The Age of Reform – Richard Hofstadter ;What is Hofstadters thesis in the book?

The Age of Reform – Richard Hofstadter

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What is Hofstadters thesis in the book?

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L. C. catalog card number: 54-7206
Copyright 1955 by RICHARD HOFSTADTER. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form
without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be
printed in a magazine or newspaper.
eISBN: 978-0-307-80964-3
Title Page
I . The Agrarian Myth and Commercial Realities
II . The Folklore of Populism
III . From Pathos to Parity
IV . The Status Revolution and Progressive Leaders
V . The Progressive Impulse
VI . The Struggle over Organization
VII . From Progressivism to the New Deal
About the Author
Just as the cycle of American history running from the Civil War to the 1890’s can be
thought of chiefly as a period of industrial and continental expansion and political
conservatism, so the age that has just passed, running from about 1890 to the second
World War, can be considered an age of reform. The surge of reform, though largely
turned back in the 1890’s and temporarily reversed in the 1920’s, has set the tone of
American politics for the greater part of the twentieth century. The reform movements
of the past sixty-five years fall readily into three main episodes, the first two of which
are almost continuous with each other: the agrarian uprising that found its most intense
expression in the Populism of the 1890’s and the Bryan campaign of 1896; the
Progressive movement, which extended from about 1900 to 1914; and the New Deal,
whose dynamic phase was concentrated in a few years of the 1930’s.
This book has been inspired not by a desire to retell the familiar story of the primary
movements of reform in the United States since 1890, but by the need for a new analysis
from the perspective of our own time. My first interest was in the period from 1890 to
the beginning of the first World War, but the more I worked upon the problems of that
period, the more it was impressed upon me that its character could be far better
understood if it was briefly compared and contrasted with the New Deal. Hence I have
added a final chapter, which should not be taken as a full exploration of that
relationship. Today we are more remote in time from the first inaugural address of
Franklin D. Roosevelt than Roosevelt himself was on March 4, 1933, from the first
inaugural address of Woodrow Wilson. As we begin to view the New Deal in more
ample perspective, even the reforms that preceded it take on new meanings. We are
now in a position to see things we have not hitherto seen, and to realize the importance
of things that once seemed incidental.
Our conception of Populism and Progressivism has in fact been intimately bound up
with the New Deal experience. The Populist-Progressive age came to an end only with
the first World War, and by the time we began to get serious histories of that age, we
had been plunged into a new phase of reform brought about by the Great Depression.
The views, therefore, of Populism and Progressivism that one finds in histories written
during and shortly after the New Deal era bear inevitably the stamp of this second wave
of reform. This is not merely to say that they were usually sympathetic, but that they
were pervaded by the assumption that in some way the New Deal was both an analogue
and a lineal descendant of the Populist-Progressive tradition, an assumption which is by
no means totally false but which tends none the less to direct our attention away from
essential differences and hence seriously to distort the character of our history. I have
been at some pains to emphasize these differences.
I should perhaps explain the unusually broad sense in which I use the terms
“Populism” and “Progressivism.” By “Populism” I do not mean only the People’s (or
Populist) Party of the 1890’s; for I consider the Populist Party to be merely a heightened
expression, at a particular moment of time, of a kind of popular impulse that is endemic
in American political culture. Long before the rebellion of the 1890’s one can observe a
larger trend of thought, stemming from the time of Andrew Jackson, and crystallizing
after the Civil War in the Greenback, Granger, and anti-monopoly movements, that
expressed the discontents of a great many farmers and businessmen with the economic
changes of the late nineteenth century. The Populist spirit captured the Democratic
Party in 1896, and continued to play an important part in the politics of the Progressive
era. While its special association with agrarian reforms has now become attenuated, I
believe that Populist thinking has survived in our own time, partly as an undercurrent
of provincial resentments, popular and “democratic” rebelliousness and suspiciousness,
and nativism.
Similarly, by “Progressivism” I mean something more than the Progressive (or Bull
Moose) Party formed by the Republican insurgents who supported Theodore Roosevelt
for the presidency in 1912. I mean rather that broader impulse toward criticism and
change that was everywhere so conspicuous after 1900, when the already forceful
stream of agrarian discontent was enlarged and redirected by the growing enthusiasm
of middle-class people for social and economic reform. As all observant contemporaries
realized, Progressivism in this larger sense was not confined to the Progressive Party but
affected in a striking way all the major and minor parties and the whole tone of
American political life. It was, to be sure, a rather vague and not altogether cohesive or
consistent movement, but this was probably the secret of its considerable successes, as
well as of its failures. While Progressivism would have been impossible without the
impetus given by certain social grievances, it was not nearly so much the movement of
any social class, or coalition of classes, against a particular class or group as it was a
rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to
achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation. Its general theme was the
effort to restore a type of economic individualism and political democracy that was
widely believed to have existed earlier in America and to have been destroyed by the
great corporation and the corrupt political machine; and with that restoration to bring
back a kind of morality and civic purity that was also believed to have been lost.
