Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Conclusion: Tired Radicals
II. The Progressive Revival

I. The Strange Case of Reynolds Rogers
II. The Progressive Revival
III. Confessions of the Reformers.

The music may be hidden, but the failure of Herbert Hoover's presidency was there for all to see. "That the Hoover administration has come to a cropper seems to be the general feeling from end to end of the Republic," Mencken wrote in May 1930. By the following year, Oswald Villard -- who never much liked the man -- thought "Mr. Hoover's position is nothing less than tragic. If he is the sensitive, proud, and high-minded man that his intimate friends have certified him to be, it must seem to him that in his case the road to glory has led but to despair. For years he planned and worked and schemed and stooped to achieve the greatest gift the American people can bestow. It has turned to ashes in his hands. Not in my thirty-four years of journalistic experience has any President so failed to impress or to win the public." "He is a tragic figure, one to be pitied," Villard concluded, "and his own unhappiness appears mirrored in every counterfeit presentment which reaches an entirely unresponsive public."1

Now the fate of America -- indeed, the entire world -- rested in the hands of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, other than promising that Happy Days Are Here Again, had run a campaign as carefully modulated as Al Smith's had been occasionally intemperate. Writing of the Democratic candidate two months before Election Day, the editors of The New Republic detected a "philosophical opportunism at the base of the candidate's thought. He has not made up his mind whether we are headed toward collectivism or away from it. To him it is sufficient to suggest particular programs for particular situations, regardless of the general goal. If one of these programs pleases the radicals and another the conservatives, so much the better for his chances of election."2

Indeed, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal would be remembered, in the words of Richard Hofstadter, as "a chaos of experimentation," as the president applied all the many different schools of reform available to him -- from the associationalism of Hoover and the central planning of the War to the regional planning of George Norris and the social welfare legislation of Al Smith and Frances Perkins -- to try to jumpstart the economy and alleviate the suffering of American families. There was often a sense of flying without a map or compass which some progressives found intensely aggravating. "We seemed doomed to try out everything," William Borah complained to a constituent in 1934. But after Republicans were decisively beaten -- again -- in the midterms that same year, Borah conceded the New Deal was the only game in town. "[W]hat were the people offered?" he told TIME. "People can't eat the Constitution." George Norris, a much more vigorous proponent of the New Deal than his Idaho colleague, had led the formation of a National Progressive League for Roosevelt in 1932, which included among its ranks former Republicans like Fiorello La Guardia, Julia Lathrop, Grace Abbott, and John L. Lewis. He was more sanguine about the experimentalism at the heart of the New Deal, and saw no other possible way forward. Asked in 1936 how Abraham Lincoln would respond to the Depression, Norris said, "Lincoln would be just like me. He wouldn't know what the hell to do."3

Even if he wasn't wedded to any one school of reform, Roosevelt considered himself an heir of the progressive tradition, surrounded himself with like-minded individuals, and often tied his work back to the fights of the 1920s. "A comparative study of the Progressive platform of 1924 and the policies enacted into law by Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal," historian Kenneth Mackay wrote in 1947, "would indicate that, perhaps unintentionally, much of the latter was plagiarized. The Progressives get no credit line for the TVA, the 'rapidly progressive' income (and inheritance) tax schedules, the Wagner Labor Relations Act, the various New Deal aids to agriculture, the Securities Exchange Commission, and the abolition of child labor." Yet, he notes, all of these were part of the 1924 La Follette-Wheeler platform. In fact, the plagiarism was quite intentional. "If Franklin had not been a Roosevelt," Rexford Tugwell said of his boss, "I am quite certain he would have liked to be a La Follette."4

Similarly, to staff his administration and serve as advisors, Roosevelt turned to the progressives he knew and admired from the La Follette and Smith candidacies and other fights of the 1920s, most notably Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor (and, on the advice of Hiram Johnson, who turned it down) Harold Ickes as Secretary of the Interior, but also Donald Richberg, John Commons, Felix Frankfurter, Basil Manley, Mary Dewson, Paul Kellogg, Grace Abbott, John A. Ryan, and countless other rank-and-file reformers who had worked to keep the flame alive. "[M]any of the very men who are now engaged in aiding President Roosvelt," wrote Congressman J.E. Watson of Indiana during the New Deal, "were in Wisconsin at that time [in 1924] helping La Follette."5

Perhaps no other progressive supporters were as enthused by the New Deal as the reformers, many of them women, who had fought for so long to see a stronger federal role in ensuring social welfare. Although Florence Kelley and Julia Lathrop both perished in 1932 before these efforts reached culmination, as did Jane Addams in 1935, Lillian Wald was there to bear witness for her long-struggling friends and colleagues. "I…see many things developing," she said as Social Security wended its way through Congress, "that I feared we would live a long time to see throughout this country." "What was the New Deal anyhow?" Frances Perkins later said, "Was it a political plot? Was it just a name for a period in history? Was it a revolution? To all these questions I answer 'No.' It was something quite different…It was, I think, basically, an attitude. An attitude that found voice in expressions like 'the people are what matter to government,' and 'a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.'"6

This conception of government, born in the settlement houses and the social work conferences, and nurtured through the adverse climate of the 1920s, became central to the New Deal and to liberalism thereafter. "Perhaps you may ask, 'Does the road lead uphill all the way?' a triumphant Grace Abbott told a graduating class of women in 1934 of the reformer's life, "And I must answer, 'Yes, to the very end,' But if I offer you a long, hard struggle, I can also promise you great rewards." Grace Abbott, Wald, Norris -- these progressives got to enjoy those rewards. After decades of hard work and lonely struggle, they saw their efforts reach culmination.7

But many did not. And even for those who did, the struggle changed them and their philosophy for good.

Continue to Conclusion Pt. 3, Confessions of the Reformers.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe, 214. Oswald Villard, "The Tragedy of Herbert Hoover," The Nation, June 24th, 1931 (Vol. 132, No. 3442), 671-672.
2. Roosevelt Steps Left and Right, The New Republic, September 28th, 1932 (Vol. 72, No. 930), 164.
3. Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 5. Kevin C. Murphy, "A Lion Among the Liberals: Senator William Edgar Borah and the Rise of New Deal Liberalism," Harvard University A.B. thesis, 1997. (http://www.kevincmurphy.com/williamborah.htm) Otis Graham, An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (Oxford University Press: 1967), 103-105, 126.
4. Mackay, 258. Patrick Maney, "Joe McCarthy's First Victim," Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2001, 529-536. (http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2001/summer/maney-joe-mccarthys-first/)
5. MacKay, 259, 297. Chambers, 254-257. McGerr, 316.
6. Graham, 103. "Social Security Pioneers: Frances Perkins," Social Security Administration (http://www.ssa.gov/history/fpbiossa.html).
7. Chambers, vii, 258.

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