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With America's current and ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor and the constant threat of the disappearance of the middle class, the Progressive Era stands out as a time when the middle class had enough influence on the country to start its own revolution. Before the Progressive Era most Americans lived on farms, working from before sunrise to after sundown every day except Sunday with tools that had changed very little for centuries. Just three decades later, America was utterly transformed into a diverse, urban, affluent, leisure-obsessed, teeming multitude. This explosive change was accompanied by extraordinary public-spiritedness as reformers—frightened by class conflict and the breakdown of gender relations—abandoned their traditional faith in individualism and embarked on a crusade to remake other Americans in their own image.
The progressives redefined the role of women, rewrote the rules of politics, banned the sale of alcohol, revolutionized marriage, and eventually whipped the nation into a frenzy for joining World War I. These colorful, ambitious battles changed the face of American culture and politics and established the modern liberal pledge to use government power in the name of broad social good. But the progressives, unable to deliver on all of their promises, soon discovered that Americans retained a powerful commitment to individual freedom. Ironically, the progressive movement helped reestablish the power of conservatism and ensured that America would never be wholly liberal or conservative for generations to come.
Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent recreates a time of unprecedented turbulence and unending fascination, showing the first American middle-class revolution. Far bolder than the New Deal of FDR or the New Frontier of JFK, the Progressive Era was a time when everything was up for grabs and perfection beckoned.
We live in a politically disappointing time. No matter what our politics, the start of the twenty-first century is not what we hoped it would be. For liberals, the "American Century" -- the liberal century -- was the last one; and it ended early, in the 1960s and 1970s, with racial backlash, stagflation, and Vietnam. For conservatives, the "Reagan Revolution" of the 1980s ended pretty quickly, too; enough big government and economic uncertainty remain in the aftermath to make Americans wonder whether there was a revolution at all. For the handful of American radicals, the promise of the "Movement" of the 1960s is long gone: corporate America still stands powerful and the American "empire" looms larger than ever around the world. Despite sex scandals, financial scandals, and the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history, politics and government fail to engage the sustained interest of most Americans.
It is no wonder, then, that the Progressive Era remains so fascinating. The people and struggles of that age of "fierce discontent" a century ago still command our attention. There is Theodore Roosevelt himself, the energy glinting through his pince-nez, as he urges Americans to use the "movement of agitation throughout the country...to punish the authors of evil...." There are the women suffragists marching in the streets to demand the vote. There are the determined anthracite coal miners of Pennsylvania quietly walking out en masse to demand recognition from their wealthy bosses. There is the crafty steel magnate Andrew Carnegie urging the families of the upper-class "plutocracy" to save themselves by givingtheir money to philanthropic causes. There is the calm courage of Jane Addams, crossing the social boundaries of urban Chicago to improve and change the lives of her new immigrant neighbors. There is the moral outrage of Carry Nation, smashing saloons to end the scourge of drink. These people provoke nostalgia and even jealousy; in one way or another, all of them felt the "fierce discontent" that Theodore Roosevelt described; all of them believed that progress was possible for their country.
The Progressive Era is more than a matter of nostalgia. It is the argument of this book that progressivism created much of our contemporary political predicament. The epic of reform at the dawn of the twentieth century helps explain the less-than-epic politics at the dawn of the twenty-first. Progressivism, the creed of a crusading middle class, offered the promise of utopianism -- and generated the inevitable letdown of unrealistic expectations.
Those expectations were indeed remarkable. The progressives developed a stunningly broad agenda that ranged well beyond the control of big business, the amelioration of poverty, and the purification of politics to embrace the transformation of gender relations, the regeneration of the home, the disciplining of leisure and pleasure, and the establishment of segregation. Progressives wanted not only to use the state to regulate the economy; strikingly, they intended nothing less than to transform other Americans, to remake the nation's feuding, polyglot population in their own middle-class image.
