The Primacy of Progressivism: The Presidency, Social Movements, and Constitutional Amendments

My research is broadly focused on the role of the executive branch in the passage of significant constitutional amendments. I was originally interested in exploring this topic to gain insight on the historical relationship between the presidency and congress/the states to learn about how the relationship between the two has evolved. Amendments serve as a good case study for two reasons: 1) they represent broad-based social changes that alter the political system and 2) with exception to the Civil War amendments, amendments have passed between 1913-1971, the years defining the “modern presidency.”

Scholars focus on two critical themes regarding the development of the modern presidency in the 20th century: the rhetorical presidency (where presidents use rhetoric and oratory skills to push their agenda) and the relationship between presidents and social movements. Scholars often cite the presidency as being a “conservative institution” slow to adopt significant changes to the “regime” they oversee. However, presidents that are sympathetic to certain broad-based social movements (e.g. Lincoln and the Abolitionists) slowly adopt the causes of the movement as they seek to re-define the American government, but only in cases where the movement and president are both strong. What my thesis is exploring is the role of the progressive movement and its ideals in creating a presidency that could work effectively with social movements to achieve broad-based social change.

The progressive movement breathed life into the other constitutional amendments, as it called for a democracy more responsible to “the people,” helping create a powerful presidency able to harness the energy of a social movement. This framework, established by the election of 1912 (in which 76 percent of votes went to “progressive” candidates Wilson, TR, and Debs) allowed the movements that followed (the suffragist movement, the civil rights movement, then the youth movement, and finally the feminist movement) to work with the president and push the passage of constitutional amendments that overturned an old order. In that context, the progressive movement becomes the critical link to the arguments about the rhetorical presidency and social movements.

My favorite case study is the nineteenth amendment, giving women suffrage. For over 70 years, women had sought the right to vote. The social movement was not only long lasting but also strong and well organized. Throughout the civil war and the populist era, suffragists continuously advocated for women’s rights. With the onset of the progressive era and an expanded role for the presidency—striving to represent the will of the people as opposed to the corporate interests of trusts and industrialists who had grown extraordinarily wealthy in the late 19th century—the president and the suffrage movement worked together to pass the nineteenth amendment. I cite significant evidence about the relationship between Woodrow Wilson and Carrie Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Catt’s constant dialogue (and friendship) with Wilson, along with Wilson’s use of rhetoric and presidential power in a unique and modern way (at the time), built the necessary coalition for the amendment to finally pass Congress.

This thesis proves two things then: 1) constitutional amendments, which are the most difficult piece of legislation to pass and do not provide a direct role for the president, require a powerful rhetorical presidency with sympathies for the ideals of a well-organized social movement and 2) this developed because of the nature of the progressive movement and the overwhelming force of the 1912 election. Because the progressive movement was all encompassing, it was responsible for the success of social movements that followed (or in the case of the suffrage movement, that existed at the same time). Without the strength of the progressive movement, the merger between the two above concepts themes would not have been possible.

Looking forward to seeing everyone next week!

Michael Lewis

Tulane University

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