Saturday, December 27, 2008

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore's "Who Were the Progressives"

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, editor, "Who Were the Progressives?" Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002. 265 pages. Available on used and new for $3.50.

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore does a great job in this introductory book about the Progressives. This is a book of selections from eminent historians who have written about Progressivism, to include Richard Hofstadter (Age of Reform), Elizabeth Sanders ("Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers and the American State, 1877-1917"), Robert H. Wiebe (The Search for Order), Richard L. McCormick ("The Discovery that Business Corrupts Politics"), Shelton Stormquist ("The Crucible of Class: Cleveland Politics and the Origins of Municipal Reform in the Progressive Era") and James J. Connolly ("Dimensions of Progressivism").

The book is targeted at college history students but it is a great book for the general reader. I like Gilmore's approach of excerpting sections of classic books. Moreover, she does a great job of illuminating how the different historians disagree.

The point of the book is that there is no consistent interpretation of the origins of Progressivism. Hofstadter argues that the Progressives were well off small town leaders of the "Mugwump type" who had been surpassed by tycoons of big business like Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller:

"The newly rich, the grandiosely or corruptly rich, the masters of great corporations, were bypassing the men of the Mugwump type--the old gentry, the merchants of long standing, the small manufacturers the established professional men, the civic leaders of an earlier era...In their professional careers as in their community activities, they found themselves checked, hampered and overridden by the agents of the new corporations, the corrupters of legislatures, the buyers of franchises, the allies of political bosses."

"The Mugwump had broadened his base."

In contrast, Elizabeth Sanders in a riveting article "Agrarian Politics and Parties after 1896" that was taken from her 1999 book Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers and the American State, 1877-1917 argues that Progressivism was rooted in Populism. The Farmer's Union, for example, was an early co-op. "The FU devoted most of its energies to cooperatives, collective control of marketing and campaigns to withhold crops for a better price...It is important to remember that the Farmers' Union was hardly 'new'. Many of its organizers and members had been active alliance members and/or Populists and its goals and methods as well as its image of farmers as a proud but oppressed class suffering great injustice were clear links to the old (Farmers Alliance)."

The FU's legislative agenda "centered on facilitation of cooperation, antitrust investigations, railroad regulation, public control of banking and currency, government-supplied credit for farmers, lower tariffs, aid for agricultural and industrial education and public schools generally, direct election of the president and the Supreme Court, and the outlawing of commodity speculation. Like the Alliance, the FU frequently attempted to make common cause with labor unions...The Texas FU passed resolutions opposing convict labor in competition with free labor and advocating the reform administration of a Democratic governor..."

Sanders emphasizes the role of William Jennings Bryan in fashioning the reform ideology that later became the New Freedom and the New Deal (p. 54):

"It was the pull of Bryan's leadership, his de facto control of the party's nomination, and he desire to tap into his mass following that transformed the prim, conservative governor of New Jersey (who had been a Cleveland gold Democrat) into the candidate of progressive Democrats in 1912. Bryan played a major role in securing the nomination for Woodrow Wilson, wrote the 1912 platform that charted the path of reform for the 'New Freedom' years and coached the candidate through the campaign. And it was Bryan who inspired the congressional Democrats to push the president on antitrust, labor, banking, currency, farm credit and Phillipine independence. Writing of Bryan's lifelong devotion to political reform, Claude Bowers observed in the early 1950s, "Almost everything we've got today in the way of reforms originated with Bryan."

"The farmers were the most numerous constituents for expanded public power in the southern and Midwestern states where the reform movements were strongest. 'Under the growing pressure of monopoly,' wrote C. Vann Woodward, 'the small businessmen and urban middle class overcame their fear of reform and joined hands with the discontented farmers. They envisaged as a common enemy of plutocracy of the northeast, together with its agents, banks insurance companies, public utilities, oil companies, pipelines and railroads."

When the Populist Party disappeared the former Populists rejoined the major parties and sensitive the Democratic and Republican leaderships.

"In view of these regional tendencies, it seems appropriate to recognize the major reform legislation of the Progressive Era--the tariff, banking,income tax, railroad, shipping and commodity exchange regulation and the antitrust, farm credit, highway and education measures--as an agrarian agenda..."

Progressive reform started with the states (p. 64). "By 1910 the progressive movement in the states--particularly the states of the Midwest, South and West--had secured electoral reforms, regulatory restraints on railroads and insurance companies, taxes on powerful corporations and mitigation of some of the most reprehensible employment practices. However, the effectiveness of state laws was limited. Corporations harassed by state regulators could threaten to move their operations elsewhere, and federal court decisions made it impossible for states to have much influence on corporations heavily engaged in interstate commerce..."

