Lecture on Progressivism Grassroots Progressivism



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Lecture on Progressivism


  1. Grassroots Progressivism

What motivated comfortable, middle-class women and men to undertake the series of reforms that together constituted one of the major movements for social and political reform in U. S. history? There is no one answer because there is no single progressive profile. The “progressives,” as they called themselves, were a diverse group with a variety of goals…” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 802-803).


For some, the sense of Christian mission inspired them; others, feared social upheaval unless something were done

Most shared a strong dislike of the growing power of big business, the power of the wealthy, and the influence of the trusts

However, they often feared the new immigrants and so wanted to control and “Americanize” them

Progressive reform began at the bottom (or the grassroots level) and worked its way up to national politics as progressive reformers attacked the social problems brought on by industrialization

The progressives were loudest in the urban areas, the very centers of industrial America, where they sought to civilize the cities


    1. Civilizing the City

Progressive reform efforts were multifaceted, and reformers of many stripes participated in the campaign to civilize the city. Typically, progressives attacked the problems of the city on many fronts: The settlement house movement attempted to bridge the distance between the classes; the social gospel called for the churches to play a new role in social reformation; and the social purity movement campaigned to clean up vice, particularly prostitution” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 803).


Adopted from England, the settlement house movement came to America in 1886 and saw middle class people going and living in poorer neighborhoods in an effort to help promote solutions to urban problems in the areas where answers were most needed

Women formed the backbone of the movement, and, because educated females often found themselves blocked in the professions by sex discrimination, helped it grow from just 6 settlements in 1891 to over 400 by 1911. In the process, these women, such as Jane Addams who founded Hull-house in Chicago, created the new profession of social work

Churches also got involved in progressivism by preaching a new “social gospel” that sought to not just reform individuals but society as well

On a simple level, the social gospel offered a powerful corrective to the Gospel of Wealth. Men such as Charles L. Seldon, in his popular 1898 book, In His Steps, called on men and women to Christianize capitalism by asking the question “What would Jesus do?”

Ministers also played an active role in the social purity movement. Progressives argued that poverty bred prostitution and so demanded higher wages for workers. They also denounced prostitution as a social evil and employed doctors to inform people about the spreading of venereal disease.

Attacks on alcohol went hand in glove with the push for social purity; reformers such as the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League pointed to the links connecting drink with prostitution, wife and child abuse, unemployment, and industrial accidents

The progressives’ efforts to civilize the city demonstrated their belief both possible and desirable to improve society


    1. Progressives and the Working Class

Day-to-day contact with their neighbors made settlement house workers particularly sympathetic to labor unions….During the Pullman strike in 1894, Hull House residents organized strike relief and lent their prestige and financial resources to the strike. ‘Hull-House has been so unionized,’ grumbled one Chicago businessman, ‘that it has lost its usefulness and become a detriment and harm to the community.’ But to the working class, the support of middle-class reformers marked a significant gain” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 805).


Again, women played a huge role in promoting cross-class unity in creating better conditions for workers; for example, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) went on strike in 1909, protesting low wages, dangerous and demeaning work conditions, and management’s refusal to recognize their union. Ultimately, the strike was broken, but it did show that workers and middle class progressives could organize effectively together

The National Consumers League, formed in 1899 and led by Florence Kelley, also fostered cross-class alliance by advocating middle-class women to boycott stores and exert pressure on the government for decent wages and working conditions for women employees

This tendency to seek protective legislation became a hallmark of progressivism. Its critics would later argue that the progressives assumed too easily that social problems could best be solved by government regulation


  1. Progressivism: Theory and Practice

Progressive reformers developed a new theoretical basis for their activist approach by countering social Darwinism with a dynamic new reform Darwinism and by championing the uniquely American philosophy of pragmatism” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 809).




    1. Reform Darwinism and Pragmatism

The active, interventionist approach of the progressives directly challenged social Darwinism, with its insistence that the world operated on the principle of survival of the fittest and that human beings were powerless in the face of the natural law of selection. Without abandoning the evolutionary framework of Darwinism, a new group of sociologists argued that evolution could be advanced more rapidly if men and women used their intellects to alter the environment” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 811).