The center of attention in these pages is neither the political campaigns, the
enactments of legislatures, the decisions of the courts, nor the work of regulatory
commissions, but the ideas of the participants—their conception of what was wrong, the
changes they sought, and the techniques they thought desirable. My theme, then, is the
conception the participants had of their own work and the place it would occupy in the
larger stream of our history. While my book is, in this sense, primarily a study of
political thinking and of political moods, it is not a study of our high culture, but of the
kind of thinking that impinged most directly upon the ordinary politically conscious
citizen. Morton G. White in his Social Thought in America has analyzed the impact of the
Progressive era upon more advanced speculation in philosophy, political theory,
sociology, and history. My chief concern is not with such work, not with the best but
with the most characteristic thinking, with the middlebrow writers, and with the issues
as they were presented in the popular magazines, the muckraking articles, the campaign
speeches, and the essays of the representative journalists and influential publicists. Of
course the high culture and the ordinary culture overlapped and interacted, as they
always do, and there were men capable of playing a part in both. At some points, too,
the more speculative thinkers who could be classed as Progressives were themselves
critical of important aspects of what I have called Progressive thinking. For instance,
when I argue that the goals of most Progressives were profoundly individualistic, I do
not forget that some of the most important speculative writing of the age in politics,
psychology, and philosophy drew upon the same events and concerns to arrive at
opposite conclusions. Nor do I intend to ignore the fact that some Progressive thinkers,
like Herbert Croly, and even a few Progressive political leaders, like Theodore
Roosevelt, were astute critics of this predominant yearning for individualism.
Intellectuals, and often indeed some of our shrewdest politicians, keep a certain distance
even from the political and social movements with which they sympathize, and their
work becomes a criticism both of these movements and of the institutions they are
directed against. One of the ironic problems confronting reformers around the turn of
the century was that the very activities they pursued in attempting to defend or restore
the individualistic values they admired brought them closer to the techniques of
organization they feared. The most penetrating thinkers of the age understood
somewhat more of this situation than was understood in common discourse.
The Populist and Progressive movements took place during a rapid and sometimes
turbulent transition from the conditions of an agrarian society to those of modern urban
life. Standing much closer to the completion of this change, we have in some respects a
clearer judgment of its meaning, but we are likely to lose sight of the poignancy with
which it was experienced by earlier generations. The American tradition of democracy
was formed on the farm and in small villages, and its central ideas were founded in
rural sentiments and on rural metaphors (we still speak of “grass-roots democracy”). For
reasons I will try to explore, the American was taught throughout the nineteenth and
even in the twentieth century that rural life and farming as a vocation were something
sacred. Since in the beginning the majority of the people were farmers, democracy, as a
rather broad abstraction, became in the same way sacrosanct. A certain complacency
and self-righteousness thus entered into rural thinking, and this complacency was rudely
shocked by the conquests of industrialism. A good deal of the strain and the sense of
anxiety in Populism results from this rapid decline of rural America.
And yet it is too little realized that the farmers, who were quite impotent as a special
interest when they were numerous, competing, and unorganized, grew stronger as they
grew relatively fewer, became more concerted, more tenaciously organized and selfcentered.
One of the clichés of Populism was the notion that, whatever the functions of
the other vocations, the function of the farmer was pre-eminent in importance because
he fed, and thus supported, all the others. Although it has been heard somewhat less
frequently of late, and a counter-ideology of urban resentment has even begun to
appear, our national folklore still bears the heavy imprint of that idea. In reality
something like the opposite has become true—that the rest of us support the farmer; for
industrial and urban America, sentimentally and morally committed to the ideal of the
family farm, has undertaken out of its remarkable surpluses to support more farmowners
on the farm than it really needs under modern agricultural technology. It is in
part because of the persistence of our agrarian traditions that this concession to the
farmers arouses less universal antagonism than do the efforts of other groups menaced
by technological changes—say, the musicians and the building-trades workers—to set up
artificial safeguards for themselves. My opening pages are given to the exploration of
this long-range swing from the pastoral legends of early nineteenth-century democracy
to the complexities of modern American life.
Another circumstance attending the rise of Populism and Progressivism in America
was unique in the modern world. Here the industrialization and urbanization of the
country were coupled with a breakdown in the relative homogeneity of the population.
American democracy, down to about 1880, had been not only rural but Yankee and
Protestant in its basic notions, and such enclaves of immigrants as had thus far
developed were too small and scattered to have a major nationwide impact upon the
scheme of its civic life. The rise of industry, however, brought with it what
contemporaries thought of as an “immigrant invasion,” a massive forty-year migration
of Europeans, chiefly peasants, whose religions, traditions, languages, and sheer
numbers made easy assimilation impossible. Populism and Progressivism were in
considerable part colored by the reaction to this immigrant stream among the native
elements of the population. Out of the clash between the needs of the immigrants and
the sentiments of the natives there emerged two thoroughly different systems of political
ethics, the nature and interactions of which I have tried briefly to define. One, founded
upon the indigenous Yankee-Protestant political traditions, and upon middle-class life,
assumed and demanded the constant, disinterested activity of the citizen in public
affairs, argued that political life ought to be run, to a greater degree than it was, in
accordance with general principles and abstract laws apart from the superior to
personal needs, and expressed a common feeling that government should be in good
part an effort to moralize the lives of individuals while economic life should be
intimately related to the stimulation and development of individual character. The other
system, founded upon the European backgrounds of the immigrants, upon their
unfamiliarity with independent political action, their familiarity with hierarchy and
authority, and upon the urgent needs that so often grew out of their migration, took for
granted that the political life of the individual would arise out of family needs,
interpreted political and civic relations chiefly in terms of personal obligations, and
placed strong personal loyalties above allegiance to abstract codes of law or morals. It
was chiefly upon this system of values that the political life of the immigrant, the boss,
and the urban machine was based. In many ways the struggles of the Progressive era
were influenced by the conflict between the two codes elaborated on one side by the
highly moral leaders of Protestant social reform and on the other by the bosses, political
professionals, and immigrant masses. Since they stemmed from different views not only
of politics but of morals and even of religion, it is hardly surprising that the conflicts of
the period, often so modest in actual substance, aroused antagonisms so intense and
misunderstandings so complete.
