By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
II. Progressives and Progressivism
In broad terms, and for the purposes of this study, progressivism constituted what Samuel Hays famously referred to as a "response to industrialism," and to the "fundamental redistributions of wealth, power, and status" that occurred in its wake. In others words, progressivism arose in reaction to the unmitigated corporate power that had defined the Gilded Age, and progressives usually defined themselves in opposition to that power, even as they embraced some of its methods. "Ultimately," as historian John Buenker summarizes Hays' thesis, "nearly everyone began to perceive that the only way to cope with his problems and to advance or protect his interests was to organize, for the new environment put a premium on large-scale enterprise. For most people, as Hays so effectively put it, it was a case of 'organize or perish.'"2
However hotly contested other aspects of progressivism have been over the years, historians have also tended to agree that progressives generally hailed from the middle-class (Indeed, this is as often meant as an epithet as much as a descriptor.3) As Michael McGerr puts it, progressivism was "the creed of a crusading middle class," a bold and brazen attempt "to transform other Americans, to remake the nation's feuding, polyglot population in their own middle-class image" and "build what William James sneeringly but accurately labeled the 'middle-class paradise.'"4
In addition, progressivism as a public philosophy hewed closely to what political scientist Michael Sandel has described as "civic republicanism." Central to this theory of civic republicanism, writes Sandel, "is the idea that liberty depends on sharing in self-government:
It means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community. But to deliberate well about the common good requires more than the capacity to choose one's ends and to respect other's rights to do the same. It requires a knowledge of public affairs and also a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake. To share in self-rule, therefore requires that citizens possess, or come to acquire, certain qualities of character, or civic virtues. But this means that republican politics cannot be neutral toward the values and ends its citizens espouse. The republican conception of freedom, unlike the liberal conception, requires a formative politics, a politics that cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires.5In other words, whether they perceived the most dangerous threat to the nation to be unfettered capitalism, monopoly power, moral hygiene, ethnic political machines, or the demon rum, progressives aimed to preserve the forms and prerequisites of democratic citizenship from outside dangers and to inculcate some form of civic virtue into the electorate. In effect, the overarching goal of progressivism was to defend the American experiment against the vicissitudes of capitalism and vice, in part by transforming and "uplifting" American citizens.
Progressives also all generally agreed on certain fundamental principles of change. First, that men and women could be molded. In the words of New Republic editor Herbert Croly, "democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility. If human nature cannot be improved by institutions, democracy is at best a more than usually safe form of political organization." Second, humans had the power to improve their communities and themselves by sheer force of applied reason. Following from this, the most powerful force for change in the world was enlightened public opinion. "[I]f the people knew the facts about inhuman working conditions and the neglect of children," argued Frances Perkins in one of innumerable examples, "they would desire to act morally and responsibly."6
In Reform, Labor, and Feminism, her 1988 study of Margaret Dreier Robins and the Women's Trade Union League, Elizabeth Payne eloquently defines progressivism as "the last, full-blown articulation of that optimistic, republican, tolerant, and liberal Protestant view of the individual and society that had informed America for one hundred years and that found its most eloquent statement in Ralph Waldo Emerson's call for the reformation of man. That tradition saw the individual as possessing enormous potential for good, which could only be realized by a properly structured society."7
In Payne's casting, the agenda of progressivism was "to pass the laws and create the institutions that would release the individual's potential both as a person and as a citizen. The Progressive's task was to liberate the individual from enslaving ignorance, debasing labor, soulless pastimes, corrupt authority, and concentrated power. Once these multiple and interlocking tyrannies were destroyed, the hitherto 'hidden treasures' of the self would be freed for social expression; 'every resource of body, mind, and heart' would find vent in elevating fellowship and individual excellence."8
"Born between 1854 and 1874," notes Robert Crunden similarly in Ministers of Reform, "the first generation of creative progressives absorbed the severe, Protestant moral values of their parents and instinctively identified those values with Abraham Lincoln, the Union, and the Republican Party":
