[This is Chapter 2 in Murphey's book Liberalism in Contemporary America.]
PHASES IN AMERICAN LIBERALISM: 1800-1920
In Rendezvous With Destiny, Eric Goldman began his history of liberalism with the end of the Civil War. This was appropriate to his own purposes, since he considered liberalism essentially a movement of "modern American reform" that has responded to the needs created by the urban, industrial, corporate environment that came into existence in the second half of the nineteenth century.
My own analysis differs significantly from Goldman's. I believe that by starting as late as he did he missed three factors that were crucial in the United States before the Civil War and that have been central to modern liberalism: the growing alienation of the intellectual in Western civilization against middle class culture; the resulting drain of intellectual resources away from classical liberal thought; and the continuing role of traditionalist conservative forces that stood at odds with the secular, rationalist, open society that had come into being. If these earlier developments are missed, the role of alienation is deemphasized and the historian is unable to see the continuity that has existed within the intellectual culture both in this country and in its relation to European thought.
The developments we will trace before the Civil War are important for still another reason. Their presence at the earlier time, a time that was agrarian and given only to small-shop capitalism, shows how the core impulse behind liberalism was not a reaction to industrialization, urbanization, or the rise of the large corporation, as Goldman believed it was. The alienation preceded rather than followed the advent of large-scale capitalism. I showed in my book on socialist thought how this fact is important to the analysis of socialism for precisely the same reason.
Before the Civil War: Romantic reaction and alienation, but without coalescence
From Jefferson's election in 1800 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, most Americans shared the ethos of the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian party -- an ethos that was articulately classical liberal. On the main economic question of the nineteenth century, it strongly favored free trade, wanting a tariff for revenue only, not for "protection." In a running debate that lasted over the entire 60-year period, it opposed the construction of internal improvements by the national government. Consistently with its focus on liberty, it saw dangers in Henry Clay's call for a standing army. And it was firmly democratic, in keeping with the contemporaneous views of John Bright of the Manchester School in England. It saw value in democratic simplicity and strongly opposed aristocratic privilege. Andrew Jackson's fight against the rechartering of the second United States Bank must be understood in this light, since it reflected a belief that the Bank enjoyed a privileged position resulting from a marriage of government and finance. The Jacksonian opposition to privilege resulted from the premises of classical liberal individualism rather than from an animus against capitalism.
When the anti-slavery agitation began, the Jacksonians urged moderation. In his Farewell Address in 1837, Jackson criticized incendiaries on both sides. This reflected the priorities of the Jacksonian ethos, since to it the newly created republic was the thing of paramount importance. Because the Jacksonian majority felt no alienation, most of its adherents saw enormous value in the main society, which they wanted to preserve. (The writings of William Leggett, a Jacksonian editorialist, show a contrary tendency, however; in common with the alienated intellectual culture, he raised particular grievances, such as monopolistic grants to corporations and slavery, to a point at which the main society came to have a lesser value.)
It was during those years that the Constitution took on the reverential glow that it has possessed within the American myth. (Here I use "myth" in its favorable, not pejorative, sense. I refer of course to the need within society -- even within one that is primarily secular and rationalistic -- to impute meaning to objects and events.)
It was a time of extraordinary expansion. A country that a few years before had hugged the eastern seashore soon extended to the Pacific. In one of the greatest migrations of all time its exploding population spread across thousands of miles. The telegraph, railroad and steam engine were typical of the many developments in science, technology and capital.
Oddly, these achievements contrasted sharply with the profoundly pessimistic mood of the intellectual minority. The intellectual culture saw little value in the achievements of the main society (which were, however, revolutionary in the truest sense). Its tone reflected, instead, a number of other influences.
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the Romantic movement in Europe reacted violently against the Enlightenment, changing the direction of the world intellectual community. This caused a drain of intellectual resources away from classical liberalism, which thereafter received relatively little work outside of economics. It is of the utmost significance that there was no major classical liberal philosopher in the United States after Jefferson. Ralph Waldo Emerson might, in a different climate, have been that thinker, but he felt no calling to serve as a philosopher for individualistic liberalism. Instead, his great talent, as well as that of Henry David Thoreau, turned to the other-worldliness of Transcendentalism, a philosophy that Alice Felt Tyler says included a theory of an oversoul in "mystical union with God."1
It is possible that John Calhoun would have filled the role if the sectional differences developing in the country had not taken command of his life. However, it is a mistake to think mainly in terms of the failure of any given thinker. There is a larger responsibility for the philosophical void, which is shared. It lies with the intellectual culture in its faithlessness to the Enlightenment. It also lies with the "bourgeoisie" (the commercial mainstream), which throughout history has rarely given enough attention to general ideas to germinate an intellectual culture appropriate to the free society with which it is identified and in which it thrives.
