(Excerpted from Politicians: The Worst Kind of People to Run the Government, Except for All the Others)

By Bruce Chapman


The Montréal Review, July 2024

Tension between the people and their leaders is a theme in democratic history because it is rooted in human nature. Large groups of people (“The People”) can be fickle. Recognition of this condition preoccupied the signers of the Declaration of Independence. They wanted to tie government purposes to a protection of “natural rights” of individual liberty. So, too, did the Framers of the Constitution, who wanted to insulate subsequent generations from the unceasing struggles of “factions”—struggles that immediately after the Revolution, under the Articles of Confederation, had nearly destroyed the nation.

The Founders created a strong central government, with separated powers and checks and balances, as a way to defuse factional strife. But they realized that structural devices alone would not forestall the demoralization of politics. These devices were mere “auxiliary precautions,” in the words of James Madison. “A dependence on the people” was still the primary guarantee of a healthy commonwealth.1 This meant that the people, especially those who would become politicians, had to be instructed about the nobility of the political calling, lest they become discouraged by the normal contention of public life.

The Founders acknowledged the devotion to “fame” as a motivation for public service in politicians. Their conception of fame was not the cheap desire for celebrity. Rather, it was ambition for a deserved and enduring reputation that only an informed posterity can provide. Even today, it is the politician’s attraction to the enticements of a worthy fame that is the citizenry’s great asset in recruiting the wise, talented, and good to public service.

“Fame” is not talked about today, even in private, nor was it much of a public topic in the Founding era. It is a room in the house of politics usually shut off from visitors. A politician does not want to admit his longing for mention in the records of immortality, for to do so might be misunderstood as arrogance and selfishness, and misused by opponents. The cynical critic also does not mention the politician’s interest in fame because, even if it can be a vice, he knows it is a noble one, and one he suspects that the citizenry recognizes as profitable for them. Some of the best people wanting to make a name for themselves will risk much and yet settle for only what the mature judgment of history can confer in the way of a good opinion. This is cost-effective for the taxpayer.

If the desire for fame becomes an improper pride, greedy for instant or undeserved credit, and blinds the politician to his duty, it no longer is the motive stressed by the Founders. Otherwise, “fame” is the least corrupting of temptations. In its seeking after a just reputation, it extends a gracious compliment to the society whose long-term good opinion it deems worth having.

At its highest point, desire for a fame that only worthy generations of the future can confer matures into one that only an all-knowing, all­-powerful God can satisfy. This motive produces self-sacrificing service that mankind may never recognize, the virtue of the neglected hero of warfare or statecraft. I would argue that a willingness to strive for that reward, an ideal distant and intangible, is thus transformed into altruism. The best politician will take the risk that he may not get credit in his lifetime, or ever. Such paragons also are found in the military, medicine, business, sports, and other pursuits, of course. But the conditions and consequences of government are such that political men and women may face both greater temptations to serve evil ends and greater than ordinary opportunities to serve a just fame.

This elevated desire for fame, especially George Washington’s, was the human foundation upon which the politics of the new republic was erected. The Founders’ reputations, though assaulted, saw the vulnerable new political society through some of its worst turmoil. A mere schoolbook sense of the Founders makes their virtue seem too abstract. They were ambitious, but in a good way. Seeing their desire for fame perhaps makes them more human in our eyes and, at the same time, helps round out our understanding of politicians in general.

The historian Douglass Adair has shown us that Washington, Jefferson, and Adams in their early lives did not exhibit any particular interest in the accolades of history. They were content within the limited and largely material arenas of colonial life. But their thirst for a just fame became almost “obsessive” once they realized that they could assume roles of historical significance.2

Edmund Burke, defending the Americans even before the Revolution, spoke of “passion for fame: a passion which is the instinct of all great souls.”3 Adam Smith and David Hume, who were among the English philosophers influencing the American Founders, hailed above all the contributions, as Hume put it, of “legislators and founders of states, who transmit a system of laws and institutions to secure the peace, happiness and liberty of future generations.”4 Their correspondence shows that Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton discussed such subjects candidly. George Washington apparently did not. But who can doubt that he pondered them?

When we wonder how it was possible that a country of only three million could produce so many great leaders in one generation—never since matched in our land of some 330 million—part of the answer may be that the opportunity for a just fame was never again quite so large as in the Founding. The nobility of the challenge inspired the nobility of the men who responded to it.

