ISBN: 0 9504601 1 7
- Progressive Ideology: The Challenge to Laissez-Faire
- Pressures for Reform
i The Humanitarian Impulseii The Quest for Efficiencyiii The Upholding of Traditional Valuesiv The Role of Business Interestsv The Urban Working Class
- In Conclusion
i Was There A ‘Progressive Movement’?ii Was There A ‘Progressive Era’?
- Guide to Further Reading
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Perhaps because it extends to little more than two hundred years in all, the history of the United States tends to be segmented into comparatively short periods or ‘eras’, each of which is accorded some distinctive character. Thus the early part of the twentieth century has become known as ‘the Progressive Era’. The description reflects the perception of many contemporaries who saw the period from about 1900 to the First World War as being dominated by a ‘Progressive movement’ that sought to curb the power of large business interests, to purify the political process and make it more responsive to ‘the people’, and to extend the functions of government in order to protect the public interest and relieve social and economic distress.
This movement was seen as having arisen first in the 1890s in some cities. It then moved on to the state level with the election of governors like Robert M. La Follette, whose legislative programme made Wisconsin a model for other reformers to follow. It gained a national voice after Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901, although little legislation was passed until his second administration (1905-09). When his successor, William Howard Taft, proved less sympathetic to reform, Roosevelt exploited the dissatisfaction of reformers and ‘insurgent’ Republicans in an attempt to gain the party’s nomination for a third term. Defeated by Taft, he still ran in 1912 as the nominee of the new Progressive (or ‘Bull Moose’) Party. The division of the Republicans made possible the election of the Democrats’ reform-minded candidate, Woodrow Wilson, after an election campaign which saw a major debate on the issues of Progressivism. “It was a time of national restlessness and awakening,” wrote Frederic Austin Ogg in 1918, “of sharp reaction against the old order in business, politics, and government which was fastened upon the preoccupied and unsuspecting nation in the great epoch of material prosperity from the late seventies to 1890 . . . . The reaction set in slowly in the first Roosevelt administration; in the second it gathered momentum and achieved important results; under Taft it lagged, at least within government circles; under Wilson it swept on irresistibly, forcing vested interests under rigorous control, pouring light into darkened corners, and opening the way for more direct and effective popular rule.”
The simple outlines of this picture have been much blurred by more recent historiography. Closer study of those actively involved in promoting Progressive reforms at all levels has revealed some ambiguity in their objectives and motives and great diversity in their priorities and programmes. The extent to which many looked backward to the economic conditions and moral values of an earlier age was emphasized by Richard Hofstadter and George Mowry. Other historians, notably Samuel P. Hays, have stressed the influence of interest groups and argued that, despite the democratic rhetoric in which they were advocated, many of the reforms—such as those in the structure of municipal government—were elitist in their consequences. A more sceptical analysis of the creation of economic regulatory agencies—like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Board—has suggested that business ‘interests’, far from being the passive targets of the Progressive movement, were both its principal beneficiaries and its most effective component. So much so, indeed, that Gabriel Kolko has seen the period as representing “the triumph of conservatism”, when the “political capitalism” that characterized modern America took shape.
These various waves of revisionist historiography have raised two broad questions about Progressivism. The first is whether there was anything sufficiently united in its programme, motives and social composition to justify the term ‘Progressive movement’. The second is to what extent the history of the early twentieth century in America was shaped by the activities of such a movement, or even of disparate groups of progressive reformers. In other words, what, if anything, was distinctively progressive about the ‘Progressive Era’? It is upon these broad questions that this pamphlet will focus.
As with other issues in American history (for example, ‘isolationism’), the real historical complexities of Progressivism have been compounded by semantic difficulties. There are no agreed criteria for establishing who ‘the Progressives’ were. Unlike the Populists, they cannot be defined by support for a particular political party. The Progressive Party founded in 1912 was primarily the vehicle for Roosevelt’s independent campaign for the Presidency. Although some who were most active in its organization were dedicated reformers who compared themselves with those who launched the Republican party in the 1850s, the vast majority of those who voted for Roosevelt in 1912 voted for no other candidate of the Progressive party either at that time or any other, and cannot be assumed to have supported the party’s programme. On the other hand, many who never joined the Progressive party, including some Republicans as well as many Democrats, had views that seem unquestionably ‘Progressive’. The matter is further confused by the common use of the two terms ‘Progressive movement’ and ‘Progressive Era’. To some historians, Progressives are those who participated in a movement that had certain definable objectives—and was not necessarily confined to a particular historical period. Others use the term to describe almost everyone who was engaged in political or quasi-political activity in the period 1900-14—at least if they sought any changes in laws or institutions. When viewed in this way, Progressivism no longer seems to describe an identifiable set of political attitudes.
In order to provide a more precise meaning for the term, this pamphlet begins with an account of the ideas of the most prominent and articulate reformers and social critics of the period. It then turns to an analysis of the various social forces that contributed to the political pressure for reform, and considers the relationship between each of these forces and the aspirations of Progressive publicists. The question of how far it makes sense to speak of a ‘Progressive movement’ involves an examination of the relationship of these forces to each other, particularly in the arena of politics. They were not naturally compatible, but an uneasy, and usually temporary, harmony was facilitated by a public mood generally sympathetic to calls for reform. This mood was the most strikingly distinctive characteristic of the ‘Progressive Era’, and its rather superficial and transient quality, together with the diversity of the impulses and objectives involved, does much to account for the very limited extent to which the hopes of Progressive reformers were actually realized during this period.
At the outset, however, we must recognize that Americans now found themselves in the midst of great changes. Between the 1870s and the 1920s the United States was transformed by the related processes of industrialization, urbanization and immigration. In the thirty years preceding 1900 the American population grew from less than forty million to over seventy-five million. The nation’s production of bituminous coal increased ten times, of crude petroleum twelve times, of steel ingots and castings more than 140 times. The number of Americans living in ‘urban areas’ (i.e. places with a population of over 2,500) rose from ten to thirty million, and these aggregate figures do not reveal the spectacularly rapid rate of growth of some large cities, particularly in the Middle West. Chicago’s population, for example, increased from 503,000 to 1,000,000 in the single decade of the 1880s. But rural America too was growing—if not so rapidly. The number of farms, as well as the number of acres under cultivation, had doubled between 1870 and 1900, and the production of wheat, cotton and corn had increased from two to two-and-a-half times. At the turn of the century, three-fifths of Americans still lived in rural areas and over a third of all those gainfully employed worked on farms.
This material progress was bound up with some developments that seemed disturbing to .many Americans. One of these was the rise of ‘the trusts’; this term, originally a technical one, came to be applied to all those large corporations that enjoyed monopolistic or oligopolistic market power, or simply possessed great financial resources. They were usually the product of some form of amalgamation. The turn of the century saw a ‘merger boom’. Whereas from 1887 to 1897 there had been only eighty-six industrial combinations with a total capital of less than $1500 million, in the five years from 1897 to 1902 2,653 independent firms in manufacturing and mining disappeared into combinations with a total capital value of 6,320 million. The United States Steel Corporation alone was capitalized at $1,370 million when it was created in 1901 by the investment banker J.P. Morgan. There was widespread concern about the political as well as the economic implications of this process of concentration.
A second source of anxiety was the widening of social divisions. Americans, with the exception of a few Southerners, had traditionally prided themselves on the absence in their country of the sort of class structure that existed in Europe. But there were signs at the turn of the century of the emergence of a self-conscious working-class movement. During the 1890s there had been some bitterly fought industrial conflicts, notably the Homestead steel strike of 1892 and the Pullman railway boycott of 1894. The first durable national organization of trade unions was the American Federation of Labour, founded in 1886. Its membership grew strikingly between 1897 and 1904, from 265,000 to 1,676,000.
If America was not, after all, to be exempt from the same tensions that other industrial societies suffered, she was also to experience some that were less common. These were the result of the scale and character of immigration. Between 1880 and 1914 almost twenty-three million people entered the United States. Fairly constantly between 1890 and 1920, around 15 per cent of the American population were foreign-born, and a further 25 per cent were children of at least one foreign-born parent. Immigration reached a climax in the decade 1905-14, during which over ten million people entered the country. Not only did the newcomers arrive at this time in larger numbers than ever before but they seemed to be more alien than their predecessors. About 70 per cent of them came from Eastern or Southern Europe rather than from Britain, Ireland and Germany, the three countries which until the 1890s had accounted for around 85 per cent of all American immigrants. These ‘new immigrants’ were Catholic, Jewish or Orthodox in religion rather than Protestant.
Almost as disturbing to assumptions of cultural homogeneity, perhaps, was the continuing ethnic consciousness and increasing self-confidence displayed by the descendants of an earlier wave of immigration—the one that had poured in during the late 1840s and early 1850s, principally from Ireland and Germany. By 1900 politicians of both parties in the Middle West had learned through painful experience the importance of not offending the susceptibilities of German-American Catholics and Lutherans, while Irish Catholics, through their control of the Democratic party, dominated the politics of several cities and towns in the North-eastern states.
It was in the cities that the problems of progress were most obvious. The ‘new immigrants’ tended to congregate there. In 1910 the foreign-born and their children comprised more than two-thirds of the population of most major cities in the Northeast and more than three-quarters of that of New York, Boston and Chicago. Many of them lived in appallingly squalid and overcrowded conditions. Basic municipal services could not cope with the growth. As late as 1900 such cities as Baltimore and New Orleans had no sewers at all, while two-thirds of Chicago’s streets were mud. Fire and disease were constant hazards. The formal system of government, reflecting the traditional American distrust of power, provided for a large number of elected officials none of whom enjoyed much authority. In practice power was exercised in most cities by a political machine, usually headed by an identifiable ‘boss’. This system bred corruption, particularly in the grant of franchises to private corporations to provide public services—street railways (trams), gas, water, telephones, etc. These franchises were worth large sums of money, and returns on such investment were generally not taxed.
The power of the trusts, the condition of the cities, and the apparent threats to the homogeneity and cohesion of society—these were some of the more obvious problems generated by the speed and character of American economic development. The responses to them of different groups of Americans did much to shape the issues and alignments of politics in the ‘Progressive Era’.
It is in the realm of ideas that the identity of Progressivism is least in doubt. In the early twentieth century a number of writers and publicists devoted considerable critical attention to the consequences and concomitants of the sort of capitalist economic development the United States was experiencing. Though the particular ills diagnosed and remedies prescribed varied from writer to writer, there was sufficient agreement for them to be regarded as exponents of a common body of thought, and their writings provide the best means of defining what Progressivism meant at the time.
