When the forces of American progressivism emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, those who would one day be labeled as conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians found themselves quite ill-prepared for the intellectual and political onslaught. Perhaps the best analyst at the time progressivism emerged, somewhat surprisingly, was E.L. Godkin, the venerable founder of THE NATION.
It was the rights of man which engaged the attention of the political thinkers of the eighteenth century. The world had suffered so much misery from the results of dynastic ambitions and jealousies, the masses of mankind were everywhere so burdened by the exactions of the superior classes, as to bring about a universal revulsion against the principle of authority. Government, it was plainly seen, had become the vehicles of oppression; and the methods by which it could be subordinated to the needs of individual development, and could be made to foster liberty rather than to suppress it, were the favorite study of the most enlightened philosophers. In opposition to the theory of divine right, whether of kings or demagogues, the doctrine of natural rights was set up. Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideals of national power and glory. [Godkin, “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” NATION (August 9, 1900).]
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Godkin lamented that most Americans found the Declaration of Independence an embarrassment, and the restraints of the Constitution antiquated. “We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races,” he feared. The great Anglo-Welsh historian, Christopher Dawson, had made a similar point, but it far more poetically jarring terms. “When the century began, Jefferson was president of the United States, and George III was still King of England. When it ended Lenin already was planning the Russian Revolution.”
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