Progressives and the Founders: On Natural Rights, the Practice of Democracy and the Diffusion of Power

The Progressive Movement at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in the United States confronted a political and social environment that was quite different from the time of the American Founders. In 1790 there were thirteen states and a few territories, while in 1900 there were 48 states. The population in 1790 was just under four million, while in 1900 it was 76 million—and many of those had just come to the United States from parts of Europe that had not been the place of origin of most of the earlier immigrants. The United States of 1790 was primarily agricultural and had limited industrial activity. By 1900 there was a tremendous increase in industrial activity with the steel and oil industries leading the way. Railroads crisscrossed the nation, and new ways of life related to mining and industrial communities had emerged. Theodore Roosevelt in his 1905 inaugural address referred to these changes when he said: “Modern life is both complex and intense, and the tremendous changes wrought by the extraordinary industrial development of the last half century are felt in every fiber of our social and political being.”  Woodrow Wilson later said that “the laws of this country have not caught up with the economic progress.”