The political value and the ideas of government that had been formed in the rural
Yankee world were profoundly influenced by entrepreneurship and the ideal of
individual success. The side of the left in American political history—that is, the side of
popular causes and of reform—had always been relatively free of the need or obligation
to combat feudal traditions and entrenched aristocracies. It had neither revolutionary
traditions, in the bourgeois sense (the American Revolution itself was a legalistic and
socially conservative affair), nor proletarianism and social democracy of the kind
familiar in all the great countries of the West in the late nineteenth century. American
traditions of political revolt had been based upon movements against monopolies and
special privileges in both the economic and the political spheres, against social
distinctions and the restriction of credit, against limits upon the avenues of personal
advancement. Because it was always possible to assume a remarkable measure of social
equality and a fair minimum of subsistence, the goal of revolt tended to be neither social
democracy nor social equality, but greater opportunities. At the turn of the century the
world with which the majority even of the reformers was most affectionately familiar
was the passing world of individual enterprise, predominantly small or modest-sized
business, and a decentralized, not too highly organized life. In the Progressive era the
life of business, and to some degree even of government, was beginning to pass from an
individualistic form toward one demanding industrial discipline and engendering a
managerial and bureaucratic outlook. The protests of reformers against this state of
affairs often took the form of demands for the maintenance of the kind of opportunity
that was passing rather than for the furtherance of existing tendencies toward
organization. Most Americans who came from the Yankee-Protestant environment,
whether they were reformers or conservatives, wanted economic success to continue to
be related to personal character, wanted the economic system not merely to be a system
for the production of sufficient goods and services but to be an effectual system of
incentives and rewards. The great corporation, the crass plutocrat, the calculating
political boss, all seemed to defy these desires. Success in the great corporation seemed
to have a very dubious relation to character and enterprise; and when one observed the
behavior of the plutocracy, it seemed to be inversely related to civic responsibility and
personal restraint. The competitive process seemed to be drying up. All of society was
felt to be threatened—not by economic breakdown but by moral and social
degeneration and the eclipse of democratic institutions. This is not to say, however, that
the men of the age gave way to despair; for they believed that, just as the sinner can be
cleansed and saved, so the nation could be redeemed if the citizens awoke to their
responsibilities. This mood of hope, in which the Progressive agitations were conducted,
lasted until the first World War.
The next episode in the history of reform, the New Deal, was itself a product of that
overorganized world which had so much troubled the Progressives. The trend toward
management, toward bureaucracy, toward bigness everywhere had gone so far that
even the efforts of reform itself had to be consistent with it. Moreover, as the New Deal
era went on, leadership in reform had to be shared increasingly with an organized
working class large enough to make important demands and to wield great political
power. The political and moral codes of the immigrant masses of the cities, of the
political bosses, of labor leaders, of intellectuals and administrators, now clashed with
the old notions of economic morality. Some of the social strata and many of the social
types that had seen great merit in the more limited reforms of the Progressive era found
themselves in a bewildering new situation and, especially after the passing of the most
critical depression years, grew increasingly offended by the novelties with which they
were surrounded. The New Deal, with its pragmatic spirit and its relentless emphasis
upon results, seemed to have carried them farther than ever from the kind of society in
which economic life was linked to character and to distinctively entrepreneurial
freedoms and opportunities.
In the attempts of the Populists and Progressives to hold on to some of the values of
agrarian life, to save personal entrepreneurship and individual opportunity and the
character type they engendered, and to maintain a homogeneous Yankee civilization, I
have found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good
deal that was comic. To say this is not to say that these values were in themselves
nonsensical or bad. The ideal of a life lived close to nature and the soil, the esteem for
the primary contacts of country and village life, the cherished image of the independent
and self-reliant man, even the desire (for all the snobberies and hatreds it inspired) to
maintain an ethnically more homogeneous nation—these were not negligible or
contemptible ideals, and to those who felt most deeply about them their decline was a
tragic experience that must be attended to with respect even by those who can share it
only through some effort of the imagination. My comments, then, on the old agrarian
and entrepreneurial aspirations are not intended to disparage them as ultimate values
but to raise some safeguards against the political misuse of them that was and
sometimes still is attempted, and perhaps to shed some indirect light on the methods by
which that part of them that is still meaningful can be salvaged.
