Lesson 10: “The Recovery of the Constitution”
Statesmanship, for Franklin D. Roosevelt, entailed the “redefinition” of “rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.” Fulfilling the promise of Progressivism, President Roosevelt’s New Deal gave rise to unlimited government. In contrast to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological successors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan sought the restoration of limited government. Today, our choice is clear: Will we live by the principles of the American Founding, or by the values of the Progressives?
Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his campaign for the presidency in 1932 by emphasizing the Progressive understanding of history and by calling for the “redefinition” of the old idea of rights. His “New Deal,” a series of economic programs ostensibly aimed at extricating America from the Great Depression, vastly enlarged the size and scope of the federal government. Unelected bureaucratic agencies—“the administrative state”—became a fact of American life.
Roosevelt’s call for a “Second Bill of Rights” sought to add “security” to the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Describing the “old rights” of life and liberty as “inadequate” without underlying economic security, Roosevelt called for new economic rights for all, including the right to a job, a home, a fair wage, education, and medical care. With these rights guaranteed, Roosevelt argued, real political equality finally could be achieved.
Following President Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” continued the transformation of the relationship between the American people and their government. President Johnson redefined the government’s role by redefining equality itself: equality must be a “result” rather than a “right.” Expanded federal control over education, transportation, welfare, and medical care soon followed.
Announcing that “with the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Ronald Reagan appealed to the principles of the American Founding in seeking to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Maintaining that Progressivism and the consent of the governed are incompatible, Reagan called for a return to individual self-rule and national self-government.