Americans prior to the Wilson era, Johnson explains, “enjoyed a laissez-faire society which was by no means unrestrained but whose limitations to their economic freedom were imposed by their belief in a God-ordained moral code rather than a government one devised by man.”
In other words, although Americans were free to do as they wished, they always understood there were limits placed on that freedom by God. Generally speaking, they either stayed within those limits or were punished for violating them.
The Wilson era replaced that mode of thinking—normally called self-government—with a code created by man and instituted via civil government.
Typical of the earlier approach is this gem found in a speech by President John Adams:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge . . . would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.
Adams realized that the American government was not a heavy-handed, coercive institution. It would only work if the people maintained a moral and religious foundation in their thinking and lifestyle. If they were to discard that foundation, the Constitution and the government it established would collapse.