Called “reform Darwinism,” the new sociological theory condemned laissez-faire policies and argued for a much increased role for the government in solving social problems

Made up of physicians, businesspeople, scientists, engineers, and social workers, this group of urban progressives championed the scientific method and promoted efficiency, seeking scientific solutions to social problems

William James and John Dewy had a huge impact on this group by putting forth their pluralistic, relativistic theory called pragmatism. A pioneer in American education, Dewey emphasized process rather than content and encouraged more child-centered schools where students learned by doing.

By championing social experimentation, the American pragmatists provided an important impetus for progressive reform




    1. Scientific Management and the cult of Efficiency

Increased emphasis on means as well as ends marked progressive reform. Efficiency and expertise became watchwords in the progressive vocabulary. The journalist and critic Walter Lippmann, in Drift and Mastery (1914), a classic statement of the progressive agenda, called for skilled technocrats who would use scientific techniques to control social change, substituting mastery for aimless drift” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 811).


While Populism had called for a greater voice for the masses, progressivism, for all its emphasis on social justice, insisted that experts be put in charge

At its extreme, the application of expertise and social engineering took the form of scientific management, which alienated the working class while elevating productivity and efficiency above all other considerations. Frederick Winslow Taylor pioneered this effort.




  1. Progressivism Finds a President: Theodore Roosevelt

An activist and a moralist, imbued with progressive spirit, Roosevelt would turn the White House into a ‘bully pulpit’ and, in the process, shift the nation’s center of power from Wall Street to Washington” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 813).




    1. The Square Deal

At the age of forty-two, Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to move into the White House. A patrician by birth and an activist by temperament, Roosevelt brought to the job tremendous talent and energy….The ‘absolutely vital question’ facing the country, Roosevelt wrote to a friend in 1901, was ‘whether or not the government has the power to control the trusts’” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 802-803).


Roosevelt earned himself the reputation of being a trustbuster by using the Sherman Act against 43 trusts, including such giants as the American Tobacco Company, Swift and Company, and Standard Oil

Roosevelt’s actions as president demonstrated that government intended to act independently to provide a countervailing force to the power of the big corporations. Pleased with his role in the anthracite strike, he announced that all he had tried to do was give labor and capital a “square deal,” a slogan that would carry his election in 1904 (Mckinley was shot in 1901)




    1. Roosevelt and Regulation

“’Tomorrow I shall come into my office in my own right,’ Roosevelt is said to have remarked on the eve of his election. ‘Then watch out for me!’ The conservative Republicans who had helped to elect him intended to do just that. No longer under the illusion that Roosevelt would continue McKinley’s role as a silent partner to business interests, they reassured themselves that Congress remained firmly in the grip of conservative, standpat Republicans. The old guard in the Senate was led by Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, who was called ‘the senator from Standard Oil’ (an alliance cemented when his daughter married John D. Rockefeller Jr.). In an era when state legislatures still chose U. S. senators, like Aldrich openly served business interests. The old guard stood squarely in the path of Roosevelt and reform” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 816).

Roosevelt was a very effective compromiser and so was able to guide his reform measure through the Conservative Congress where others might have come up short

His pet project was railroad regulation and as such he wanted to restore power to the ICC that had seen much of its influence stripped by the Supreme Court He did this by passing the Hepburn Railway Act (1906), which gave the ICC power to set railroad rates subject to court review. It wasn’t entirely effective b/c it gave the court’s too much power, but its passage was a landmark in the evolution of federal control of private industry. For the first time, a government commission had the power to investigate private business records and to set rates.





    1. Roosevelt and Big Business

When a sharp business panic developed in the fall of 1907, business interests quickly blamed the president. The panic of 1907 proved to be severe but short. Once again, J. P. Morgan stepped in to avert disaster, switching funds from one bank to another to prop up weak institutions and keep them from failing. For his services, he claimed as a prize the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, an independent steel business that had long been coveted by his U. S. Steel” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 818).

Roosevelt agreed not to enact antitrust legislation against J. P. Morgan’s acquisition on a “gentleman’s word” when the finance banker extraordinaire told him that the sale of the company would aid the economy but little benefit U. S. Steel….not entirely true!

