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

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IV. Review of the Literature

I. The Bourne Legacy
II. Progressives and Progressivism
III. Cast of Characters
IV. Review of the Literature
V. Chapter Outline

The question of progressivism in the twenties -- while once very much in favor -- has not been scrutinized in depth for awhile. Arthur Link's 1959 essay "What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920's?" remains the foundation for studies of this sort -- In it, Link hypothesized that the various members of the progressive coalition, although unable to reunite or to capture a major party, were still very much alive and well in the New Era. In a 1966 article for the Journal of American History, which declared the Twenties a "New Historiographical Frontier," Burl Noggle ably surveyed the findings of then-recent monographs on New Era progressivism:
An intriguing but most debatable theme that political historians lately have enlarged upon is that of reform in the 1920s. Studies have begun to reveal survivals of Progressivism and preludes to the New Deal in the decade. Clarke Chambers has found a strong social welfare movement at work in the period, one concerned with child labor, slums, poor housing, and other problems that Progressives before the 1920s and New Dealers afterward also sought to alleviate. Preston J. Hubbard has studied the Muscle Shoals controversy of the 1920s and has demonstrated the essential role that Progressives in the decade played in laying the basis for the New Deal's TVA system. Donald C. Swain has shown that much of the conservation program of the New Deal originated in the 1920s. Howard Zinn has shown that Fiorello La Guardia, as congressman from New York in the 1920s, provided a 'vital link between the Progressive and New Deal eras. La Guardia entered Congress as the Bull Moose uproar was quieting and left with the arrival of the New Deal; in the intervening years no man in national office waged the Progressive battle so long.' La Guardia in the 1920s was 'the herald of a new kind of progressivism, borne into American politics by the urban-immigrant sections of the population.' Not only his background and his ideology, but also his specific legislative program, writes Zinn, were 'an astonishingly accurate preview of the New Deal.'"1
All of these works mentioned by Noggle, along with his own work on Teapot Dome and the immediate post-war years, have informed this study. So too has perhaps the best book-length treatment of New Era progressivism since Noggle's writing, Leroy Ashby's 1972 tome The Spearless Leader: Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920s. In this work, as noted previously, Ashby attributes the demise of progressivism in the Twenties not only to a failure of leadership (i.e., Borah's mercurial predisposition to always return to the Republican fold at the last moment2), but to the aforementioned cultural clashes which irreparably fragmented the progressive concept of the public interest.

Reflecting the general movement away from political history and towards cultural history since Ashby's day, most recent work on the Twenties -- with some exceptions -- has taken the end of progressivism in 1919 as a given and tended to focus instead on the contentious cultural clashes that marked the period, such as the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan, the Scopes trial, and the emergence of the "New Woman."3

However, there are some notable exceptions. David Goldberg's 1999 synthesis Discontented America devotes a chapter to the demise of progressivism in the Twenties. Goldberg attributes the "Indian Summer of Progressivism" in the early 1920s to "widespread agricultural discontent," yet ultimately concludes that "progressivism as a movement never recovered from the 1924 defeat" of Robert La Follette and the Progressive Party.4

And in his 2003 book Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution, the late Alan Dawley argues in his final chapter that, "as progressivism died out in the higher circles of power, it was reborn in social movements down below. It came to life in the vital postwar peace movement, in the hard-fought struggles of organized labor, in the protests of small farmers, and in the spirited defense of civil liberties." Instead, Dawley argues, "keepers of the faith took a turn toward economics, threw in their lot with the producing classes, and set out to win economic justice for farmers and workers. In taking the economic turn, postwar reformers edged closer to the left and set progressivism on a path it would follow for the next three decades."5

Continue to Introduction Pt. 5: Chapter Outline.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Link. Plesur, The 1920's: Problems and Paradoxes; Selected Readings, 290.
2. Of this tendency, Senator George Norris once deadpanned that Borah had a dismaying habit of "shooting until he sees the whites of their eyes." Ashby, The Spearless Leader; Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920's, 4.
3. Recent well-received books on the Klan of the 1920's include Kathleen Blee's Women of the Klan (1992), Citizen Klansmen (1991), and Nancy McLean's Behind the Mask of Chivalry (1994). Edward Larson's Summer for the Gods (1997) provides a nuanced and comprehensive overview of the Scopes trial, and Nancy Cott's The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987) ably surveys the new challenges facing feminism in the post-suffrage period. Other important works on the New Era include Ann Douglas' A Terrible Honesty, George Chauncey's Gay New York, and Lynn Dumenil's The Modern Temper, all of which emphasize the cultural transformations of the period.
4. David Joseph Goldberg, Discontented America : The United States in the 1920s (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 65.
5. Alan Dawley, Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 297, 313.

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