I find that I have been critical of the Populist-Progressive tradition—more so than I
would have been had I been writing such a study fifteen years ago. I say critical, but not
hostile, for I am criticizing largely from within The tradition of Progressive reform is the
one upon which I was reared and upon which my political sentiments were formed, as it
is, indeed, the tradition of most intellectuals in America. Perhaps because in its politics
the United States has been so reliably conservative a country during the greater part of
its history, its main intellectual traditions have been, as a reaction, “liberal,” as we say
—that is, popular, democratic, progressive. For all our conservatism as a people, we
have failed to develop a sound and supple tradition of candidly conservative thinking.
As Lionel Trilling remarks in The Liberal Imagination, our conservatives, with only a few
exceptions, have not sought to express themselves in ideas, as opposed to action; they
have only manifested “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” The
American businessman is expected to be a conservative in his politics. The conservative
American politician can expect widespread recognition, frequently a long tenure in
office, and usually a rewarding sense of public usefulness, even though we usually
reserve our highest acclaim for the politician who has in him a touch of the liberal
reformer. A conservative politician who has sufficient gifts—Theodore Roosevelt is the
best example—can in fact enjoy both respectability and the financial support of the
great interests and all the satisfactions of the conservative role in public affairs and yet
exert his maximal influence by using the rhetoric of progressivism and winning the
plaudits of the reformers. In times past, however, the conservative intellectual, and with
him the conservative politician who attempted to give to his actions the support of
reasoned belief, has been rather out of touch with the main lines of thought and with the
primary public that he wanted to reach. The flow of criticism between conservatives and
liberals in the United States has been somewhat blocked, with the consequence that men
on both sides have grown excessively complacent about their intellectual positions. In
the absence of a formidable and reasoned body of conservative criticism, liberals have
been driven, for that exercise of the mind which intellectuals seek, to self-criticism,
which has been of less value to them than powerful and searching opposition.
In our own day, perhaps for the first time since the 1890’s, this situation is changing,
for there are some signs that liberals are beginning to find it both natural and expedient
to explore the merits and employ the rhetoric of conservatism. They find themselves far
more conscious of those things they would like to preserve than they are of those things
they would like to change. The immense enthusiasm that was aroused among American
intellectuals by such a circumspect and sober gentleman as Adlai Stevenson in 1952 is
the most outstanding evidence of this conservatism. Stevenson himself remarked during
the course of his campaign that the liberals have become the true conservatives of our
time. This is true not because they have some sweeping ideological commitment to
conservatism (indeed, their sentiments and loyalties still lie mainly in another direction)
but because they feel that we can better serve ourselves in the calculable future by
holding to what we have gained and learned, while trying to find some way out of the
dreadful impasse of our polarized world, than by dismantling the social achievements of
the past twenty years, abandoning all that is best in American traditions, and indulging
in the costly pretense of repudiating what we should not and in fact cannot repudiate.
My criticisms of the Populist-Progressive tradition, in so far as they are at all tinctured
by conservatism, are no doubt in part a response to this mood. I do not like to think of
these criticisms as being associated with the “New Conservatism” of our time, which
seems so modish that I find myself uncomfortable with it. The use of such a term as
“New Conservatism” only suggests to me how uneasy Americans still are in the presence
of candidly conservative ideas. I should have thought that anything that was good in
conservatism was very old indeed, and so that finest of American conservatives, John
Adams, would tell us if he could. To propagate something called “New Conservatism”
sounds to me too much like the crasser forms of salesmanship. It is in itself a
capitulation to the American demand for constant change, and hence a betrayal of
conservatism at the outset. We Americans love to have everything labeled “new” and
“big,” and yet what is of most value in conservatism is its feeling for the past and for
nuances of thought, of administration, of method, of meaning, that might be called
“little.” What appeals to me in the New Conservatism, in so far as anything does at all,
is simply the old liberalism, chastened by adversity, tempered by time, and modulated
by growing sense of reality. Hence, to the degree that I have been critical in these pages
of the Populist-Progressive tradition, it is criticism that aims to reveal some of the
limitations of that tradition and to help free it of its sentimentalities and complacencies
—in short, to carry on with a task so largely shirked by its opponents that it must be
performed by its supporters.
