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Since the Founding, Americans had fondly hoped that the United States, through its foreign policy and the example it set, would foster the spread of freedom and self-government among the peoples of the Earth.This aspiration had always been central to what Americans considered exceptional about their republic.But Wilson’s call to spread democracy was more urgent and pressing, more obligatory.
Efforts to improve society were not new to the United States in the late 1800s.
A major push for change, the First Reform Era, occurred in the years before the Civil War and included efforts of social activists to reform working conditions and humanize the treatment of mentally ill people and prisoners.
Wilson’s foreign policy demanded action for the sake of a principle—the spread of freedom and democracy—that he was unshakably certain was right in and of itself.
Wilson’s approach to foreign policy, driven as it was by ideology, also eschewed the Founders’ emphasis on the need for prudence in the application of just principles.
“The world must be made safe for democracy.” Thus did President Woodrow Wilson, addressing Congress in 1917, summarize America’s high purpose in entering the First World War.
At first glance, Wilson’s particular vision of America’s role in the world may not sound radically new.The needs of African Americans and Native Americans were poorly served or served not at all a major shortcoming of the progressive movement.Progressive reforms were carried out not only on the national level, but in states and municipalities.Prominent governors devoted to change included Robert M.La Follette of Wisconsin and Hiram Johnson of California.In the realm of foreign affairs, the Founders believed they should choose the best course in light of particular circumstances.Prudence was also necessary to weigh the possible consequences—long- and short-term, harmful and beneficial—of our actions rather than acting impulsively in pursuit of even a just end.These ideals are fundamentally opposed to the principles of the American Founding.Because they take their bearings from different foundational principles, heirs to the Progressives and the American Founders give very different answers to the questions of why and how we should go about promoting freedom abroad.Specific goals included: The success of progressivism owed much to publicity generated by the muckrakers, writers who detailed the horrors of poverty, urban slums, dangerous factory conditions, and child labor, among a host of other ills.Successes were many, beginning with the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890).