Such criticism of contemporary society was, of course, not new. In the later nineteenth century large readerships had been attracted by such different works as Henry George’s heterodox economic tract Progress and Poverty (1879), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887), a fictionalized picture of a collectivist utopia, and Henry Demarest Lloyd’s hostile history of the Standard Oil Company, Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894).But the early twentieth century witnessed a great outpouring of social criticism. For about a decade following 1903, several popular magazines published ‘muckraking’ articles in which journalists like Ray Stannard Baker, Charles Edward Russell and Lincoln Steffens made their reputations by exposing examples of political corruption, financial chicanery and economic exploitation. A spate of books by such publicists as Frederic C. Howe and William Allen White argued the case for various kinds of reform, while other authors, notably the Socialists Robert Hunter and John Spargo, produced documented studies of the extent and character of urban poverty. A few years later Herbert Croly, Louis Brandeis, Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann were among those who sought to provide more comprehensive analyses of what needed to be done if what Croly called “the promise of American life” was to be redeemed. For all their differences, there was general agreement among these writers on the need for some extension of the role of government in regulating economic activity. This challenge to the doctrine of laissez-faire, which had for long enjoyed both intellectual prestige and apparent popular assent, was a defining characteristic of Progressivism.
This sort of intellectual reaction to industrial capitalism was not, of course, an American monopoly. In Europe at this time, not only were various forms of Socialism gaining support in a number of countries but the movement towards collectivism was being promoted by such diverse agencies as the Imperial German government and the British Liberal party. Indeed, one could well argue that what was more peculiarly American was the deep and persistent appeal of economic individualism. In the late nineteenth century this owed most of its intellectual authority to such theories as that form of evolutionary sociology known as Social Darwinism and to the laws of classical economics. It was institutionally buttressed by the narrow view taken by the nation’s judges, particularly those on the Supreme Court, of the powers granted to government in the United States Constitution. But it derived most of its popular support from the related beliefs that in America, unlike the countries of the Old World, opportunity for economic advancement was open to all, and that the degree of an individual’s achievement depended primarily upon his own character, talents and efforts. By combining a faith in the reality of equal opportunity with the conviction that the qualities that led to worldly success were above all such virtues as industry, sobriety, frugality and honesty, this complex of assumptions was able to enlist the two great sources of moral authority in American thought—the liberal democratic tradition and Protestant Christianity.
The attack on laissez-faire proceeded on the same variety of fronts as its defence. Social scientists, notably Lester Ward, questioned the assumptions of Social Darwinism by pointing out that even in nature the ‘survival of the fittest’ applied to species as well as individuals and did not exclude mutual aid, and also by emphasizing the possibility of conscious social action that transcended the purposeless character of biological evolution. Economists like Richard T. Ely, Simon N. Patten and Thorstein Veblen, each in a distinctively individual way, sought to modify the laissez-faire tradition of their discipline by emphasizing the theoretical status and historically relative nature of its ‘laws’, and by suggesting that their applicability to present conditions was limited. The political scientist J. Allen Smith and the historian Charles A. Beard sought to show that the Constitution, far from being the embodiment of timeless political wisdom, had from its inception been designed to protect the vested interests of a wealthy minority.
For most people, however, the moral arguments were the crucial ones. No less than the upholders of laissez-faire, advocates of reform appealed to values derived from Christianity and the American democratic tradition. They maintained that the sort of behaviour encouraged and rewarded by the existing economic system was ruthless, selfish competitiveness of a kind completely antithetical to the teachings of the New Testament. They denied that the vast inequalities of income that were so striking a feature of their society could plausibly be attributed simply to differences in the character and capacities of individuals. “The princely fortunes which have come into existence during the past few years,” wrote Howe, “are not traceable to thrift,, intelligence or foresight on the part of their owners any more than the widespread poverty of the masses of the people is due to the lack of these virtues on their part.” By implying that no real equality of opportunity existed in contemporary America, this argument deprived the status quo of its moral justification while at the same time it opened the way for treating poverty as a general social problem rather than a series of individual cases.
‘Equal rights for all and special privileges for none’ was a very traditional American doctrine. The emphasis placed upon the principle of equality of opportunity by Progressives is one reason why some historians have seen their outlook as essentially backward-looking. Richard Hofstadter, for one, argued that Progressivism was in many ways closer to the entrepreneurial liberalism that he identified as Jacksonian Democracy than it was to the later New Deal, which possessed “a social-democratic tinge that had never before been present in American reform movements.” “Progressivism, at its heart, was an effort to realize familiar and traditional ideals under novel circumstances,” he wrote. “The ordinary American’s ideas of what political and economic life ought to be like had long since taken form under the conditions of a preponderantly rural society with a broad diffusion of property and power.”
There is no doubt that Progressive writers were prone to compare the past favourably with the present in some respects. But they would certainly not have wished to forego economic and technological progress. On the contrary, they were excited by its potential social benefits. “It is the increasing wealth of America,” argued Weyl, “which makes democracy possible and solvent, for democracy, like civilization, costs money.” The trouble, as critics from Henry George to Herbert Croly emphasized, was that at present this increased wealth was distributed so unequally. This desire for a more equitable distribution of income was, indeed, a second defining characteristic of Progressivism. But neither industrialization nor urbanization was to be deplored in itself—even someone as conscious of urban problems as Howe saw the city as “the hope of democracy”. In other words, it was “the broad diffusion of property and power” rather than the “preponderantly rural society” that seemed attractive about the past, and, as their name implied, Progressives were confident that the future could be better still.
The concern to limit economic inequalities was a feature of what might be called the liberal or democratic side of American political debate from the days of Thomas Jefferson to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt. What did change was the belief that this and the other elements of a properly democratic society could be achieved through the free working of a competitive system. This conviction was hard to sustain in the context of a large-scale urban and industrial economy, particularly one dominated by large corporations. The trusts appeared to threaten the assumptions of traditional American liberalism in a number of ways. Their economic power seemed to exempt them from the discipline of the market and leave them in a position to exploit their suppliers, their customers and their employees. Their vast capital resources, and ability if necessary to sustain temporary losses, enabled them to keep new competition from the field and hence to close opportunities to aspiring entrepreneurs. This had disturbing implications not only for social mobility but for political democracy itself. Americans had traditionally believed that popular government required an independent citizenry, and the prospect of a society divided between corporate magnates and hired employees hardly constituted the republican ideal. Beyond this, there was a simple fear of the power of money in politics. “I do not expect to see monopoly restrain itself,” declared Woodrow Wilson in 1912. “If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going to own it.”
For these reasons, the rise of the trusts constituted a crisis for American liberalism. Progressive writers agreed that the situation called for some action but differed as to precisely what. The fundamental issue was one of diagnosis. Was monopoly or oligopoly the natural result of technological progress and economies of scale? Or were the trusts artificial creations, maintained through essentially unfair competitive methods by those with privileged access to capital and legal protection? Those who took the latter view sought to restore competition through the enforcement and strengthening of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which had outlawed “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy in restraint of trade.” A number of them would supplement this programme with a reform of the currency and credit system (so as to open the doors of opportunity and weaken the hold of powerful interlocking financial groups), and some went so far as to call for government ownership of natural resources and natural monopolies (including in some cases the railroads) on the grounds that private monopolies in such fields could impair competition in other spheres through discriminatory behaviour. But at the heart of this outlook was a Jeffersonian suspicion of concentrated power, which included a suspicion of over-strong government. This was generally the position that Woodrow Wilson, much influenced by Louis Brandeis, adopted in his 1912 campaign, and it is conveniently described by his campaign slogan that year, “the New Freedom”. In that same election Theodore Roosevelt advocated an alternative approach which he called “the New Nationalism”. Like Croly and Charles Van Hise, Roosevelt argued that attempts to break up the trusts would be both futile and economically damaging; rather, the government should regulate their activities, through a commission or other agency, to prevent them engaging in unfair business practices or exploiting their customers. The New Nationalist variant of Progressivism called for an enhanced role for government on a continuous basis, and was more naturally sympathetic to proposals for social-welfare legislation than the New Freedom approach.
The difference between these two approaches was to be of significance in the history of American liberalism into the New Deal era and beyond. But its divisive effect should not be exaggerated. Only the most theoretically inclined of Progressives cleaved consistently to one or the other position. Many seemed to favour both regulation and anti-trust prosecutions. In reality few were prepared to risk the economic consequences of a thoroughgoing attempt to put the New Freedom into practice, as the course of Wilson’s own administration was to show. On the other hand, not many more were prepared completely to renounce the rhetoric of anti-trust. This ambivalence, and the apparent abstruseness of the arguments in 1912 over the relative merits of ‘regulated competition’ and ‘regulated monopoly’, led several to agree with William Allen White that “between the New Nationalism and the New Freedom was that fantastic imaginary gulf that always has existed between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”
White’s witticism implied that, whatever their differences on the trust question, Progressives shared a common political philosophy. At the centre of this philosophy, as it was expressed in the writings of Progressive publicists, was a commitment to democracy. The core meaning of democracy was government by the people, and to make this more real and effective Progressives proposed a whole range of constitutional and political reforms—the direct election of United States Senators by the voters (rather than by the state legislatures), primary elections to choose the party candidates in local, state and even presidential contests, the secret ballot, women’s suffrage, the initiative, referendum and recall (devices by which the voters could directly make or repeal laws and eject elected officials at any time), and a constitutional amendment to make it easier to amend the Constitution. These measures were advocated on a variety of grounds. The first was principle—democracy was the most morally legitimate form of government. It was also superior on utilitarian grounds. Though few believed public opinion to be infallible (apart from anything else, it could be ‘corrupted’ by newspapers), Lincoln Steffens spoke for many when he declared that “in the long run the people will go right more surely than any individual or set of individuals.” Moreover, responsibility for decision-making would itself provide a moral education for the citizenry. “The democratic theory,” explained Steffens, “is founded on the expectation that self-government, by its very abuses, will tend gradually to develop in all men such a concern for the common good that human nature will become intelligent and considerate of others.” Progressive writers were generally confident that the transfer of power from the party bosses to ‘the people’ would open the way to the other reforms they sought.
However, some of the political reforms urged by Progressive publicists would have the effect of diminishing, not enlarging, the part played by the people in government. This was true, for example, of ‘the short ballot’—the name given to proposals for reducing the number of officials who were popularly elected. Such proposals were defended on the grounds that ‘the long ballot’ symbolized a spurious democracy, since voters could not realistically be expected to make informed judgements on the qualities and performance of a whole host of minor office-holders and in practice tended simply to support a party ticket. True public accountability would be better secured by giving elected chief executives the authority to run the whole administration, and hence the capacity to implement the programmes they campaigned on. This argument reflected a general respect for the qualities of professional administrators and experts as well as a desire for strong executive leadership. Some historians have seen these traits as reflecting an elitism that discredits the Progressives’ democratic pretensions. It may be observed, though, that neither a faith in bureaucracy and technical expertise nor the hope that charismatic leadership would inspire the people to rise above their petty, selfish concerns and establish social justice has been confined to that generation of American liberals.