Wiebe's argument differs from both Hofstadter and Sanders. Wiebe argues that progressivism amounted to a "search for order", what McCormick calls the "organizational" theory. Wiebe argues that:

"a patchwork government could no longer manage the range of urban problems with the expertise and economy that articulate citizens now believed they must have."

Reformers aimed to rationalize government, reorder it to suit modern corporations (pp. 82-3). "The experts in turn devised rudimentary government budgets, introduced central, audited purchasing and partially rationalized the structure of offices. Bureaus of research provided endless data on all of these matters as well as the skill fro drafting some of the more complex ordinances....Whatever the reformer's specialty, his program relied ultimately upon administration. 'For two generations,' Frederic Howe wrote in 1905, we have wrought out the most admirable laws and then left the government to run itself. This has been our greatest fault.' Now laws established an outline for management, a flexible authority to meet and follow the major issues of urban living. In fact, the fewer laws the better if those few properly empowered the experts, for administration was expected to replace the tedious, haphazard process of legislative compromise...Because the reformers viewed organization quite simply as anti-chaos, they conceived their administrative solutions in terms of broad executive mandates, with a mayor holding full general authority and subordinates enjoying virtual autonomy in their limited areas of expertise. The model government formed a simple pyramid free from all the cross checks and intersecting lines of divided responsibility.

"Scientific government, the urban reformers believed, would bring opportunity, progress order and community. Once emancipated from fear and exploitation all men would enjoy a fair chance for success. the coarseness, the jagged violence, of city life that so deeply disturbed them would dissolve into a new urban unity, the progressive version of the old community ideal...Early in the twentieth century this goal rapidly lost ground to a very different one predicated upon the assumption that every man, properly educated, would desire a functional, efficient society. The new bureaucratic vision accepted the impersonal flux of the city and anticipated its perfect systematization.

"Although many topics of late-nineteenth century reform appeared after 1900, most of the old issues had changed beyond recognition. Civil service, for instance, had once been a negative, absolute goal...Now the panacea of the patrician had given way to the administrative tool of the expert, with efficiency rather than moral purity its objective...

"It was the expert who benefited most directly from the new framework of politics. the more intricate such fields as the law and the sciences became, the greater the need for men with highly developed skills...Only the professional administrator, the doctor, the social worker, the architect, the economist could show the way.

"By 1905 urban progressives were already separating along two paths. While one group used the language of the budget, boosterism and social control, the other talked of economic justice, human opportunities and rehabilitated democracy.

"In the twentieth century the commission became the master instead of the servant. Once empowered, it operated apart from the legislature, administering rather than enforcing. Business-minded progressives, in other words, expected the commission to act as their agent in an endless series of maneuvers with the railroads. ..In the end these commissions accomplished relatively little. Irrelevant to the natural flow of people and goods, the states simply could not manage the major problems of a national economy..."

"In fact the major corporations tended to move somewhat ahead of the reformers in attempts to extend the range and continuity of their power through bureaucratic means...(With respect to corporations) around 1900 the rush to reorganize commenced with one giant firm after another adopting some variant of administrative centralization. An age that assumed an automatic connection between accurate data and rational action naturally emphasized a few leaders linked by simple lines to the staff below. Information would flow upward through the corporate structure, decisions downward...As their interests grew more refined and their need for technical services increased, big businessmen also leaned more and more upon expert assistants."

(p. 93) "The more extensive the magnate's political concern, the more important it was to condition countless, unknown officials in all parts of government to respond appropriately whenever his interests cam under consideration...Lobbying underwent comparable changes around 1900. The major corporations were the earliest experimenters...Perpetual ferment in dozens of states demanded the corporate leader's constant attention, so he assigned full-time agents to the important posts...Varieties of competing organizations, often with diversified programs, left the legislative leader without the basis for decisions. Nor could he depend upon partisan loyalties to mellow their spirits."

(p. 95) "by far the most important part of that political revolution transformed the national government. Because most progressives chose to concentrate initially upon a government close at hand and because few of them had easy access to national power, the pressure for change mounted more slowly in Washington than it did in the city halls and state capitols. Nevertheless, a rudimentary national progressivism was already taking shape around 1900. Some reformers were turning to Washington because they needed truly national solutions to their problems. Even more looked there because the scope of their operations, though far less than nationwide, had still entangled them in too many conflicting jurisdictions. Others simply sought national weapons to use in their local wars...By 1900 a small but growing number of militants, largely new-middle class businessmen who shipped to an from the major cities of the Midwest, had already lost faith in the value of piecemeal controls through state government and were demanding an expansion of the Interstate Commerce Commission's powers."

