For America's Founders, there is no such thing as progress beyond our unchanging human nature, which in turn sets fixed and defined limits on the powers and purposes of government. Human beings should nonetheless strive for justice, and citizens should seek to fulfill their duties according to reason even if there is no possibility of mortal perfection. The Founders' goal was not progress but a limited government dedicated to the ongoing protection of natural rights.
For Progressives, the purpose of government is to ensure and direct each individual citizen's progress towards enlightenment, spiritual fulfillment, and material equality. The aim of this progress is to usher in a new era of human happiness, in which enlightened administration is possible and in which individual potential can be fully realized by the state.
"The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period."—George Washington, "Circular Letter to the States"
"The free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society."—George Washington, "Circular Letter to the States"
"Happily for mankind, stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty, which have flourished for ages, have, in a few glorious instances, refuted their gloomy sophisms."—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 9
"The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients."—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 9
"If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people."—George Washington, "Letter to the Hebrew Congregation"
"It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence."—George Washington, "Farewell Address"
"They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."—Abraham Lincoln, "Speech on the Dred Scott Decision"
"In all the essentials we have achieved an equality which was never possessed by any other people. Even in the less important matter of material possessions we have secured a wider and wider distribution of wealth."—Calvin Coolidge, "The Inspiration of the Declaration"
"The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day. It is of no consequence to us unless we can translate its general terms into examples of the present day."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"Progress! Did you ever reflect that that word is almost a new one? No word comes more often or more naturally to the lips of modern man, as if the thing it stands for were almost synonymous with life itself, and yet men through many thousand years never talked or thought of progress."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"Progress, development,—those are modern words. The modern idea is to leave the past and press onward to something new."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"Now, the problem is to continue to live in the house and yet change it... What we have to undertake is to systematize the foundations of the house, then to thread all the old parts of the structure with the steel which will be laced together in modern fashion, accommodated to all the modern knowledge of structural strength and elasticity.... until finally, a generation or two from now, the scaffolding will be taken away."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when 'development,' 'evolution,' is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"In face of such circumstances, must not government lay aside all timid scruple and boldly make itself an agency for social reform as well as for political control?"—Woodrow Wilson, "Socialism and Democracy"
"Changed conditions, it has been thought, must bring in their train different conceptions of private rights if society is to be advantageously carried on."—Frank Goodnow, The American Conception of Liberty
"But the Constitution of the United States is not a mere lawyers' document: it is a vehicle of life, and its spirit is always the spirit of the age."—Woodrow Wilson, "The President of the United States"
"The day of enlightened administration has come."—Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Commonwealth Club Address"
"You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation."—Lyndon B. Johnson, "Remarks at the University of Michigan"