Democracy, however, was much more for most Progressive writers than simply a form of government. “A real and not merely a formal democracy does not content itself with the mere right to vote,” declared Weyl, but demands “a new social spirit” of cooperation and altruism. This aspect of Progressivism was frequently expressed in language reminiscent of evangelical revivalism—not least by William Allen White who, despite his nationwide fame, chose always to remain the editor of a small-town Kansas newspaper. “The problem of democracy is at base the problem of individual self-sacrifice coming from individual good will,” he explained. “The struggle between democracy and aristocracy in America is in every man’s heart.” White himself saw Progressivism as a sort of secular Great Awakening. “We were a money-mad nation,” he wrote remorsefully. “In the soul of the people there is a conviction of their past unrighteousness.” White’s style was very much his own, but writers as different as Jane Addams and Herbert Croly also saw democratic ethics as more or less synonymous with Christian love.
This point of view naturally emphasized ‘the common good’ or ‘the general welfare’ rather than individual rights, and it was from this perspective that Progressives approached social questions. It led to a certain ambivalence in their attitudes towards the organized labour movement, despite their commitment to greater economic equality. During strikes the sympathies of most were more likely to be with the workers than the employers, but there was a general sense that trade unions too were selfish, sectional interests. The American Federation of Labor, in particular, was condemned by some for its seeming indifference to the plight of the great mass of workers who were unorganized, its reluctance to engage in radical political action, and the indifference or hostility of its leaders, particularly Samuel Gompers, to social welfare legislation. For these reasons, some Progressive writers even found the quasi-revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (‘Wobblies’) more sympathetic. For the most part, however, the answer to the problem of labour relations was held to lie in “industrial democracy”—a vague term which could mean anything from the establishment of collective bargaining to some form of workers’ representation or co-partnership.
It was, however, primarily through action by government that Progressives sought to create their social democracy or “cooperative commonwealth”. They advocated a whole range of measures from the abolition of child labour, the regulation of the hours and conditions of work, minimum-wage laws (especially for women), compulsory insurance against accidents, unemployment, sickness and old age, codes of standards for housing, and various improvements in education. By the nature of the federal system, most of these were matters for legislation at the state level—though the campaign to abolish child labour came to focus on the need for national action. Benjamin P. De Witt, the first historian of the “Progressive Movement” as well as a participant in it, emphasized that, although it might be overshadowed by “such preliminary measures as the initiative, referendum, recall, direct primaries and others”, in reality “the social phase of the progressive movement in the state is by far the most important—as much more important than the other phases as the end is more important than the means.” To meet the costs of these measures (including funds for the effective enforcement of restrictive laws), and to attack the problem of maldistribution of wealth from the other end, Progressives advocated the imposition of direct taxes on incomes and inheritances.
In this demand for social-welfare legislation to be financed by increased direct taxation, as in their call for the extension of government control over economic life, Progressive publicists were adopting a political position essentially similar to that of their ‘new liberal’ and even ‘social democrat’ contemporaries in Europe. There were, to be sure, some distinctively American aspects to their thought—the anxiety over the social and political consequences of the rise of big business, the concern with finding mechanisms for making public opinion more widely and immediately effective in politics, and, on the other hand, rather less interest in the potentialities of public ownership. But several of the specific programmes—particularly in such fields as social insurance and municipal ownership of public utilities—were frankly derived from European precedents, and the basic commitment to using the power of government to achieve a less unequal distribution of wealth was the same. This constituted the core of Progressivism.
It would, however, be an odd view of the American political process that attributed its outcomes simply to the activities of social critics and journalists. In order to assess how far, and for what reasons, the aspirations of Progressive publicists were realized in practice, we must analyse further the various social forces that contributed to the pressure for reform.
i. The Humanitarian Impulse: The Social Gospel and Social Work
None of the forces that contributed to the pressure for reform was more directly expressive of the democratic and Christian ideals invoked by Progressive publicists than middle-class efforts to improve the conditions of life of the poor, particularly in the cities. Many of those who took part in these efforts were Protestant ministers and laymen, but others lacked a confident belief in God while generally retaining a commitment to Christian ethics. The major expression of this humanitarian impulse was voluntary social work of one kind or another, but it also came to have a not insignificant effect on politics and legislation. A few of those involved in this movement were drawn directly into politics—quite a number of local Socialist candidates at this time were ministers—but far more contributed to the educational and lobbying activities of pressure groups like the National Child Labor Committee, the American Association for Labor Legislation, the Committee of One Hundred on National Health, and so on.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the rise within American Protestantism of the ‘Social Gospel’. The essence of this was the adoption of a progressive approach to economic and political questions, together with a greater emphasis upon the social role of the church in this world. Most Protestant clergymen in the mid-nineteenth century had accepted the conservative orthodoxy that the prevailing economic system rewarded the morally deserving. By contrast, adherents of the Social Gospel expressed an aversion to the ethics of unrestrained capitalism, particularly in the field of labour relations. There was, however, considerable variation in the degree of their radicalism. Some did not go much beyond appealing to employers to heed ‘the golden rule’, but many supported proposals for social legislation and some of the most famous, including W.D.P. Bliss, George D. Herron and Walter Rauschenbusch, were self-proclaimed Socialists.
The Social Gospel was probably always a minority movement in American Protestantism. Its greatest strength was in those denominations, such as the Unitarians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists, that were theologically liberal and appealed to the urban middle class. It made much less headway among Methodists and Baptists, churches which had a large rural membership and an allegiance to fundamentalist theology. But by the early twentieth century its adherents occupied strategic positions in some of the famous urban pulpits, the religious press, and, perhaps above all, theological seminaries. They were particularly active in interdenominational movements, such as the Federal Council of Churches, which was founded in 1908 and at its first meeting adopted a manifesto, “The Church and Modern Industry”, calling for welfare legislation and the strengthening of trade unions.
One leading historian of the Social Gospel movement attributes its rise, above all, to the disquiet created by the bitter labour conflicts of the late nineteenth century It was clearly also a product of conditions in the cities, not least the problem of ‘the unchurched masses’. The fact that the urban working class was composed overwhelmingly of infidels and Catholics led the Protestant denominations to intensify their evangelical and philanthropic activities in the 1880s and 1890s through such means as Home Missions, Institutional Churches (where the facilities included club rooms, libraries, gymnasia, baths, etc.) and the Y.M.C.A. Experience in the slums and with welfare work led many young ministers to see the causes of poverty in a new light. The writings of English Christian Socialists such as F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley may have had some influence, and so may the growing appeal of a more ‘modernist’ theology and the more optimistic view of human nature associated with it. However, a concern with the reform of this world was no novelty for American clergymen, as the history of abolitionism and the temperance movement attests, and the rise of the Social Gospel probably owed more to social than to intellectual changes.
The Social Gospel naturally fostered an interest in social work, which at this time also attracted a number of young people without any firm theological commitment. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a transitional period in the transmutation of the age-old tradition of charity into modern, professionalized social work, mostly under government auspices. There were two major developments in the later nineteenth century, both of which originated in England. The first was the Charity Organization Society movement which sought to make philanthropy more efficient by co-ordinating the activities of different organizations, avoiding duplication, and, above all, finding out more about the recipients so as to discriminate the worthy cases, who would profit from help, from the unworthy, who would not. This enterprise involved the gathering by volunteer visitors of a great deal of information about individuals, which gradually led them to a more general view of the social causes of poverty. This in turn produced, in the slightly chilling language of ‘scientific’ philanthropy, a shift of emphasis from ‘correction’ to ‘prevention’—that is, to a desire to promote such social reforms as an improvement in housing conditions.
The second major development in social work was to give a much greater impetus to social reform. This was the establishment in the poorer parts of cities of settlement houses where middleclass residents could live amongst, and seek to help, the largely immigrant populations. The original model was Toynbee Hall in the East End of London but many more such settlements were eventually established in the United States than in Britain. By 1910 there were over 400 and, although the majority of these were denominational and not very different in character from Missions or Institutional Churches, the largest and best-known settlements, such as Hull House in Chicago, Henry Street in New York and South End House in Boston, were non-sectarian in character. It was these that made the most significant contributions to social reform.
They did so in a number of ways. The initial involvement was usually prompted by the need to secure some improvement in local municipal services from street-cleaning to the public schools, or some specific reform like the establishment of special courts for juvenile delinquents. This led on to agitation at the state or national level for such measures as the abolition of child labour. Leading settlement workers, like Jane Addams, Lillian Wald and Florence Kelly, became active in a wide variety of reform organizations from the Women’s Trade Union League to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1912 Jane Addams and a few others were drawn into a national political campaign when Roosevelt’s Progressive Party adopted an advanced programme of social reform along the lines they had been demanding. The settlements also assisted the cause of reform in less direct ways. Their residents were active in the movement to gather more comprehensive and systematic information about urban conditions. The most ambitious such enterprise was the Pittsburgh Survey, published in six volumes between 1909 and 1914, which drew a good deal upon the efforts of settlement workers. Research of this kind provided ammunition for reformers. Some settlements, like Hull House, helped to foster trade-union activity, especially among women workers. Not least important was their influence upon the individuals who worked or lived in them, even if only briefly. A notably high proportion of those active in reform causes in the first half of the twentieth century had an association at some time in their lives with a social settlement, where they had the opportunity not only to acquire a closer acquaintance with urban poverty but to experience a sense of camaraderie among people trying to do something about it.
The primary reason for the growth of the sort of concern with social conditions exemplified by the Social Gospel and the settlement movement was, of course, those conditions themselves. The impulse to alleviate them owed something to fear—fear of epidemics and fires as well as of social conflict and radicalism. Social workers received many of their funds from wealthy businessmen. But it seems likely that most of the educated young people who constituted the overwhelming majority of settlement-house residents were more idealistic than anxious. Their shock at the poverty they encountered in the slums, and their refusal to accept it as inevitable, were themselves a reflection of the nation’s economic advance. Before the industrial revolution life had been cheap and a fatalistic attitude to suffering natural, Walter Weyl observed, “but to-day our surplus has made us as sensitive to misery, preventable death, sickness, hunger and deprivation as is a photographic plate to light.” In addition, as Jane Addams herself pointed out, the social settlements answered to a “subjective necessity” on the part of many of their residents, particularly the young women college graduates who, lacking a clear social role, felt useless and “shut off from the common labor by which they live and which is a great source of moral and physical health.”
ii The Quest for Efficiency
‘Efficiency’ was a vogue word in early twentieth-century America. An ‘Efficiency Society’ in New York attracted the support of several worthy public figures, while enterprising promoters set themselves up as efficiency experts and answered readers’ letters in magazines. The high-priest of this movement was undoubtedly Frederick W. Taylor, the pioneer of ‘scientific management’. Taylor had acquired his fame by achieving some spectacular increases in the output of manual workers in manufacturing industry through the use of time-and-motion studies and careful attention to the exact kind of tools best suited to each task. But he found a receptive audience when he wrote in 1911 that his principles “applied with equal force to all social activities; to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen, . . . of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities and our government departments.”
