Progressive Legal Thought

51 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2014 Last revised: 5 Mar 2015

See all articles by Herbert Hovenkamp

Herbert Hovenkamp

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School; University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School

Date Written: March 5, 2015


A widely accepted model of American legal history is that "classical" legal thought, which dominated much of the nineteenth century, was displaced by "progressive" legal thought, which survived through the New Deal and in some form to this day. Within its domain, this was a revolution nearly on a par with Copernicus or Newton. This paradigm has been adopted by both progressive liberals who defend this revolution and by classical liberals who lament it.

Classical legal thought is generally identified with efforts to systematize legal rules along lines that had become familiar in the natural sciences. This methodology involved not only simplification and arrangement, but also "formalism," in the sense that it presented the law as a complete system. At the risk of some caricature, the "data" of this system were legal decisions -- a model that reflected not only the penchant for classification but also devotion to the idea that law is essentially judge made and that it evolves over long historical development. Historicism became an important attribute of legal classicism. The authors held up as exemplars are people like Gilded Age Harvard Law Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell and Francis Wharton, the Episcopal priest and prolific legal writer who produced commentaries on many legal subjects. While classical legal thought was generally anti-statist on economic matters, it was not libertarian. In fact, it advocated heavy state regulation of morals even as it supported liberty of contract without state interference as a general matter. The anti-legislative bias of legal classicism readily accommodated doctrines such as economic substantive due process, which originated mainly in the state courts and was an important part of Supreme Court doctrine during the first four decades of the twentieth century.

The classical-to-progressive model of historical explanation is far too narrow to account for the profound changes in American law that occurred during the decades straddling 1900. These changes were embraced by a wide spectrum of jurists and legal thinkers, not merely by the subgroup that styled themselves "progressive." For example, both the left and the right embraced important revisions in their conception of the "market," as well as contract law, corporate law and finance, labor law, and even the law respecting wealth redistribution. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s approach to law is much better understood as marginalist than as either Darwinian or Realist. The increased reach of the federal commerce power into business activity that "affected" commerce was driven by marginalist economic theory showing how monopoly or other dislocations at one level of production could distort all others. In sum, classical legal thought would have collapsed even if progressives had never showed up.

This historical model persists, however, mainly because it serves the interests of both the defenders and opponents of the institutions we have come to associate with progressive legal thought -- namely, the welfare state, increasing public involvement in economic development, the rise of regulatory agencies with broad quasi-judicial and quasi-legislative powers, deferential judicial review of economic legislation, broader federal regulation of markets, and aggressive judicial review of government actions injuring underrepresented minorities.

Keywords: american legal history, classical legal thought, progressive legal thought, economic history, labor law, corporate law, antitrust, Holmes

Suggested Citation

Hovenkamp, Herbert, Progressive Legal Thought (March 5, 2015). Washington and Lee Law Review, 2015, U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-35, Available at SSRN: or

Herbert Hovenkamp (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
319-512-9579 (Phone)

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School ( email )

3641 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

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