It should not be supposed, however, that the Founders were saintly, or that a high tone always prevailed in the politics of the early American Republic. The battles of America’s constitutional period were often personal and factional, and in the generation that succeeded the Founders, politics was partisan and coarse. As in our time, there perhaps was a misconception in the young United States that because one judged himself to be idealistic and worthy, those who disagreed must be unprincipled and base.5

Americans were guaranteed free political speech under the Constitution’s First Amendment and they quickly tested its limits. Federalist and Republican newspapers could be brutal and unfair, each side questioning the patriotism of the other. The Constitution’s electoral processes, says Harry Jaffa, also were being tried. “The party contests of the 1790’s were the bitterest in American history—more so, even than those that preceded the Civil War. In part, this was because the very idea of settling such deeply felt differences by free elections was an idea struggling to be born.”6

At the time, most of the world had no elections or held crooked ones. Runaway passions tore revolutionary France apart, leading to dictatorship. But the United States of America conducted free public elections without incident. More importantly, when the Federalist Party lost the election of 1800 to the Jeffersonians, it abided by the decision of the electorate. “To the best of my knowledge,” Jaffa says, “this was the first time in human history that any such change in the offices of government had ever occurred on the basis of a free popular election... [It was] the first time that the losers gave up their offices peacefully and the winners did not proscribe their defeated opponents by death, imprisonment, loss of property, exile, or even the loss of civil or political rights…”7

In the early generations of the republic, several less edifying forces restrained intemperate and destructive politics. One small, peculiar, and indefensible restraint on personal abuse may have been the custom of the duel. Frontier chivalry made it hard for an ambitious man to refuse a duel; “cowards” were stigmatized and all but banished from public life. Alexander Hamilton, though he opposed dueling, accepted the challenge of Aaron Burr and was killed. Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson participated in duels, Jackson killing a man. However, if the Code of Honor had a dampening effect on personal abuse in politics, it also, as the theologian Lyman Beecher charged, dampened free speech.8

More consequential in preventing disillusionment with politics was the press. Following the tradition of “patriot” and “Tory” presses in the Revolutionary period, newspapers in the new nation were avowedly partisan, initially either “Federalist” or “Jeffersonian.” People might hold a low opinion of opposition newspapers as well as of opposition politicians, but this did not poison their view of the press as a whole or of all politicians. Newspapers might dissemble, but each party’s papers defended the good name of its favorites, furnished positive evidence of their actions and published their essays. So intimate was the relationship of the press and politicians for the first century or more of the republic that it was commonplace for writers to seek employment from both a newspaper and a member of Congress.9 Citizens picked the paper with the principles and party line they preferred. When their heroes were lambasted in the opposition press, they readily perceived the purpose behind the attack and adjusted their reaction accordingly.

Besides, opportunities to uncover genuine perfidy and peculation were not great by later standards, simply because government itself was still small, and the wages of corruption correspondingly meager. The constitutional limits on governmental action were popularly supported. A “spoils system” developed for awarding government jobs, but again, because government was still a small part of the economy, any disruptive effects were not widely experienced. Through the nineteenth century, Congress met only six months of the year, and during the other six months reporters returned home to other parts of the country. The White House was considered such a dull beat that no newspaper even stationed a reporter there.10

Distinguished politicians, though not of the caliber of the Founders, were developed in the new democratic era, such as Presidents James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson, and Senators Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Crucially, the Founders and their work were openly venerated. In Elements of Moral Philosophy, a college textbook of 1837, Jasper Adams directly advocated respect for the political calling in any time. “Civil governors,” he wrote, “... are entitled, from the citizens, to a fair, candid, and even favorable construction and representation of their sentiments, personal conduct, and official measures. To assail them with indiscriminate abuse... except for unquestionable reasons, is most unjust, unpatriotic, and reprehensible. St. Peter refers, in strong terms of disapproval, to those ‘who despise government and are not afraid to speak evil of dignities.’”11

It is hard to imagine anyone writing from such an outlook today, at least not since the Progressive Era. The perspective seems as antique as citing St. Peter.

Politics, nonetheless, was rough, and there probably were many who rebuked the whole breed of officeholders. Otherwise Adams’s admonition would have been unnecessary. A lower tone in politics, and in politicians, was probably inevitable after the Founding and as the voting franchise was broadened. This broadening, however, was achieved fully in the spirit of the unfolding equality of opportunity implied in the Declaration and the Constitution.12

In a familiar sense, it also may be said that the Civil War was fought over the meaning of the Declaration and the Constitution. When the war was over, slavery abolished, and the larger aspiration of the Founders validated, the country rushed to finish its conversion to a position of world prominence. The creation and spread of wealth in the United States, fabulous educational and inventive development, industrialization, the expansion westward, and rapid population growth from natural increase and immigration: These are the most historic accomplishments of the post-Civil War period. But economic swings, the creation of industrial monopolies, and the growing pains of urbanization were the topics that attracted the interest of many later historians; these, and the political corruption that accompanied the momentous changes.

