The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880-1930

The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880-1930

The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880-1930

The Paradox of Southern Progressivism, 1880-1930

Synopsis

Focusing on the cultural conflicts between social reformers and southern communities, William Link presents an important reinterpretation of the origins and impact of progressivism in the South. He shows that a fundamental clash of values divided reformers and rural southerners, ultimately blocking the reforms. His book, based on extensive archival research, adds a new dimension to the study of American reform movements. The new group of social reformers that emerged near the end of the nineteenth century believed that the South, an underdeveloped and politically fragile region, was in the midst of a social crisis. They recognized the environmental causes of social problems and pushed for interventionist solutions. As a consensus grew about southern social problems in the early 1900s, reformers adopted new methods to win the support of reluctant or indifferent southerners. By the beginning of World War I, their public crusades on prohibition, health, schools, woman suffrage, and child labor had led to some new social policies and the beginnings of a bureaucratic structure. By the late 1920s, however social reform and southern progressivism remained largely frustrated. Link's analysis of the response of rural southern communities to reform efforts establishes a new social context for southern progressivism. He argues that the movement failed because a cultural chasm divided the reformers and the communities they sought to transform. Reformers were paternalistic. They believed that the new policies should properly be administered from above, and they were not hesitant to impose their own solutions. They also viewed different cultures and races as inferior. Rural southerners saw theircommunities and customs quite differently. For most, local control and personal liberty were watchwords. They had long deflected attempts of southern outsiders to control their affairs, and they opposed the paternalistic reforms

Excerpt

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a thoroughgoing restructuring transformed social and political institutions and instrumentalities in the United States, with the result that, between about 1900 and 1930, bureaucratic intervention in education, public health, child welfare, and public morality replaced traditional governance, which had relied on voluntarism and community control. The new bureaucratic presence reflected the influence of reformers who attempted to impose new forms of government in which administrative expertise and efficiency became the primary standards, and what is loosely called "progressivism" swept over all regions of the United States in the early 1900s.

In no region was there a sharper conflict between traditional and modernizing governance, or between republican libertarianism and the trend toward a more powerful state, than in the South. Scholars of southern reform have reached a consensus, as have historians of American progressivism, on progressivism's general features. They agree that reformers created new structures for twentieth-century political, cultural, and social institutions; that they and their followers came mostly from the urban middle classes; and that they sought to transform the relationship between individuals and government. But here agreement ends and controversy begins.

This study argues that southern progressivism should be understood as a clash between radically divergent views of the social contract. On the one hand, southern traditionalists, located in farms, villages, and small towns, understood "community" in local, neighborhood terms; accordingly, they viewed social problems passively and often indifferently. Like Populists and other rural southerners of the nineteenth century, traditionalists articulated a powerful version of southern political culture that exalted the values of participatory democracy and discourse; these values reinforced localism and opposition to outside interference. Like the Populists, they opposed strong centralized power and resisted the intrusion of large, impersonal forces into matters heretofore under community control. Like generations of Americans before them, they sought equity and justice, yet on this point the traditionalists of the Progressive Era diverged significantly. For Populists, equity meant the regulation of large economic enterprise and freedom from the tentacles of the market economy. For traditionalists of the early twentieth century, in contrast, equity was defined in antigovernment terms and meant freedom from . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.