Progressivism Revival And Reform
Ideas of reform are born in every generation like children, and like children, ideas need nurturing, education and time to mature. In time children become adults, reform ideas become movements, and each in their turn have offspring. The Progressive movement has an impressive genealogy. Its ancestry includes Jeffersonian Liberalism, pre-civil war social activists and abolitionists- Lincoln and emancipation.
After the war, reconstruction made way for expansion and further industrialization. The farmer, who had been encouraged to settle, grow and expand, fell on hard times. Faced with infestation, drought and debt the Midwest and Plains farmers came together under the Grange Movement. The traditionally conservative farmer appealed to the government against the railroads and the monopolistic control of pricing by merchants and suppliers. The Grange formed to lend support, information and provide a place to meet and discuss solutions. The focal point was the problem of economic depression. In the South and West the Farmer’s Alliance did the same. The Declaration of the National Grange (1874) shows the movement advancing from support to reform in action. The self-sustaining Granger rally “buy less, produce more” turned into the Alliance’s “less corn, more hell” (Mary Lease 1886). In 1889 “Agitation, education and cooperation…to overcome the impoverishment and bondage of so many” became the aims of the National Farmer’s Alliance and Industrial Union established by Charles Macune and William Lamb. From these early attempts at organization of the agrarian society came the partisan politics of the Populist Movement.
The Populist Party was the product of the union between the Farmer’s Alliance and the Knights of Labor. In 1890 they made their bid for power. They held the reins of the Kansas legislature and had their first senator, William Peffer, the Rustic Rasputin. Ignatius Donnelly, another colorful character, drafted the first Populist Platform in 1892.
The Populist Platform, presenting the common people (especially the farmers) was against the corruption of industry and government. This included but was not limited to the railroads, the banks, corporations, and any politician who supported them. Populists wanted free coinage of silver, graduated income taxes, restricted immigration, and the initiative and referendum. Their presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, polled 22 electoral votes and received more than 1,000,000 popular votes but lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
During the four years leading to the next presidential election the Populists cause fought against violence, fraud and intimidation from the outside and dissension from within. Divided in how best to get their reforms realized Populists formed into two factions, the Fusionists and the Midroaders. The Fusionists wanted to merge with the Democrats. They thought (correctly) a regional third party would not obtain power but their influence could force changes in the Democratic Platform. The Mid-Roaders believed the devious Democrats would not compromise but eradicate the third party threat. Joining them would assure this. Mid-Roaders were not what the name infers. They wished to be separate from both the Republicans and Democrats.
Mid-Roaders were really the radical Populists with higher expectations for their agenda of reforms.
The platform of 1896 favored more federal intervention to aid the economic situation of the farmer and the working class and eliminate corporate abuse and corruption. The main trust was money- the desire for National currency and free silver and gold. The (silver) Democrats shared the issue of free coinage. The Democratic convention nominated William Jennings Bryan on the free-silver platform. The hopes of National power for the Populists faded when they also indorsed Bryan. The Mid-Roaders presidential choice, Tom Watson, was nominated for vice-president but the Fusionists had bartered a deal with the Democrats and Watson was replaced with the Democratic choice, Arthur Sewall. The Populist Party was finished but the ideas survived to expand and become fecund. The agrarian populists would be the progenitor of the urban progressive.
About the time, the farmers were becoming unsettled and the Wild West was being tamed, other issues of reform were taking hold in other areas. Reformists had many names but most belonged to the family of the progressive. At the center of this family was the Economy. No matter how distantly related or how much of a black sheep all branches of the family could trace back to the Economy. Furthermore, in their diversity, most progressives had some common areas of concern and shared some general characteristics.
Most modern historians agree the progressive movement’s heart beat around Regulation of large corporations and monopolies, Efficiency, Democracy, and Social Justice which can be interpreted as Economy, Politics, Social Democracy, and Moral Purity. While not challenging the basis ideology of capitalism, progressives believed that the government needed purging; then to efficiently start working for the people and establish fairness in economic practices. The model progressive was a moralist needing to protect and educate the weak.
