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The Progressive Era, Part 1: The Myth and the Reality


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One of the most enduring set of myths from U.S. history comes from the political and social developments in what is called the “Progressive Era,” a period lasting from the late 1800s to the end of World War I. (Of course, one could argue, convincingly, that the Progressive Era never has ended.) The prevailing story told in textbooks, the editorial pages of the New York Times, and the typical classroom holds that this was the time when people began to use the mechanism of government to create the conditions for a better life for all and to begin the arduous process of reining in the excesses of capitalism.

According to the pundits, by the late 1800s many businesses in the United States had grown to gigantic proportions, monopolizing much of the economy. In response to this growing emergency, the government adopted new and “progressive” policies of regulatory agencies and antitrust laws.

Besides regulating business activity, Progressives, through coalitions of intellectuals, political figures, and activists, saw to it that government also began the process of regulating the extraction of natural resources through executive action. (Progressives considered the legislative procedure to be a waste of time that needed to be replaced with a mechanism that permitted the executive branch of government to seek “needed” shortcuts around the give-and-take that accompanied the legislature at work.)

Through Progressive prodding, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created the Food and Drug Administration and expanded government regulation of food and the workplace. Progressives also secured the right of women to vote and ended the state legislatures’ stranglehold on the national electoral process by mandating the direct election of U.S. senators (which until 1913 were chosen by state legislatures).

Socially, the Progressives were humanitarians who sought to better the lives of ordinary people, with their greatest “triumph” being passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which ushered in the era of Prohibition. (Most modern Progressives are not particularly proud of this “achievement” by their forbears, but the prohibitionist spirit is much more alive than they would like to admit. Today, Progressive lawyers have been busy suing tobacco companies and the liquor industry and attempting to ban products such as silicon breast implants that feminists and other modern Progressives think are not proper things for people to have.)

Last, the Progressive Era trumpeted science and the “enlightened” Social Gospel, which became the religion of choice for religious skeptics who questioned the core doctrines of the Christian faith. From the implementation of “scientific” principles to govern politics, business, and social relationships, Progressivism helped to create a rational basis for modern society. From the creation of the Federal Reserve System to the Sixteenth Amendment that brought about the national income tax, Progressives were able to do away with the impediments created by the U.S. Constitution, which according to them stood in the way of progress.

If there was a downside to the Progressive Era, its modern supporters say, it was that Progressives were not able to do enough before “reactionary” post–World War I forces set in. “Reforms” such as the banning of child labor, minimum wages, the welfare state, further regulation of business, and a completion of the process of transferring legislative power from the Congress to the executive branch would have to wait until the Great Depression, when the nation had supposedly had its fill of laissez faire. Also, in spite of the best efforts of the Progressives, segregation laws institutionalized racism, which worsened strife between whites and blacks.

While Progressivism has captured the hearts and minds of modern intellectuals and others, there is another story to tell about this era, a much darker tale than what generally is told. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that Progressivism helped to destroy, not preserve, the constitutional order. Far from ushering in the social peace, justice, and prosperity that Progressives promised, Progressivism helped to create the conditions for the Great Depression and helped plunge the country into one war after another. Perhaps the only positive thing we can say about the Progressive Era was that it did not do all of the damage that it could have done.

In taking this look at the Progressive Era, I will be examining a number of social and economic initiatives that took place during that time. I begin with the social policies and laws that came about during that era and dissect Progressivism’s long and sorry legacy.
Early U.S. Progressives

Progressives had their forbears in the Unitarians of early- and mid-19th-century New England. The Unitarians were what we would call the theological “liberals” of that era, and they had come to believe that it was their duty to establish a sort of “kingdom of God” on earth (as opposed to the Christianity that stressed the temporal nature of life and the prospect of Heaven for those who were followers of Christ).

According to Samuel Blumenfeld (“Why the Schools Went Public”; Reason Magazine, March 1979), the public-school movement that swept Boston during the 1840s was led by Unitarians such as Horace Mann. While Mann and his followers pushed government education at the expense of private schools, they were able to form coalitions with Calvinists and the Christian Protestant pietists, who saw public schools as a way to “train” the children of Catholic immigrants who were pouring into the country from Ireland and southern Europe. Moreover, Unitarians and the pietists promoted laws to prohibit the making and sale of alcoholic beverages, again a coalition that was promoted, in part, as a wedge against Catholic immigrants, who came from cultures where alcohol consumption was a normal part of life.

When war broke out between North and South in 1861, the Unitarians were among the most forceful in calling for the complete destruction of the South, and while their influence on the actual fields of battle was negligible, they were highly influential on the political home front. (For example, Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was a Unitarian.)

