Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age.
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Progressivism, Gilded Age, Politics, Reform, Atlantic History.
Excerpted from "The Search for Progress: Major Works in the Historiography of Progressivism", a final paper written for "The Literature of American History," Professor Eric Foner, Spring 2002.
Historian Daniel Rodgers's 1998 book Atlantic Crossings fearlessly hops back and forth across the ocean in its bid to explain progressivism as a global phenomenon. Deeming the progressive interpretations of Hofstadter, Wiebe, Kolko, and Dawley, among others, to be infected with "an unspoken 'geocentrism,'" Rodgers instead aims to argue that, from the 1880's to 1945, "the reconstruction of American social politics was of a part with movements of politics and ideas throughout the North Atlantic world that trade and capitalism had tied together." (3) Unlike the previous interpretations put forth, which argued that progressivism was borne in the chaos of a changing world, Rodgers argues that the reform impulse was not sparked by insoluble problems but rather by "a sudden abundance of solutions, a vast number of them brought over through the Atlantic connection." (6-7) Rodgers then proceeds to demarcate step by step the transnational paths taken by these various reform solutions, from city planning (which comes to Chicago by way of Birmingham and Glasgow) to folk schools (Kentucky by way of Copenhagen) to public housing (Greenbelt by way of Frankfurt and Vienna).
Given Rodger's remarkable grasp of the sociopolitical histories of a dozen different nations and his bravado in teasing out intriguing, as-yet-undiscovered connections between the Old and New Worlds, Atlantic Crossings is justifiably regarded as one of the standards by which further entrants into the burgeoning field of transnational history will be judged. Yet, for all the book's many strengths, there are a few weaknesses present that limit the scope of Rodger's transatlantic interpretation -- failures which, ironically enough, ultimately arise as a function of the book's successes. For one, by including so many varied countries in his historical framework, such as England, France, Germany, Denmark, and New Zealand, Rodgers' book begs the question of why he left so many others out, including Russia, Italy, Holland, and, perhaps most notably, the colonial holdings of his starring imperialist nations.
More importantly, however, Rodgers' book tries so valiantly to sidestep American exceptionalism that it misses those tenets of progressivism specifically rooted in the notion of that exceptionalism, from progressive questions on how to (or if one even could) best Americanize immigrants, to the debates (such as the struggle between the New Freedom and New Nationalism) over the best way to preserve American democracy from the vicissitudes of industrial capitalism, to the flowering of progressive philosophies -- such as those of William James and John Dewey -- explicitly rooted in the political and cultural tenets of the American democratic system. In each of these cases, the thinkers and reformers of the time were acting not so much from the latest goings-on in Paris or London as a conviction about what was fundamental to the workings of American democracy. While Dawley's Struggles for Justice noted the central importance of "the myth of America as a republican melting pot" to progressive reform and rightly pointed out "the popularity of the word national in the names of [progressive] organizations," (Dawley, 114-115, 257-258) Rodgers offers no comparable view of progressivism as a philosophy rooted in American nationalism. In sum, for all of the many assets embodied within Rodgers's work, the usefulness of the transnational perspective may be more limited when the object of inquiry itself does not itself completely transcend - indeed, revels in - national idiosyncracies.