During their presidencies, Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) largely differed on the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Wilson, a progressive, argued that modern society needs a Darwinian constitution, evolvable as a “living, breathing document” and subject to new interpretations. He thus criticized the Constitution’s original framework, crafted “under the dominion of Newtonian Theory.” (The theory posits a mechanically-binding system of the universe, wherein all objects attract each other due to gravitation.)
To illustrate Newtonian dominion over the Constitution, he pointed to its model of checks and balances between three branches of government. The setup of it imitates our solar system, and how its “various parts are held in orbit.”
As for the Declaration of Independence, Wilson rejected Jefferson’s propositions that the laws of nature and nature’s God are eternal, universal and self-evident– arguing that truths change over time, are unique to each society, and that rights are not inalienable from human nature, but can be redefined when they interfere with government’s aims. Jefferson’s fixed principles essentially undermine America’s ability to “leave the past and press onward to something new.”
Ultimately, Wilson desired sweeping social change to serve the “public interest.” For this to happen, America must “knit the new into the old,” by incorporating statism.
“Our life has broken away from the past…The old political formulas do not fit the present problems,” according to Wilson. These formulas of limited government worked well in “Jefferson’s time,” but not more complex modern times. Most families during “Jefferson’s time” enjoyed their own homes and did not live in crowded “tenements” found throughout modern cities. Since such urban residences are more dangerous, residents should allow law enforcement to “step in and create new conditions.”
This type of progress comes from a society which “thinks of the future, not the past” in order to stimulate “development.” Essentially, the Constitution must not interfere with the state’s power to pragmatically confront societal problems, or in other words, to “break every kind of monopoly, and set men free, upon a footing of equality.” (Wilson did not want Social Darwinism to naturally occur in a capitalist system. In addition to policies designed to enforce equality, he signed a 1911 New Jersey eugenics bill that authorized sterilizations of “the feeble-minded [including idiots, imbeciles and morons], epileptics, rapists, certain criminals and other defectives.” Such a bill supersedes natural selection.)
“We are not bound to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence; we are as free as they were to make and unmake governments. We are not here to worship men or a document. But neither are we here to indulge in a mere rhetorical and uncritical eulogy. Every Fourth of July should be a time for examining our standards, our purposes, for determining afresh what principles, what forms of power we think most likely to effect our safety and happiness. That and that alone is the obligation the Declaration lays upon us.”
Furthermore, Jefferson’s naive document merely attempted to “display the laws of nature,” and reflect “a variety of mechanics.” Thus, its principles have to be put aside when modern society faces complexities that arise with urbanization, industrialization, and other mainsprings of population growth. Wilson argued politicians, justices, bureaucrats, and other public officials should actively solve them.
Coolidge, a conservative, revered both founding documents, arguing that these “great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken” in their preservation of “local self-government” and the individual.
The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress, “represented the movement of a people…not a movement from the top,” as those with aristocratic dispositions “held toward it an attitude either of neutrality or open hostility.” Yet even in the face of hostility, the colonists with “mature convictions…knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.”
“There is something beyond the establishment of a new nation, great as that event would be, in the Declaration of Independence which has ever since caused it to be regarded as one of the great charters that not only was to liberate America but was everywhere to ennoble humanity. It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history. Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed.”
Government should rule with the consent of the governed because it is responsible for protecting rights from foreign enemies, criminals, and tyranny–not providing social goods or constantly imposing new taxes. However, Coolidge argued that many citizens of the Progressive Era were “not in harmony with this spirit,” as their tolerance of an expanding administrative state diminished their “economic and moral independence.” Yet such hallmarks of “self-mastery” and “individual responsibility” are necessary to “maintain the western standard of civilization.”
“American civilization is the product of a constant and mighty effort. One of the greatest perils to an extensive republic is the disregard of individual rights. In our own country such rights do not appear to be in immediate danger from direct attack, but they are always in jeopardy through indirect action. One of the rights which the freeman has always guarded with most jealous care is that of enjoying the rewards of his own industry. Realizing that the power to tax is the power to destroy and that the power to take a certain amount of property or of income is only another way of saying that for a certain proportion of his time a citizen must work for the Government, the authority to impose a tax on the people has been most carefully guarded.”
Ultimately, individuals “must govern themselves.” Or else, “rights and privileges will be confiscated under the all-compelling pressure of public necessity for better maintenance of order and morality.”
Coolidge argued that Americans do best when they take responsibility for their own lives instead of depending on the state. These principles of limited government and self-government are the essence of America’s founding documents. Thus, America on a bedrock of her founding principles can protect individual rights by establishing a “national, local, and moral” rule of law.
Wilson, Woodrow. Constitutional Government in the United States. ROUTLEDGE, 2017.
“What Is Progress?,” by Woodrow Wilson. Teaching American History. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-is-progress/.
“Speeches as President (1923-1929).” Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, Inc. https://www.coolidgefoundation.org/resources/speeches-as-president-1923-1929-7/.
“Quotations” Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, Inc. https://www.coolidgefoundation.org/quote/quotations-s/.
Laughlin, Harry. Bulletin Volume 1; Volumes 3-11. P. 20. https://books.google.com/books?id=fQfVAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA6-PA17&lpg=RA6-PA17&dq=%22heredity+plays+a+most+important+part+in+the+transmission+of+feeble-mindedness%22&source=bl&ots=qTSrMk3x_C&sig=4pGDHwwM04FH0wy-0I2fr1kR6h4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NL5XT5bAPMeKsQKf0rXDDQ&ved=0CDgQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=%22heredity%20plays%20a%20most%20important%20part%20in%20the%20transmission%20of%20feeble-mindedness%22&f=false