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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 giving their 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