The Twisted Tree of Progressivism

By Stromberg, Joseph R. | Freeman, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Twisted Tree of Progressivism


Stromberg, Joseph R., Freeman


Sorting out the Progressive movement and its constituent ideologies can be difficult in that the very term "progressive" is burdened with contested meanings. Rather than work along lines agreeable to presently out-of-office politicians hoping to regain power by denouncing long-dead Progressives, we begin with some deep background.

One portent of Progressivism is found in the Liberal Republican movement of the 1870s. Prone to Paris Commune panics, distressed by strikes and labor trouble, such reformers as Charles Francis Adams (descended from John Adams), Francis Amasa Walker (Boston laissezfaire economist and Indian and E. L. Godkin (Anglo-Irish editor of The Nation) concluded that efficient, inexpensive bureaucracy was just the ticket. It could manage questions too important to be left to democratic processes, especially those touching on the lately acquired governmentbestowed advantages of big business. ("Efficiency" had a great future before it.) This movement was urban, basically eastern, and closely connected with economic elites (Nancy Cohen, Reconstruction of American Liberalism).

Another tributary into Progressivism - populism - began in opposition to all the above. Populists stated the case for tariff- and debt-ridden farmers in the South and the West. Their key innovation, or deviation from the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian tradition, was the belief that "the powers of government . . . should be expanded," as their 1892 platform put it. How far this idea actually reached depended on the particular populist, but this new approach brought some of them closer, in method anyway, to the later Progressive movement.

A third source of Progressivism was a universitybased intellectual movement whose leading figures included Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, philosopher John Dewey, economist Thorstein Veblen, and historians James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard. What united them was historicism and cultural organicism (Morton White, Social Thought in America). The ferment amounted to "a pragmatic revolt against formalism, abstraction and deductive methodology in the social sciences" (Wallace Mendelson, Capitalism, Democracy, and the Supreme Court). Darwinism, variously read, and scientism were among their weaponry.

A vaguer force was post-millennial Protestant reform, originally based in Greater New England, but now of national scope. Kicked off centerstage by science, many Protestant clergymen engaged social causes in a distinctly Progressive spirit. All these tendencies, plus an ingrained American penchant toward panic, pointed toward a busy future.

These forces (and perhaps others) converged on certain economic, social, and political problems stemming from America's rapid industrial growth: the Gilded Age's blatant corruption and subsidies (embodied in the railroads, their origins, and practices), labor strife, urban poverty, economic concentration, and financial manipulation. (Subtext: no stone unturned, no child left alone, no person unregistered, and no physical entity unregulated.) (See my October Freeman article, "The Gilded Age: A Modest Revision," tinyurl.com/ 3ocd5ke.)

Progressives were fierce critics of federal courts, which they saw as the bulwark of big business. (This was never exactly untrue.) Their foremost concern was how to sustain the new industrial order while conserving American values and institutions.As they saw it, the main alternatives were: 1) restore competition by various means, including antitrust laws, or 2) accept and closely regulate an economy of large corporations. These conflicting visions constituted a serious fault line within Progressivism.

East versus West Approximates Hamilton versus Jefferson

New Republic editor Herbert Croly tried to bridge the Progressives' divide by setting Hamiltonian means alongside Jeffersonian ends-a "synthesis" that could not survive the slightest clash with real life. Taking "Jeffersonian" as answering roughly to Plan I (restore competition) and "Hamiltonian" as answering to Plan II (accept and regulate big corporations), we can spot the rough geographical outlines of what were (as much of the literature suggests) two quite different forms of Progressivism. …

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