In crafting the Constitution, the Founders emphasized process, not results. If we follow the Constitution, we won’t have a perfect society, which is unattain- able by imperfect humans. But we will provide opportunity for people to use their natural rights to pursue the acquisition of property and their personal happiness. The results may yield sharp inequalities of income, but the process will guarantee chances for almost everyone.…
Woodrow Wilson—both as a Ph.D. in history and as a two-term president— represented a break with the Constitution and its constrained view of history. Government, in Wilson’s progressive view, did not exist merely to protect rights. “We are not,” Wilson insisted, “bound to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence.” The limited government enshrined in both the Declaration and the Constitution may have been an advance for the Founders, Wilson conceded, but society had evolved since then. Separation of powers was inefficient and hindered modern government from promoting prog- ress. “The only fruit of dividing power,” Wilson asserted, “was to make it irresponsible.” A strong executive was needed, Wilson believed, to translate the interests of the people into public policy.…
Roosevelt served in the Wilson administration and believed deeply in Wilson’s progressive view of the Constitution. When Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes was swearing in Rossevelt for his second term, he apparently read with great emphasis the words “promise to support the Constitution of the United States.” Roosevelt met Hughes’s challenge and repeated these words with force. Later the president said he wanted to shout, “Yes, but it’s the Constitution as I understand it….” In a fireside chat on Court packing, Roosevelt dropped his
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263 THE DEPRESSION, THE NEW DEAL, AND FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
argument for judicial efficiency and called the Constitution “a system of living law.” He added, “We must have Judges who will bring to the courts a present- day sense of the Constitution.”…
In the progressive view, intentions and sincerity are among the noblest vir- tues a president can possess. According to Schlesinger, “In the welter of confu- sion and ignorance [during the Great Depression], experiment corrected by compassion was the best answer.” Experiment is valued by Schlesinger more than experience, and compassion, not results, is described as “the best answer.” Leuchtenburg follows a similar line and notes, “many workingmen, poor farm- ers, and others who felt themselves to have been neglected in the past regarded Roosevelt as their friend. They sensed that his was a humane administration, that the President cared what happened to them.” Historians seem to focus on “car- ing” and “compassion” more than on the unprecedented lack of recovery for the eleven years from 1929 to 1940.…
The constitutional view of the Founders gives little weight to intentions. Good intentions assume that the leader, or leaders, know what is best for society. All they need is the authority to implement their ideas and reconstruct society. People with good intentions, however, can be busybodies who use the power of government to do more harm than good.…
F U R T H E R R E A D I N G
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Lewis A. Erenberg, Swingin’the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (1998).
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Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (1996).
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