Semester of Graduation

Summer 2020


Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



American constitutional politics reached a crisis point during the Progressive Era. At the center of the crisis was the question as to what the Constitution meant and who had the final word in interpreting it: The Supreme Court or the People of the United States. That fundamental question came to a head in the presidential election of 1912. The result of that contest was the confirmation of judicial supremacy in constitutional interpretation and a mortal blow the nation’s traditional popular constitutional politics. The ensuring consensus of judicial supremacy has defined the nation’s constitutional politics since, which has resulted in the meaning of the Constitution being determined by battles over judicial appointments and the individual wills of the nation’s judges. This study examines the causes that led to the crisis in constitutional politics, the chief players and their views on American constitutionalism at the height of the Progressive Era, and the dawn of the era of judicial supremacy that is still regnant. The result is a history that pits the advocates of a popular Constitution, men like Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, against the advocates of a judge-defined Constitution, men as diverse in temperament as William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Special attention is paid to the traditionalist advocates of an independent judiciary who prevailed in the short term by securing judicial supremacy but whose success was ultimately doomed by the Wilsonian-progressive vision of an active and supreme high court. In short, this study offers a revision of the traditional narrative of Progressive Era politics and presents the unexpected discovery of “The Strange Death of American Democracy.”

Committee Chair

Sheehan-Dean, Aaron