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Reinventing "The People": The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem, and the Origins of Modern Liberalism

by Shelton Stromquist

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In this much needed comprehensive study of the Progressive movement, its reformers, their ideology, and the social circumstances they tried to change, Shelton Stromquist contends that the persistence of class conflict in America challenged the very defining feature of Progressivism: its promise of social harmony through democratic renewal.
Profiling the


In this much needed comprehensive study of the Progressive movement, its reformers, their ideology, and the social circumstances they tried to change, Shelton Stromquist contends that the persistence of class conflict in America challenged the very defining feature of Progressivism: its promise of social harmony through democratic renewal.
Profiling the movement's work in diverse arenas of social reform, politics, labor regulation and "race improvement," Stromquist argues that while progressive reformers may have emphasized different programs, they crafted a common language of social reconciliation in which an imagined civic community ("the People") would transcend parochial class and political loyalties. As progressive reformers sought to reinvent a society in which class had no enduring place, they also marginalized new immigrants and African Americans as being unprepared for civic responsibilities. In so doing, Stromquist argues that Progressives laid the foundation for twentieth-century liberals' inability to see their world in class terms and to conceive of social remedies that might alter the structures of class power.

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University of Illinois Press
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Working Class in American History
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Reinventing "The People"



Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-03026-5


Progressives and the Problem of Class

We are not willing, openly and professedly, to assume that American citizens are broken up into classes, even if we make that assumption the preface to a plea that the superior class has duties to the inferior. Our democracy is still our most precious possession, and we do well to resent any inroads upon it, even though they may be made in the name of philanthropy. -Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House, 1910

With the outbreak of the Pullman car shopworkers' strike in 1894, Jane Addams faced a formidable challenge. She felt torn between sympathy for the strikers and her own desire to bridge the class divisions that the strike revealed. She was frustrated that the arbitration efforts of the Chicago Civic Federation had not borne fruit. As the only member of the arbitration committee to have met with the striking Pullman employees and listened to their grievances, she had also dutifully listened to the official pronouncement of the Pullman managers, who "insisted there was nothing to arbitrate." With that pronouncement, the arbitration effort effectively ended and, to her dismay, class war once again loomed on the horizon.

Preoccupied as she was with her sister's terminal illness that summer, she later recalled her absence from the city during critical parts of that conflict-torn time. But she also vividly remembered the several-mile pilgrimage she took in the midst of the strike to the newly erected statue of Abraham Lincoln near the lakefront:

I walked the wearisome way from Hull-House to Lincoln Park-for no cars were running regularly at that moment of sympathetic strikes-in order to look at and gain magnanimous counsel, if I might, from the marvelous St. Gaudens statue.... Some of Lincoln's immortal words were cut into the stone at his feet, and never did a distracted town more sorely need the healing of "with charity towards all" than did Chicago at that moment, and the tolerance of the man who had won charity for those on both sides of "an irrepressible conflict."

Like her fellow reformers, Addams had come of age in an era of profound labor conflict. Solving the "class problem" became the preoccupation of her generation. In trying to do so, they looked unflinchingly at the social inequity that surrounded them and the conditions that thwarted individual opportunity and threatened democratic institutions. They devised methods and programs they hoped would overcome barriers to individual opportunity. And they reinvented for their own conflict-torn times the idea that "the people" were capable of self-government. In so doing, they hoped to consign the embers of class conflict to the ashcan of history. Addams had warned in an essay written just before the Pullman strike of a "constant temptation towards class warfare in the labor movement." She perceived the settlement houses and the reform movement in general to be working not for the betterment of "one kind of people or class of people but for the common good." By encouraging the organization of labor, she hoped to foster the development of "the ethical aims of the movement." In words that echoed the views of many fellow Progressives, she worried that "any class or set of men deprived of the companionship of the whole, become correspondingly decivilized and crippled."

* * *

For a social movement that was palpably real to its contemporaries, the Progressive movement has been surprisingly elusive for historians writing since World War II. The spreading virus of McCarthyism after the war bred a skepticism toward reform that infected the scholarship of a generation. In the view of some historians, Progressives were members of a displaced middle class driven to reform by their own status anxiety. The 1960s witnessed a different variety of skepticism toward progressive reform. Some argued that Progressives, in the name of reform, had promoted a corporate ideal that promised social stability while protecting the interests of large businesses. Still other historians saw the reformers as the progeny of an organizational revolution, a new middle class that had promised efficiency, professional expertise, and bureaucratic solutions to society's pressing problems. These shifting tides of interpretation made the reform rhetoric of the Progressives themselves seem naïve, archaic, and vague. Historians' attention became riveted on the question of who these so-called Progressives were and what sort of movement they constituted. While the social identities of reformers and Progressive Party politicians could be readily discerned, what distinguished them from their stalwart competitors became less apparent. Although historians might cast nets that would ensnare many varieties of Progressives, how these individual reformers became a movement and what ideology they shared was no longer obvious. Some even professed skepticism that a Progressive movement had existed at all.