All sorts of streams then fed a current that flowed into the void created by the intellectual movement away from classical liberalism. One of them was aristocratic, neo-Mercantilist conservatism in New England. Another was the Burkean-style Southern conservatism that sprang up after 1830 in defense of slavery. In George Fitzhugh's eyes the South came to represent a cultured, hierarchical civilization superior to the Northern society that he perceived as money-grubbing and vulgar.
A third stream was resurgent Protestant religion. In the "Second Great Awakening" which began shortly after 1800, the evangelical spirit reached a fever pitch. It possessed a puritanical temper that had a lot to do with myopic self-righteousness and very little to do with how to build a truly liberal society. Protestantism no doubt played an historic role in establishing the foundations for individual freedom, but much of its worldview has also been at odds with precisely such a society. This provides one of the themes of modern history, since there has been a direct connection between other-worldly religious values and a loss of balance by the nihilist and by many reformers. Both nineteenth century Russia and pre-Civil War America experienced this connection. In varying degrees it has continued as a factor throughout American history.
Yet another element was a naive sentimentality, formed out of a combination of good intentions and foreshortened perspective. This was a mentality that emoted over all perceived abuses while ignoring the enormous progress that had been made. In England during the same period, the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay lamented how much this contributed to a generalized dissatisfaction. Despite conditions having improved at an historically unprecedented rate over the conditions of earlier periods, the existing society was denounced over and over again as depraved. This lack of perspective, characteristic of the entire modern period, is a product of both the shallowness of a semi-educated public and the predispositions ideologically of the intellectual culture. Much of the neurotic tone of modern life is established by it.
Of greatest significance was the Romantic movement itself. Most of the other factors had existed before. The Romantic revulsion against the Enlightenment brought them to a head, stifled the development of classical liberalism, and led to the alienation of the literary culture. In Europe, mystical, anti-rational, anti-bourgeois, anti-liberal thought became predominant. It was the spirit of a resurgent medievalism.
Those who absorbed this atmosphere began to consider the main society diseased. Abuses were seen everywhere, remedies of all kinds suggested. Emerson spoke of "a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world." C. S. Griffin writes of movements that together "attacked every American institution, every idea, every conceivable sin, evil, or burden of suffering." Intellectually, the United States passed through a period similar to the Muckraker era of the early twentieth century and to the intense alienation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such periods has involved been a generalized disgust, in which everyone other than the speaker and his immediate audience is blamed, and only the vaguest rationale is presented for what is wrong.2
We know, of course, that the abolitionist movement was building to a white heat against slavery. Although it was on the Enlightenment's side with regard to an extremely important moral issue, abolitionism reflected the hierarchy of values that is inherent in alienation. It subordinated the very existence of the United States, with all that that meant, to the slavery question. The Northern victory in the Civil War, both keeping the Union together and abolishing slavery, necessarily obscures this fact for us today. But before the Civil War there could have been no certainty that a drumbeat of hatred toward the South would produce anything but a fracturing of the Union, the assured continuation of slavery in one section, and incessant warfare between the two resulting countries (especially over westward expansion, which was such a bone of contention even while they were together). Slavery was an anachronism in the modern age. All that was needed for its eventual disappearance was a modicum of patience and the general society's continued adherence to classical liberal values. (It is no coincidence that serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861 without a civil war.)
