Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette

By Sally Foreman Griffith | Go to book overview
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5
Booster Progressivism

William Allen White did not become a reformer as an isolated individual, but as a citizen of Emporia and the publisher of the Gazette. Although he was part of a widening national network of reformers, he continued to make his livelihood, live most of his days, and gain much of his sense of identity and accomplishment within his home town. For White, being a progressive was a matter as much of concrete public actions as of ideology. His new identity was not merely reflected by, but was embodied in, a series of reform movements that he spearheaded in Emporia.

No one person creates a social movement. White was a member of a shifting coalition of Emporians interested in a range of causes such as moral reform, civic improvement, economic regulation, and municipal reorganization. All of these concerns have been identified with a national wave of reforms that is commonly labeled progressivism, and, surveying the history of Emporia in the first decades of the twentieth century, one senses a spirit of civic activism that is in keeping with the national ethos. Yet if one looks more closely at each cause, it becomes harder to detect a single unifying concern among them all. No one of the simple explanations favored by historians suits all cases. Certainly, Emporia did not experience industrialization, rapid urban growth, or an influx of immigrants in this period. It was not dominated either by a displaced gentry or by a centralizing professional class. Rather, Emporians sought a variety of reforms for a wide range of reasons.

Championing reform had enabled White to claim a leadership role, and it may well have fulfilled similar personal aspirations for others. Some Emporians were determined to impress their visions of morality upon the community. Some middle-class women wanted a greater role in public affairs. Some local businessmen sought government protection against the dominance of national corporations. Some perennial boosters simply wanted Emporia to have whatever was most up-to-date, most "progressive," in urban amenities.

What gives the period unity was not motivation but rhetoric: all the campaigns in Emporia turned for inspiration and justification to the booster ethos. Boosterism balanced economic growth with social order through a set of ethical injunctions that defined morality in middle-class terms and made it inseparable from., and essential to, business success. Ideally, the citizen would advance self and community by placing public duties above

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