In this book, I argue that a Progressive movement constituted itself in response to the mounting social crisis of the late nineteenth century that was most clearly revealed in the battles between labor and capital and in the campaigns to save the wasted lives produced by industrial growth. Through diverse and overlapping networks intellectuals, social gospel reformers, young educated women, labor activists, and insurgent politicians developed over time a sense of participating in what they came to call a "movement." They drew inspiration from older traditions of reform, from the legacy of the abolitionists' campaign against chattel slavery, and from seemingly more advanced reform movements that sprang up alongside or in competition with social democratic political movements across Europe. But fundamentally, the Progressive movement was created by a new generation, born and reared since the Civil War and steeped in the labor and social conflict of the late nineteenth century.

To assert the existence of a Progressive movement is not to deny the diversity of perspectives and interests from which it sprang. Nor is it to underestimate the conflicted and discontinuous course of its evolution. Only by charting its history and core ideology and documenting its internal conflicts can we discern the shape and character of the Progressives' movement. I have found it useful to distinguish between a dominant "meliorist" wing of the movement and a vigorous but smaller group of reformers who identified with the class partisan perspective associated with the nineteenth-century producers movement or in the early twentieth century with socialist or syndicalist tendencies. Between these two wings lay a group of reformers whose ideology and organizational commitments fluctuated and overlapped the two. Henry Demarest Lloyd, Vida Scudder, and Florence Kelley might best represent this group.

Progressivism spawned a new language of reform. Embracing neither older varieties of republicanism nor a newer nationalistic Americanism, these self-styled reformers arrayed themselves in the universalistic garb of what they termed "the people," a social category broadly conceived and undifferentiated by class interests. Their "rhetoric of the moral whole," as historian Daniel Rodgers termed it, promised restoration of the common good as a social ideal. The movement defined its enemies, by contrast, as parochial, corrupt, and antisocial "interests" that bred the twin evils of greed and inefficiency. The corrupting influences, represented by urban boss rule and corporate "robber barons," threatened democratic institutions and the expansion of economic opportunity. These interests conspired to produce a dysfunctional industrial society that eroded public virtue. By consigning "the other half" to squalid, less-than-human conditions, the "interests" undermined social order and stability.

This new language of reform circulated through popular journals and in the public speech of reformers and politicians. The promise of "reknitting the social body into wholeness blossomed," according to Rodgers, "in new and inventive forms." Progressive reformers seized a political middle ground to speak for the broad "public" that stood apart from contending, parochial class interests. As Kansas editor William Allen White noted, after watching both Greenbackers and Populists, who appealed to what he called "the ne'er-do-wells" and the "misfits," the Progressives were different: "Here were the successful middle-class country-town citizens, the farmer whose barn was painted, the well paid railroad engineer, and the country editor. It was a well-dressed crowd.... Proletarian and plutocrat were absent."

The Progressive movement banished the language of class from the vocabulary of reform. By focusing on the individual and by attacking the environment that limited individual opportunity, Progressives promoted the idea that social differences based on structural inequality could be ameliorated through voluntary action and enlightened governmental social policy. In their view, however, neither individuals acting collectively nor the government acting through "class legislation" should alter the fundamental structures of social power and property. By seeking to reinvent a society in which class had no enduring place, Progressives, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, lay the foundation for twentieth-century liberals' inability to see the world around them in class terms or conceive of social remedies that altered the social structure of class power.