The election of 1884 saw the appearance of a group of Republicans that the New York Sun, employing the Algonquin Indian term for “little braves,” satirically called “mugwumps.”13 Generally upper class Eastern professionals of Anglo-Saxon stock, these grandees deserted their party’s nominee, Senator James G. Blaine, and many supported the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland. Their issue was the unsavory reputation of Blaine, though there was also something in the mugwumps that bespoke a revulsion against the mundane requirements of party work. From the beginning, then, progressive reform included elements that saw “progress” as a return to the purer standards of politics and morality of the early republic. Reformers sought to restate those standards in new legislation taking power away from the political party machines and, later, economic monopolies.

In the next generation, the mugwump issues of corruption and civil service were interspersed with William Jennings Bryan’s issues of “Free Silver” and lower tariffs. Bryanites also were nostalgic for a freer, purer past. They, too, were individualists and sought more democracy. Eventually, in the early twentieth century, structural changes were approved that gave us more direct democracy in the form of popular election of US Senators, and, in many states, the electoral instruments of initiative, referendum, and recall. All told, the reforms and the educational, civic, and social changes of the times were to be seen later on as the work of the Progressive Era.14

The collective influence of nineteenth-century thinkers also is evident in the institutional and attitudinal changes wrought over time by progressivism. In the popularization and misuse of the claims of natural science and in much of modern German philosophy, tendencies toward atheism are found. So are economic determinism and a serene resolve to change human nature. It was considered foolish by many intellectuals to believe in God or self-evident truths, but “advanced” to aspire to the perfectibility of man.

Progress, for the early twentieth-century intellectual, must be organized on “scientific” principles. Max Weber’s “fact/value” distinction meant that facts alone could be submitted to scientific inquiry, while issues of right and wrong (“values”) could be examined only from outside their own assumptions. In the new political science that developed in the Progressive Era, study of what constitutes wise opinion was dropped. Replacing it, as Martin Diamond has explained, was the study of opinion formation.15 The new political scientist was to abandon the supposedly played-out mines of political theory. As Diamond says, the role of the political scientist thereafter was to “discredit the pretended grounds of the behavior and reveal its true sub-rational or a-rational ‘determinants.’”16 Here, then, is partly where we get our present-day intellectual prejudice against crediting what politicians say they are doing and our constant suspicion that the real truth must be something else.

A central progressive theme was historicism, crediting history almost exclusively with the development of culture. It arose in Germany as an element of the “science of the state” (Staatswissenschaft) and the “general theory of the state” (Allgemeine Staatslehre). And it fit well with the new science of politics, Politische Wissenschaft. With the new method, known states were compared historically, with perfection of the state as the goal.

For Germans, the state was something larger than government, though less than all of society. It had a personality and “a being which is infinitely superior to the individual, which exists to realize an ideal beyond and above that of individual happiness.”17 German political scientists thought the history of the state was evolutionary and un-directional. As Dennis Mahoney writes of historicism, “(T)here is neither better nor worse about it, but only more advanced and less advanced, newer and older.”18

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, these ideas entered the United States in the heads of young Americans who, lacking domestic graduate schools in public law, embarked on studies in Germany. There they found that the new political science not only had the blessing of the government, but also was a participant in that government and helped to guide it. The students were impressed by such implied power. The state commanded the universities, and the universities taught the grandeur of the state. Prussian administrative skill seemed especially admirable. When Prussia united Germany and then won a war with France, the superiority of German efficiency seemed clear to the young visitors.

In time, the concept of eugenics gained force in the Second Reich—decades before the Nazis employed it. When, in 1904, the German Empire exterminated almost the whole race of native Hereros in German Southwest Africa, it was publicly justified in terms of Darwinism.19 There were few protests.

A generation earlier, the first American convert to Teutonic ideas of political science, and the founder of its US version, had been John W. Burgess. Dazzled by what he found in Germany, Burgess, back home, proclaimed the ultimate end of the state to be “the perfection of humanity; the civilization of the world; the perfect development of human reason, and its attainment to universal command over individualism; the apotheosis of man.”20 True, Burgess did not hold that the interests of the state and the government were identical, and he did try to carve out a sphere in life for human liberty, but these distinctions soon were lost to his successors. Moreover, he also espoused racism, along the lines of German biologist Ernst Haeckel, a reality that has become an embarrassment for Columbia University in our time.

Columbia hired Burgess in 1876 and permitted him to open a graduate department in 1880. That department and a subsequent new political science department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, also under German-trained instructors, helped shape the field over the next generation. From Columbia came the new journal Political Science Quarterly in 1886, and under Columbia’s influence in 1903–1904, the American Political Science Association was founded. Its appeal was such that membership rose from 214 in 1904 to 1,462 in 1915.21

From political science at John Hopkins University, meanwhile, came a number of historicist scholars, including Woodrow Wilson. We can chart the Progressive Era from the 1880s because of the work of Wilson. His Congressional Government, in 1885, written at Princeton without ever visiting the halls of Congress,22 opened the subject of the Constitution and Founding to fundamental criticism. Wilson reduced the Constitution to a size that would fit under the microscope of the science of politics.

