The Rise & Decline of
Constitutional Government in America
by Thomas G. West and Douglas A. Jeffrey
A Publication of The Claremont Institute
This essay explains the principles of the American founding. It shows how those principles gave rise to constitutional government and a free society, and how freedom was extended to all Americans after the Civil War. It will also show how the Founders' principles were opposed by a new theory that arose in the Progressive Era; how that new theory finally came to dominate American politics in the 1960s; and how that theory has changed our government and our society, and threatens our liberty.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Earlier Americans were confident that most citizens, acting through self-governing associations like families, churches, and businesses, could take care of their own needs. Government existed to secure the conditions where this was possible. In the prevailing view that has arisen in the past century, based on theories of the Progressive Era, citizens are thought to be unable to manage their own lives without extensive and detailed government regulation of the economy and of social relations. The resulting administrative or welfare state has radically altered Americans' way of life.
But can we, or should we, re-embrace the principles of constitutional government, the principles of the American founding? It is often said that twentieth century America is too complex to be governed according to an eighteenth century document. As recently as 1965, however, America was already a modern society-wealthy and highly industrialized-and the government was still operating largely under the Founders' Constitution, in accordance with the principles of the Declaration. In fact, it remains a viable choice to return to that way of life today.
Nor should that choice be understood in terms of "turning the clock back." On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge said:
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary.
This statement points to the most important question facing Americans and their leaders today. It is a philosophic question that encompasses all the great contemporary policy questions: Were the American Founders or their Progressive-liberal critics correct about human nature and the ends of government?
About the Authors
Thomas G. West is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute and Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas. He is the author of Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).
Douglas A. Jeffrey is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute and Vice President for External Affairs at Hillsdale College.