Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

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

approve nor disapprove of the upward shifts of power which he attributes to progressivism, but one discerns a tinge of distaste in his account.

Not all historians have been pleased with this interpretation of urban reform. J. Joseph Huthmacher and John D. Buenker, in particular, have contended that in some cities -- most notably Boston, New York, Cleveland, and Chicago -- the lower classes participated actively in reform and achieved substantial gains in the way of welfare and labor legislation. Further, a sizeable body of evidence, drawn from political action as well as talk, attests to the importance of the "direct democracy" wing of urban reform. Hays thinks of the campaigns for broader suffrage as minor in scale and often merely as the ideological camouflage for the policy innovations of the business elites. But many contemporaries, and historians subsequently, have been convinced that much of progressivism did involve "returning government to the people" through electoral reform. Perhaps Hays, in order to push forward the long smothered truth that in many cities the upper classes controlled the local urban reform movement and turned it to their advantage, has exaggerated his case. In some cities, at least, the truth seems to be the other way around. A comprehensive picture of urban reform in the progressive era has yet to assert itself since Hays's article was published in 1964. One may be confident that any synthesis will build upon his findings and will respect his methodological critique of earlier historical writing.

In order to achieve a more complete understanding of social change in the Progressive Era, historians must now undertake a deeper analysis of the practices of economic, political, and social groups. Political ideology alone is no longer satisfactory evidence to describe social patterns because generalizations based upon it, which tend to divide political groups into the moral and the immoral, the rational and the irrational, the efficient and the inefficient, do not square with political practice. Behind this contemporary rhetoric concerning the nature of reform lay patterns of political behavior which were at variance with it. Since an extensive gap separated ideology and practice, we can no longer take the former as an accurate description of the latter, but must reconstruct social behavior from other types of evidence.

Reform in urban government provides one of the most striking examples of this problem of analysis. The demand for change in municipal affairs, whether in terms of over-all reform, such as the commission and city-manager plans, or of more piecemeal modifications, such as the development of city-wide school boards, deeply involved reform ideology. Reformers loudly proclaimed a new structure of municipal government as more moral, more rational, and more efficient and, because it was so, self-evidently more desirable. But precisely because of this emphasis, there seemed to be no need to analyze the political forces behind change. Because the goals of reform were good, its causes were obvious; rather than being the product of particular people and particular ideas in particular situations, they were deeply imbedded in the universal impulses and truths of "progress." Consequently, historians have rarely tried to determine precisely who the municipal reformers were or what they did, but instead

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