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Idea of Progress

The Idea Of Progress In The Anglo-american World

While the idea of progress was first announced by Francis Bacon in England, and while English philosophers (including Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and especially John Locke) played an important role in the French and German Enlightenments, the idea of progress developed in more moderate and practical forms in England and America. There were English utopian thinkers in the nineteenth century, such as William Godwin (1756–1836) and Robert Owen (1771–1858), who broached theories of progress, human perfectibility, and socialism (Owen formed unsuccessful utopian communities in the United States). And in England by the end of the nineteenth century a strong socialist movement was in place. But socialism in England was far less revolutionary and utopian than its European counterparts, and in general the grand theories of historical progress were imported into England from the Continent. There is no doubt, however, that the idea of progress was important in the American political founding. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) were zealous Baconians and, as is often noted, the Declaration of Independence owed much to the second treatise of Locke's optimistic Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). But in America the idea of progress grew more from the Baconian idea that, given the right intellectual and political conditions, nature could be conquered "for the relief of man's estate." Progress was understood more as a real opportunity and fact of life than as some deep force at work in world history since the dawn of civilization. America represented a new world and a new hope and as such could stand as a light unto other less fortunate nations. Indeed, as Abraham Lincoln said in 1863 in the Gettysburg Address, and as he believed, the issue in the American Civil War was not just slavery, but whether democratic government would be a real possibility in the world. For the most part, however, the new world was thought to have left the old one behind, mired in misery and oppression, and on its own and with little help to be expected from progress.

In America's first century, the dominant intellectual focus was, for the most part, on limited government and the expansion of liberty, more than it was concerned with social transformation and equality of conditions. By the 1890s, however, immigration and industrialization and the practice of laissez-faire economics gave birth to a movement that unabashedly adopted the idea of progress as its name: "progressivism." The Progressive Era spanned the period roughly between 1890 and 1914, but it made a lasting mark on American politics (including the New Deal and beyond) and American political thought. One of the most influential exponents of progressivism was Herbert Croly, a thinker and journalist (and cofounder and editor of the New Republic), whose two books, The Promise of American Life (1909) and Progressive Democracy (1914) were widely read and especially appreciated by Theodore Roosevelt. Croly was influenced by Hegel and by the American pragmatist thinkers, especially the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (who also appreciated Hegel). Croly's view of progress focused on the need to reform political institutions to cope with modern conditions—conditions that in his view were radically different from the world of the American constitutional framers. For Croly, the U.S.. Constitution reflected a now outdated and "reactionary" legalism that stood in the way of social reform and the moral development of the American community. While the constraints of constitutional legalism were appropriate to the nation's childhood—when moral immaturity and impulsiveness require legal restraint—it is not appropriate for a more mature national community. As a consequence of this view, Croly and progressives in general disapproved of the Constitution and favored more direct forms of democracy tied to a more powerful and centralized government. And they favored as well the strong role of administrative and intellectual elites, including social scientists, in the formation of national policy and the fashioning of national character. In this they harked back to the views of the French positivists. The progressives' distinction between "progressive" and "conservative" is still acknowledged in the twenty-first century—as is the essential difference between them. The progressive position sees more democracy as the cure to problems of democracy, likes change for its own sake, and favors state action to promote increased equality. Progressives tend to think that the march of history is on their side. The conservative position is distrustful of direct democracy, fears change for its unintended consequences, and sees the increasing power of the state as a danger to liberty. Thus conservatives have little faith in the healing power of history.

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