It would be unfair not to add—indeed, to emphasize as much as it is possible to do
here—that most of the failings in the liberal tradition that have attracted my interest are
also failings of American political culture in general, and that they are usually shared by
American conservatives. The most prominent and pervasive failing is a certain
proneness to fits of moral crusading that would be fatal if they were not sooner or later
tempered with a measure of apathy and of common sense. Eric Goldman, in his history
of American reform, Rendezvous with Destiny, criticizes Progressive intellectuals for
propagating a moral relativism that, by making all moral judgments the products of
particular locales and particular historical situations, eventually undermined confidence
in the significance of moral judgments as such. “The real trouble with us reformers,” he
quotes J. Allen Smith as having said, “is that we made reform a crusade against
standards. Well, we smashed them all and now neither we nor anybody else have
anything left.” This accusation has, in my view, a certain pertinence to some liberals in
our time, and particularly to those who were known a few years ago as “totalitarian
liberals”—that is, to the type of professed liberals who failed to demand of their own
side the civic principles they expected of others, who exempted movements deemed to
be “historically progressive” from the moral judgments to which all other movements
were subjected, and who in particular denied or granted special indulgences to the
barbarities and tyrannies of Soviet politics that they freely recognized and condemned
in the fascist countries. But this kind of thing, lamentable as it was, has not been the
characteristic failing of most modern American reform movements, and certainly was
not widely characteristic of the Populist-Progressive thinking of the period from 1890 to
1917. My criticism of the Progressivism of that period is the opposite of Smith’s—not
that the Progressives most typically undermined or smashed standards, but that they set
impossible standards, that they were victimized, in brief, by a form of moral absolutism.
It is possible that the distinction between moral relativism and moral absolutism has
sometimes been blurred because an excessively consistent practice of either leads to the
same practical result—ruthlessness in political life.
A great part of both the strength and the weakness of our national existence lies in
the fact that Americans do not abide very quietly the evils of life. We are forever
restlessly pitting ourselves against them, demanding changes, improvements, remedies,
but not often with sufficient sense of the limits that the human condition will in the end
insistently impose upon us. This restlessness is most valuable and has its most successful
consequence wherever dealing with things is involved, in technology and invention, in
productivity, in the ability to meet needs and provide comforts. In this sphere we have
surpassed all other peoples. But in dealing with human beings and institutions, in
matters of morals and politics, the limits of this undying, absolutist restlessness quickly
became evident. At the so-called grass roots of American politics there is a wide and
pervasive tendency to believe—I hasten to add that the majority of Americans do not
habitually succumb to this tendency—that there is some great but essentially very simple
struggle going on, at the heart of which there lies some single conspiratorial force,
whether it be the force represented by the “gold bugs,’ the Catholic Church, big business,
corrupt politicians, the liquor interests and the saloons, or the Communist Party, and
that this evil is something that must be not merely limited, checked, and controlled but
rather extirpated root and branch at the earliest possible moment. It is widely assumed
that some technique can be found that will really do this, though there is always likely
to be a good deal of argument as to what that technique is. All too often the assumption
prevails among our political and intellectual leaders that the judgment of the people
about such things must of necessity be right, and that it is therefore their own business
not to educate the public or to curb its demands for the impossible but to pretend that
these demands are altogether sensible and to try to find ways to placate them.
So we go off on periodical psychic sprees that purport to be moral crusades: liberate
the people once and for all from the gold bugs, restore absolute popular democracy or
completely honest competition in business, wipe out the saloon and liquor forever from
the nation’s life, destroy the political machines and put an end to corruption, or achieve
absolute, total, and final security against war, espionage, and the-affairs of the external
world. The people who attach themselves to these several absolutisms are not always
the same people, but they do create for each other a common climate of absolutist
enthusiasm. Very often the evils they are troubled about do exist in some form, usually
something can be done about them, and in a great many historical instances something
has been done. It is the merit of our reform tradition that it has usually been the first to
point to the real and serious deficiencies in our economic system and that it has taken
the initiative in making improvements. It is its limitation that it often wanders over the
border between reality and impossibility. This was, I believe, pre-eminently true of the
Progressive generation. It is hardly an accident that the generation that wanted to bring
about direct popular rule, break up the political machines, and circumvent
representative government was the same generation that imposed Prohibition on the
country and proposed to make the world safe for democracy.
I believe it will be clear that what I am trying to establish is not that the Populist and
Progressive movements were foolish and destructive but only that they had, like so
many things in life, an ambiguous character. Of their substantial net value in the main
stream of American political experience I have no doubt. There has always been in the
United States a struggle against those forces which were too exclusively preoccupied
with the organization of economic life and the milking of our resources to give much
thought to the human costs or to expend much sympathy on the victims of their work. It
has been the function of the liberal tradition in American politics, from the time of
Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy down through Populism, Progressivism, and the
New Deal, at first to broaden the numbers of those who could benefit from the great
American bonanza and then to humanize its workings and help heal its casualties.
Without this sustained tradition of opposition and protest and reform, the American
system would have been, as in times and places it was, nothing but a jungle, and would
probably have failed to develpp into the remarkable system for production and
distribution that it is. If we were to follow the history of but one issue alone—that of
taxation in all its aspects—we would be quickly reminded of the enormous debt we owe
to the liberal tradition for shifting the costs of society to those who are best able to bear
them. Fifty or sixty years ago our social system had hardly begun to be touched by the
gentle hands of remorse or reform. Today, as a result of an unintended, intermittent,
and usually hostile collaboration of the opposing forces of matter-of-fact profit-seeking,
engineering, and salesmanship on one hand and dissent and reform on the other, it has
been altered and softened in countless ways. The place of the progressive tradition in
this achievement is so secure that it should now be possible to indulge in some critical
comments without seeming to impugn its entire value.