Actually some enlightened business leaders, such as Morgan found federal regulation preferable to unbridled competition….b/c oftentimes they would participate in the creation of regulatory legislation, while at the same time, brown nosing the president, hoping to avoid antitrust legislation

He was very progressive though in securing a 100 million more acres and turning them into national parks and the like, stepping on the toes of every major interest group in the West. Today, 6 national parks, 16 national monuments, and 51 wildlife refuges stand as witness to Roosevelt’s substantial accomplishments as a conservationist



    1. Roosevelt the Diplomat

“A man who relished military discipline and viewed life as a constant conflict for supremacy, Roosevelt believed that the ‘civilized nations’ should police the world and hold the ‘backward’ countries in line” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 819).


Roosevelt relied on military strength combined with diplomacy, aptly described with his famous aphorism “Speak softly but carry a big stick”

He vigorously upheld the Monroe Doctrine, almost going to war with Germany in 1902 over Venezuela

His paternalistic and sense of ownership toward the western hemisphere was evident in his Panama Canal project (which would link the Caribbean to the Pacific and effectively double the nation’s naval power)

The land in Panama actually belonged to the Columbian government and so when they refused to sell, Roosevelt engineered an uprising, the government of whom the State Dept. recognized within 24 hours and the contract was signed! The episode became a national disgrace.

Roosevelt pursued an Open Door policy with regards china, insofar as he sought to maintain Chinese territorial integrity and guarantee the US an equal share with the European powers in trade and investment rather than just going in and trying to take over themselves

Also, in order to show Japan (who was also getting expansionist ideas of their own) what the US was capable of, Roosevelt dispatched the “Great White Fleet,” the navy’s most up-to-date battleships, on a “goodwill” mission around the world. This show of force was a classic example of speak softly but carry a big stick





    1. The Troubled Presidency of Howard Taft

When Roosevelt retired from the presidency in 1909 at the age of fifty to go on safari and shoot big game in Africa, he turned the White House over to his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. Any man would have found it difficult to follow in Roosevelt’s footsteps, but Taft proved hopelessly ill-suited to the task” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 823).


Taft saw his role as being to conserve the gains made by Roosevelt and not to push ahead for more reforms. With the country wanting more, Taft was badly out of tune with the people

He also took on the tariff issue (something that Roosevelt had been astute enough to avoid) saying that rates needed to be lowered….the Conservative Congress got hold of it and actually raised the rates…leading many to attack Taft for having engineered a triumph for big business over consumers

Owing in no small part to the tariff controversy Taft was swept out of office in 1912, and in rolled the Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who promised to use antitrust legislation to get rid of big corporations



  1. Woodrow Wilson and Progressivism at High Tide

Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia, Woodrow Wilson was the first Southerner to be elected president since James K. Polk (in 1844) and only the second Democrat to occupy the White house since Reconstruction. Before he was finished, Wilson would preside over progressivism at high tide and see enacted not only the platform of the Democratic Party but the humanitarian reforms championed by Roosevelt’s Progressive Party as well ” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 827-828).



    1. Tariff and Banking Reform

In March 1913, Wilson, proud of his ability as an orator, became the first president since John Adams to go to Capitol Hill and speak directly to Congress, calling for tariff reform. ‘The object of the tariff,’ Wilson told his audience, ‘must be effective competition.’ Eager to topple the high tariff, the Democratic House of Representatives hastily passed the Underwood tariff, which lowered rates by 15 percent” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 828).


To compensate for the loss of revenues, Congress also passed a modest income tax, made possible by the ratification of the 16th amendment a month earlier

A mandate for banking reform was made possible by the Pujo Committee, a congressional body led by Senator Arsene Pujo from Louisiana, which had unearthed an alarming concentration of banking power that had developed as a result of mergers. For example, J. P. Morgan and Company and its affiliates held 341directorships in 112 corporations, controlling assets of more than $22 billion

Probably Wilson’s most significant piece of domestic legislation, the Federal Reserve Act, passed in 1913 as a result of the outcry, established a national banking system composed of regional banks (12) under the direction of a Federal Reserve Board appointed by the president. It gave the US its first efficient banking system and, at the same time, provided for a larger degree of government control over banking than had existed before


    1. Wilson and the Trusts

Flushed with success, Wilson tackled the trust issue. When Congress reconvened in January 1914, Wilson supported the Clayton bill to outlaw interlocking directorates (directors from one corporation sitting on the board of another) and unfair practices. By spelling out which practices were unfair, Wilson hoped to guide business activity back to healthy competition without resorting to regulation” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 829).