This concern with efficiency can be seen as an aspect of the process of modernization, an adaptation to the demands of large, complex organizations such as the modern corporation or the modern city. It was associated not only with the increasing role of salaried managers and technical experts in business, but with the movement in the older professions towards more exacting standards and greater emphasis upon formal qualifications, and the parallel growth in numbers and influence of professional organizations like the American Medical Association and state and local bar associations. Specialized expertise, preferably formally attested and given greater weight by some form of professional body, could be a source of status and self-respect even to those who did not enjoy the dignity of self-employment. For by far the fastest growing economic group in America at this time was ‘the new middle class’ of salaried employees—their numbers rose from 756,000 to 5,609,000 between 1870 and 1910. Many of these were salesmen and clerks, but the class also included a good number of natural evangelists for the gospel of efficiency, such as engineers, technicians, architects, public-health experts, educational administrators and so on.
The part played by such people in promoting some of the legislative and political reforms of the early twentieth century has been stressed by historians like Samuel P. Hays and Robert H. Wiebe. At the federal level, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, for example, owed a very great deal to the efforts of Dr. Harvey Wiley, Chief Chemist in the Department of Agriculture. Similarly, the attempts by the national government, particularly during Roosevelt’s Presidency, to secure the conservation of natural resources originated in the bureaucracy with scientifically-minded men like the forester Gifford Pinchot and the geologist W J McGee. Their primary object, as Hays has emphasized, was neither the preservation of the natural wilderness nor the democratization of access to its resources but the prevention of waste. Such techniques as fire control and sustained-yield forestry were designed to achieve the most efficient exploitation of the environment, and the conservationists’ approach was more likely to be understood by large corporations than by small farmers.
In a broadly similar fashion, municipal-government reform seems in many cases to have been promoted by business and professional men seeking greater efficiency in the provision of civic services, and a better environment for themselves and their families. This was particularly true of the movement to replace the whole structure of mayor and council by some form of commission or city-manager system of government. This originated in 1900 when a hurricane and tidal wave in Galveston, Texas, overwhelmed not only the city but the capacities of its council. In response to an appeal from leading local property-owners, the state legislature appointed five commissioners to take over the town government. In 1903 the commissioners were made elective, and in this form the system was copied by more than 400 cities before the First World War. The modified version of the scheme by which the commissioners appointed a professional city-manager to run the day-by-day administration was pioneered by Dayton, Ohio, in 1913—also in the wake of a great flood. The citymanager plan had been adopted by more than 130 cities by 1919. These new forms of government were explicitly advocated on the grounds that they would be run on business lines, and in almost every case, as James Weinstein has shown, the campaign for their adoption was led by the local Chamber of Commerce and other organized business groups. The administrations established in this way were not doctrinaire followers of laissez-faire;indeed, sometimes, as at Dayton, they extended the scope of municipal ownership. But their overriding goals were efficiency and economy, and the desire to keep taxes down generally shaped both their own labour relations and their attitude to social reform. Although the adoption of commission and city-manager systems was largely limited to small and medium-sized cities in the Middle West, New England and the Pacific states, municipal reform movements in the larger cities were, according to Hays, similarly dominated by business and professional groups seeking to extend to government “the process of rationalization and systemization inherent in modern science and technology.” This involved efforts to reduce the power of ward politicians, who were often of lower-class origin, in favour of prominent businessmen and professional administrators. Key demands in this respect were for a shift from ward to city-wide election of councils and schoolboards, and for the removal of local elections from the sphere of party politics.
To Hays, municipal reform, like conservation, reveals the contrast between the rhetoric and the reality of Progressivism. In both cases, he argues, a self-proclaimed fight on behalf of ‘the people’ was actually an attempt to remove the decision-making process from an arena responsive to grass-roots pressure and place it in the hands of an elite. While there is undoubtedly some validity in this perspective, it seems fair to point out that the issues were in some ways more complicated. To Progressives, as we have seen, democracy involved the idea of the primacy of the common good as well as that of government by the people. The localized character of political representation, traditional for legislatures at all levels in the United States, often tended to give more weight to particular interests than to the general welfare. “Conservation,” Gifford Pinchot declared, “means the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time.” To Pinchot and others, the need to safeguard the interests of future generations and to balance the competing claims on, for example, the use of water for power, navigation, irrigation and recreation, would be best sewed if policy were determined by qualified and disinterested administrators responsible to a nationally elected executive rather than left either to the market-place or to the jockeying of various lobbies in Congress.
More generally, the gospel of efficiency and Progressive ideology should be seen neither as incompatible nor as identical. The organizing committee of the New York Efficiency Society included prominent Progressive publicists, social workers and politicians. Men like Brandeis, Croly and Lippmann wrote warmly of scientific management in particular as well as of efficiency in general. This reflected both their respect for professional expertise and their faith that increasing productivity would ease the achievement of a more just and harmonious society. Approaching from the other direction, Pinchot naturally adopted the language of Progressivism when in 1908-9 he began to campaign for public support for conservation measures that were being obstructed by Congress. “No other policy now before the American people is so thoroughly democratic in its essence and in its tendencies as the Conservation policy,” he maintained, as he denounced “the uncontrolled monopoly of the natural resources which yield the necessaries of life.” On the other hand, the goal of efficiency appealed to many who in no way shared the Progressive desire for a more equal distribution of wealth. Several of those involved in the municipal-reform movement were no more committed to this objective than were the businessmen who adopted the techniques of scientific management in the hope of making bigger profits. There were both progressive and conservative versions of the gospel of efficiency.
iii The upholding of traditional values
If the process of ‘modernization’, with its emphasis on the pragmatic virtues of rationalization and its tendency towards bureaucracy, contributed to the pressure for reform in the early twentieth century, so too did an almost antithetical impulse. This was the desire to protect, and if necessary re-capture, what were seen as being the values of an earlier age. This backward-looking element in Progressivism, to which Mowry and Hofstadter have drawn attention, was neither humanitarian nor technocratic in inspiration. Rather it appealed to traditional moral standards that found sanction both in the ethics of Protestantism and the ideal of a virtuous republic. It sought to purge politics of corruption, business of dishonesty, and, if possible, private life of sin, in an effort to revive the ideals of democratic citizenship and combat the ‘materialism’ of recent times.
This was the sort of concern most apparent in the crusades of the first decade of the twentieth century. It was reflected in the early muckraking articles which, according to the editorial in McClure’s which is generally taken to mark the beginning of the movement, constituted “such an arraignment of American character as should make every one of us stop and think.” The same traditional moralism inspired Charles Evans Hughes’ exposure of the malpractices of New York life insurance companies in 1905-6, and the spectacular graft prosecutions which made the reputations of such Progressive political leaders as Joseph W. Folk in Missouri and Hiram W. Johnson in California.
Richard Hofstadter linked this moralistic aspect of Progressivism with the fact that many independent businessmen, lawyers and clergymen were prominent in reform movements. “Progressivism,” he suggested, “was to a very considerable extent led by men who suffered from the events of their time not through a shrinkage in their means but through the changed pattern in the distribution of deference and power.” The dominant classes of an earlier age—“the old gentry, merchants of long standing, the small manufacturers, the established professional men”—were now being overshadowed by “the newly rich, the grandiosely or corruptly rich, the masters of great corporations.”
This “status revolution” thesis of Hofstadter’s has been much criticized, partly perhaps because it has been taken to claim more than he seems to have intended. Several studies have shown that the social characteristics of Progressive leaders were not readily distinguishable from other politicians at the time, and that their ranks included, for example, a fair number of self-made businessmen. Some have questioned whether there was a status revolution at all. It has been pointed out that many well-established mercantile families maintained their fortunes in the industrial revolution, and that few millionaires actually started life in ‘rags’. But Hofstadter did not dispute these facts, and there is much literary evidence to confirm his insight that a sort of snobbish resentment of business magnates helped to create a sympathy for reform on the part of some members of an older elite.
However, as Hofstadter himself pointed out, in the late nineteenth century such feeling had found expression in reform movements (like civil-service reform) which were ‘Mugwump’ rather than Progressive in character. These attracted respectable gentlemen who combined austere disapproval of business crudities and governmental corruption with strict adherence to the principles of laissez-faire conservatism on social and economic questions.
There was, therefore, nothing new in the kind of reform movement which consisted in ‘turning the rascals out’ (and, if possible, putting them in the penitentiary) and installing ‘good’ men in their stead. The tradition stretched back at least as far as the campaign against the Tweed Ring in New York City in the late 1860s, and had been carried through the later nineteenth century by ‘Good Government’ clubs, Municipal Reform Leagues and so on. The common pattern was for such reformers to win elections occasionally, following the revelation of some particularly flagrant scandals, but to hold office only briefly. Neither their attachment to the principles of government economy and appointment on merit, which curtailed their ability to exploit the potentialities of patronage, nor their tendency to enforce ‘blue laws’ regulating drinking, gambling, sports and prostitution, was conducive to sustained electoral success. This tradition was reasonably compatible with the businesslike drive for greater efficiency in municipal government, and some of the reform administrations of the early twentieth century, such as those of James D. Phelan (1897-1902) in San Francisco and Seth Low (1901-03) in New York City, reflected both.
While municipal reformers of this type were almost invariably native-born, middle-class or upper middle-class Protestants, the urban political machines which they opposed were generally controlled by Irish bosses and drew most of their support from lower-class voters of immigrant stock. Hofstadter has provided a vivid picture of the contrast between the “types of political culture” represented by “the Yankee reformer” and “the peasant immigrant”. Whereas for “the Yankee”, democratic government was “an arena for the realization of moral principles of broad application”, the immigrant looked to politics for “concrete and personal gains and … sought these gains through personal relationships.” It was not surprising in these circumstances that some municipal reformers tended simply to attribute the corruption of politics to the influence of “an ignorant proletariat, mostly foreign born”, and that there was some support for proposals to restrict the suffrage by requiring citizenship, educational, or even property qualifications—In practice, outright disfranchisement was largely confined to the Southern states (where, of course, Negroes were the chief victims), but some of the same effect seems to have been achieved by the imposition of requirements for personal registration by voters.
There can be little doubt, in fact, that a good deal of the dynamism behind efforts to maintain traditional standards and mores derived from nativist reactions to the changing composition of the American population. This was most directly apparent in the campaign to restrict immigration. The initiative in this movement came from the Immigration Restriction League, which had been founded in the 1890s by a group of Bostonians from well-todo, well-established families. They advocated a literacy test, barring immigrants who could not read a short passage in any language. This proposal gained increasing support in Congress until in 1912 and 1914 bills enacting it were passed, only to be vetoed by Presidents Taft and Wilson. The alignment in Congress on this issue was a sectional one, with “the South and Far West almost unanimous for restriction, the urban areas of the North strongly against it, and considerable opposition lingering in the old immigrant districts of the Midwest.”
An almost identical alignment was to emerge in the struggle over the national prohibition of alcohol. Although this was not achieved until 1919 in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the first decade of the twentieth century saw a considerable extension of local ‘dry’ laws, particularly in the West and South. Of course, neither Prohibition nor immigration restriction involved a conflict between the interests of different geographical regions in the way some disputes over the tariff or internal improvements have done. More detailed analysis of some of the many contests in various states over the drink question in this period clearly indicates that the division on this issue was not so much directly sectional, or even between rural and urban America, as it was one of class and ethno-religious background. Prohibition, as studies of the politics of several Midwestern states in the later nineteenth century have amply demonstrated, was pre-eminently a question that pitted Americans of a ‘pietistic’ religious commitment, whether of old-stock, British or Scandinavian origin, against those of a ‘liturgical’ faith, notably Catholics and German Lutherans.
Both Prohibition and immigration restriction have been seen as Progressive causes. It is true that both represented a departure from the principles of laissez-faire, and each enjoyed the support of a good number of social workers and other reformers. However, these ‘reforms’ also appealed to many whose views on economic issues were far from Progressive. The Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1895, deliberately abandoned the broad reform programme of the Prohibition Party in order to attract more support for the single ‘American Issue’. The chief proponents in Congress of a literary test for immigrants were Henry Cabot Lodge and his sonin-law Augustus P. Gardner, both conservative Republicans, and John Higham has observed that most of the New England patricians who advocated immigration restriction “worshipped tradition in a deeply conservative spirit.”
Nor would it be right to interpret the whole concern to revive traditional values as no more than a sublimation of nativist prejudice. The ethnic issue was not at all involved in the anti-trust movement, which owed a good deal of its broad appeal to moral objections to the business practices of the tycoons and nostalgia for a competitive order that was thought to have fostered economic opportunity, social mobility and a self-reliant citizenry. Nor were all municipal reformers content to blame corruption upon immigrants. “The ‘foreign element’ excuse is one of the most hypocritical lies that save us from the clear sight of ourselves,” wrote Steffens sternly in The Shame of the Cities. Similarly, the restriction of immigration could be supported on other than racist grounds. The American Federation of Labor came out in favour of a literacy test in 1897, and began to campaign hard for it after 1906, on the grounds that unrestricted entry kept wages low. This argument appealed to some Progressive reformers. On the other hand, a concern to Americanize the immigrants, for a mixture of humanitarian and prudential reasons, was shared by many—notably, the social worker Frances Kellor and the various organizations she animated—who did not join the campaign for restriction. With regard to Prohibition, scientific evidence about the harmful physiological effects of alcohol, and social research into the connections between drinking, crime, vice and poverty, provided arguments for it that had no direct connection with a desire to maintain the hegemony of Puritan values. It was even supported by a few Catholic reformers.
However, there were some, such as the sociologist Edward A. Ross, the settlement leader Robert A. Woods, and the journalist William A. White, who combined a commitment to Progressive reform with nativist, not to say racist, views. The intellectual link between these attitudes was provided by an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ interpretation of the American democratic tradition. “What is this universal movement in our cities for home rule but the old race call for the rule of the folk?” asked White. “Here in the United States we have two things which have made the Teuton strong in this earth: the home with the mother never out of caste and the rule of the folk by the ‘most ancient ways’—the supremacy of the majority.” But it would seem that even this sort of commitment to democratic values served to preserve one from the extremes of nativist intolerance. When in 1924 the Ku Klux Klan was waxing strong in Kansas, White broke his life-long abstention from direct participation in politics to run as an independent, anti-Klan candidate for governor, because “to make a case against a birthplace, a religion, or a race is wicked, un-American and cowardly.”
iv The role of business interests
The sort of moral crusade exemplified by the Prohibition movement is sometimes interpreted in terms of the desire of a social group, such as old-stock Protestants, to affirm or enhance their standing in the community by having their own values formally legitimated. This is, however, a rather subtle form of self-interest, and indeed of the drive for social status, by comparison with a simple desire to improve one’s material well-being. This latter motive commonly plays a fairly large part in politics, and it would seem from the work of such historians as Wiebe, Hays and Kolko that business interests contributed a good deal to the pressures for reform in the early twentieth century, particularly in regard to economic regulation both at the state and the federal level.
To see the economic self-interest of businessmen as a significant force for reform is, of course, substantially to revise the earliest accounts of ‘the Progressive movement’, which portrayed it as an uprising of ‘the people’ against the entrenched power of business interests. The most thoroughgoing variant of this revisionism is that advanced by such New Left writers as Kolko and James Weinstein who see the most important reforms of the period as representing a successful effort by big business to utilize the authority of the federal government to stabilize its dominant position. According to Kolko, corporate leaders had two immediate motives in seeking the establishment of federal regulatory agencies, which they confidently expected to be able to control. The first was to establish order within their industries by limiting competition. Kolko argues that many of the large amalgamations created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were over-capitalized, inefficient and vulnerable to competition. For example, while U.S. Steel had produced 61.6 per cent of the nation’s steel output when it was created in 1901, by 1920 the figure was only 39.9 per cent. In 1899 Standard Oil refined 90 per cent of the nation’s oil; in 1911, when the Company was divided by a Supreme Court order, the proportion was down to 80 per cent. Other trusts, like International Harvester, American Telephone and Telegraph, the Amalgamated Copper Company, and the ‘Big Six’ meat packers, were also suffering a declining share of the market in the early twentieth century. The second motive of corporate leaders in seeking federal regulation was to obviate the threat of state laws that were likely to be both inconveniently varied and more subject to radical, popular pressures; this applied, for example, in the case of the railroads. Beyond these specific objectives, Weinstein in particular argues, businessmen sought “the stabilization, rationalization and continued expansion of the existing political economy, and subsumed under that, the circumscription of the Socialist movement with its illformed, but nevertheless dangerous ideas for an alternative form of social organization.” To this end they endorsed and adapted the ideology of Progressivism, seeking a “new corporate order” in which business would be both licensed and regulated by nonpolitical federal agencies, labour would be both represented and disciplined by responsible unions, and social problems would be contained by various welfare measures. This outlook was promoted by the National Civic Federation which brought together such corporate leaders as Elbert Gary and George Perkins, conservative labour leaders like Gompers and John Mitchell, and prominent civic leaders like Seth Low.
There seems little doubt that the traditional view both of businessmen’s attitudes and of their influence stood in need of modification. As at other times in American history, the attitudes of businessmen to reform proposals in the Progressive era were shaped less by a dogmatic allegiance to laissez-faire than by assessments of the effects upon their own interests of particular measures. Nor were they by any means simply the passive objects of legislation. On the contrary, business organizations grew greatly in number, membership and resources in this period, and neither Congress nor state legislatures were by any means indifferent to their representations. However, the Kolko-Weinstein thesis also seems somewhat over-simple. In .particular, it would be wrong to assume that opinion was united either among businessmen in general, or even among the leaders of large corporations. On the contrary, as Wiebe has shown, such issues as railroad regulation, banking reform and the tariff revealed several lines of conflict. Some of these were sectional—hostility to Eastern corporations and bankers served as a unifying force in many Western and Southern states. But within regions and states, different groups also had conflicting interests. In Minnesota, for example, the business community of the Twin Cities and agrarian interests in the rest of the state both supported the ‘insurgent’ revolt against the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill of 1910, but the issue of a reciprocity agreement with Canada found them on different sides. Nor was any one set of interests clearly dominant. In the case of railroad regulation, the various federal acts between 1903 and 1910 tended increasingly to favour the shippers as against the carriers, but after 1910 the shippers fell out among themselves and a reaction set in. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 did not completely please any one of the different banking interests—the Wall Street magnates, the city bankers of the Middle West, or the country bankers.
The most central issue, that of the trusts, was by no means the least divisive. Small businessmen, organized in the National Association of Manufacturers, tended to favour enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The apparent activation of this act by Roosevelt, when he followed his prosecution of the Northern Securities Company in 1902 by setting up a Bureau of Corporations in the new Department of Commerce in 1903, produced divergent reactions on the part of corporate leaders. Standard Oil enlarged its legal department and sought to conceal evidence of its illegal railroad rebates. The Morgan-dominated corporations, U.S. Steel and International Harvester, on the other hand, reached ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ with the Administration, by which they would make confidential information available to the Bureau, on the explicit condition that their trade secrets would be protected, and with the implicit assumption that, if any of their practices were judged to be illegal, they would not be prosecuted for past violations. This approach reflected the views of Morgan executives, like George Perkins, who believed that large corporations would, only receive the legitimation they needed if they accepted a degree of public accountability. In 1908 Perkins and other members of the National Civic Federation sponsored the Hepburn amendments to the Sherman Act. These would have allowed the Bureau of Corporations to grant immunity from prosecution after investigating the practices of particular companies, legalized railroad ‘pools’, and exempted labour unions from the Anti-trust Act. The amendments were opposed by the National Association of Manufacturers and rejected by Congress—sufficient testimony in itself that the views of the National Civic Federation did not have complete political dominance in this period. Those who had backed the Hepburn amendments quietly supported the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, but attempts to give the Commission authority to grant immunity from anti-trust prosecutions were again defeated, and, indeed, the Clayton Act of the same year was designed to strengthen and make more precise the anti-trust law. In the event the F.T.C. was to prove generally sympathetic to the interests of large corporations. But this reflected the character of appointments to it more than its terms of reference, and the eventual outcome should not obscure the complex interplay of pressures that lay behind its establishment.
If the importance of divisions within the business community must be recognized and the political dominance of large corporations not be assumed, so too the extent to which reform was the product simply of the pressures of different business interests must not be exaggerated. In the first place, even in the case of federal economic regulation, Congress was subject to other influences. For example, although .the large meat-packing companies welcomed federal regulation, both in order to ease the entry of their products into European markets and to maintain the standards of smaller competitors, they objected strongly to certain features of Beveridge’s Meat Inspection bill of 1906. Pressure for such legislation stemmed in large part from the public outcry over conditions in packing plants following publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The jungle and the report of two special investigators to the President. The final law did go a long way towards meeting the objections of the packing companies, but not all the way. Secondly, the involvement of organized business interests in the movement for reform was limited in scope. Economic regulation was naturally a prime concern, and they also promoted some types of municipal government reform and workmen’s compensation laws. But, on the whole, they either opposed or were indifferent to most kinds of social-welfare legislation and such political reforms as direct elections.
v The urban working class
Businessmen are not the only people moved by self-interest, and it would seem natural to expect that support for social and political reforms too would be derived from those who would directly benefit from them. In the case of most forms of social legislation, these would be primarily wage-earners and citydwellers. However, until recently most historians have not seen the urban working class as contributing much to the pressure for reform in the early twentieth century. There were several reasons for this. One was the assumption that the reforms stemmed from the activities of a single Progressive movement. The background of prominent reform leaders and the language in which they advocated change left little doubt that this movement was fundamentally middle class in character. At the same time, the political attitudes and habits of the various ethnic communities that composed the working population of the cities did not seem to offer much prospect of their providing effective support for reform. There was little evidence of class-consciousness. It is true that the
Socialist Party of America reached its , peak in these years. But at the national level this amounted to no more than the 6 per cent of the popular vote that Eugene Debs obtained in the presidential election of 1912, and in fact the party’s strength was largely limited to a few particular groups—the tenant farmers of the Southern Plains states, especially Oklahoma, the German trade unionists of Milwaukee, the Eastern European Jews in the New York garment industry, and the western lumbermen, metal miners and migrant labourers who constituted most of the membership of the LW.W. The organized labour movement was weak, and generally cautious and conservative in its approach to politics and reform. In 1910 less than 6 per cent of the total labour force was unionized. The leadership of the A.F.L., notably Gompers, was not only extremely hostile to Socialism but generally reluctant to support any reform proposals other than those which would directly benefit trade unions in their organizational and bargaining activities. Politically, the lower classes in the cities were apparently divided between Republicans and Democrats along the same lines of ethno-cultural cleavage as other elements of the population. More significantly perhaps, they provided the votes for the urban political machines that had developed since the 1880s. These machines were traditionally regarded as the natural adversaries of reform and reformers.
However, the recent work of historians like J. Joseph Huthmacher and John D. Buenker has indicated that politicians associated .with urban machines in fact contributed a great deal to the movement for social reform. In the industrial states of the North-east and Middle West, laws regulating the working conditions of women and children, establishing minimum wages, and providing for workmen’s compensation received strong support from legislators representing urban working-class constituencies. Such representatives were also generally sympathetic to efforts by organized labour to secure the legalization of such practices as picketing and boycotting and the limitation of the use of injunctions in industrial disputes—though comparatively few of such measures gained sufficiently widespread backing to be enacted. They also favoured a more progressive taxation system, and helped to secure the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which laid the basis for a federal income tax. Urban machine politicians also commonly called for more effective regulation of public utilities and other businesses in the interests of consumers, and in some cases came out for municipal ownership. These generally Progressive attitudes are linked by Buenker to the rise of “reform machines” in the early twentieth century, as the political bosses responded to the needs of their constituents and learnt from the electoral success of reform mayors such as Hazen Pingree of Detroit, Samuel ‘Golden Rule’ Jones of Toledo, and Tom L. Johnson of Cleveland in the 1890s and early 1900s.
What is, at first glance, more startling than this support for social legislation is the favourable attitude adopted by urban machine politicians towards constitutional reforms often advocated on the grounds that they would reduce the power of political ‘bosses’. For example, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provided for the direct election of United States Senators, received the overwhelming support of urban legislators in the industrial states. This becomes less surprising, however, when one recalls that under the existing system Senators were chosen by the state legislatures, the apportionment of representation for which generally failed to give urban areas a weight corresponding to their population. Since in these states the rural areas were generally Republican and the large cities Democratic, urban legislators also had a party motive for favouring a change that would enhance the influence of their constituents. The same sort of direct self-interest explains why urban legislators sought increased powers for city governments (known at the time as ‘home rule’) and legislative re-apportionment. Interestingly, many machine politicians also came to look favourably upon proposals for direct legislation and primary elections as they realized that these innovations would in practice place a greater premium on the sort of organization that could gather signatures and turn out voters. The same pragmatic attitude, however, tended to make machine politicians more ambivalent about other reform proposals, such as the extension of civil-service rules, corrupt-practices legislation and women’s suffrage.
Indeed, the contribution of the urban working class and its political representatives to reform must not be exaggerated. Buenker himself emphasizes that successful legislative achievement in this period depended upon the support of a coalition of different groups. Nor can we assume that new-stock working-class voters were always Progressive in their attitudes to social and labour questions—this does not seem to have been the case with Italian-Americans in San Francisco, for example. It is true, as Buenker points out, that the Democratic party enjoyed a considerable growth in strength between 1904 and 1916, and that this was largely a result of its gains in the North-eastern industrial states. While it is quite possible that this was due to an association between the Democratic party and Progressive reform, this has not yet been conclusively demonstrated.
Was There a ‘Progressive Movement’?
The question of what sense, if any, it makes to speak of a ‘Progressive movement’ depends, of course, upon the relationship between the various concerns and constituencies that contributed to the pressure for reform. Clearly, particular issues could produce alliances between different groups. Thus social workers cooperated with urban machine politicians in promoting welfare legislation—a notable example of this being the New York State Factory Investigation Commission, set up after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in which 148 women lost their lives. Less comfortably perhaps, old-stock traditionalists and the leaders of organized labour found themselves on the same side in the campaign for immigration restriction. But it needed more than a series of ad hoc coalitions to produce the idea held at the time that reform was the result of a ‘Progressive movement’.
This contemporary feeling was possible because impulses that seem quite distinct on analysis were often mixed up in practice. Thus, the attitudes of many middle-class, old-stock Americans towards immigrant communities involved both humanitarian and authoritarian elements. Advocates of a greater degree of government control over the economy believed this would promote both efficiency and social justice. Businessmen, seeking in their own interest more economical municipal government, would participate in crusades against political corruption with sincere moral indignation. Attacks on the railroads and other large corporations appealed both to the self-interest of shippers and other groups and to the ideological tradition of hostility to ‘monopoly power’.
Indeed, the combination of a variety of different appeals was characteristic of the style of Progressive writers and politicians. Thus Charles McCarthy, head of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, could appeal to the gospel of efficiency, traditional American ideals and the enlightened self-interest of businessmen in promoting the cause of social reform:
What is the need of a philosophy or an ‘ism’ when there is obvious wrong to be righted? Whatever has been accomplished in Wisconsin seems to have been based upon this idea of making practice conform to the ideals of justice and right which have been inherited …. If certain social classes are forming among us, can we not destroy them by means of education and through hope and encouragement make every man more efficient so that the doors of opportunity may always be open before him?
If you were responsible for the business of government, would you not apply the common rules of efficiency, Mr. Business Man? Do you not believe that it would pay well to make a heavy investment in hope, health, happiness, and justice?
Yet, despite the broad appeal of such pleas for reform, the diverse elements attracted to Progressivism constituted an unstable amalgam. In some cases at least, Progressivism as a political force at the city and state level seems to have changed, over time, both its character and its electoral base. In Detroit, for instance, Hazen Pingree, a self-made businessman and president of the Republican Michigan Club, was elected mayor in 1890 as a ‘good government’ candidate in the aftermath of Grand jury revelations of corruption in municipal contracts. He began by instituting a number of economy measures and securing the indictment of corrupt school board members. However, he became engaged in a long contest with the street railway company and other public utilities for lower rates and better service, and also in an attempt to achieve a more equitable tax system. In addition, he refused to enforce liquor legislation strictly, and in the severe depression of 1893-95 sought energetically to aid the unemployed, most notably through his ‘potato patch’ plan. Pingree’s actions alienated many of his former business sponsors but greatly increased his popularity with foreign-born and working-class voters. In California, two decades later, the Lincoln-Roosevelt league in the Republican party grew out of the Good Government movement in Los Angeles, which was backed by the Chamber of Commerce. The league’s gubernatorial candidate, Hiram Johnson, campaigned in 1910 largely on the single issue of the corrupt influence of the Southern Pacific railroad in the state’s politics. In the Republican primary that year, Johnson’s vote was highest in rural, native-stock, Protestant counties, where Prohibitionist, anti-alien and anti-labour sentiment was also strong. As governor, however, Johnson promoted such measures as workmen’s compensation, an eight-hour day for women, factory inspection and a child-labour law. By 1916, when he contested a Senatorial primary election, Johnson’s strongest support came from the San Francisco Bay area, and particularly from the heavily Catholic and immigrant working-class wards.
In both these cases, reform movements that started as middleclass, business-oriented and moralistic came to be more concerned with social reform and working-class support. It is hard to say how common this development was. Nevertheless, although the ideology of Progressivism, with its insistence that traditional American values demanded a more equitable distribution of wealth, could appeal to these different interests, these examples demonstrate the difficulty of keeping them in harmony at the level of practical politics.
ii.Was There a ‘Progressive Era’?
None of the elements that contributed to the pressure for reform in the early twentieth century was confined to that period. Antitrust sentiment could be traced back as far as the anti-monopolyism of the Jacksonian era, and it was to remain strong, particularly in the West and South, into the 1930s and beyond. The Sherman Act itself, of course, had been passed as early as 1890. The movement for social reform, involving both middle-class humanitarians and politicians drawn from the new-stock populations of the cities, developed into the urban liberalism that has been an influential force in American politics through most of this century. The attempt to uphold traditional American values in the face of the challenges presented as a result of urbanization and immigration was to become particularly strenuous in the 1920s, and to persist in some form at least as late as the presidential election of 1964. Similarly, the adaptation to the demands of a complex, industrial society—the acceptance of the need for organization, rationalization, professionalism and bureaucracy—has been a continuous social process from the late nineteenth century to the present day. In other words, these were all long-term developments in American history, while, of course, the political influence of special-interest groups was also not confined to this period.
But what did distinguish the early twentieth century was a public mood generally sympathetic to calls for reform. The language of successful political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson emphasized the need for action by government if traditional American ideals were to be preserved in the novel circumstances created by economic and social change. Such rhetoric not only helped to create the rather illusory sense of common purpose among reformers with different values and priorities, it also reflected and reinforced a climate of opinion generally receptive to innovation and experiment, one in which proposals for reform might be sympathetically regarded by a much wider circle than their direct sponsors and beneficiaries. This was greatly in contrast with the mood of the 1890s, when the platform of the Populist Party, and even that of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, had seemed threateningly revolutionary to most middle-class Americans, including many who later became Progressives.
However, the period during which the American public seemed broadly sympathetic to proposals for political, economic and social reform was sharply limited in time. There is evidence that by 1914 a reaction had set in. It is true that aspects of America’s experience in the First World War—the extension of government direction over the economy, the increased recognition of organized labour, and the general subordination of individual interests to a collective purpose—encouraged many Progressive reformers to believe that the transformation of American life they hoped for was at hand; but this only made their post-war disillusionment the more painful. The dismantling of the machinery of wartime collectivism was swift and thorough, and during the 1920s American businessmen enjoyed high prestige and the orthodoxies of laissez-faire were accorded renewed respect. In the 1930s, of course, calls for reform were again popular, but this is easily attributed to the Great Depression. The early twentieth century, by contrast, was a period of general prosperity. The question of why at—this time there was apparently such widespread discontent and desire for reform, particularly among middle-class Americans, has exercised historians.
In a broad sense, of course, the occurrence of an era of reform is to be explained by the social and economic developments that created the problems which seemed to demand attention; it was a ‘response to industrialism’. But, as Hofstadter pointed out, this does not explain the difference between the 1890s and the 1900s: “indeed, in many ways the problems of American life were actually less acute after 1897.” Some see a natural cycle in the waxing and waning of reform sentiment in the United States. According to Charles B. Forcey, for instance, “each wave of reform has run its course at internals of twenty years or so since the founding of the republic.” The difficulties with this theory are that it tends to lump together very disparate phenomena—Jacksonian Democracy and the Liberal Republicans of 1872, for example—and that it does not provide much by way of explanation.
Although Hofstadter remarked that the occurrence of “the Progressive revolt” during a period of prosperity presented “a challenge to the historian”, it seems quite likely that the change in public mood in fact followed from the recovery of the economy in the late 1890s. It is perhaps reasonable to assume that appeals to democratic idealism on behalf of reforms that would benefit others were more likely to arouse a positive response when people were feeling comparatively affluent and secure than when they were preoccupied with their personal economic problems and fearful that the social fabric was being torn apart—as many middle-class Americans had been in the mid-1890s. Certainly, some Progressives believed there was a connection between prosperity and public support for reform—as when they blamed the disappointing results of the 1914 congressional elections on the economic recession at the time. The Panic of 1907, according to Wiebe, caused most businessmen to lose sympathy with “all unnecessary agitation”—by which they meant any reforms other than those from which they themselves would directly benefit. In studying nativism, John Higham pointed out that it was aggravated by economic depression, and that prosperity tended to encourage more tolerant and generous attitudes.
However, if Progressivism was fostered by the confidence bred of prosperity, the emphasis placed by so many advocates of reform on the danger of class conflict or revolution if their pleas were not heeded suggests that it also rested on a basis of anxiety. It seems as if the mood on which Progressivism depended for its broad appeal could be eroded by complacency as well as by panic. But in the early twentieth century complacency required either strong nerves or a short memory. For the events of the 1890s—the severe depression of 1893-95, the violent labour conflicts, the Populist revolt and the Bryan campaign—had combined to create what Hofstadter has called a “psychic crisis”. Frederick Jackson Turner had declared in 1893 that the disappearance of “the frontier” of settlement in the latest census marked the close of “the first period of American history”, and it seemed to many that, with the end of “free land”, the United States would no longer enjoy its happy exemption from the ills that beset other societies.
Yet neither the breadth nor the depth of the sympathy for reform in the early twentieth century should be exaggerated. Throughout the period there remained many prepared to defend the status quo. Some occupied powerful positions, for example as Supreme Court justices. It was in 1905, in Lochner v New York, that the Court struck down a state law limiting to ten the daily working hours for bakers on the ground that it infringed freedom of contract within the meaning of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. When Theodore Roosevelt made a case for the popular recall of state judicial decisions in a speech at Columbus, Ohio, in February 1912, he greatly strengthened the determination of the ‘Old Guard’ to deny him the Republican presidential nomination that year. The success of their fight for what Taft called “the retention of conservative government and conservative institutions” left them in virtually uncontested control of the party after Roosevelt’s supporters followed him into the ‘Bull Moose’ Progressive party. With the Republican electoral revival from 1914 onwards, this increased the strength of conservative sentiment in Congress.
The power of conservatism in established institutions like the courts and the Republican party partly accounts for the limited nature of the Progressive achievement. Some problems, it is true, were ignored by most Progressive reformers themselves. This was notably the case with the race issue. But even on the issues which seemed central to Progressives, their accomplishments were not impressive. As far as one can tell from imperfect statistics, the distribution of income became more, not less, unequal between 1896 and the First World War. The democratic process may have been revivified in some ways by the reforms of the period, but the proportion of the electorate who turned out to vote was lower than it had been in the later nineteenth century. The welfare and labour laws of the period were generally rudimentary and ineffectively enforced, while those reformers who in 1916 saw compulsory health insurance as “the next great step in social legislation” had a long time to wait. Nor did the America of the 1920s provide much evidence of the taming of corporate power.
These basic facts surely indicate that the early twentieth century was not dominated by those Progressive reformers who wished to direct the United States along a course broadly similar to that of European social democracy. Most Americans were never converted from their basic belief in the economic and moral virtues of free-enterprise capitalism. The social forces that were promoting various reforms were basically diverse and ultimately sought contradictory objectives—as was to be demonstrated in the 1920s and later. In other words, during the ‘Progressive Era’, as often at other times in American history, long-term developments were of more fundamental significance than the distinctive characteristics of a short period.
It is difficult to suggest introductory reading on the Progressive era since the best general accounts of the period are more concerned to provide an interpretative synthesis than a comprehensive narrative. This is true of both Samuel Hays’ Response to Industrialsim, 1885-1914 (1957)3 and Robert Wiebe’s The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (1967). Wiebe’s book in particular is rich in original and suggestive insights, though to my mind the attempt to discern a single, if complex, theme in the multifarious events of the period is somewhat strained. But it would probably be best to read something else first. The volumes in the New American Nation series—Harold U. Faulkner, Politics, Reform and Expansion, 1890-1900 (New York: Harper and Row, 1959; paperback ed., 1963), George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Modern America, 1900-1912 (ibid., 1958; 1962), and Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (ibid., 1954; 1963)—are now a little dated but they still provide a very thorough account. Those with less time at their disposal should not despise textbooks, of which Arthur S. Link with William B. Catton, American Epoch: A History of the United States since the 1890s (3rd ed., New York: Knopf, 1967), is particularly authoritative on this period. Lewis L. Gould, ed., The Progressive Era (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse UP, 1974), is a useful collection of essays.
On Progressivism itself, Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform (1955) is still essential reading, so much more nuanced, rich and deeply knowledgeable than one would gather from some of the criticisms of it. Hofstadter’s “status revolution” hypothesis is the principal target of David Thelen’s “Social Tensions and the Origins of Progressivism” (1969), which also provides an alternative explanation for the rise of Progressivism based largely on the case of Wisconsin. Peter G. Filene, “An Obituary for ‘The Progressive Movement’,” American Quarterly, (1970), 20-34, provides a useful review of the literature as well as a salutary dose of nominalism. In my view, the best recent attempt to provide an integrated analysis of the whole phenomenon is Otis Graham’s The Great Campaigns (1971).9
On the ideology of Progressivism, Eric F. Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform (1952; rept., New York: Vintage—Knopf, 1956), still provides a lively and accessible introduction. The debate between the proponents and the critics of laissez-faire in the later nineteenth century is very fully recounted by Sidney Fine, Laissez Faire and the General Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought, 1865-1901 (Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1956). One aspect of this story is lucidly presented by Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; rev. ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). The social thought of the period is approached from a different perspective in Morton G. White, Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism (1952; rev. ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 1957). David W. Noble, The Paradox of Progressive Thought (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1958), is a difficult book. Charles Forcey’s The Crossroads of Liberalism (1961) is a model study of three Progressive publicists and the early years of the liberal weekly The New Republic. Samuel Haber emphasizes one particular theme in Efficiency and Uplift (1964) and Christopher Lasch two or three in The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966). One of the best studies of the diversity and complexity of the political attitudes of Progressives, although its basic methodology is open to some question, is Otis L. Graham Jr., An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (New York: Oxford UP, 1967).
The literature on the movement for social reform is relatively uncontentious. Robert H. Bremner, From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States (New York: New York UP, 1956), is a lucid and comprehensive account. The Social Gospel movement was thoroughly studied some years ago in Charles H. Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1940), Aaron I. Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865-1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1943), and Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (1949). An illuminating study of a particular reform in a particular city is Roy Lubove, The Progressives and the Slums: Tenement House Reform in New York City, 1890-1917 (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 1962). The leading authority on the role of the social settlements is Allen F. Davis who has contributed both a general account of their more politically significant activities in Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914 (New York: Oxford UP, 1967) and a biography of their most famous leader in American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York: Oxford UP, 1973). The broader development of social work, is the subject of Roy Lubove, The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social-Work as a Career, 1880-1930 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1965).
By comparison, the economic and political reforms of the period have been subject to more sceptical and divergent interpretations in recent years. The New Left view is best expounded in Gabriel Kolko, Triumph of Conservatism (1963) and Railroads and Regulation, 1877-1916 (1965; 2nd ed., New York: Norton 1970), and in James Weinstein’s The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State (1968) 49 Kolko’s account of the relationship between corporate leaders and the process of government economic regulation should be compared with that of Robert H. Wiebe, in Businessmen and Reform (1962)50 and in “The House of Morgan and the Executive,” American Historical Review,65 (1959), 49-60, and of John Braeman in “The Square Deal in Action” (1964).
The so-called “organizational” interpretation of Progressivism is less implicitly conspiratorial than that of the New Left, but it too emphasizes the elitist aspect of many of the reforms of the time. Samuel P. Hays was the pioneer of this approach and it informs both his monograph, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (1959), and his essays, not only “The Politics of Reform in Municipal Government” (1964)3 but also “The Social Analysis of American Political History, 1880-1920,” Political Science Quarterly,80 (1965), 373-94, and “Political Parties and the Community-Society Continuum,” in William N. Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham, eds., The American Party Systems (New York: Oxford UP, 1967). Other accounts of some of the political reforms of the period from this point of view are James Weinstein, “Organized Business and the City Commission and Manager Movements” (1962),2 and Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (1970). A broader development of this approach is illustrated by Weibe’s The Search for Order and articulated by Louis Galambos, “The Emerging Organizational Synthesis in Modern American History,” Business History Review,44 (1970), 279-90, and Ellis W. Hawley, “The New Deal and Business,” in John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner and David Brody, eds., The New Deal: The National Level (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1975).
More recently the role of the political representatives of the urban working class in promoting the reforms of the period has been stressed; Joseph Huthmacher’s article on urban liberalism blazed the trail but it is John Buenker who has amassed most of the evidence, now largely collected in his Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform (1973).
The merits of these various interpretations have to be tested against the complexities of politics at the local, state and federal levels. Good studies of particular cities are Zane Miller, Boss Cox’s Cincinnati: Urban Politics in the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford UP, 1968), James B. Crooks, Politics and Progress: The Rise of Urban Progressivism in Baltimore, 1895-1911 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1968), and Melvin Hopi’s Reform in Detroit (1969). Martin J. Schiesl, The Politics of Efficiency: Municipal Administration and Reform in America, 1880-1920 (Berkeley: California UP, 1977), is a recent attempt to provide a synthetic interpretation of municipal reform.
Much of the best literature on Progressivism has been in the form of state studies. George Mowry’s The California Progressives (1951), Richard M. Abrams, Conservatism in a Progressive Era: Massachusetts Politics, 1900-1912 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1964), and David P. Thelen, The New Citizenship: Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin, 1885-1900 (Columbia: Missouri UP, 1972), each in their turn gave rise to new interpretations of Progressivism. If less ambitious, Sheldon Hackney, Populism to Progressivism In Alabama (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton UP, 1969), Spencer C. Olin Jr., California’s Prodigal Sons: Hiram Johnson and the Progressives, 1911-1917 (Berkeley: California UP, 1968), Herbert Margulies’ Decline o f the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin (1968), and Carl Chrislock’s Progressive Era in Minnesota (1971) are also very illuminating. Those of these studies that deal with the Middle West and the South suggest that there was much less continuity between Populism and Progressivism than might be gathered from Russel B. Nye, Midwestern Progressive Politics: A Historical Study of its Origins and Development, 1870-1958 (East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1959), and C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1951), but these regional surveys are still useful, particularly in view of the role played by sectional animosities in the political insurgency of the period.
