Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART ONE
Prewar America: 1900-1916

Between the turn of the century and World War I there occurred in many American cities, most states, and at the federal level a broad reform effort called the progressive movement. And for more than forty years there was general agreement about the nature and accomplishments of this movement. As the explanation went, the purpose of the movement was to cope with the flaws of rapid industrialization and urbanization by democratizing the various American political systems and conferring upon these systems new powers of economic regulation. The reformers were a coalition of young and dynamic politicians, journalists, academics, and social workers; and they included among their number, two Presidents. The struggle for their goals was far from easy, and was of course never entirely completed; but in the end (by common consent, about 1916) American life was more humane, democratic, and the public interest better protected, than when the century opened.

This view of the 1900-1916 period has been called the liberal interpretation, since it was part of a broader liberal view of modern American history. In this view, two epochal periods of political and intellectual struggle, the progressive era and the New Deal, had transformed the State from a friend of the corporations (although not a particularly active one; the corporations in the late nineteenth century didn't need much help) to a vigilant protector of the general public and guarantor of economic security for the poor and weak. The liberal interpretation was invariably presented in a spirit of modest national self-congratulation at so much enlightenment and social progress.

This framework satisfied virtually all historians until after World War II. Then, in the 1950s, came the publication of several books and articles that were either incompatible with it or suggested serious modifications. In the latter category, George Mowry in his The California Progressives ( 1951) found reformers in California a rather conservative lot, unduly nostalgic for an unrecapturable past, unable to completely disguise their dislike for aspects of urban society -- in particular the labor movement, the saloon, and the new ethnic groups. This critical insight was given a brilliant, comprehensive statement in Richard Hofstadter's The Age of Reform ( 1955). Subsequent research has cast doubt on the "Status Revolution" theory which Hofstadter offered in explanation of the reformers' motivation. But Hofstadter's more important reassessment of the progressive mentality was widely influential. Granting the reformers' virtues, which included social idealism and sympathy for the underdog, Hofstadter drew attention to their intellectual

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