Wilson wondered why criticism of the Constitution had ended almost with its adoption and had been replaced with what he called “an undiscriminating and almost blind worship of its principles....”23 He faulted the nation’s early leaders for devotion to a Constitution tied to supposedly permanent laws of human nature.24 According to Wilson, “living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living structure and must obey the laws of life.” Indeed, “all that progressives ask or desire is permission… to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.”25 In Wilson’s view, the Constitution should not restrict government, but rather provide a process for endless government expansion, ultimately carried out by civil service experts.

Wilson’s idea of constitutional government was the opposite of the interpretation provided by The Federalist Papers, which emphasized both limited and balanced government.  For example, regarding the division of powers, Charles Kesler points out that “To The Federalist, the separation of powers was not a ‘display’ of merry-go-round laws of nature but a qualification and refinement of republicanism. To effect this, the powers had to be mixed in order to be kept separate, the mechanism of the mixing being the same as the guardian of the separation—namely, the famous system of ambition counteracting ambition, so that ‘the interest of the man’ may be connected with ‘the constitutional rights of the place.’”26

In contrast to the harmonious principles of the Framers, Wilson’s views are detached from principles and are relativistic. “The object of constitutional government is to bring the active, planning will of each part of the government into accord with the prevailing popular thought and need... Whatever institutions, whatever practices serve these ends, are necessary to such a system; those which do not, or which serve it (sic) imperfectly, should be dispensed with or bettered.”27

Wilson’s deprecation of the Constitution, condescending, as he does, to term the Founding document well-meaning but outdated “political witchcraft,” led him to one tenuous conclusion after another.28 For the historicist, leadership consisted of communing with the Hegelian “spirit of the age” and guessing where history was leading the people before (and just before, preferably) the people figured out where they were going anyway.

Here is what Wilson says about the “political leader of the nation,” once elected:

“[H]is is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him... If he rightly interprets the national thought and boldly insists upon it, he is irresistible.”29

Wilson probably would have been appalled at a totalitarian reading of this and similar passages. However, despite his paean to the “irresistible leader” and his boast that “we have ceased to fear a Caesar,” history since Wilson’s time provides us with more than enough models of Caesarism to sustain our fears, including Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, and Kim Jong-Un. But even Wilson, who attacked the work of the Framers, did not attack the Framers themselves. That came later in the Progressive Era, first from J. Allen Smith, and then from Charles E. Beard.

Smith, like many Progressive reformers, opposed what he saw as a growing alliance of government and monopolistic big business. He wanted competitive economic enterprise under a form of direct, localized democracy. He believed that the Constitution thwarted such a system; worse, it did so while professing to support it under the guise of majority rule.30 His 1907 book, The Spirit of American Government, set out to demonstrate the Constitution’s inherent opposition to democracy.”31 It asserted that a reactionary propertied class that feared the kind of direct democracy promised in the Declaration devised a system of government just popular enough not to excite general opposition, while giving the people little real power.32 The good-hearted American people were simply too optimistic in nature and too busy with daily concerns to notice that they had been disenfranchised.33

Smith did not address the arguments of The Federalist Papers. The Framers had not aspired to create a direct democracy. They were frank in stating why a republican regime was better than direct democracy. Smith also did not acknowledge that early American citizens, whom he considered to have been bamboozled by the Constitution, knew that the new form of government was needed because they had seen their new country teeter between anarchy and dictatorship under the Articles of Confederation. He would not acknowledge that the Framers intended to prevent either anarchy or dictatorship in the future, and that they had succeeded.

Smith’s book conveyed an atmosphere of plots and intrigues. Smith professed optimism for America in the long run, provided, as with the programs of most reformers and utopians, that substantial institutional changes were made. Meanwhile, Smith and his followers on college campuses treated the Constitution and the founding generation as whipping boys for reformers.

By the time of his death in the 1920s, Smith had become disillusioned with the vast new centralized government authority that Progressive reformers had begun to erect. That apparently had not been his idea. He also disliked the fickle public opinion that had supported the trend. But his expression of disillusionment, published posthumously in 1930, with an introduction by his friend and also somewhat disillusioned colleague at the University of Washington, Vernon L. Parrington, was hardly noticed.34

Smith’s and Parrington’s earlier works were taught as a higher-education corrective to the civics instruction presented in the nation’s secondary schools. What students had been taught in high school in an unsophisticated way (no Federalist explanations there) would be disabused if they went to college, like a belief in Santa Claus. As a child, you learned the harmless fairy tale about George Washington and the cherry tree. At university, you learned that the Father of His Country was a slave-owning plutocrat.