While the Unitarians and many of their fellow travelers were small in number, they were very influential because of their high levels of education and literacy, and were the forerunners of what one might call the “liberal elite” of modern society. Their rise to power is notable and important because the mentality of the intellectuals of the mid and late 19th century differed substantially from that of the group of intellectuals who fashioned the early documents of the United States. Unlike the early American intellectuals who saw liberty as a polestar and tried to limit the growth and power of the state, the later intellectuals saw the state as a vehicle for their own political and social agendas. While the original American intellectuals championed the federal system with its balance of powers between the states and central government, the later intellectuals placed their faith squarely in the power of the centralized state.
Darwin, intellectuals, and the state

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) had an enormous effect on how intellectuals viewed the world. First, it seemed to vindicate the liberal elite who saw the religion of their day as mere superstition. Darwin’s theories permitted the reformers to expound on their own beliefs that they could “reform” society through the miracles of science. Second, it gave impetus to those who believed that government power could be used “wisely” to fashion a new society.

Many Progressives reasoned that if human evolution depended on “survival of the fittest,” then humans could help that process along through eugenics, which also meant “breeding” humans in a way that would advance the “superior” races and vanquish those races that were “inferior.” (Progressives supported eugenics until Hitler’s embrace of it gave it a bad name.)

For example, most people know Margaret Sanger as the founder of Planned Parenthood, but she also was a strong advocate of eugenics. In a 1939 letter, she wrote the following:

We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.

In 1921, she had written,

As an advocate of birth control I wish … to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the “unfit” and the “fit,” admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feebleminded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation. (“The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda”; Birth Control Review, October 1921; page 5.)

Another influential Progressive was Herbert Croly, the founder of The New Republic. Libertarian writer Virginia Postrel said of Croly,

Crolyism overturned the ideal of limited government in favor of a combination of elite power — commissions to regulate and plan — and mass democracy…. Frustrated with constitutional limits, Croly wrote, “It remains … true … that every popular government should in the end, and after a necessarily prolonged deliberation, possess the power of taking any action, which, in the opinion of a decisive majority of the people, is demanded by the public welfare.” This statement, while extreme, pretty much sums up today’s governing philosophy.

While Croly is not a household word today, he was an important social theorist who influenced Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Both of them used the White House to centralize government in Washington. They also helped to bring about two sets of social policies: Prohibition and segregation.

Prohibition was the shotgun wedding of the secular Progressives and the Christian fundamentalists, both of whom wanted to ban intoxicating beverages, but for different reasons. Progressives saw it as a way to promote what Rexford G. Tugwell called “social virtues,” while fundamentalists thought that alcohol consumption was sinful, which was reason enough for the central government to ban it.

(At least the Progressives realized that the U.S. Constitution did not permit Congress to outlaw the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages without the authority of a constitutional amendment. Today’s “war on drugs,” however, is carried on without such constitutional niceties.)

While Prohibition today is painted as the triumph of fundamentalist bluenoses, most Progressive groups supported it, from the feminists to those who believed that entry into World War I was necessary to spread democracy throughout the world. (For more on this subject, see Murray N. Rothbard’s “World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, winter 1989.)

Woodrow Wilson brought segregationist policies to the federal government. Many states and localities already had implemented those laws in their respective areas but with Wilson’s presidency, which began in 1913, the federal government became a leading force in discriminating against blacks in federal hiring practices. Notes Charles Paul Freund,

Wilson’s historical reputation is that of a far-sighted progressive. That role has been assigned to him by historians based on his battle for the League of Nations, and the opposition he faced from isolationist Republicans. Indeed, the adjective “Wilsonian,” still in use, implies a positive if hopelessly idealistic vision for the extension of justice and democratic values throughout the world. Domestically, however, Wilson was a retrograde racist, one who attempted to engineer the diminution of both justice and democracy for American blacks — who were enjoying little of either to begin with. (In fact, Wilson reportedly struck a racial equality clause from the League of Nations charter as well.)

While some have tried to claim that Wilson’s racism was due to his Southern upbringing, he simply was acting as a leading Progressive. Progressives reasoned that blacks were not as far “evolved” as whites and, thus, should not be given the same rights and responsibilities. When one combines Wilson’s acts of segregation with racist eugenics practices (through birth control and outright sterilization), it is not hard to understand why the Progressive Era was anything but “progressive” when it came to the rights of African-Americans.

The Progressive Era, contrary to popular belief, was not a time when the U.S. government began to adopt “wise” and “far-sighted” policies that matched the political, economic, and social “needs” of that time. Instead, it was a period during which many of the constitutional limits on government were either “reinterpreted” or simply eviscerated.

Progressives believed that they were bringing in an age of knowledge, enlightenment, and security. Instead, they brought social turmoil, injustice, and war.

Part 1 | Part 2

This article originally appeared in the February 2006 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    William L. Anderson teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland.