subordinate the big corporation to the public welfare, and to shackle cunning and fraud . . .

The more active federal government that Roosevelt envisioned did, in fact, come into being. The combination of two World Wars, and the response to the Great Depression, led to a more powerful federal government and the subordination of corporate power to government control. However, in recent decades the overarching trend has been towards deregulation and a reduction of government power. The result has been a reduced government role in policing the economy, and an increased anxiety on the part of workers and retirees who feel that they are at the mercy of market forces. It makes sense, therefore, that President Obama would return to progressive themes that speak to similar anxieties that existed during the Roosevelt era.

However, historian Heather Cox Richardson of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has traced Roosevelt’s idea of an active federal government back to an even earlier Republican: Abraham Lincoln. In a 2010 article published in the Marquette University Law Review, entitled “Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Principle,” Professor Richardson argued that Lincoln created a new idea of an activist federal government that focused on promoting economic progress for individuals. She points to Lincoln’s policies in support of homestead legislation, the creation of the Department of Agriculture, and the Land-Grant College Act.

Professor Richardson considers Lincoln’s speech in Milwaukee on September 30, 1859 as the first time that Lincoln publicly espoused his vision for an active federal government. He spoke of a federal government that did not leave poor laborers to their own devices, but rather that provided those born into the lower economic strata with the land and the education that these economically disadvantaged Americans could use as tools in order to better their condition. She summarizes:

Lincoln’s concern about the growing power of Southern slave owners in the 1850s convinced him that the government must not privilege an economic elite. Rather, it must leave the economic playing field free for hard-working individuals to rise. By 1859, the idea of government support for individuals had combined with his conception of a “nonpolitical” politics to suggest that ‘equality’ might mean something more active than simply staying out of the way of the man on the make. For decades, men had called for government promotion of individual economic advancement, an idea that Republicans like Lincoln were ready to adopt.

One important policy initiative of Lincoln’s was the promotion of higher education for all, not just for the wealthy. In 1862, Congress passed the Land-Grant College Act, using public land to fund state universities. A second important policy initiative was the establishment of a federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in 1866 to create homesteads for freed slaves and poor whites in the aftermath of the Civil War. The purpose of this law was to break the hold of the Southern elite on the Southern economy, by promoting self-sufficiency for small farmers.

The fate of the so-called Freedman’s Bureau is telling. After President Lincoln’s death, President Andrew Johnson repudiated the idea that the federal government had any legitimate role to play in promoting economic advancement for the average worker. He attacked the Freedman’s Bureau as a giveaway of tax dollars to the “indigent.” Johnson also attacked the Freedman’s Bureau as a federal program that spent tax dollars exclusively for the benefit of blacks, when the reality was that the legislation was intended to foster farm ownership for poor whites in the South as well as poor blacks. As Professor Richardson summarizes: “Johnson’s equation – that government activism equaled special help for blacks paid for by hard-working taxpayers – became the equation that opponents of government activism have used ever since.”

Tomorrow morning, leaders of the current Republican Party will undoubtedly assail President Obama’s State of the Union address on the grounds that it engages in “class warfare” and divisiveness. However, it is worth recalling that the idea that the federal government should take the lead in reducing economic inequality in our society is an idea that has deep Republican roots.


This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Patrick Goggins (Law '93)

    An excellent post Professor Fallone! I look forward to reading Professor Richardson’s article as well.

    You may note that the decision to enter into the Civil War was itself a huge expansion of federal powers at the time. There were significant forces resisting the war, preferring to let states secede at will. These people preferred rule of the willing, and lost the day.

    On the back end, let’s also not forget that conservatives haven’t always been Republican. It was only after Nixon’s successful Southern Strategy (and LBJ’s passage of the Civil Rights Act), that the Dixiecrats switched to the Republican party. The irony of fact that they claim now to be in the Party of Lincoln should be lost on no one.

    Finally, humbly, I refer you to my own recent blog post on today’s use of the terms “elite” and “class warfare.”

  2. Paul Jonas

    Professor Fallone,

    I agree that there are some parallels between the economic inequality present in Roosevelt’s day and the present economic situation. There may even be some similarities in the root causes. I would propose, however, that the “active federal government” envisioned by President Roosevelt – one that indeed would have represented an expansion of the then-current federal government – would be a mere shell of the massive federal government of 2012. While President Obama would be wise to cite the person of Teddy Roosevelt and the imagery of his 1910 speech, the powers contemplated by Roosevelt’s expanded federal government would not scratch the surface of the wide swath of the government that exists today, let alone the further expanded government contemplated by President Obama.

    Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech was delivered five years after Lochner v New York, a time period during which, I would suggest, the power of corporations over their employees and the public dwarfed that which they possess today. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1906, was a reflective – though arguably sensationalized – depiction of the sort of circumstances facing workers at the time. The union movement was in its infancy. OSHA would not appear on the scene for another 60 years. Social Security, welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, all decades away from reality. In other words, the social and regulatory safety net that today comprises the bulk of federal spending was not present in 1910. In my opinion, Roosevelt, a rugged individualist who famously stated his admiration for the “doer of deeds” and for those who “fail while daring greatly,” would have been much less inclined to give his New Nationalism speech to a country where tens of millions of citizens are nearly or totally dependent on the federal government for their day to day needs.