But they grew up in a world where the ministry no longer seemed intellectually respectable and alternatives were few. Educated men and women demanded useful careers that satisfied demanding consciences. They groped toward new professions such as social work, journalism, academia, the law, and politics. In each of these careers, they could become preachers urging moral reform on institutions as well as individuals… Men and women found that settlement work, higher education, law, and journalism all offered possibilities for preaching without pulpits. Over the long term, their goal was an educated democracy that would create laws that would, in turn, produce a moral democracy."9David Danbom's 1987 study The World of Hope: Progressives and the Struggle for an Ethical Public Life also argues that progressives "were products of the Victorian age in which they grew up. They reflected the Victorian faith in the individual and confidence in the inevitability of human progress. They reflected also the crisis of authority in Victorian society between religious and secular modes of understanding human affairs, and the value crisis raised by the realities of a modernizing, industrializing society. These crises stimulated them to action, leading them to attempt to infuse the values of private life into public life."10
As products of a Victorian mindset, Danbom argues, progressives "looked backward rather than forward….their purpose was to hold a reluctant society to its basic values, not to pull it into the modern age." They also "embraced a religious and secular faith in individual self-determination that infused every area of human behavior." In the words of progressive Frederic C. Howe, former Commissioner of Ellis Island and author of the much-discussed memoir Confessions of a Reformer, "early assumptions as to virtue and vice, goodness and evil remained in my mind long after I had tried to discard them. That is, I think, the most characteristic influence of my generation. It explains the nature of our reforms, the regulatory legislation in morals and economics, our belief in men rather than in institutions and our messages to other peoples."11
Of course, by the late teens and especially by the Twenties, the world was a rather different place than it had been only thirty years before. And especially by World War I, a younger generation of progressives was emerging alongside that of Howe - a generation who, while embracing the basic tenets of progressivism outlined above, were also more accustomed to twentieth-century ferment. They would eventually comprise the vanguard of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and the passing of the baton to them is one of the foci of this tale.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. John D. Buenker, Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform (New York: Norton, 1978).
3. In his overview of recent progressive historiography, historian Robert D. Johnston of Yale suggests that the considerable contempt for middle-class reform among historians may have entered a period of thaw. "[P]eople in the middle," he writes, "-- and not just African Americans -- throughout our past have developed and sustained a wide variety of democratic radicalisms, perhaps no more so than during the Progressive Era. Although historians have by no means fully grappled with the implications of the intellectual rehabilitation of the American middling sorts, it is clear that the (still far-too-incomplete) scholarly rise of the middle class has opened up a wide swath of intellectual terrain, making it possible to talk about democracy and Progressivism in exciting new ways." Robert D. Johnston, "Re-Democratizing the Progressive Era: The Politics of Progressive Era Historiography." Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, January 2002.
4. McGerr, A Fierce Discontent : The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, xiv-xv.
5. Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent : America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996).
6. David Danbom, The World of Hope: Progressives and the Struggle for an Ethical Public Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 137. Clarke Chambers, Seedtime of Reform: American Social Service and Social Action, 1918-1933 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963), 4.
7. Elizabeth Anne Payne, Reform, Labor, and Feminism : Margaret Dreier Robins and the Women's Trade Union League, Women in American History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 161.
8. Payne, 161. Anticipating Sandel's civic republican argument, Payne describes later progressive discontent with the New Deal in terms of a falling-away from notions of citizenship and the public good. "In the eyes of many progressives," she concludes, "the New Deal thrived on faction, class warfare, and special interests...[thus] the broker state that the New Deal erected was intrinsically immoral because it had abandoned the conception of citizenship...For the Progressives, 'citizen' and 'reformer' were virtually synonymous...A citizen was no more a mere voter than a trade unionist was simply a dues payer. By participation in civic life, the citizen realized a significant measure of self-government." In short, she argues, the "New Deal and Progressivism may be seen as reverse images of each other...New Dealers particularly scorned the old Progressive notions of self-reformation and the good society as the ends of civic involvement." This falling away from the old progressive ideals constitutes much of the narrative of this study.
9. Crunden, ix, 15.
10. Danbom, vii-viii. Only by grounding the Progressives in this fashion, Danbom argues, can we understand "their altruism, their righteousness, their faith in people, their innocence, or their devotion to the public interest."
11. Danbom, 4, 80.
If you found this dissertation useful or entertaining, please consider contributing to the tip fund.
Alas, history isn't the wildly remunerative discipline it used to be.