Progressives did not invent the idea of class harmony. In one variant or another since the American Revolution, that ideal figured in republican social thought. Historian Edmund Morgan called "the sovereignty of the people" a "dynamic fiction" in republican thought, "a goal to be sought" but "never attainable, always receding." And Arthur Mann argued that in the view of the founders, "the people ... were unfettered and dynamic, endowed with the power to choose and to change, to break the crust of custom if need be and to shape the future." The elimination of property qualifications for white male voters had made citizenship classless while still excluding African Americans, nonnaturalized immigrants, and women. After the Civil War, a liberal "free labor ideology" promised universal access to opportunity through a capitalist marketplace and a bountiful frontier. But as the industrial revolution advanced in the late nineteenth century and class conflict erupted on an unprecedented scale, a working-class republican critique of acquisitive individualism gained wide support within a self-styled class of "producers." If day-to-day poverty, long working hours, and economic oppression effectively denied the rights of citizenship to a large portion of the population, and if the resulting "wage slavery" placed them in a position analogous to chattel slaves, then the universalizing claims of republican citizenship lost meaning. An alternative strand of progressivism rooted in the producers' movement of the late nineteenth century ebbed and flowed in the new century. Its class-partisan perspective found expression in local labor and socialist parties, in the industrial unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and some affiliates of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and among labor Progressives committed to a radical vision of "industrial democracy" that flowered in wartime and postwar Left-labor organizing.

Progressive reformers at the turn of the century undertook the project of reclaiming citizens from the "human junk" produced by industrialization. Unlike the more radical producerist movement of the 1880s and 1890s, they saw harm, not virtue, in a dispossessed class empowered to reclaim the wealth it created and to realign the structures of power that produced inequality. The reformers embraced the idea that industrial progress, organized by capitalist property holders, would produce prosperity and alleviate misery. Economist Simon Patten's optimism about the liberating effects of increased consumption through economic growth inspired a whole generation of reformers. For journalist Walter Weyl, a Patten student, this vision lessened the prospect of class warfare. "Where wealth is growing at a rapid rate," he noted, "the multitude may be fed without breaking into the rich man's granary." That prescription has remained at the heart of liberal thought throughout the twentieth century.

In the face of rapid urbanization and new, massive immigration spawned by the "second industrial revolution," early-twentieth-century reformers worked determinedly to produce an enlightened citizenry. Placing stock in new educational techniques and the socializing influence of settlement houses, they also insisted on socially responsible behavior by capital, enforced where necessary through legislation and state regulation. Democracy, they believed, would humanize industrial society. Assisted by enlightened business leaders, the reform movement hoped to rationalize the processes of production and reengineer a safer, more healthful, and more socially productive environment at home, in the community, and at work. Edward Devine and the editors of Charities and the Commons argued that the problem was a set of "more or less isolated ... conquerable evils," not a "bad system." Reformers should mount an "attack on insanitary tenements, tuberculosis, and child labor ... as if it were worth while to overcome them even while private property and wages and profits remain in evidence as essential features of our industrial system." In 1908, Chicago reformer Graham Taylor worried that some signs pointed to an "awakening of the wage earners of our country to the consciousness of their class interest." But he also professed to see a more widespread "awakening of the mass to move together to claim and conserve the rights and interests common to the whole community." And Progressive journalist John Graham Brooks called on organized labor to "enter upon its heavy task of leading the fight against a party tyranny." He noted that "no class (if the word must be used) has so much at stake in all this as the wage-earner." Purged of corrupting influences, democratic politics could be a vehicle for building social solidarity and community responsibility.

The inability or unwillingness of Progressive reformers to accept a world indelibly demarcated by classes shaped their approach to reform. The "working class" as a social category lost its salience. The settlement houses addressed instead the problems of what educator Vida Scudder termed "the submerged tenth." This population, largely immigrant or nonwhite, disorganized and destitute, required the ministrations of those possessed by a "crusading spirit." But for the most part they stood outside the circle of "the people." Political reforms designed to purify and protect the democratic process-personal registration, at-large elections, direct primaries, and initiatives and referenda-would ensure, they hoped, a democratically inclined polity and a disinterested body of voters capable of putting social good above personal interest.

Progressive democrats, such as John Dewey, imagined a society of citizens whose equality was guaranteed by their "direct and active participation" in the democratic process. "Political freedom and responsibility," according to Dewey, "express an individual's power and obligation to make effective all his other capacities by fixing the social conditions of their exercise." In Deweyesque tones, historian Mary Ryan has celebrated "as an essential feature of modern democracy" the "civic wars" of nineteenth-century cities, with their "indelicate balance between civility and belligerence."

While some democratically inclined Progressives saw citizenship as an expansive category, "citizen" was, in fact, a term of more restricted meaning for many in Progressive Era America. A very large proportion of what nineteenth- century Americans termed the "producing classes" was excluded. Most Progressives regarded the vast majority of new immigrants and African Americans as unprepared to join the political community of voters.


Excerpted from Reinventing "The People" by SHELTON STROMQUIST Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Shelton Stromquist is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He is coeditor of The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics and the author of a number of other books.

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