Abolitionism was, however, just one of several movements. Some reformers threw themselves into Prohibition, seeing alcohol as the principal evil; there was a crusade against prostitution; pacifism was the focus for others. The religious revival called for a return to the Bible and to an emphasis on the Sabbath. There was an active anti-Catholic movement, since the vast immigration of Catholics, many of them the poor of Ireland and other places, was seen as a cause of the other problems. There were fads of phrenology, diet, free love, spiritualism, mesmerism, and hydropathy. Although the reformers ignored the plight of the Indians, there were movements to redeem criminals, to help the mentally incompetent and insane, to reform the prisons. The feminist movement got underway with the first Women's Rights Convention, organized by Lucretia Mott, in 1848. In his 1844 lecture "The New England Reformers," after speaking of the "fertility of projects for the salvation of the world," Emerson said that "one apostle thought all men should go to farming, and another that no man should buy or sell, that the use of money was the cardinal evil." He said that "others attacked the system of agriculture, the use of animal manures in farming," while "others attacked the institution of marriage as the fountain of social evils."3
One of the ideologically more significant movements had to do with the creation of utopian socialist communities. The Oneida community was established by John Humphrey Noyes, and embraced "Bible Communism" and "complex marriage." It was one of the more successful, continuing into the 1880s. Most of them were short-lived, and in historical perspective all have been considered failures. Robert Owen, a leader of early British socialism, set up New Harmony, which failed within two years. The Hopedale Community was created in 1841 to attempt a Christian socialism. Brook Farm began with Transcendentalism and shifted to the communism of the French socialist Charles Fourier. Fourier's thinking received considerable attention in the 1840's under the sponsorship of Horace Greeley and Albert Brisbane, when dozens of Fourierist communities were started. Anarchism was the basis for Modern Times, a community established by Stephen Pearl Andrews and Josiah Warren in 1851. Speaking more generally, Walter Hugins says that "European socialists...formed only a small part of the European migration to the United States after 1815, but they contributed immeasurably to the reform agitation."4
The "fertility of projects" did not reflect a consensus favoring a socialist critique (just as it did not during the Progressive period almost a century later). As the different movements indicate, there were widely divergent diagnoses of the disease that they all claimed to see in society. Some of the movements in fact represented the antipathy of the middle class itself to deviations from its values. It is noteworthy that the writings of both Emerson and Thoreau contain many comments that differ sharply from attitudes taken later by the Left. This reflects the fact that the intellectual culture had not yet begun to seek alliances with the have-nots. Nevertheless, socialist thinking was important to the coalescence of ideology that came later in the century, at which time a distinctly anti-capitalist intellectual rationale became widespread.
After the Civil War: alienation, yearning and coalescence
The ferment was largely stilled during the first few years after the Civil War. We know from The Education of Henry Adams that there was a rush of excitement among intellectuals when Ulysses S. Grant was elected president, but that disillusionment set in quickly when his administration failed to meet their expectations.
A letter that Adams sent to his brother Charles in 1862 is significant. It shows that this period remained within the cyclical paradigm of the psychology of the alienated intellectual. There had been years of intense activity, capped by the exhausting experience of the Civil War. Now there was a period of quiescence, during which the alienation continued and nurtured a yearning for the renewal of activity. Adams showed the yearning when he wrote that "what we want is a school... a national set of young men like ourselves or better, to start new influences...throughout the whole social organism of the country...." He then illustrated both his alienation and the historic failure of the bourgeoisie when he said that "that is what America has no power to create...It's all random, insulated work, for special and temporary and personal purposes."5
The reform movements after the Civil War were of two types. One involved reform from the top, led by such liberals (in the classical sense) as Edwin Lawrence Godkin and Samuel Tilden. These movements included the Liberal Republicans in 1872, a similar movement in the Democratic Party in 1876, and the Mugwumps in the 1880s. Tilden, raised in the Jacksonian school, has been called the father of the modern anti-boss reform spirit. Although these movements sought reform, primarily through Civil Service, they did not have an underlay of cultural alienation.
The other type of reform movement was agrarian. The agrarian crusades voiced the dissatisfaction of farmers with what they perceived as exploitation by lenders, railroads and storage elevators. Accordingly, they lent themselves to the growing rhetoric of anti-capitalism. They were especially susceptible to crank-money schemes, such as during the Greenback movement of the 1870s. As a debtor class, the farmers of that time saw advantages in easy credit and inflation.
Depressions, the rise of labor, and the influx of immigrants (many influenced by the growing socialist movement in Europe after the revolutionary fervor in 1848) all contributed to a rising turbulence. Labor-management relations became violent. The Molly Maguires, dynamiting and murdering in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, were put down only when ten of their members were hanged. Anarchism, an import from southern Europe, flourished until public opinion turned sharply against it after the Haymarket Square bombing in 1886. (Subsequent terrorist acts attest to the fact that it didn't disappear totally.)
Later in the century, books began appearing with a socialist critique. The most popular was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888). It soon sold 10,000 copies a week. In part, it was a novel, telling the story of a man who sleeps until the year 2,000 and then wakes up in a socialist utopia; in the main, however, it was a bitingly alienated description of capitalism and a glowing description of a model socialist society.
During the 1880s and 1890s Lester Ward authored a series of books and articles advocating what he called "Sociocracy," and looking forward to the day when "all the important public operations of society shall come more or less directly under the power of State regulation." His writing during that period is characteristic of much twentieth century liberal thought.