The college-level blow to people’s opinions of political institutions was most deftly delivered by Charles Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, published in 1913. Here, evidence of the activities of the Founders was marshaled to show that their work was self-interested. Missing again was a due sense of the political context of the Constitution and the Framers’ aims. As Richard Hofstadter wrote later in The Age of Reform, “When [Beard] dealt with their ideas about democracy, he was relatively casual; his mind did not become fully engaged with his object, and he was content with a spare and rather literal-minded compound of scattered quotations from the debates in the Constitutional Convention. The muckraking model of thought had brought with it a certain limiting and narrowing definition of reality and a flattening of the imagination.”35

Beard did cite The Federalist in his study, though his analysis was deemed faulty by defenders of the founding generation, and, ironically, his use of the book helped rescue it for later generations.36 Nonetheless, political science was using the Beard analysis as reason to reduce instruction in the Constitution and its authors, just as political science was reducing instruction in the Great Tradition of political theorists, from Aristotle to Montesquieu. After all, as the pragmatist William James said, “True ideas are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we cannot.”37 The new pseudo-science would rule them all.

An increasingly powerful press echoed the debunking of the academics. With widened literacy and westward expansion, newspapers and magazines had proliferated. From 1880 to 1920, the population of the country more than doubled,38 while the number of daily newspapers quadrupled.39 Progressive Era press attacked corruption in business and government, focusing with reason on urban political bosses.

Magazines ran some of the most damaging of the era’s exposés. Unlike the dailies, magazines did not bear the cost of a reporting staff permanently assigned to a political beat, nor the psychological burden of reporting on political figures who were also treasured news sources. Frequently, they also were not burdened with first-hand knowledge of the people or situations they were exposing.

We tend to think of the “muckrakers” of the Progressive Era as typified by the few whose revelations of political or social wrongdoing were most controversial or consequential—Thorstein Veblen, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens. But most journalists wrote only one or two articles and moved on to other subjects. For them muckraking was not a cause worthy of commitment, just a story line that would attract readers. Ida Tarbell, writing for McClure’s, had merely stumbled into her serious exposé of the underhanded business tactics of Standard Oil, and did not want to be associated permanently with the muckrakers. “My conscience began to trouble me,” she recalled. “Was it not as much my business as a reporter to present this [the favorable] side of the picture as to present the other?” “The public was coming to believe that the inevitable result of corporate industrial management was exploitation, neglect, bullying, crushing of labor, [and] that the only hope was in destroying the system.”40

Destroying the system, however, was exactly what writers such as Steffens had in mind. An uncompromising assailant of American capitalism and political institutions, adhering fully to deterministic explanations of social ills, Steffens slyly planted seeds of disaffection in the people themselves by purporting to blame them for their own “misgovernment.” “Isn’t our corrupt government, after all, representative?” he demanded.41 Steffens later dallied with fascism and then proved himself a misty-eyed advocate for the wondrous new system of the Soviet Union, a totalitarian regime. He reserved his caustic cynicism for his democratic homeland.42

Regardless of their motives, muckrakers changed the way the country thought about the American system. It may be, as Hofstadter suggests in The Age of Reform, that a secularized American Protestant society had no way to deal with social problems and corruption since it lacked a European-style conservatism that accepted a certain amount of these conditions as inevitable. Ordinary people in America therefore had to take upon themselves the guilt for social conditions, and then expiate their political sins with self-righteous wrath directed at the supposed rascals who misled them. Muckrakers and reformers played on such feelings.43

Indeed, feelings had a lot to do with Progressive Era reform, as they do with the reform movement today. Writing in the 1950s, when, I have suggested, our current reform era was barely underway, Hofstadter remarked that the “muckraking and reform writers” at the turn of the century had “become half conscious of the important psychic function their work was performing for themselves and their public... They began to say, in effect, that even when they were unable to do very much to change the exercise of political power, they liked the sense of effort and the feeling that the moral tone of political life had changed.”44

Muckraking was becoming a nuisance already when President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a reformer, gave it a name—and denounced it—in 1906. The occasion was the publication of a series of articles called “The Treason of the Senate,” by David Graham Phillips, in William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine. It was a zealous but poorly researched attack on the power and practices of the nation’s Upper House.

