Progressives and real liberty research Note

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in September 2019

600 words / 3 min.
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In response to the valorization of economic liberty, Progressives articulated an alternative vision of real liberty for the modern, industrial world.


In response to the valorization of economic liberty, Progressives articulated an alternative vision of “real liberty” for the modern, industrial world; real liberty was something more than either the “freedom to contract” or Thomas Cooley’s proto-privacy right, expressed in his 1888 treatise on torts, “to be let alone.”1

For Progressives, being “let alone” to act free of government interference perhaps made sense in an older, agrarian Jeffersonian or Jacksonian United States, but not at a time when factories, railroads, and cities increasingly dominated, bringing risks beyond the control of individual “free men.”2

As the generally Progressive Outlook magazine put it in 1904,

Real liberty for the laborer requires labor organization; real liberty of travel requires governmental control of the instruments of travel; real liberty in food, clothing, and home requires law to guard against disease and death, threatened by conditions of modern society; real liberty to speak and teach effectively requires organization, educational and religious.3

Such a view of “real liberty” as necessitating active state intervention to achieve, expressed in an extreme form by Marxists and socialists of the era, contrasted markedly with traditional liberal ideas of freedom as expressed by John Stuart Mill, but did have judicial precedent in the doctrine of a state’s police power as a means to protect the public welfare (as used to mandate vaccination or quarantine).4

Turn-of-the-century socialist J. R. MacDonald maintained that real liberty was the “liberty of a man to fulfill his true being”;5 to achieve that, individuals would have to yield to the community.6

Progressives by and large did not advocate for a socialist revolution or for a loss of individualism to this extent, but they did argue that dealing with the “conditions of modern society”—particularly the impacts of corporate capitalism—required more than merely freedom from government meddling. Freedom to act as a private, autonomous individual required active government intervention to maintain. In essence, a person is not free to act if they are dead of smallpox; protecting against this outcome requires more than individual action.


  1. Willrich, Michael, Pox: An American History, (New York: Penguin Press, 2011 г.), 271, 306; Cooley, Thomas McIntyre, A Treatise on the Law of Torts: Or the Wrongs Which Arise Independent of Contract (Callaghan, 1888 г.), 29.
  2. Welke, Barbara Young, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2001 г.), 44, 99.
  3. Abbott, Ernest Hamlin et al., “Political Temperaments,” The Outlook (Outlook Company, 30 July 1904 г.), 729, https://books.google.com/books?id=8bcRAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA729.
  4. See, for example, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 26, 29 (U.S. 1905). For additional discussion of the philosophical issues of this debate, see, for example, Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of “negative liberty” (freedom from state limits) and “positive liberty” (freedom to achieve self realization). Berlin, Isaiah, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University P., 1969 г.), 121–22.
  5. MacDonald, James Ramsay, Socialism and Government (Independent Labour Party, 1909 г.), 154.
  6. Stears, Marc, Progressives, Pluralists, and the Problems of the State : Ideologies of Reform in the United States and Britain, 1909-1926: Ideologies of Reform in the United States and Britain, 1909-1926 (OUP Oxford, 2002 г.), 41–42.