The diversity of issues and the division of how to accomplish the reforms was always a weakness in the progressive movement. The conservative camp had two sides. Pietistic social reformers sought to bring order and stability to society using the scientific approach combined with the benevolent enlightenment of the Social Gospel. The controlling elitist wanted a (oligarchy?) corporate capitalist state, social control through a strict moral code. The “other” progressive was the liberal idealist. They really wanted to place authority back into the hands of the people. These forward thinking activists were enthusiastic, more interracial and multi-classed than the conservatives. From this point progressivism becomes radical and moves towards socialism and anarchy (i.e. Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman).
Women played a major role in both conservative and liberal progressivism. In many ways they did not just step forward, they were pushed. Women had always been a vital working force in the agrarian community. By seeking suffrage, their voices added to the Populist Movement. The Women’s Suffrage Movement began before the Civil War. Unable to voice their opinions in temperance meetings, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton established the National American Woman Suffrage Association later to merge and become the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Other notables were Carrie Chapman, Jane Addams and Alice Paul. The enfranchisement of women was ratified in 1920 (19th Amendment).
Temperance was a moral and social issue with women. Alcohol led to perdition! Frances Willard formed the religious based WCTU in 1874. The male oriented Anti-Saloon Movement came later in 1893. Prohibition passed with the 18th amendment in 1919 (repealed by the 21st amendment in 1933).
As the urban growth continued middle class (white) women found reason to come together in Woman’s Clubs. The clubs expanded from self-improvement socials to community reform. Women became crusaders for just about everything from suffrage to sanitation reform. Jane Addams, and many others, formed Settlement Houses. The women lived in the settlements among the working class communities. From these centers, they attempted to improve the standard of living for the less fortunate women and children by providing daycare, education, healthcare and counseling. Reforms in child labor led to the Children’s Bureau and the first woman (Julia Lathrop) in a federal agency. One reformer, Margaret Sanger left Hull House and nursing to become an advocate for birth control. The New Woman wanted control of her body and sexuality. The working class woman needed education to decrease family size or unwanted pregnancies.
The Progressive Party of 1912 had commonalties with the Populists. Economic issues, suspicion of the markets and aversion of big business, again at the center. William Allen White said progressivism was just populism that had “shaved it’s whiskers, washed it’s shirt, put on a derby and moved up to middle class.” Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism favored broad social welfare (Wilson’s New Freedom did not) and increased regulation of big business (Wilson wanted small enterprise).
A good reform can also have a negative impact on society, sometimes intentional. Educational advocacy would raise the standards of the working class (the poor immigrant family), it could also alter the culture and family dynamic of upcoming generations. Melting pot or tossed salad? Americanization through public education? Another example of conservative (elitist) subjugation is the scientific efficiency of eugenics (i.e. birth control) and temperance (taking away primary sources of social comfort). Racial, ethic, and gender discrimination hindered progressivism.
With both the conservative and liberal factions ignoring or encouraging racism, the Progressive era could be dubbed as a “White Movement”. Fortunately, the black community raised its own great progressive leaders, clubs and organizations to which America is indebted. In honor, here are a few names-Booker T. Washington, W.E.B.DuBois, Revedy Randsom, Ida Tarbell, Ida Wells-Barnett, Mary Terrell, Mary Waring, and Lugenia Burns-Hope. There cannot be progress without civil rights and social justice.
Which division defined progressivism, conservative, liberal, idealist or radical? The Progressive Movement was a unique cohesion of many visions that brought action and awareness to the American people. The birth of the Progressive Movement was neither swift nor painless. Its brief high-life was dynamic but wrought with a multi-personality disorder. Its decline came suddenly with the economic revival of WWI but its demise is overstated, as the progressive resurrection is apparent today.
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