While it is always both feasible and desirable to formulate ideal programs of reform,
it is asking too much to expect that history will move, so to speak, in a straight line to
realize them. Liberal intellectuals, who have rather well-rationalized systems of political
beliefs, tend to expect that the masses of people, whose actions at certain moments in
history coincide with some of these beliefs, will share their other convictions as a matter
of logic and principle. Intellectuals, moreover, suffer from a sense of isolation which
they usually seek to surmount by finding ways of getting into rapport with the people,
and they readily succumb to a tendency to sentimentalize the folk. Hence they
periodically exaggerate the measure of agreement that exists between movements of
popular reform and the considered principles of political liberalism. They remake the
image of popular rebellion closer to their heart’s desire. They choose to ignore not only
the elements of illiberalism that frequently seem to be an indissoluble part of popular
movements but also the very complexity of the historical process itself. In theory we
may feel that we can in most cases distinguish without excessive difficulty between
reforms that are useful remedies for the evils and abuses of our society and changes that
are in fact only additions to or aggravations of such abuses. Popular movements do not
always operate with the same discrimination, and it is often hard to tell when such a
movement has passed beyond the demand for important and necessary reforms to the
expression of a resentment so inclusive that it embraces not only the evils and abuses of
a society but the whole society itself, including some of its more liberal and humane
values. One can hardly read such works as Reinhard Luthin’s recent study of twentiethcentury
American demagogy or Albert D. Kirwan’s treatise on Mississippi politics, Revolt
of the Rednecks, without finding abundant evidence of this coexistence of illiberalism
and reform, and of its continuity in our history.
These points are, I believe, applicable to the history of twentieth-century American
reform movements. We tend, for instance, to think of both Populism and Progressivism
in connection with the many ways in which they can be considered precursors of the
more useful reforms of the New Deal era. Actually, as I suggest in my final chapter, the
spirit of the Progressive era was quite different from that of the New Deal. While there
are genuine points of similarity and continuity, which I do not wish to deny or
minimize, my own interest has been drawn to that side of Populism and Progressivism—
particularly of Populism—which seems very strongly to foreshadow some aspects of the
cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time. Somewhere along the way a large part of the
Populist-Progressive tradition has turned sour, become illiberal and ill-tempered. Since
most of my concern in this volume has been with the period before 1917, and since the
greater part of this souring process took place after 1917, and even after 1930, I have
not attempted to deal in any detail with this transformation. And yet I think it might
well be a leading preoccupation of any history of American political movements since
the first World War. What I have tried to do, in my treatment of the earlier history of
reform, is to show that this process of deconversion from reform to reaction did not
require the introduction of anything wholly new into the political sensibilities of the
American public but only a development of certain tendencies that had existed all along,
particularly in the Middle West and the South.
Such tendencies in American life as isolationism and the extreme nationalism that
usually goes with it, hatred of Europe and Europeans, racial, religious, and nativist
phobias, resentment of big business, trade-unionism, intellectuals, the Eastern seaboard
and its culture—all these have been found not only in opposition to reform but also at
times oddly combined with it. One of the most interesting and least studied aspects of
American life has been the frequent recurrence of the demand for reforms, many of
them aimed at the remedy of genuine ills, combined with strong moral convictions and
with the choice of hatred as a kind of creed. The history of this characteristic of our
political experience has never been studied on the folk level, but it has been reflected in
the caliber of our leadership. One finds it, for instance, in the families of the two Charles
A. Lindberghs, and the two Martin Dieses, where in both cases the fathers were
populistic or Progressive isolationists and the sons became heroes of the extreme right.
One finds it in the careers of such Western and Midwestern Senators as Burton K.
Wheeler, Gerald P. Nye, Lynn Frazier, and William Lemke, and in such Southerners as
Tom Watson, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, Cole Blease, James K. Vardaman, and Huey Long.
Nor is it confined to practical politics, It has its representatives in literature, like Jack
London, and in journalism, like William Randolph Hearst.
We have all been taught to regard it as more or less “natural” for young dissenters to
become conservatives as they grow older; but the phenomenon I am concerned with is
not quite the same, for it involves not so much the progression from one political
position to another as the continued coexistence of reformism and reaction; and when it
takes the form of a progression in time, it is a progression very often unattended by any
real change in personal temper. No doubt the precise line between useful and valid
criticism of any society and a destructive alienation from its essential values is not
always easy to draw. Some men, and indeed some political movements, seem to live
close to that line and to swing back and forth across it more than once in their lives. The
impulses behind yesterday’s reform may be put in the service of reform today, but they
may also be enlisted in the service of reaction.
I am fully aware of the dangers of overemphasizing here the resemblances and the
continuities between the currents of political feeling that trouble liberals today and their
counterparts in earlier reform movements—the danger of becoming too present-minded
to have a sound sense of historical veracity, of pushing an insight beyond the bounds of
its valid application. Populism, for all its zany fringes, was not an unambiguous
forerunner of modern authoritarian movements; nor was Progressivism, despite the
fallible concept of mass democracy it sometimes sought to advance, an unambiguous
harbinger of our most troublesome contemporary delusions. Among those things which
must be kept in mind when we think of the period between 1890 and 1917 is that it had
about it an innocence and relaxation that cannot again be known, now that
totalitarianism has emerged. Mr. Dooley, one of the shrewdest commentators of that
age, saw its character quite clearly when he said, even at the height of the Progressive
ferment: “Th’ noise ye hear is not th’ first gun iv a rivolution. It’s on’y th’ people iv the
United States batin’ a carpet.”