There has been less recent writing on national politics and much of what there has been has been in the form of biographies, notably William H. Harbaugh, The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (1961; rev. ed., New York: Oxford UP, 1975), David P. Thelen, Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), and of course the early volumes of Arthur S. Link’s mufti-volume Wilson (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton UP, 1947). John Morton Blum, The Republican Roosevelt (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1954), and James Holt, Congressional Insurgents and the Party System (1967),74 are each distinguished by their brevity and tough-mindedness. By contrast with the later nineteenth century, there has been comparatively little analysis of electoral behaviour in the Progressive era. Apart from Michael P. Rogin and John L. Shover, Political Change in California (1970), there is some material in Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy (1967)6 and Roger E. Wyman, “Middle-Class Voters and Progressive Reform: The Conflict of Class and Culture,” American Political Science Review,68 (1974), 488-504.This deficiency will no doubt soon be rectified, as indicated by some of the essays in Joel H. Silbey, Allan G. Bogue, and William H. Flanigan, eds., The History of American Electoral Behavior (Princeton, N .J.: Princeton UP, 1978).
- Frederic Austin Ogg, National Progress, 1907-1917 (New York: Harper and Bros, 1918), p.xix, xx. Back
- Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Knopf-Vintage, 1955); George E. Mowry, The California Progressives (Berkeley: California UP, 1951). Back
- E.g., Samuel P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism, 1885-1914 (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1957), and “The Politics of Reform in Municipal Government in the Progressive Era,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 55 (1964), 157-69. Back
- Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (New York: FreePress of Glencoe, 1963). Back
- E.g., Arthur Link: “Generally speaking, progressivism might be defined as the popular effort, which began convulsively in the 1890s and waxed and waned afterward to our own time, to insure the survival of democracy in the United States by the enlargement of governmental power to control and offset the power of private economic groups over the nation’s institutions and life.” Arthur S. Link, “What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920’s?” American Historical Review, 64 (1959), 836. Back
- Frederic C. Howe, Privilege and Democracy (New York: Scribner’s, 1910), p.232. Back
- Hofstadter, pp.308, 215. Back
- Walter E. Weyl, The New Democracy: An Essay on Certain Political and Economic Tendencies in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1912), p.191. Back
- In 1900 Andrew Carnegie earned 23 million dollars tax free, while girls at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York had to work six days for their five dollars a week; 2% of the population owned 60% of the country’s wealth. See Otis L. Graham, The Great Campaigns: Reform and War in America, 1900-1928 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), p.9. Back
- Frederic C. Howe, The City: The Hope of Democracy (New York: Scribner’s, 1905). Back
- Hofstadter, p.233. Back
- E.g., Ellis W. Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly: A Study in Economic Ambivalence (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton UP, 1966). Back
- William Allen White, Woodrow Wilson: The Man, his Times and his Task (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1924), p.264. Back
- Steffens to Tom L. Johnson, 1 Sept. 1909, in Ella Winter and Granville Hicks, eds., The Letters of Lincoln Steffens (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1938) 1, 223. Back
- Lincoln Steffens, Upbuilders (New York: Doubleday Page, 1909), p.278. Back
- E.g., Samuel Haber, Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1964). Back
- Weyl, p.164. Back
- William Allen White, The Old Order Changeth: A View of American Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1910), pp.30, 37, 28, 30. Back
- Christopher Lasch, ed., The Socil Thought of Jane Addams (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1965), pp.21-22; Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1914), p.427. Back
- Benjamin P. De Witt, The Progressive Movement: A Non-Partisan, Comprehensive Discussion of Current Tendencies in American Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1915), p.244. Back
- Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Harper and Row, 1949), p.111. Back
- Weyl, p.197. Back
- Jane Addams, “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” in Lasch ed ., Social Thought of Jane Addams, p.32. Back
- “The Principles of Scientific Management,” p.8, in Frederick W. Taylor, Scientific Management Crept., New York: Harper and Row, 1964). Back
- Hofstadter, Age of Reform, pp.215-16. Back
- Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1959); Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (London: Macmillan, 1967). Back
- James Weinstein, “Organized Business and the City Commission and Manager Movements,” Journal of Southern History, 28 (1962), 166-82. Back
- Hays, “Politics of Reform,” pp.157-69. Back
- Hays, Conservation, pp.271-76, and “Politics of Reform,” p.167. Back
- Gifford Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation (New York: Doubleday Page, 1910), p.48. Back
- Ibid, pp.87-88. Back
- McClure’s Magazine, 20 (January 1903), 336. Back
- Hofstadter, pp. 135, 137, 143-64. Back
- Richard B. Sherman, “The Status Revolution and Massachusetts Progressive Leadership,” Political Science Quarterly, 78 (1963), 61-65; Jack Tager, “Progressives, Conservatives and the Theory of the Status Revolution,” Mid-America, 48 (1966), 162-75; William T. Kerr Jr., ‘The Progressives of Washington, 1910-12,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 55 (1964), I6-27 ; David P. Thelen, “Social Tensions and the Origins of Progressivism,” Journal of American History, 56 (1969), 323-41. Back
- Hofstadter, pp.145, 140. Back
- Ibid. pp.182-85. Back
- Frank G. Goodnow, quoted in Melvin G. Holli, Reform in Detroit: Hazen S: Pingree and Urban Politics (New York: Oxford UP, 1969), p.172. Back
- See Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: Norton, 1970), Ch.4. Back
- John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1963), p.191. According to one authority, more than a fifth of the immigrants who entered between 1900 and 1910 could neither read nor write their native languages. See Richard M. Abrams, ed., Issues of the Populist and Progressive Eras, 1892-1912 (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p.246. Back
- E.g., John D. Buenker, Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform (1973; New York: Norton, 1978), pp.186-97. Back
- E.g., Paul J. Kleppner, The Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis of Midwestern Politics, 1850-1900 (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1970); Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896 (Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 1971). Back
- Arthur S. Link “What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920’s?” 847-48; James H. Timberlake, Prohibition and the Progressive Movement (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1963), pp.1-3. Back
- Higham, p.139. Back
- Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities (New York: McClure, Phillips, 1904), pp.2-3. Back
- Timberlake, pp.30-32. Back
- White, The Old Order Changeth, pp.128, 197. Back
- The Autobiography of William Allen White (New York: Macmillan, 1946), p.630. Back
- Kolko, Triumph of Conservatism, pp.1-56, 77-78. Back
- James Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900-1918 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp.ix-x, 253, passim. Back
- Robert H. Wiebe Businessmen and Reform: A Study of the Progressive Movement,(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962). Back
- Carl H. Chrislock, The Progressive Era in Minnesota, 1899-1918 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1971), pp.26-29, 43-46. Back
- John Braeman, “The Square Deal in Action: A Case Study in the Growth of the National Police Power,” in John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner and Everett Walters, eds., Change and Continuity in Twentieth Century America (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1964), pp.35-80. Back
- E.g., from 1902 the chief preoccupation of the National Association of Manufacturers was its anti-union Open Shop campaign. Back
- J. Joseph Huthmacher, “Urban Liberalism and the Age of Reform,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 49 (1962), 231-41; Buenker, Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform. Back
- Buenker, pp.27-41. Back
- For example, in the lower house of the Connecticut General Assembly in 1910, some towns with populations of less than a thousand had the same number of representatives as cities of over 100,000. Ibid., pp.13-14. Back
- Ibid, pp.217-21. Back
- Michael Paul Rogin and John L. Shover, Political Change in California: Critical Elections and Social Movements, 1890-1966 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1970), p.76. Back
- Buenker, pp.222-23. This Democratic revival was noted in 1957 by Hays, who observed that its roots “remain an enigma”. Hays, Response to Industrialism, p.149. Back
- Charles McCarthy, The Wisconsin Idea (New York: Macmillan, 1912), pp.302-3, quoted in Michael Paul Rogin, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter(Cambridge, Mass.: M.LT. Press, 1967), pp.194-95. Back
- Holli, Reform in Detroit, passim. Back
- Michael P. Rogin, “Progressivism and the California Electorate,” Journal of American History, 55 (1968), 297-314; Rogin and Shover, Chs.2-3. Back
- For example, at this time “spokesmen for all groups within Minnesota adapted progressive rhetoric to the promotion of their particular interests. Precisely what policies deserved to be called progressive became a moot question, but nearly everyone claimed the label.” Chrislock, p.22. Back
- The elections of 1914 were generally regarded as a disaster not only for the Progressive Party but for the wider reform cause. For a good analysis of the situation in a leading progressive state, see Herbert F. Margulies, The Decline of the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890-1920 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1968), pp.124-63. Back
- Allen F. Davis, “Welfare, Reform and World War I,” American Quarterly, 19 (1967), 516-33. Back
- See Burl Noggle, Into the Twenties: The United States from Armistice to Normalcy (Urbana: Illinois UP, 1974), pp.46-83. Back
- Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p.149. Back
- Charles B. Forcey, The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippman and the Progressive Era, 1900-25 (New York: Oxford UP, 1961), pp.xv-xvi. Back
- Hofstadter, pp.134-35. Back
- W.A. White to Theodore Roosevelt, 24 Nov. 1914 (W.A. White Papers, Library of Congress); Chester Rowell to Theodore Roosevelt, 6 Dec. 1914 (Chester Rowell Papers, University of California, Berkeley). Back
- Wiebe, Businessmen and Reform, pp.70-72. Back
- Higham, Strangers in the Land, e.g., pp.81, 106-07. Back
- Richard Hofstadter, “Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny,” in his The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (London: Jonathan Cape, 1966), pp.148-50. The importance of the depression of the 1890s in creating that unity among different types of reformers that distinguished the Progressive Era is emphasized by Thelen, “Social Tensions and the Origins of Progressivism,” pp.335-41. Back
- James Holt, Congressional Insurgents and the Party System, 1909-16 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1967), pp.58-62. Back
- Graham, The Great Campaigns, pp.143-44. Back
- Burnham, Critical Elections, pp.84-90. Back
- Forrest A. Walker, “Compulsory Health Insurance: ‘The Next Great Step in Social Legislation’,” Journal of American History, 56 (1969), 290-3 04. Back
- Postscript: Some good and relatively concise accounts of the period have recently appeared: Richard M. Abrams, The Burdens of Progress, 1900-1929 (Glenview, Ill., 1978), Irwin and Debi Unger, The Vulnerable Years: The United States, 1896-1917 (New York, 1978), and John W. Chambers II, The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1900-1917 (New York, 1980). See also John W. Gable, The Bull Moose Years: Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party (Port Washington, N.Y., 1978).