Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917

Article excerpt

Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917. By Elizabeth Sanders. American Politics and Political Economy. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, c. 1999. Pp. x, 532. Paper, $16.00, ISBN 0-226-73477-3; cloth, $48.00, JSBN 0-226-73476-5.)

This book should have a powerful impact on the content delivered by textbooks and lecturers in survey courses, injecting far more continuity between the Populist and Progressive periods than historians have allowed. The conventional narrative recognizes some linkage between the People's Party's Omaha platform of 1892 and post-1900 reform, but that convention stresses that the social bases and leadership of reform shifted from farms and rural America and third party activists to cities and urban middle classes and Progressive presidents. Elizabeth Sanders powerfully revises this narrative, arguing that "the dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians' drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism. The periphery generated the bulk of the reform agenda and furnished the foot soldiers that saw reform through the legislature" (pp. 3-4). The first 147 pages of this book cover the period up to 1896 and offer nothing new in a general way, but this reader's impatience with that situation was allayed by Sanders's bold arguments on many particulars. Regarding the Populists' inability to appeal to workers, Sanders dismisses the notion that the Populists bore full responsibility for that failure. Rather, from the Greenbackers on, Sanders asserts, agrarian reformers, including Bryan in particular, issued strong and consistent appeals to "labor" and "workers," but the latter simply did not respond. Although the book's first section is necessary, it is not an easy read. It is rewarding but might have been briefer given the book's density.

Sanders rejects the "capitalist-dominance" thesis that views Progressive Era reform as managed by business and political elites. The capitalist response to new regulation was rather "reactive and largely negative" (p. 4), expressing itself mainly through the executive and the Supreme Court. Whereas earlier interpretations also have centered on presidential leadership, intellectuals, or new professionals, Sanders sharply shifts the focus to the regional political economies of the South and West and, especially, to the congressional representatives of these regions. She also argues that the post-1896 Democratic Party constituted the major vehicle responsible for the federal government's regulatory response to the imbalances of the new industrial-financial economy. William Jennings Bryan emerges in this story as a failing presidential candidate--in 1896, 1900, and 1908--but one who exerted great influence over the Democratic platforms, congressional agenda, and Wilson's New Freedom. Building on the agrarian protests from the 1870s on, and stimulated by renewed rural organization after 1900, Sanders argues that periphery agrarians brought significant government action to "the redefinition of trade policy; the creation of an income tax; a new, publicly controlled banking and currency system; antitrust policy; the regulation of agricultural marketing networks; a nationally financed road system; federal control of railroads, ocean shipping, and early telecommunications; and agricultural and vocational education" (pp. 7-8).

The evidential heart of this book is analysis of roll-call voting in Congress from the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 through the Taft and Wilson administrations. Dividing the country into economic regions and subregions, Sanders establishes her argument via three categories of Congressional districts, based primarily on per capita value added in manufacturing: core, diverse, and periphery. Time and again, legislators' votes tended to be polarized between manufacturing-business core and peripheral agrarian districts, with legislators from diverse areas divided or siding with the agrarians. …