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American Progressivism in Its Epoch


After 1865, rapid industrial consolidation and concentration of wealth, aggravated by the Panics of 1873 and 1893, provoked the Populist farmers’ movement, the labor strife characteristic of the mid-to-late 19th century, and the anti-trust movement. As historian Nancy Cohen has shown, the Liberal Republican reformers of the 1870s, disgusted by corruption under President Ulysses Grant, wanted to address the strife but not the provocations. They proposed less democracy together with frugal bureaucracies to manage the miseries (“externalities”) of industrialization, well out of public view. Civil-service reform was their hobby horse (The Reconstruction of American Liberalism).

According to historian James E. Block, several writers whom we may consider official laissez-faire economists belittled “antebellum Jeffersonian society rooted in proprietary independence and self-reliance,” while endorsing the rising “institutional economy.” From the 1860s the textbooks of Amasa Walker, Arthur L. Perry, and Simon Newcomb minimized Jeffersonian ideals and dismissed self-sufficiency and decentralization as “outmoded.” Instead, America now had “a harmonious process” yielding a “new ‘social organism’” which they justified along distinctly New England Protestant lines.

Here freedom consisted of participation in a new order which Block calls “neither natural nor inevitable,” and which had foreclosed “other possibilities.” These laissez-faire theorists created a problem for themselves “by claiming sector autonomy for a product of systematic legislation and adjudication” that “had already socialized economic conduct” (A Nation of Agents, my italics).

Laissez faire” became textbook theory, then, precisely when many real preconditions of economic freedom had been undergoing long and steady demolition through (need I say it?) political and legal means.

Postmillennial themes

By the 1880s, American historians, political scientists, and economists trained in Germany, keen on state building, and touched with Hegelianism, took the stage. Other scholars working from within New England traditions developed the Social Gospel, founding the American Economic Association in 1885. Such connections neatly situated late 19th-century reform in the same postmillennial Protestant milieu where earlier American reform had been found. Americans would build the Kingdom of God on Earth, but now the activist state would be the drama’s key player.

Retaking the Protestant ground, the reformers joined German-educated statists in an assault on the laissez-faire citadel. Working along New England lines reaching back to Benjamin Rush and other conservative reformers who invented prisons, asylums, and pauper management in the 1820s (David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum), the new collectivists theorized social organisms quite differently than the partisans of official laissez faire. For reformers, endless construction of coercive and carceral institutions seemed just the thing.

Evolution — and the accompanying authority of science — became a prop of the new outlook. Darwin’s apparent fatalism and determinism had a wide appeal and helped Henry Adams overcome his youthful, post–Civil War misgivings about having “helped to waste five or ten thousand million dollars and a million lives, more or less, to enforce unity and uniformity upon people who objected to it” (The Education of Henry Adams). (As for the broad impact of major war, pioneer sociologist Albion Small observed that “American sociology found [some of] its nourishment in the soil … broken up by our Civil War” [“Fifty Years of Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology]).

Later, pragmatism, group theory, and legal realism contributed to reformist ferment. In any case, between the authority of science and their self-granted license to remake America, the new rebuilders meant to leave nothing untouched. “Social hygiene,” Prohibition, and eugenics (with sterilization for the feckless) went on the To-Do List. (In tone and targeting, eugenics calls to mind 17th- and 18th-century British employer ideology.) A kind of hypertrophic Anglo-Saxonism was another current whose assumptions fed into the eugenics craze.

In short, Progressivism was coming into being. It was, as historian Robert Kelley notes, “Yankee Republican in spirit” and dead-set “against ethnic political machines and ways of living on the one side and against the plutocracy on the other” (“Ideology and Political Culture from Jefferson to Nixon,” The American Historical Review). What Progressives needed now, was a political movement.

Eastern Progressives

Legal historian William Novak sees a steadily rising curve of state and federal legislative interference with American life from 1870 to 1920 (“Legal Origins of the Modern American State,” in Austin Sarat et al., Looking Back at Law’s Century). Progressive reforms in the two decades on either side of 1900 represented a noticeable upward spike (later surpassed by the New Deal). Early Progressive municipal reformers established city-manager regimes and at-large voting to undermine ethnic political machines centered on local pubs. (Prohibition played a role here, as did voter disfranchisement in both North and South.) These local successes naturally produced an upward thrust into state and federal politics.

Urban (and Eastern) Progressive reforms were at floodtide by 1912. Herbert Croly, a New Republic editor, provided the theory or at least rhetoric for Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party efforts in 1912, especially his famous claim that America needed Hamiltonian means to realize Jeffersonian ends (see Croly’s Promise of American Life).

Here we find the “de-participation” for the masses and a managerial revolution for their betters: a new bureaucratic middle class of professionals and bearers of credentials (which current holders could restrict, as needed). Historian R. Jeffrey Lustig comments, “A fascination with administrative solutions became the hallmark of the Progressive Era” (Corporate Liberalism). Inside the large corporations newly professionalized engineers worked at bending materials and men to the service of corporate goals, while Frederick Taylor and his stopwatch aspired to tell workers how best to work (David F. Noble, America by Design; Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital).

Political scientist Alan Stone sees Progressivism as “first, a response to the ‘excessive’ participation of masses in public affairs” after 1865. Urban Progressives set out to reduce popular participation. Their ideal was “rule by expert and rule by an agency or board insulated from public participation.” Their efforts were above all aimed at the threat of Populism, an enemy shared by middle-class reformers and big business, which made compromises between them both possible and likely (“A Spectre Is Haunting America,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies).

The class basis of Progressive reform is somewhat in dispute, especially as regards the participation of big business. Historian Gabriel Kolko has claimed that big business deployed its influence to secure reform legislation that stabilized industry through cartelization. Historian Elizabeth Sanders replies that farmer-labor resistance often forced compromise on business, which nevertheless enjoyed a veto power over the broad course of reform (The Triumph of Conservatism; Roots of Reform).