There are, however, complexities in our history which our conventional images of the
past have not caught, and we need to know more than we do about our political
traditions before our own generation can finish its portraits of earlier reformers. For this
reason I hope that my observations will be taken as a prelude and a spur to further
studies of American reform movements and not as an attempt to render a final
I . The Yeoman and the Myth
The United States was born in the country and has moved to the city. From the
beginning its political values and ideas were of necessity shaped by country life. The
early American politician, the country editor, who wished to address himself to the
common man, had to draw upon a rhetoric that would touch the tillers of the soil; and
even the spokesman of city people knew that his audience had been in very large part
reared upon the farm. But what the articulate people who talked and wrote about
farmers and farming—the preachers, poets, philosophers, writers, and statesmen—liked
about American farming was not, in every respect, what the typical working farmer
liked. For the articulate people were drawn irresistibly to the noncommercial,
nonpecuniary, self-sufficient aspect of American farm life. To them it was an ideal.
Writers like Thomas Jefferson and Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur admired the yeoman
farmer not for his capacity to exploit opportunities and make money but for his honest
industry, his independence, his frank spirit of equality, his ability to produce and enjoy
a simple abundance. The farmer himself, in most cases, was in fact inspired to make
money, and such self-sufficiency as he actually had was usually forced upon him by a
lack of transportation or markets, or by the necessity to save cash to expand his
operations For while early American society was an agrarian society it was fast
becoming more commercial, and commercial goals made their way among its
agricultural classes almost as rapidly as elsewhere. The more commercial this society
became, however, the more reason it found to cling in imagination to the
noncommercial agrarian values. The more farming as a self-sufficient way of life was
abandoned for farming as a business, the more merit men found in what was being left
behind. And the more rapidly the farmers’ sons moved into the towns, the more
nostalgic the whole culture became about its rural past. The American mind was raised
upon a sentimental attachment to rural living and upon a series of notions about rural
people and rural life that I have chosen to designate as the agrarian myth.1 The
agrarian myth represents a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied
innocence of their origins.
Like any complex of ideas, the agrarian myth cannot be defined in a phrase, but its
component themes form a clear pattern. Its hero was the yeoman farmer, its central
conception the notion that he is the ideal man and the ideal citizen. Unstinted praise of
the special virtues of the farmer and the special values of rural life was coupled with the
assertion that agriculture, as a calling uniquely productive and uniquely important to
society, had a special right to the concern and protection of government. The yeoman,
who owned a small farm and worked it with the aid of his family, was the incarnation
of the simple, honest, independent, healthy, happy human being. Because he lived in
close communion with the beneficent nature, his life was believed to have a
wholesomeness and integrity impossible for the depraved populations of cities. His wellbeing
was not merely physical, it was moral; it was not merely personal, it was the
central source of civic virtue; it was not merely secular but religious, for God had made
the land and called man to cultivate it. Since the yeoman was believed to be both happy
and honest, and since he had a secure propertied stake in society in the form of his own
land, he was held to be the best and most reliable sort of citizen. To this conviction
Jefferson appealed when he wrote: “The small land holders are the most precious part
of a state.”2
In origin the agrarian myth was not a popular but a literary idea, a preoccupation of
the upper classes, of those who enjoyed a classical education, read pastoral poetry,
experimented with breeding stock, and owned plantations or country estates. It was
clearly formulated and almost universally accepted in America during the last half of the
eighteenth century. As it took shape both in Europe and America, its promulgators drew
heavily upon the authority and the rhetoric of classical writers—Hesiod, Xenophon,
Cato, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and others—whose works were the staples of a good
education. A learned agricultural gentry, coming into conflict with the industrial classes,
welcomed the moral strength that a rich classical ancestry brought to the praise of
husbandry. In France the Physiocrats preached that agriculture is the only true source of
wealth. In England the rural entrepreneurs, already interested in breeding and
agricultural improvement, found the praise of husbandry congenial. They enjoyed it in
James Thomson’s Seasons, or in Dryden’s translation of Horace:
How happy in his low degree,
How rich in humble poverty, is he,
Who leads a quiet country life,
Discharged of business, void of strife,
And from the griping scrivener free?
Thus, ere the seeds of vice were sown,
Lived men in better ages born,
Who plough’d with oxen of their own,
Their small paternal field of corn.