Most important, however, is the fact that the alienation finally coalesced into an ideology. Thereafter, there would still be "a fertility of projects," but the intellectual culture would at least share a common worldview, which it did not in the pre-Civil War period. It is probable that this coalescence would have occurred in any case, since European thought had arrived at that point, but the specific influence that most directly brought it about was the migration of several thousand American graduate students to German universities, mostly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, where they studied under the German Historical School. I described this in Chapter 10 of Understanding the Modern Predicament. The details I gave there are of the greatest significance to the development of American liberal ideology. Rather than repeat them here, though, it will suffice to highlight the following influences:
. The Historical School stood in close relation to the Junker aristocracy and to Bismarck's government, which was putting into place the first welfare state program in Europe.
. In common with so much European thought during the nineteenth century, the members of the School were intensely anti-bourgeois, and liberalism in its individualistic sense was anathema.
. Its "historical method" stressed empirical scholarship, extensive use of surveys, specialization, publication of monographs, and the like. It thus created the paradigm to which American higher education adheres to this day.
. At the same time, the historical method adopted a relativism that attacked the scientific pretensions of classical and neo-classical economics. The School argued that that economic theory generalized from patterns that exist only in a bourgeois phase of history, and that therefore its conclusions have no permanent validity. This attack on classical and neo-classical economics was important in its own right both for the methodological point it was making and because of its assault on the main body of work within classical liberalism; it was also important because such a relativism has been one of the main weapons used by the Left and by modern liberalism to undercut the foundations of bourgeois society.
In its stress on relativism, the Historical School reflected two very different aspects of modern intellectuality. One was its anti-middle class, anti-capitalist, anti-classical liberal ideology. The other was the emphasis that secular intellectuals have put on empiricial science. The ideology stemmed from the phenomenon of the alienation of the intellectual, based on several causes. One of these causes was the Romantic movement's restimulation of Medieval values (which of course have never been fully defeated), with their stress on hierarchy, religion, subordination of the individual, and a strong state. At the same time, the empirical aspect was in line with the thoroughly secular nature of modern science.
. The members of the School were gradualists, not revolutionaries. This was important to the decision by modern liberals, distinct from that made by avowed socialists, to stay within their culture, not putting themselves beyond its pale. In the United States, a gradualistic program based on a socialistic worldview would require dissimulation. This need led directly to "liberalism" as we have known it.
. It is relevant to the later Progressive movement and to modern liberalism in general that the members of the German Historical School believed in leadership from the top through a statesman who would embody the aspirations of the whole people. They also wanted the intellectual culture to stand in close relation to that leader.
The influence of these ideas was not simply a direct one. The rising British Left, which in turn had a major impact in the United States, had itself been under the sway of the German thinking. In 1915, Randolph Bourne wrote that "British thought for forty years has come straight from German sources. What is the new social politics of liberalism," he asked, "but a German collectivism, half-heartedly grafted on a raw stock of individualist 'liberty'?"6
The direct influence, however, came through a number of American thinkers and universities. Simon Patten observed in 1914 that the "Wisconsin Idea," under which the University of Wisconsin became the intellectual center for state activism, was based on the German example. Lincoln Steffens was educated in Germany; W. E. B. DuBois graduated from both Harvard and Heidelberg; Edward Alsworth Ross attended the University of Berlin. Richard T. Ely studied under the Historical School and later became a teacher to both Thorstein Veblen and John R. Commons. Ely was an important member of the faculty at both Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin. John Bates Clark studied in Germany, came to advocate Christian socialism, and was one of Veblen's teachers at Carleton College. George S. Morris became an Hegelian while studying in Germany, and later taught John Dewey. Louis Brandeis studied at Dresden in 1873-5. Eric Goldman says that five American universities became the principal repositories of these ideas: Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Chicago, Wisconsin and Washington. At the same time, newly forming academic associations reflected the rise of modern American social science. Lewis Gould tells us that "in 1885, a group of young men just back from German universities founded the American Economic Association." He refers specifically to Ely, Commons, Clark and Edward W. Bemis.7
The Populist Episode
Twentieth century historical literature has fiercely debated the nature of Populism. (The same is true of Progressivism.) Because of the diverse nature of their subject, historians of each period have been akin to the blind men feeling the different parts of an elephant and thus arriving at very different descriptions.
Lawrence Goodwyn is one who has emphasized a particular component. He argues persuasively that the central fact about Populism is that a "movement culture" arose among farmers, primarily in the South, reflecting first their discontent over the "crop-lien system" and then the efforts of the Farmers' Alliance. To Goodwyn, Populism's other factions were appendages. He accordingly considers the Free Silver component a "shadow movement." Fusion with the other factions, and especially with Free Silver, led to dissimulation and to an acceptance by reformers of the "hierarchical culture" that he says has dominated America ever since. Accordingly, he considers the election of 1896 the fateful turning point in modern American history, since it was to him the last desperate effort for real democracy. He criticizes John Hicks, Richard Hofstadter and Norman Pollack as historians who have not understood that the Alliance movement was the "core experience" of Populism.8
The debate among historians is partly definitional and partly a staking out of territory for a given author's assertion of preferred values. We are not obliged to resolve it here. With any complex historical phenomenon, different authors will select and emphasize different things for different reasons. It will be sufficient for our purposes simply to notice the nature of the factions and of the ensuing programs.
In addition to the agrarian movement that is central to Goodwyn's analysis, Populism included:
. The economic radicalism that has shown itself earlier in Kelloggism and the Greenback movement. This called for monetary inflation, divided the economic world conceptually into producers and non-producers, and advocated extensive governmental intervention.
. The socialist followers of Bellamy, who formed the "Eastern wing" of Populism. Compared to some of the other components, however, this wing was not a major contributor either of votes or of leadership.
. The enthusiasts for Henry George's "Single Tax." Despite the radical sweep of George's proposal to tax away the unearned increment in land values, his overall views were not socialistic.
. Labor, to the limited extent it chose to become affiliated. Major efforts were made to bring labor into the movement in Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio after the panic of 1893. The Populists were split, however, over "Plank 10" of the American Federation of Labor program. This called for socialism, advocating the collective ownership of the means of production and distribution. Samuel Gompers favored a go-it-alone policy for labor, and opposed an alliance with Populism.
. The Free Silver movement, headed by William Jennings Bryan. To advocates of the gold standard, this represented a call away from "hard money" and toward inflation; to enthusiasts for fiat moneh, though, it was insufficient, since to them it appeared simply to add another metal to what was essentially a hard-money policy.
Formed of these elements, the Populist coalition necessarily had a difficult time staying together. We have seen that Populists split over Plank 10 and that Gompers opposed labor's affiliation. Henry George opposed governmental intervention, which was at the heart of what most Populists wanted. Poor whites in the South were hostile toward participation by blacks. Socialists wanted a more radical program. As a result, the movement flew apart, fading away after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan in the presidential election of 1896 and with the improvement of farm prices. The difficulty of cementing a coalition, in light of the diverse interests and theoretical rationales, has continued in the twentieth century as one of liberalism's central problems.
The Omaha platform in 1892 summed up Populism's positions: There was a call for the federal ownership and operation of the railroads, telegraph and telephone; for Free Silver; for the eight-hour work day; for government to regulate all corporations and to break up monopolies. Democratizing measures were favored such as the secret ballot, the direct election of Senators, initiative and referendum. At the same time, unrestricted immigration was condemned as injurious to the workers and farmers who were already here. Little interest was shown in Civil Service or in the reduction of the tariff.
The Progressive episode
Another surge of reformist energy occurred in the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century. Although historians of the epoch generally say it ended with the advent of World War I, there was political activity under the Progressive label until LaFollette was defeated as a third party presidential candidate in 1924.
"Progressivism," too, is subject to varied interpretations as a product of a loose coalition of divergent streams. But its coalition was not identical to Populism's, and the issues it stressed were somewhat, though by no means entirely, different.
So diverse were its factions that The New Republic could say in 1924 that "American progressivism is nourished almost exclusively by the grievances and the demands of special regions and groups. There is no one idea, program or leader." John D. Buenker said much the same when he observed that "there is no single progressive movement at work during the period, but rather many separate groups interacting and coalescing."9
Progressivism's emphasis was urban, replacing Populism's agrarian focus. Farmers had receded from their radicalism at the same time the new urban middle class of business and the professions in America's rapidly developing cities was coming into its own. This middle class, urban base was reflected in many of the issues that Progressivism championed, such as the opposition to corruption, the promotion of the city-manager system of city administration, and the control of franchise monopolies. It is significant that a study by L. Otis Graham, Jr., found that a clear majority of Progressives who lived into the 1930s were sufficiently conservative that they opposed the New Deal as too radical. This sheds considerable light on the ideological complexion of Progressivism. Since we will see that there was a substantial socialist influence within the intellectual culture of Progressivism, the presence of middle class "conservatives" shows once again how diverse the movements were that we are reviewing. Much of what Progressivism crusaded for would quite naturally have been the platform of a classical liberal reformist party if developments within the preceding century had not deflected that possibility.10
A second element was evangelical Protestant reformism. Robert M. Crunden has said that this "provided the chief thrust...of the original progressive ethos." We see again the continuing role played by what has been called "pietistic Protestantism." This time it threw itself into the Prohibition movement, obtaining the eventual passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, while an influential portion expounded the "Social Gospel." Ralph Henry Gabriel says the work of Sheldon, Grinnell, Munger and Gladden had "borne fruit in an increased social consciousness on the part of the churches." The Social Gospel led to the publication in 1907 of Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis and the formation in 1908 of the Federal Council of Churches. In this and two later books, Rauschenbusch argued that "God is against capitalism" and called for socialism.11
Two historians of the period, J. Joseph Huthmacher and his student John D. Buenker, have stressed the role of "urban new stock Democrats." They point to the millions of immigrants who crowded the cities, coming first from Ireland and, in the New Immigration after 1880, from southern and eastern Europe. These millions provided the base for the city political machines, which catered to their needs. Buenker says that the legislation that was enacted in the industrial states during the Progressive era with the active assistance of the city machines laid the foundation for the New Deal and the welfare state. Thus, there were two "urban liberalisms": one of middle class reformers, and another on behalf of the millions of first and second generation Americans.
In an analysis of liberal thought, we should never overlook, however, the role of the intellectual culture. Malcolm Cowley later wrote of "the bustle and hopefulness that filled the early years from 1911 to 1916. Everywhere new writers were...marching forward arm in arm against the old standards of life and culture." Joseph Featherstone has added that "between 1913 and 1922,...anybody who was anybody wrote for Masses." The counter-culture of bohemian radicalism was at its height in Greenwich Village. According to Lewis Coser, "the young men and women who began flocking to Greenwich Village about 1910 were in revolt against small-town philistinism...For a few years the Village embodied the full flowering of an intellectual, artistic, political, and emotional counterculture." As with all such phenomena since the early nineteenth century, a central theme was alienation from the middle class. The counter-culture was enthusiastically socialist. Although The Masses under the editorship of Max Eastman was most influential, this was the period of the "little magazines" that appeared in great profusion, vibrant with the intellectual, artistic vitality of that period.12
Although the deeper origins of the Greenwich Village counterculture lay in the Romantic movement and in the intellectual developments within Europe during the preceding century, the counterculture was more immediately stimulated by the sensationalist exposure and condemnation of a great many facets of American life during the Muckraker movement between 1902 and 1911. Louis Filler says that Henry Demarest Lloyd's Wealth Against Commonwealth in 1894 had been "the first Muckraking book," but that Muckraking did not become a movement as such until McClure's publication in October 1902 of Lincoln Steffen's "Tweed Days in St. Louis." The serialization of Ida Tarbell's The History of the Standard Oil Company began in the following month's issue. For the next nine years, exposes appeared in rapid succession not just in the popular magazines, but in books and in newspapers noted for their "yellow journalism."
The ice, sugar, coal, patent-medicine, beef and other trusts were attacked. The stockyards and meat packing industry were investigated, and this led in 1906 to Upton Sinclair's famous book The Jungle. There was a Post Office scandal. Senators were identified as part of land frauds. Bribery was exposed in state legislatures. Organized finance was challenged, becoming the focus of Louis Brandeis' early career and of his book Other People's Money. A crusade was begun against railroad accidents. Life insurance frauds were brought to light. Child labor was bitterly assailed. Political bossism was attacked and a movement for municipal reform begun. There was a campaign against the power of the Speaker in the House of Representatives (and ironically this resulted in the power of committee chairmen under the seniority system, which in turn became an issue a half a century later). It is no wonder, then, that Theodore Roosevelt, although essentially friendly toward the Muckraker movement, made his reference to "the man with a muckrake" in Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress, thereby giving the epoch its name. This was the second of three major episodes in American history during which everything (except, as I have indicated, the speaker and his immediate audience) has been denounced as corrupt.
Within the intellectual culture, certain issues were of course more important than others. The one that stands out most prominently, and that divided the intellectuals themselves, both during the Progressive movement and at all times since, had to do with big business.
Herbert Croly's book The Promise of American Life made him the intellectual mentor of the "New Nationalism." Edward Bellamy's utopian socialism had been known as "Nationalism." Bellamy had predicted that socialism would come through corporations' growing ever larger and merging together until finally there would be one giant trust, which would then blend with government to undertake all social and economic functions. Croly likewise envisioned corporations' becoming larger, and favored their coming more and more under the wing of government. In contrast to Bellamy, however, Croly masked his socialist content with a fog of dissimulation. There was hence a "new" Nationalism. It welcomed bigness as industrially efficient and wanted government to make that bigness an instrument of national policy.
Despite his reputation as a "trust buster," Theodore Roosevelt became the political champion of the New Nationalism. (It is worth noticing, however, that liberal authors have mainly remembered him as opportunistic and inconsistent, they way they have with virtually all liberal politicians.) There is an interesting, although minor, dispute in the literature about who influenced whom. Learned Hand sent Croly's book to Theodore Roosevelt in Africa. According to John Chamberlain, Roosevelt read it with "a leaping brain." Roosevelt thereupon had Croly to lunch at Oyster Bay. But Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argues that Croly's "influence on Roosevelt has been considerably exaggerated" and says that "it was certainly less than Roosevelt's upon him." He points out that much of the programmatic content of Croly's book seemed based on Roosevelt's January 31, 1908, message to Congress.
At the same time, Louis Brandeis was the intellectual mentor of an opposing view called "the New Freedom," which was championed by Woodrow Wilson in the campaign of 1912. This advocated a "regulated competition" in which government would be the guarantor of a truly competitive market. Instead of encouraging the growth of business and then absorbing it into government, the New Freedom envisioned what Charles Beard, one of its critics, called "a democracy of small business."14
Again, however, the political leader fell short of the aspiration. Even during the campaign of 1912, Wilson couched his advocacy in platitudes. There was little follow-through by him as president, except to the extent that lowering the tariff helped remove one of the major causes of bigness. His other pre-World War I measures, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve System and the passage of the Clayton and Federal Trade Commission Acts, did not involve breaking up big business. After 1916 the war in Europe deflected Wilson from domestic reform, and in fact augmented quite significantly the forces leading toward concentration. Years later, Max Lerner looked back and said that Wilson "never made any efforts to smash the trusts."15
Intellectually the difference between the New Nationalism and the New Freedom paralleled the argument that was going on within socialist thought, both in the United States and England, about the relative advantages of a centralized or a decentralized collectivism. The Guild Socialist movement, which was strong in England until it was eclipsed by the allure of the Soviet system that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, opposed "state socialism" and wanted a decentralized socialism based on worker control.
In the United States, the intellectuals among the New Nationalists wanted an absorption of large-scale corporate capitalism by the federal government -- really a state socialism, masked by dissimulation. So far as the New Freedomites in general were concerned, they cannot be said to have wanted a decentralized socialism, since on the whole they were not socialists. Certainly Woodrow Wilson was no socialist. But in this book we are concerned about liberal thought, and it is of no small significance that Louis Brandeis, the New Freedom's principal intellectual mentor, embraced the Guild Socialist model in his private letters when he said that he looked forward to an ultimate worker control. In a letter in 1922 he spoke of workers' "participation in, and eventual control of, industry." So far as liberal thought in either school was concerned, the socialist models were never very far out of mind.16
I have brought up the Guild Socialist influence in connection with the New Freedom. This influence was much more pronounced, however, in the intellectual vogue, during the 'teens and early 1920s, of what was called "industrial democracy." Herbert Croly's book Progressive Democracy in 1915 reflected this vogue, and looked forward to eventual worker control, speaking of the need for "the deliberate education of the wage-earners for the position, which they must eventually assume, of being responsible as a group of self-governing communities for the proper organization and execution of the productive work of society." (He didn't forsake his habitual elitism, however; he saw the need for "a body of expert administrative officials" to carry out the public will, which, in common with Rousseau, he perceived as not being the same thing as the wishes of any given electorate.) 17
When The New Republic began publication under Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann in November 1914, it repeatedly called for the two sides of industrial democracy: worker control and the extensive organization of consumer cooperatives. British socialist authors were for several years prominent in its pages. This continued as the journal's emphasis until the early 1920s and is one of the threads that has reappeared from time to time. In the 1980's the idea of worker control was again popular within the American Left.
The broad themes that I have discussed were important to the theory. In the politics of Progressivism, however, a number of specific proposals, each backed by its own special constituency, provided the momentum for the movement. Many of the proposals were democratizing, notwithstanding Croly's elitism: the campaigns for the short ballot, the city-manager system of city governance combined with proportional representation, the abolition of the electoral college, a uniform system of presidential primaries, the direct election of Senators, initiative, referendum, recall, the recall of judicial decisions, and women's suffrage. In significant contrast to the post-World War II emphasis on ethnic rights, however, there was little interest in enhancing the position of Negroes. The democratizing measures related closely to the fierce opposition to corruption (except that recent authors have shown that the city political machines, catering to the votes of immigrants, also played a major role, even though this runs counter to the anti-corruption theme of the middle class supporters of Progressivism).