In Richard L. McCormick's article "The Discovery that Business Corrupt Politics: A Reappraisal of the Origins of Progressivism" which originally appeared in the American Historical Review (86:2, April 1981, 247-74)

"historians have increasingly recognized the Progressive Era as the age when Americans accommodated, rather than tried to escape, large-scale business organizations and their methods."

Progressivism involved"the emergence of a 'government broadly and continuously involved in society's operations.'" (quoting Wiebe)

"From the English opposition of Walpole's day, colonists in America had absorbed the theory that commercial development threatened republican government in two ways: (1) by spreading greed, extravagance and luxury among the people; and (2) by encouraging a designing ministry to conspire with monied interests for the purpose of overwhelming the independence of the legislature"

Quoting Fred Somkin: "Over and over again Americans called attention to the danger which prosperity posed for the safety of free institutions and the maintenance of republicanism...Using language similar to that of Walpole's and Hamilton's critics, Andrew Jackson decried special privileges from government as dangerous to liberty and demanded their abolition. Much of his wrath was directed against the Second Bank of the United states. That 'monster,' he said, was 'a vast electioneering engine'; it has 'already attempted to subject the government to its will."

"By the 1890s, large-scale industrialization was creating the felt need for new government policies in two distinct but related ways. The first process, which Hays and Wiebe have described so well, was the increasing organization of diverse producer groups, conscious of their own identities and special needs. Each demanded specific public protections for its own endeavors and questioned the allocation of benefits to others. The second development was less tangible: the unorganized public's dawning sense of vulnerability, unease and anger in the face of economic changes wrought by big corporations. Sometimes, the people's inchoate feelings focused on the ill-understood "trusts"; at other times their negative emotions found more specific, local targets in street-railway or electric power companies."

"The period 1904-1908 comprised the muckraking years."

"Many of the details of politico-business corruption had never been publicly revealed before...Large-scale corporation campaign contributions, for instance, were a product of the 1880s and 1890s. Highly organized legislative lobbying operations by competing interest groups represented an even more recent development. In his systematic study of American legislative practices, Paul S. Reinsch devoted a lengthy chapter to describing how business interests had developed a new and far more efficient system of dealing with legislatures than the old methods of [haphazard corruption].

"By 1905 a political explosion of some sort was likely, due to the accumulated frustrations people felt about the government's failure to deal with the problems of industrialization. So combustible were the elements present that another spark besides the discovery of politico-business corruption might well have ignited them. But the recognition of such corruption was an especially effective torch."

But "The organizational results that followed, however, seem less inevitable. There were, after all, several other known ways of curtailing corruption besides expert regulation and administration. For one, there was the continued reliance on direct legislative action against the corruption of politics by businessmen...A second approach, favored by Edward Alsworth Ross and later by Woodrow Wilson, was to hold business leaders personally responsible for their 'sins' and to punish them accordingly. Finally, there were proposals for large structural solutions changing the political and economic environment so that the old corrupt practices became impossible."

Groups that stood to gain from regulation of utility and transportation had previously proposed regulation. The explosive news about corruption made the public support these proposals, even if they were irrelevant to the corruption. "Where their proposals met the particular political needs of 1905-08 they succeeded most quickly." The muckrakers themselves were devoid of proposals of how to reform government and business.

p. 128 "The circumstances in which the discovery of corruption became a political force also assist in explaining its conservatism. The passions of 1905-06 were primarily expressed in state, rather than local or national politics...Usually the policy consequences were more favorable to large business interests.

The last four articles in this book are also very good. In particular, Shelton Stormquist discusses how a streetcar strike in Cleveland pushed the subsequent Cleveland mayor, Tom Johnson, to push for progressive reform. James J. Connolly argues that ethnic politics in Boston also played a role, and that Italians, Jews and Irish used progressive rhetoric for their own ends.

Thus, there are quite a few competing explanations of Progressivism, even if they overlap: agriculture, the Mugwump type, big businessmen in search of order, a public outraged by corruption, class politics and ethnic politics.

1 comment:

lukemcgook said...

Thanks for the tip. Sounds like a good overview. I'm putting the book on my list.