This startling agenda had commonplace origins; it was rooted in the day-to-day lives of middle-class men and women in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. Progressivism was the way in which these Victorian men and women came to answer the basic questions of human life that have confronted all people in all times and places: What is the nature of the individual? What is the relationship between the individual and society? What are the proper roles of men, women, and the family? What is the place of work and pleasure in human life? These are ordinary questions, but the middle class had to answer them at an extraordinary time. The Victorians lived in an industrializing society that generated dismaying extremes of wealth and poverty, tempting new pleasures, alien cultures, and frightening antagonisms. Threatened by these external developments, the Victorians lived with a private crisis of their own -- the breakdown of the relationship between middle-class men and women. The result of these simultaneous public and private crises was a gradual but dramatic transformation: over the two generations from the end of the Civil War to the 1890s, the Victorians became progressives, with new views of the individual, society, gender, and pleasure. To make the world safe for themselves and their children, the progressive middle class sallied forth to reform the nation. In the face of spirited opposition from other groups, the progressives intended to build what William James sneeringly but accurately labeled the "middle-class paradise."
I believe progressivism was a radical movement, though not by the common measures of economic and political radicalism. More influenced by socialism than they liked to admit, progressives nevertheless shied away from a fundamental restructuring of the capitalist economy. They generally declined numerous opportunities to rethink the virtue of private property. Instead, progressives were radical in their conviction that other social classes must be transformed and in their boldness in going about the business of that transformation. As they themselves had been changed, so others should be changed, too. The sweep of progressivism was remarkable, but because the progressive agenda was so often carried out in settlement houses, churches, and schoolrooms, in rather unassuming day-to-day activities, the essential audacity of the enterprise can be missed. Progressivism demanded a social transformation that remains at once profoundly impressive and profoundly disturbing a century later.
Approaching progressivism in this way, I have shifted the balance of the conventional narrative.1 The center of this book looks at four quintessential progressive battles: to change other people; to end class conflict; to control big business; and to segregate society. While I treat well-known laws and political events, this is also a book about less well-known, extrapolitical efforts to transform America and Americans, such as the antidivorce movement and the rise of Chautauqua. While I focus extensively on public life, this is very much a book about private, intimate life as well. Given its focus on the basic values of social groups, it is a book about parents and their children -- John and Sarah Addams and their daughter Jane; the Russian immigrant tailor Golub and his rebellious daughter Rahel; the farming couple Richard and Belle Garland and their equally rebellious son Hamlin. It is in the relationships of these generations that we can most clearly see how the stresses of industrializing America fractured old ideologies and created new ones, including progressivism.
From its private and intimate origins, the progressive movement ultimately played out on a very public stage. Progressivism was an explosion, a burst of energy that fired in many directions across America. From the 1890s to the 1910s, the progressives managed to accomplish much of their ambitious agenda. World War I marked the high point of the progressive movement. As American soldiers fought overseas to make the world safe for democracy, the administration of Woodrow Wilson worked feverishly to create a wartime model for a peacetime progressive utopia. Against the backdrop of wartime struggle and sacrifice, reformers managed to outlaw alcohol, close down vice districts, win suffrage for women, expand the income tax, and take over the railroads. But the progressives had overreached. Winning the war abroad, the Wilsonians lost their war at home. The administration's war policies produced disorder instead of order, chaos instead of control. Amid race riots, strikes, high inflation, and a frenzied Red scare, Americans turned against the progressive blueprint for the nation. The climax of progressivism, World War I was also its death knell.