Unfortunately, the Clayton Act did not succeed in breaking the alliance of business and the judiciary; the courts continued to issue injunctions and to use antitrust legislation against labor unions

Wilson created the FTC in 1913 which not only had wide investigatory powers but the authority to prosecute corporations for “unfair business practices” – Wilson’s antitrust program worked to regulate, rather than break up big business

In the fall of 1914, Wilson declared progressivism to be over and sought to heal the rift with big business and banking by making conservative appointments to the regulatory bodies. The progressives were not pleased


    1. Wilson, Reluctant Progressive

Progressives watched in dismay as Wilson repeatedly obstructed or obstinately refused to encourage further progressive reforms. He failed to support labor’s demand for an end to injunctions and for a promise to exempt unions from prosecution under antitrust laws as conspiracies ‘in restraint of trade.’ He twice threatened to veto legislation providing for farm credits on non-perishable crops. He refused to support child labor legislation or woman suffrage, he vetoed legislation sponsored by labor to curb immigration” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 830).


Even though he had declared progressivism over just a couple of years earlier, Wilson realized by 1916 that if he was going to be reelected he would have to adopt more progressive reforms, so he cultivated social reformers, farmers, and union labor

He passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Law, and practically forced Congress to establish an 8 hour working day at 10 hours a day wages on the railroads



  1. The Limits of Reform

Progressivism, no matter how much it challenged standpat conservatism, was never a radical movement. Its goal remained the preservation of the existing system, by government intervention if necessary, but without uprooting any of the traditional American political, economic, or social institutions. Progressivism’s basic conservatism can be seen by comparing it to more radical movements of the era and by looking at the groups that were left out of progressive reform” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 830).





    1. Radical Alternatives

It was inevitable, given the turbulence of the times, that the progressivism of Roosevelt and Wilson would be challenged by more radical voices. The most cogent criticism of progressivism came from American socialists” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 830).


The Socialist Party was formed in 1900 and, like the Progressives, were mostly middle-class and native born. They chose Eugene V. Debs as their standard-bearer, who advocated cooperation to replace competition and women to liberate themselves from the “barbarism of private ownership and wage slavery”

Debs declared “While there is a lower class, I am of it, while there is a criminal class, I am of it, while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs championed the cause of the working classes and was heavily influenced by both the social gospel and by Karl Marx

In contrast to this political radical, Margaret Sanger, a nurse and social activist, promoted birth control as a movement for radical change—she saw it as not only a sexual and medical reform but also as a means to alter social and political power relationships to alleviate human misery. Sanger and her movement were ruthlessly pursued by the government who feared her rhetoric might spark “race suicide”





    1. Progressivism for White Men Only

The day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in March, 1913, more than five thousand demonstrators marched in Washington to demand the vote for women. The march served as a reminder that the political gains of progressivism were not spread equally in the population. When the twentieth century dawned, women could still not vote in most states” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 833).


Alice Paul set up the National Woman’s Party (NWP), which became the radical voice of the suffrage movement, advocating direct action and civil disobedience.

Paul and her followers pushed for a constitutional amendment (Susan B. Anthony amendment) to provide women with the vote. The NAWSA grew from this movement. When America joined the Great War in 1917, Paul and the NAWSA refused to support the war effort, saying that democracy must first start at home. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed in 1920.

One of the most chilling facts about the Progressive platform was that it preached disenfranchisement of black voters as “reform.” For example, in many southern states poll taxes were passed, literacy tests too (which also served to take the vote from some poor whites, which was soon bypassed with the “grandfather clause”)

As a corollary of this racist “progressive” platform, the supreme court upheld racial segregation so long as it was “equal” with the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case

Wilson was the first president to segregate the White House


    1. Progressivism in perspective

The limitations of progressive reform should not obscure its very real achievements. The progressive movement brought significant gains as government moved away from laissez-faire and social Darwinism to embrace a more active role designed to bring about social justice and to establish a better balance between business and government” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 838).


Progressivism contained many paradoxes:

  1. It began as a grassroots movement and yet left as its legacy a stronger presidency and unprecedented federal involvement in the economy and social welfare

  2. A movement that believed in social justice often promoted social control

  3. While many progressives called for a greater democracy, they worshipped experts and efficiency

  4. All in all, however, progressivism attempted to deal with the problems posed by urban industrialization and, by increasing the power of the government, helped to launch the liberal state into the twentieth state


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