Western Progressives

So far our description of Progressivism has pertained more especially to Eastern Progressivism. Western Progressives exhibited a milder form, perhaps, of both the New England legacy and the new organizational theories. They were often content to apply their administrative solutions in their own states. As historian George E. Mowry writes, “Most of the progressive politicians who opposed consolidated industrialism were, as could be expected, from the regions of farms and small towns in the South and the West. They were opposed to monopoly and power wherever found in capital or labor, or even in government.” Southern and Western Progressives were “chary of setting up a huge federal bureaucracy” (The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Modern America).

Eastern Progressives, by contrast, affirmed economic consolidation as having been “inevitable” (and even liked it), but wanted to regulate, organize, and direct it.

Foreign policy

Initially, rank-and-file Progressives went along with Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive overseas imperialism — the foreign counterpart of more-activist government at home. Over time, however, a split loomed over Empire, with Westerners (and some Southerners) taking increasingly “isolationist” or noninterventionist positions. (The extent of Southern opposition to World War I is almost deliberately ignored [Jeanette Keith, Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight, reviewed by George Leef in the July 2005 issue of Freedom Daily].)

Historian Charles Forcey states that New Republic editors Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, and Walter Lippmann downplayed Progressivism, renaming themselves “liberals,” in hopes of influencing Woodrow Wilson’s administration to enter the European war. Once America was in, the war itself would provide and maximize the coercive means of Progressive reform (The Crossroads of Liberalism). Instead, the war revealed inner contradictions among the movement’s various tendencies. There was fulfillment for some, disillusionment for others (Gary Gerstle, “The Protean Character of American Liberalism,” The American Historical Review). Experiments like the War Industries Board (cartelizing industries and socializing risk) pleased Eastern Progressives allied with big business (see Murray Rothbard, “World War I as Fulfillment,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies). It may be, however, that “Americans prefer to have their wars in the guise of reforms, real or pretended” (Arthur E. Ekirch Jr., “The Reform Mentality, War, Peace, and the National State: From the Progressives to Vietnam,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies).

Decline of classic Progressivism

The 1920 Census famously showed an American demographic shift from country to cities. Old Progressives who could not adapt to an urban political style, survived in rural states and districts. They were also the Progressives most likely to break with Croly’s supposed Hamilton-Jefferson synthesis. Like Sen. William E. Borah (R-Idaho), as described by historian Otis Graham, they “took their Jefferson undiluted, without Croly’s Hamiltonian admixture” (Encore for Reform).

Historians tend to agree that classic Progressivism was dead by 1928. Graham has examined Progressives’ relations with the New Deal, concluding that they opposed it about 60/40. Those who were writers and lawyers generally rejected Franklin Roosevelt’s policies. Social workers, women, and urbanites were among the 40 percent supporting the New Deal. Defections began in the summer of 1933 when the administration’s formal corporatism under the National Industrial Recovery Act seemed to demonstrate Roosevelt’s abandonment of the anti-monopoly issue. The debate over U.S. intervention in World War II (1939–1941) shifted veteran Progressives toward “either [the] isolationist or globalist” camp. For some old Progressives, the move into so-called isolationism contributed to “a ‘souring’” of their views on the New Deal’s domestic policies (Encore for Reform).

Graham sees the typical Progressive as conservative, even if a Progressive was “a peculiar kind of conservative.” Because of their underlying conservatism, many Old Progressives opposed economic planning and additional federal state building, finding the New Deal “unintelligible.” They were “never entirely at home with the state” and saw the New Deal as “unforgivably coercive” (Encore for Reform).

Lasting questions

At their best, Progressives looked for political responsibility, not conspiracy, to explain the recent past. For many of them, Graham writes, “the object was a certain sort of America, and if for a time the chief threat to it was the corporation, they were alert enough to respond when the threat came from welfare state liberals or from international communism.” Nor were they exactly ignorant of the state’s role in shaping economic outcomes, as the work of Ida Tarbell, Louis D. Brandeis, John T.
Flynn, Ferdinand Lundberg, and Thurman Arnold shows (cf. Tarbell, The Nationalizing of Business, 1878-1898; and Arnold, The Folklore of Capitalism). They might have agreed with Jeffrey Lustig that “Hamiltonian means were precisely what had brought America to the pass Croly lamented” (Corporate Liberalism). Their often detailed grasp on who created the corporate (eventually corporatist) economy — and how — doubtless strengthened the hope of Western Progressives and Brandeisians that the process could be reversed.

Brandeis had feared that an increasingly centralized and unaccountable class of bankers would dominate Americans and their economic life by controlling Other People’s Money. This concern persisted for a time with John T. Flynn, an Old Right journalist and former Progressive. But this issue — and the rest of the anti-monopoly theme — died out after World War II, as Richard Hofstadter noted (The Age of Reform).

A few Old Progressive noninterventionists lingered in the Senate. William G. Carleton notes that “Senator William Langer of North Dakota and Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, both redolent of the Populist, anti-imperialist isolationism of 1900, lived on to cast the two votes in the United States Senate against … the United Nations” (The Revolution in American Foreign Policy; see also Robert Griffith, “Old Progressives and the Cold War,” The Journal of American History).

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    Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent historian and writer who was born in Fort Myers, Florida. He received his B.A. and M.A. from Florida Atlantic University and his further graduate work was completed at the University of Florida. Mr. Stromberg was a Richard M. Weaver Fellow from 1970-1971. His work has appeared in the Individualist, Libertarian Forum, Journal of Libertarian Studies, The Freeman, Chronicles, Independent Review, Freedom Daily as well as in several books of essays.