It is this story, this remarkable rise and cataclysmic collapse, that set the stage for the political life we now know so well. Americans' ambivalent attitudes toward politics and the state, our skepticism about reform, our fear of government's power, and our arm's-length relationship with political leaders have their roots before the ages of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, in the few dramatic decades at the turn of the previous century. The New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, the Great Society, and now the war on terrorism have each entailed ambitious plans for America; and each has had dramatic impacts on policy and society. But the failure of the progressive movement set boundaries around the aspirations of all these efforts. None of them was as ambitious, as openly determined to transform people and create utopia, as the progressive movement. We have been scaling back our expectations ever since that age of bold reform. Chastened by his experience in the Wilson government, Franklin Roosevelt pursued a New Deal liberalism that was in many ways less radical than progressivism. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society fought the racial injustice that the progressives had shirked and even helped perpetrate in the first place; but Great Society liberalism avoided both the sharp attack on upper-class privilege and the optimistic faith in remaking individuals and creating utopia. And the New Right of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan rose to power by condemning the powerful state that the progressives had worked to build and by celebrating the individualism that they had hoped to dismantle. For all of us, right, center, and left, the age of "fierce discontent" is long over.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael McGerr
|Pt. 1||The progressive opportunity|
|1||"Signs of friction" : portrait of America at century's end||3|
|2||The radical center||40|
|Pt. 2||Progressive battles|
|4||Ending class conflict||118|
|5||Controlling big business||147|
|6||The shield of segregation||182|
|Pt. 3||Disturbance and defeat|
|7||The promise of liberation||221|
|8||The pursuit of pleasure||248|
|9||The price of victory||279|
Posted May 23, 2004
This book discusses the social, economic, and political environment that spawned the Progressive Movement, which lasted from the Reconstruction to the end of World War I. The author characterizes the basis of progressivism as a battle between individualism and mutualism. This battle can be seen in nearly all of the main efforts of the progressives of the time. The Progressive Movement was a response to the excesses of the wealthiest upper ten and the decaying moral standards of that group. The progressives wanted to develop a Middle Class utopia where everyone was treated fair and everyone worked together toward stamping out negative attitudes and lifestyles and by building a unifying force for the future. The author lists the main progressive attempts at achieving this middle class utopia through ending class conflict, controlling big business, and by promoting segregation. The method of ending class conflict was achieved through the support and promotion of labor unions that helped to empower workers and to provide a unifying force against the individualist company owners that had their eye purely on the bottom line. Some of the individualists listed included John D. Rockefeller, Charles Schwab (steel), and J.P. Morgan (finance). Each of these captains of industry attempted to develop trusts, i.e. the Steel Trust, which controlled each industry. This eliminated competition, dissuaded foreign competition, and protected their own positions in their industry. In promoting unions, the progressives helped to level the playing field against the trusts. Through labor strikes, work slowdowns, etc. workers were able to win concessions in reduced work hours, increased pay and benefits. The methods for controlling big business in the early 1900¿s included laissez-faire, socialism, antitrust, regulation, and compensation. Laissez-faire was the level of control preferred by the trusts, which is essentially the government keeping their hands off of business and allowing the marketplace to control itself. Socialism was the opposite of laissez-faire and encouraged the government to nationalize all industries and allow working conditions to be controlled by the government with profits benefiting society as a whole. Neither of these approaches was compatible with the American system and would have led to great social unrest. As a response to the need to control big business, the progressives pursued and gained antitrust laws, which placed significant limits on trusts by promoting open competition. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was the main law that started antitrust regulation, though it was significantly hampered by Supreme Court decisions. The anti-trust movement was helped along the way by various muck-raking reporters and writers. Upton Sinclair¿s The Jungle showed a picture of the meat packing industry, including working conditions, treatment of animals, and the quality of the beef being sent to consumers. Much of the muck-raking (investigative journalism) and government investigations led to regulations such as the Pure Food and Drug Act which gave the secretary of agriculture the power to fine and imprison business for providing adulterated medicine or poisoned food. Further regulation was implemented with respect to natural resources. The progressives promoted conservation of natural resources and they had a friend in the White House in the person of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt not only looked at conservation as a means to preserve nature, but also as a means to preserve natural resources for the future growth of industry. Compensation was the movement to tax corporations at both the State and Federal levels. The States eventually started taxing corporations and provided tax incentives to businesses that invested in their State. Segregation is probably the most unacceptable outcome of the progressive movement. At the time that progressives were promoting segregation the U.S. was coming out t
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