“When given the assignment to write an exposé of the Senate, Phillips spent little time in Washington,” notes Donald A. Ritchie. “His only contact within the Senate was his old college roommate, [Sen.] Albert Beveridge, who willingly offered critical opinions of his political opponents... The first installment... was so strident in tone and short on fact that Cosmopolitan delayed its publication for a month and assigned two other reporters to unearth more evidence. When it appeared, the series made its national impact less from the newness of its revelations than from its passionate prose, its systematic and relentless exposition of its theme of corporate control and corruption of the Senate, and its lavish photographic documentation of senatorial affluence.”45

The assault was novel, and it ultimately helped defeat the re-election bids of several Senators and helped secure Hearst the Democratic nomination for governor of New York. (But he lost the final election, and one day was himself the disguised subject of a cinematic exposé, Citizen Kane.)

Roosevelt was outraged by what he considered the untruths of the articles, and in a speech at the laying of the cornerstone for the new House of Representatives office building he compared irresponsible reformers to “the Man with the Muck-rake” in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:

In ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ the Man with the Muck-rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of on spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now... there is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake... But the man who never does anything else... becomes not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evi1.46

Roosevelt insisted that he must not be understood to countenance corruption, nor to condemn the exposure of the corrupt, so long as such exposure was “absolutely truthful”. But “[t]he effort to make financial or political profit out of the destruction of character can only result in public calamity. Gross and reckless assaults on character, whether on the stump or in newspaper, magazine, or book, create a morbid and vicious public sentiment.”47 They confuse the public, gladden the genuine scoundrel, and make true reform more difficult, he declared. “There results a general attitude either of cynical belief in and indifference to public corruption or else of distrustful inability to discriminate between good and bad.”48

The muckrakers insinuated a supposition that a “realist” will find corruption behind any decision he doesn’t like, that coincidences are not to be credited, nor simple mistakes overlooked, that any economic interest in a public person perjures his opinion, that people in politics must be held to a standard of truth and purity of motivation that need not be applied to their accusers. There was nothing earlier in our history quite like the muckraking of the Progressive Era, but there is a great deal like it in our own time.

Yet, as with the reformers’ distortion of the “lesson of Caesar’s wife,” the term “muckraker” is frequently used today as a compliment, or a genial boast, and seldom as a serious expression of censure.49

Alongside the newly potent hostility to politicians was faith—preached by Wilson, John Dewey and others—in government by experts. Administration was to be insulated from the patronage grasp of politicians and also from “meddlesome” public opinion. According to Wilson, public administration is a subject the public “has not a right to think about imperatively.”50

A concurrent growth in government itself was underway. In the 1880s, federal outlays were only $367 million a year. In the early years of the twentieth century, including Theodore Roosevelt’s first term, federal outlays were $535 million per year, on average. In the last five years of the Progressive Era, including Wilson’s second term, 1916–1920, annual federal outlays reached $8 billion. Of course, the nation was at war during Wilson’s second term. Still, even after the war, the first five years of the 1920s averaged $3.6 billion in average outlays. Thus, we see at least a 10-fold increase in government outlays—22-fold, if the war years are counted—during the Progressive Era.51

Some of the reasons presented to promote government growth were new. The country was told it had to “keep up with the times.” That admonition applied also to the Constitution; and for the historicists the times need not be rooted in much besides their ever-changing selves. It also was argued that government’s claims were now more valid than the individual’s. In an eye-popping assertion, Henry Jones Ford, whom Woodrow Wilson recruited to Princeton, wrote, “Man did not make the State; the State made man,” and said that government has an obligation to solve all private ills.52

Finally, the Progressive Era gave us the idea that because the founding generation and their documents could not be trusted, the more direct democracy, the better. Harold Lasswell characterized politics as nothing more (or less) than Who Gets What, When, and How. That being so, take what you can get.

Most of us would not want to rescind the bulk of the Progressive Era’s enacted political reforms, even though, as Hofstadter observed, it is not clear that, on balance, all of them succeeded. Primaries, he said even back in the 1950s, have not materially improved the quality of candidates. On the other hand, greater popular control, especially of local government, clearly did end many abuses and enabled useful physical and administrative innovations.53

But the Progressive Era’s tendencies, revived in our age, have resulted in a governmental squeezing of freedom, a reducing of individuals’ choices and the use of “nudges” to force conformity to the purposes of unelected bureaucrats. The greedy reach is moralistic. As federal judge John Marini observes, “The legacy of Progressivism was a legacy of practical reform that tended to elevate the rhetoric of reform into a moral imperative. Nearly every change in the operation of government or its institutions was advocated and justified as a reform, necessary or otherwise. Consequently, reform became an end in itself.”54

That is, thanks to the Progressive spirit, “reform” became a word to sell any change, good or bad, and invoking it became a way to stop people from thinking too much about trade-offs or limits.