Social measures such as support for minimum wage laws, social insurance, the Settlement House movement to aid the poor, and the income tax amendment to the Constitution gave substance to the program. One of the more important issues, Prohibition, reflected a moral emphasis.
Historians, looking back, have identified certain concepts that they consider typical of Progressivism. (These are often belittled in the literature as naive.) One was the thrust toward openness in politics (a thrust that reached its culmination a half a century later after the Watergate episode). Another was the focus on national politics. This related to a third, the faith in a strong popular leader. Together, these shifted power to the presidency. They also reflected the influence of German attitudes, which emphasized the "leadership-principle" long before Hitler came onto the scene. Associated with this was the faith in management by experts.
A fifth concept had to do with the mixture of reform and moralism. (Liberals would later criticize the moralism as inconsistent with a "scientific" attitude toward social control. Progressivism was itself ambivalent, as liberalism has continued to be, in its combination of moralism and expertise.)
The combination of all these things has led historians into a running debate over just what Progressivism really was. The debate is largely an argument over what social groups should be considered most representative of it. It has been common to think of Progressivism as a middle-class movement, but Huthmacher and Buenker have shown the importance of the city political machines and the ethnic-immigrant vote. The reader is aware, too, that I would never have us lose sight of what was happening in the intellectual culture.
Most certainly the Progressive period was an age of ferment. In light of the diversity within the movement, however, I see some merit in the conclusion by Peter G. Filene, as paraphrased by Link and McCormick, that "what has been called the progressive movement never existed as a historical phenomenon."18
Progressivism is said to have gone into eclipse by the time the United States became involved in World War I, but major activity actually continued until the defeat of Robert LaFollette as a third-party presidential candidate under a Progressive Party label in 1924.
Why did the ferment die away? A New Republic article in 1926 said that "the 'new freedom' was buried during the War in the same grave with the 'new nationalism,'" thus ascribing the demise to the war, which absorbed national attention. Otis Graham, Jr., speaks of the disheartening effect of both the war and the disappointing peace that followed it; of the frustration that idealists felt in light of public apathy and the perseverance of special interests; of the "high personal costs of attention to public affairs"; of "the persistent leadership crisis"; and of the "minimal effect" of Progressive measures "upon the visible ills of America." We must add the fragmentation that inevitably occurs among the various groups within so diverse a movement and the fatigue that follows a period of high ferment.19
1. Alice Felt Tyler, Freedom's Ferment (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1944), p. 48.
2. C. S. Griffin, The Ferment of Reform, 1830-1860 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967), p. 2.
3. For books dealing with the movements during the half-century before the Civil War, see Tyler, Freedom's Ferment; Griffin, Ferment of Reform; and Walter Hugins (ed.), The Reform Impulse, 1825-1850 (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1972).
4. Hugins, Reform Impulse, p. 6.
5. Henry Adams' letter is quoted in Henry May, The Discontent of the Intellectuals: A Problem of the Twenties (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1963), p. 42.
6. New Republic, September 4, 1915, p. 117.
7. New Republic, November 14, 1914, p. 22; see also Charles McCarthy, Wisconsin Idea, published in 1912; Eric F. Goldman, Rendezvous With Destiny (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), pp. 80-1; Lewis L. Gould, The Progressive Era (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1974), p. 16.
8. Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
9. New Republic, May 14, 1924, p. 297, editorial; John D. Buenker, Liberalism and Progressive Reform (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973), p. 40.
10. L. Otis Graham, Jr., An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 50.
11. New Republic, March 7, 1983, p. 36; Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought (New York: Ronald Press Company, 2nd Ed., 1956), pp. 274, 276-7.
12. New Republic, March 3, 1937, p. 102; New Republic, January 16, 1965, p. 19; Lewis A. Coser, Men of Ideas, A Sociologist's View (New York: The Free Press, 1965), pp. 111, 118.
13. New Republic, November 8, 1939, p. 34; New Republic, May 8, 1965, p. 17; New Republic, April 8, 1972, p. 22.
14. New Republic, November 14, 1914, p. 18.
15. New Republic, October 11, 1933, p. 251.
16. The Brandeis letter referred to is quoted at length in Alpheus Thomas Mason, Brandeis: A Free Man's Life (New York: The Viking Press, 1946), p. 585.
17. Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915), pp. 390, 356, 227.
18. Arthur S. Link and Richard L. McCormick, Progressivism (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1983), p. 2.
19. New Republic, June 9, 1926, p. 73; Graham, Encore for Reform, pp. 162-3.