    Likewise, the Lincoln-era programs you reference – with which I admit to being generally unfamiliar – were aimed at promoting “individual economic advancement” for “hard working individuals” according to Professor Richardson. In other words, Lincoln’s programs were designed to provide the opportunity to advance economically via education or manual labor on a property of one’s own. While certain of President Obama’s initiatives have incorporated some elements of these concepts, the most financially significant of his proposals (past stimulus packages, Obamacare) appear to me to have little to do with the concepts of self-improvement underlying the philosophies espoused by Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt.

    All this is not necessarily to say that President Obama’s proposals lack merit (though I could understand how one might independently reach that conclusion). My thoughts here are not directed at the wisdom of the federally-administered social programs mentioned above as they exist today or as envisioned by the President. Rather, I take issue with the suggestion that the circumstances facing Lincoln and Roosevelt, and the nature of the programs they proposed, bear any meaningful relationship to the circumstances facing President Obama. It seems to me that the current massive incarnation of the federal government would be unrecognizable to Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt. I would suggest that version of Progressivism that President Obama will endorse tonight would be equally so.

    Paul Jonas
    MULS, Class of ‘13

  3. Tom Kamenick

    Whatever size of federal government you think there should be or you would like to have, you must have an economy that is large enough to support that government.

    Despite being the largest economy the world has ever seen, the American economy is nowhere near large enough to support the current size of the federal government. The global market being what it is, you couldn’t possibly raise taxes enough to pay for it all right now, because in trying to do so, you’d drive significant portions of the rich and wealthy individuals (or at the very least their profits and assets) to foreign countries.

    Trying to grow the federal government right now is a terrible idea for that reason.

  4. Nick Zales

    If Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt were Republican Progressives then they were probably the last. Given the state of politics today, one might say Richard Nixon was a Progressive. He was surely more progressive than Barack Obama.

    I find it ironic that three years into his term Obama is once again ramping up his rhetoric of being in favor of the common man. Talk is cheap. His administration to date has been essentially a continuation of the Bush II administration. Every politician running for office claims to be a champion for the common man. Truth be told, once in office they are champions for themselves and those who put them into office.

    We need great leaders with bold visions for our country. What we get instead are pre-packaged milquetoast versions of the same old thing. If only another Lincoln or Roosevelt would come along and save us from the presidential mediocrity that has existed since 2000.

    And I must commend Paul Jonas for his excellent analysis of what our government has become. I don’t recognize this leviathan; Roosevelt and Lincoln would find it incomprehensible.

  5. Ed Fallone

    Focus group testing revealed that potential voters reacted positively to the President’s State of the Union address:

    Given these results, I would expect that President Obama will continue to advocate for federal activism on behalf of the middle class, drawing upon the themes discussed in my post (especially the corrupting influence that special interests have on the political process).

  6. Nick Zales

    I agree with Ed Fallone that money in politics is a pressing issue of the day. Therefore, it is ironic that Obama said absolutely nothing meaningful about it. Did Obama call for a Constitutional amendment to reverse the perverse decision in Citizens United v. FEC? Nope. Did he mention how corporations drown out the voice of the people with unlimited campaign contributions? No. Unfortunately, public belief in our federal government is at an all-time low. Given its dismal track record since 2000, it deserves this distrust.

    As long as Citizens United is the law, “We the people” stand no chance in our own republic. All the federal “activism” in the world won’t save this country from artificial “people” whose sole interest is profit at the expense of all else. Federal activism means nothing when we have a coin-operated government.

    I wrote a letter on Citizens United that was published in the March 2010 Wisconsin Lawyer magazine. It represents the antithesis of what Lincoln believed in: government of the people, by the people, for the people. Recently, the Montana Supreme Court rejected Citizens United. Unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, today’s “leaders” have no real interest in addressing corporate government, income inequality or fairness in the law.

  7. Tom Kamenick

    Nick, isn’t the solution to speech you don’t like more speech, rather than banning the speech you don’t like?

    If you really hate the ads that corporations are running so much, why don’t you band together with like-minded individuals and run ads of your own criticizing those ads or just advocating for a position or politician with a different tone than those ads you don’t like?

    The common man hasn’t lost his voice because of CU. The common man has a whole other avenue of expression because of CU.

  8. Nick Zales


    I am all for more speech rather than less. Of course, that is preferable in theory. But in practice the ability of corporations, many of which have more resources than many countries, dwarfs the ability of real people to put out a message. People can band together all they want, they will still never be able to approach the resources available to large corporations.

  9. Tom Kamenick

    “People can band together all they want, they will still never be able to approach the resources available to large corporations.”

    Except that corporations themselves are groups of real people banding together for common purpose, so I don’t think real people are so powerless as you suggest.

  10. Edward A. Fallone


    Corporations are not “groups of real people banding together.” A corporate campaign contribution is the determination by a CEO or a board of directors to use other people’s money (shareholder money) for purposes that benefit management.

    If the campaign contribution is not made out of the corporate treasury, then that money would either be reinvested in the company (thus increasing the value of the shares owned by shareholders, potentially) or else paid out to the shareholders as a dividend.

    Instead, the money is used for campaign contibutions. Shareholders have no effective way to prevent this use of treasury funds. If the shareholders cannot prevent managers from paying themselves excessive salaries, then the shareholders certainly lack the power to prevent management from using corporate money to elect politicians who promise to keep taxes low on excessive salaries.

    And yes, union officials also use involuntary money for campaign purposes, in the form of dues. Neither form of campaign contribution from a collective entity should be permitted, and the Citizens United decision creating a First Amendment right out of whole cloth on behalf of collective entities is a particularly poorly reasoned decision that has disasterous consequences for our democracy.

    I have posted on the Citizens United decision previously:

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