Demoralization, as described here, is a loss of faith in the moral underpinnings of the public order. That also was at least an indirect consequence of Progressivism. Reform was such a broad concept that it came to embrace coercive projects that failed disastrously, such as Prohibition and eugenics.

Wilson, reform’s leader, having first avoided entry into the Great War on exaggerated moral grounds, went into it on an even more grandiose note of moralism, “making the world safe for democracy.” During the war, his government compromised civil liberties and hounded Americans of German extraction. Afterwards, Wilson unwisely encouraged Germany to accept an armistice on extortionate terms. Perhaps thinking himself the “irresistible” leader of his visionary writing, he then lost the cause of American entry into the League of Nations, in part, by refusing to include the majority Republican Senate in his negotiations in Europe. Finally, there was Wilson, the great progressive, holding onto office through his wife after he was physically incapacitated by a stroke, a clear breach of the Constitution. Thus, through overuse and misuse by its leader, “reform” lost much of its appeal. Disillusionment by 1920 was such that the election turnout sank to 49.2 percent.55

From the vantage point of 1932—at least a dozen years after the end of the Progressive Era in which he himself had played a part­—Walter Lippmann made a famous address on “The Scholar in a Troubled World” (given appropriately at Columbia, the home of American political science). Lippmann compared the restless thinking of modern life with the “greater capacity of the eighteenth-century thinkers [he specifies the authors of The Federalist]… to reach definite practical conclusions from their general principles... [U]pon a foundation of merely transient opinions derived from the impressions of the moment, undirected by any abiding conception of personal and social values, no influential political science can be constructed, and it may be, no enduring political state.”56

The reform movement began to revive about 60 years ago, again evincing idealism and high hopes, and again degenerating into demoralization. Our time’s animus toward representative democracy hearkens back to antagonism many Progressives bore for the founding institutions of the nation and those who fashioned them. The conscious or unconscious self-seeking of today’s middlemen derive justification for their lubricious techniques from their simpler Progressive Era predecessors.

To undo the damage, we need to recover the reasons for political life in a representative democracy. Rather than supplanting or “reforming” politicians, we need to accord them their proper role.


Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.

From Fame to Folly: The Origins of Demoralization is Chapter 12 of Politicians: The Worst Kind of People to Run the Government, Except for All the Others, published by Discovery Institute Press. Copyright 2018 by Discovery Institute. All rights reserved.


Illustration: Stump Speaking (1853–54) by George Caleb Bingham at Saint Louis Art Museum.

A candidate leans forward to list his points before a crowd of rural citizens. Behind him sits his opponent, with tablet in hand, taking notes for his turn at the make-shift podium. The artist, George Caleb Bingham, was a Whig Party candidate for the Missouri State Legislature in 1846. Though Bingham won by three votes, the election was contested and given to his opponent, Erasmus Darwin Sappington, who is the speaker shown here.

Scholars have used Bingham's drawings to identify individuals in this work. The large, seated gentleman behind the speaker is Meredith Miles Marmaduke, part of the Democratic political machine. The gentleman in the white coat and top hat is state senator Clairborne Fox Jackson. Although these figures were recognizable to Missourians, Bingham intended this painting to celebrate the democratic election process more generally for a national audience.



1 The Federalist Papers (New York: New American Library, 1961), #51, p. 322.

2 Douglas Adair, Fame and the Founding Fathers (W.W. Norton, 1974), p. 7.

3 Edmund Burke, “Speech on American Taxation” (1774), in Edmund Burke, On the American Revolution: Selected Speeches and Letters, ed. Elliott Robert Barkan (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 60; see also Adair, “Fame and the Founding Fathers,” p. 11.

4 David Hume, “Of Parties in General,” Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987), pp. 54–63; Douglass Adair, “‘That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science’: David Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist,” in Fame and the Founding Fathers, pp. 93–106.

5 The exception, some might say, was the Civil War, which provides the example of Abraham Lincoln. Yet Lincoln himself, in his Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (January 27, 1838)—titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”—observed that the opportunity for fame diminished after the Founding. The answer to a loss of democratic élan, he indicated, was a “political religion” and the veneration of the Founding generation and the Constitution. See A. Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, Vo1.1 (New York: The Library of America, 1989), pp. 28–36). From the Greeks to Cicero and onward, the “preservation” of a state has been seen as almost equally worthy of fame as a founding, but not quite. At the end, even Lincoln does not eclipse Washington.

6 Harry V. Jaffa, The American Founding as the Best Regime: The Bonding of Civil and Religious Liberty (Claremont, CA: Claremont Institute), pp. 8–10.

7 Ibid., pp. 8–9.

8 John G. West, The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1996), pp. 88-97.

9 Donald A. Ritchey, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 1–34.

10 Ibid., p. 3.

11 Jasper Adams, Elements of Moral Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Folsom, Wells, and Thurston, 1837), p. 111.

