Modern American Encounters, I

Students in HIS350 Modern America are engaging with a variety of primary and secondary source materials this semester.  Recently they were given an essay assignment that asked them to consider the following:

All of us approach an historical era that is new to us with impressions: ideas, feelings, or opinions about something or someone, often formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little or disconnected evidence.  The purpose of this assignment is to reflect on how your thinking (“impression”) about the modern American experience is being reshaped by your encounters with a variety of primary and secondary source evidence.

Sophomore History and English major Fletcher Warren responds to the power of progressivism in his essay, “Progressivism: A Necessary Response to a New America.”

The 1912 brand of progressivism, other than a few murmurings in recent years, has been largely relegated to the historical realm. What understanding of progressivism there is among modern Americans is mostly facile, informed only by brief coverage of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in high school. The political movement is beatified by the Left and demonized by the Right. When I first encountered progressivism, I was disposed towards demonization, accepting arguments that progressive era ‘reforms’ had been mostly the results of an a-constitutional executive running amok. My engagement with progressive era primary sources has changed much of my perception of the movement.

The progressive movement was as fractured as the era that produced it. Arising due to the confluence of increased foreign immigration, urban shifts in population, and rapid mechanization of American industry, progressives sought to address the problems of the 19th century by reinvigorating the governmental and societal mechanisms of democracy. Although splintered in their opinions of social issues, progressives above all reacted to the rise of modern corporate capitalism, especially the 19th century trust. The social and economic context from which progressivism arose is something I found to be crucial in understanding the nature of the movement.

The impact of the progressive era on modern America cannot be overestimated. While not always successful in implementing their high-minded ideals, progressives emphasized – although often only latently – liberal values of democracy, gender equality, and benevolent government, all of which percolated through the next decades of democrat rule and were manifested in FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. From my engagement with the primary sources, progressivism seems to have launched three main ideas into the future.

First, and most important, the politicians of the progressive era assumed to a man (except Taft) that the Federal government – particularly the executive branch – must assume a new and expanded role in mitigating the economic and social landscape of 20th century America. The antiquated political machinery – notably the indirect election of Senators, a limited commerce clause, and restrained regulatory powers – of the Federal government seemingly broke down in light of the new economic and social realities. In order to address the new conditions, progressive politicians sought an expanded government. Roosevelt summed it up best when he said, “this [regulation of the trusts] implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country that we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary”[i] Prior to this point in American politics, the economy had been regarded sacrosanct from governmental interference. After the 1912 election, the door was opened to a broad series of legislative and executive actions, most notably represented by FDR’s New Deal.

Second, the progressive era effected direct, legal changes to the Federal government. Most notable of these are the 16th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution. The 16th was ratified just prior to the 1912 election, and the 17th directly after; both represent common progressive themes. The 16th reflects the belief that the persons behind massively profitable trusts should be taxed at a higher rate in order to effect improvements for the common worker. The 17th reflects a populist strain that ran– most explicitly – through T. Roosevelt’s campaign platform.

Finally, progressivism brought together urban immigrants, workers, women, and (at least more so than conservative republicanism) racial minorities into the genesis of the New Deal Coalition that FDR would utilize with success in the 1944 election. Progressivism promised workers improvements to unjust working conditions, pressed for immigrant protections and support, and at the fringe of its more radical forms, clamored for suffrage and hinted towards racial equality. These seeds would blossom in the post- New Deal era into the birth of the new left and would drive national democratic politics well into the 1960s.

The pervasive nature of progressive reforms relative to our present Federal Government, as well as their association with generally left-leaning ideologies soured my views on the progressive era during my initial engagement with it in high school. I had bought the Right’s argument in the post-2008 election fervor that Progressivism was merely a code word for modern liberalism. Thus, as I began reading progressive documents for class, I expected modern liberal ideology, couched in social-gospel driven rhetoric. While not disappointed with the latter (Roosevelt’s Confession of Faith), I quickly realized my prior understanding of progressivism was inadequate. Most importantly, by filling in my knowledge of the conditions which gave rise to the progressive movement, I have been able to contextualize the ideas put forth in 1912. Additionally, the insights that Socialist candidate Eugene Debs brought to the conversation brought me to the realization that progressivism, despite its name, was really a conservative ideology; while pushing the boundaries of the Federated Republic handed down from the founding fathers, progressives never wished to change the fundamental fabric of American government and society. Although he referred to individual candidates, Debs’ remarks can be broadly applied to progressivism as a whole: “They differ according to the conflicting interests of the privileged classes, but at bottom they are alike and stand for capitalist class rule and working class slavery”[ii]. Inflated rhetoric aside, Debs saw clearly that beneath the surface of progressivism lay a desire to preserve traditional American institutions.

This nature is what I had failed to take into account in judging progressivism. The 17th Amendment makes a clear case study of my inadequacy in accounting for historical context. Prior to reading these documents, I had judged the 17th Amendment a challenge to Constitutional authority, a form of usurpation of power, and a weakening of the Federal structure of the government. The crucial piece of information I missed is the fact that popular election of Senators was proposed in order to deal with the graft and corruption surrounding corporate bosses and crony capitalism; when elected by State legislatures, Senators had been bought and sold by powerful interest groups. In removing the power of election to the populace, progressives sought to remedy this problem. When seen in its historical context, the 17th Amendment is less threatening in intent.

The result of my engagement with progressive era primary sources is that I now judge the era less harshly. It is easy to attack the specific policies and reforms advocated by progressives when divorced in time and place from their context, and, although I share Taft’s hesitancy to endorse radical reform action when he warned that, “the people by one election could destroy our present government and take up some other”, I am at a loss to offer any serious solution to the issues of the era that does not mirror the progressive agenda.[iii] After understanding the social and economic changes that prompted much of the progressive era, I find it more difficult to attack the aims of progressivism; these politicians were real humans who sincerely desired to alleviate suffering. I can quibble with their methods, but cannot deny the issues they worked in response to.

Having learned so much from these documents, I am saddened at the limited understanding of this era shown by most modern Americans. Rather, I wonder how many of our beliefs, and dogmas are conditioned more by superficial understanding and instinctual reactions than by detailed historical analysis; I suspect the answer is depressing. In watching Republican primaries and Democratic presidents in the news today, the level of historical understanding demonstrated by politicians is weak at best. Although the progressive era deeply affected the structure, scope, and nature of our government and nation, most people seem unaware of what it even is and what it really stood for. This exercise has called me to a higher standard of engagement; ideas promulgated through the media must be based in historical understanding and regarded as suspect when not done so.

In reflecting on this era, two main things I have learned are to judge the past on its own merits and to acknowledge complexity. In the first case, without a historical background, the ideas and policies of progressivism made little sense and seemed to attack America’s legal construction. However, when taken as a part of the larger discourse of the era, it is clear that progressivism sought not to destroy, but to preserve for a new era operating under new conditions. With respect to the second, I have learned that issues presented as simple are usually obfuscated in some way. Reality is messier than we are comfortable with, and distortion and simplification of complex issues serves better propagandistic purposes than does the frank acknowledgement of complexity. The reality of the progressive era is much more complex than modern Americans believe it was; and it is only through clear and earnest engagement with the past on its own terms that we can participate fully and effectively in today’s politics.

Read the next entry in this series>>


[i] Roosevelt, Theodore. The New Nationalism. Flehinger, Brett. The 1912 Election and the Power of Progressivism. 67

[ii] Debs, Eugene. Acceptance Speech. Ibid. 165

[iii] Taft, William Howard. Speech at Nashua, New Hampshire. Ibid. 142.

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