The Myth of “Progress”
On July 5, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge delivered a speech commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in which he stated that “It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern.”
Though this speech occurred over 92 years ago, Coolidge’s question is an apt one. Which is it? Has humanity made so much “progress” since 1776 as to render the principles of the American Founding irrelevant? There is no doubt that the technological advances that have occurred since the Founding are striking: Medicine, cars, air travel, electricity, computers, the internet…Material advancements far beyond the imaginations of the founding generation. But what about our political principles?
Let’s examine President Coolidge’s assertions one by one:
“If all men are created equal, that is final.” Does “progress” dictate that mankind no longer has equal rights?
“If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final.” Does “progress” dictate that we no longer possess natural or God-given rights?
“If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final.” Does “progress” dictate that legitimate government is no longer reliant upon the consent of The People?
“No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.” What kind of “progress” would impose such radical changes upon our most sacred and undeniable foundational principles? According to “Silent Cal,” such changes do not represent progress at all.
“If anyone wishes to deny [the] truth [of our Founding Principles] or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”
While it is true that American society has made massive social progress since 1776, particularly in the realms of racial and gender equality, these changes occurred through a recognition and application of the Founders principles; not by rejecting them. President Coolidge’s conclusions are sound. There is no more historically “progressive” stance than to defend the ideas of Natural Law, equality, inalienable rights, and the consent of the governed. These principles are just as applicable today and tomorrow, as they were over 200 year ago.