12 Thomas G. West, “Was the American Founding Unjust?” Principles (Claremont: The Claremont Institute, Spring/Summer 1992). A voting abuse scandal in 1807 provided an excuse to end female voting in New Jersey for over a hundred years. In fact, women and black freemen had the vote in some communities in the early years of the Republic. West, of the University of Dallas, notes that “In the infamous Dred Scott case in 1857, the Supreme Court declared that blacks had never been citizens in the United States. [But] in fact, free blacks were not only citizens but voted in most Northern states and in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In New Jersey, women, including black women, had the right to vote for 30 years after 1776.”

13 William Safire, Political Dictionary (Oxford Univeersity Press, 1978), p. 436.

14 We will overlook as mostly irrelevant the differences that arose over the proper dating of this period.

15 Diamond, “The Dependence of Fact Upon ‘Value,’” p. 231.

16 Ibid., 229.

17 Heinrich von Treitschke, Politik, translated by Winifred Ray, in H. W. C. Davis, The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), p. 121, quoted in Dennis Mahoney, “A New Political Science for a World Made Wholly New: The Doctrine of Progress and the Emergence of American Political Science” (Claremont, CA: Ph.D. Dissertation, The Claremont Graduate School, 1984), p. 36.

18 Ibid., p. 34.

19 See John West’s video on The Biology of the Third Reich, based on the work of Richard Weikart of California State University, Stanislaus, and others: see here.

20 John W. Burgess, The Foundations of Political Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 1933), p. 89.

21 Dennis Mahoney, op. cit., p. 20.

22 Robert W. Peabody, afterword to Wilson, Congressional Government, pp. 216, 238–9.

23 Wilson, Congressional Government, p. 27.

24 Charles Kesler, “Woodrow Wilson and the Statesmanship of Progress,” in Natural Right and Political Right: Essays in Honor of Harry V. Jaffa, edited by Thomas B. Silver and Peter W. Schramm (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1984), 110; Dennis J. Mahoney, “A Newer Science of Politics: The Federalist and American Political Science in the Progressive Era,” in Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and The American Founding, edited by Charles R. Kesler (New York: The Free Press, 1987), p. 260.

25 Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom, with an introduction and notes by William Leuchtenburg (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961), pp. 41–42.

26 Kesler, “Woodrow Wilson,” op. cit., p. 112.

27 Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States, reprinted in The Political Thought of Woodrow Wilson, edited by E. David Cronon (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965), p. 14. Italics added for emphasis.

28 Ibid., p. 215. It is a paradox, it seems to me, that the same Woodrow Wilson who created the modern American bureaucracy, which has proven such a brake on the authority of elected officials, including the president, should have been such a champion of an “irresistibly” strong presidency.

29 Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States, in Cronon, op. cit., p. 69.

30 J. Allen Smith, The Spirit of American Government (New York: Macmillan, 1919), vii.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid., p. 30.

33 Ibid., p. 18.

34 J. Allen Smith, The Growth and Decadence of Constitutional Government (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972). Originally published in 1930 by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

35 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), p. 301.

36 Mahoney, “A Newer Science of Politics,” pp. 261–262.

37 Quoted in Mahoney, op. cit., p. 53.

38 US Census Bureau. Population in 1880: 50.2 million; in 1920, 105.7 million. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992, p. 8.

39 Richard Hofstadter, op. cit., p. 188.

40 Ibid., pp. 194–195.

41 Ibid., p. 208.

42 Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba 1928–1978 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1981), p. 59.

43 Hofstadter, op. cit., pp. 202–209.

44 Ritchie, op. cit., p. 212.

45 Ritchie, op. cit., pp. 188–189.

46 Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man with the Muck-Rake,” in Wayne Andrews, ed., Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography—The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt, Condensed from the Original Edition, Supplemented by Letters, Speeches, and Other Writings (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958).

47 Ibid., p. 417.

48 Ibid., pp. 417–419.

49 Muckraker, Winter 1994, p. 38.

50 Mahoney, op. cit., pp. 188–189.

51 World Almanac (New York 1993), p. 127; derived from US Department of the Treasury annual statements.

52 Henry Jones Ford, Natural History of the State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1915), p. 175.

53 Hofstadter, op. cit., p. 267.

54 John Marini, The Politics of Budget Control: Congress, the Presidency and the Administrative State (Washington, DC: Crane Russak, 1993), p. 49.

55 Turnout four years earlier in 1916 had been 61.6 percent of the electorate. Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, part two (Washington: Bureau of the Census, 1975), p. 1071.

56 Walter Lippmann, “The Scholar in a Troubled World,” The Essential Lippmann (New York: Random House, 1963), pp. 513–514.




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