“There is, indeed, scarcely any writer,” declared Samuel Johnson in 1751, “who had not
celebrated the happiness of rural privacy.”3
Wherever the peasantry was being displaced by industry or commercial farming, and
particularly in England, where rustic life was devastated by the enclosures, such
literature took on special poignancy. Oliver Goldsmith’s classic statement, “The Deserted
Village,” became well over a hundred years later the unchallenged favorite of American
Populist writers and orators. Chiefly through English experience, and from English and
classical writers, the agrarian myth came to America, where, like so many other cultural
importations, it eventually took on altogether new dimensions in its new setting. In
America such men as Jefferson and Crèvecoeur, Thomas Paine, Philip Freneau, Hugh-
Henry Brackenridge, and George Logan propagated the myth, and after them a
multitude of writers whose lives reach well into the nineteenth century.4 So appealing
were its symbols that even an arch-opponent of the agrarian interest like Alexander
Hamilton found it politic to concede in his Report on Manufactures that “the cultivation
of the earth, as the primary and most certain source of national supply,… has
intrinsically a strong claim to pre-eminence over every other kind of industry.”5 And
Benjamin Franklin, urban cosmopolite though he was, once said that agriculture was
“the only honest way” for a nation to acquire wealth, “wherein man receives a real
increase of the seed thrown into the ground, a kind of continuous miracle, wrought by
the hand of God in his favour, as a reward for his innocent life and virtuous industry.”6
Among the intellectual classes in the eighteenth century the agrarian myth had
virtually universal appeal. It was everywhere: in tracts on agricultural improvement
and books on economics, in pastoral poetry and political philosophy. At once primitivist
and rationalist, it could be made congenial to almost every temperament. Some writers
used it to give simple, direct, and emotional expression to their feelings about life and
nature; others linked agrarianism with a formal philosophy of natural rights. The
application of the natural-rights philosophy to land tenure became especially popular in
America. Since the time of Locke it had been a standard argument that the land is the
common stock of society to which every man has a right—what Jefferson called “the
fundamental right to labour the earth”; that since the occupancy and use of land are the
true criteria of valid ownership, labor expended in cultivating the earth confers title to
it; that since government was created to protect property, the property of working
landholders has a special claim to be fostered and protected by the state.7
At first, as I have said, the agrarian myth was a notion of the educated classes, but by
tibe early nineteenth century it had become a mass creed,8 a part of the country’s
political folklore and its nationalist ideology. The roots of this change may be found as
far back as the American Revolution, which, appearing to many Americans as the
victory of a band of embattled farmers over an empire, seemed to confirm the moral
and civic superiority of the yeoman, made the farmer a symbol of the new nation, and
wove the agrarian myth into its patriotic sentiments and republican idealism. Still more
important, the myth played a role in the first party battles under the Constitution. The
Jeffersonians appealed again and again to the moral primacy of the yeoman farmer in
their attacks on the Federalists. The family farm and American democracy became
indissolubly connected in Jeffersonian thought,9 and was inherited from the
Jeffersonians by exponents of popular causes in the Jackson era. By 1840 even the more
conservative party, the Whigs, took over the rhetorical appeal to the common man, and
elected a President in good part on the strength of the fiction that he lived in a log
The Jeffersonians, moreover, made the agrarian myth the basis of a strategy of
continental development.1 Many of them expected that the great empty inland regions
would guarantee the preponderance of the yeoman—and therefore the dominance of
Jeffersonianism and the health of the state—for an unlimited future. In his first
inaugural address Jefferson spoke of the United States as “a chosen country, with room
enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” The opening
of the trans-Allegheny region, its protection from slavery, and the purchase of the
Louisiana Territory were the first great steps in a continental strategy designed to
establish an internal empire of small farms. Much later the Homestead Act, though
temporarily blocked by the South (the only section of the country where the freehold
concept was seriously contested as an ideal), was meant to carry to its completion the
process of continental settlement by small homeowners. The failure of the Homestead
Act “to enact by statute the fee-simple empire”2 was, as we shall see, one of the original
sources of Populist grievances, and one of the central points at which the agrarian myth
was overrun by the commercial realities.
Above all, however, the myth was powerful because the United States in the first half
of the nineteenth century consisted predominantly of literate and politically
enfranchised farmers. Offering what seemed harmless flattery to this numerically
dominant class, the myth suggested a standard vocabulary to rural editors and
politicians.3 Although farmers may not have been much impressed by what was said
about the merits of a noncommercial way of life, they could only enjoy learning about
their special virtues and their unique services to the nation, could hardly mind hearing
that their life was intrinsically more virtuous and closer to God than the lives of many
people who seemed to be better off. Moreover, the editors and politicians who so
flattered them need not in most cases have been insincere. More often than not they too
were likely to have begun life in little villages or on farms, and what they had to say
stirred in their own breasts, as it did in the breasts of a great many townspeople,
nostalgia for their early years, and perhaps relieved some residual feelings of guilt at
having deserted parental homes and childhood attachments.4 They also had the
satisfaction in the early days of knowing that in so far as it was based upon the life of
the largely self-sufficient yeoman the agrarian myth was a depiction of reality as well as
the assertion of an ideal.
Oddly enough, the agrarian myth came to be believed more widely and tenaciously as
it became more fictional. At first it was propagated with a kind of genial candor, and
only later did it acquire overtones of insincerity. There survives from the Jackson era a
lithograph that shows Joseph Ritner, Governor of Pennsylvania, standing by a primitive
plow at the end of a furrow. There is no pretense that the Governor has actually been
plowing—he wears broadcloth pants and a silk vest, and his tall black beaver hat has
been carefully laid in the grass beside him—but the picture is meant as a reminder of
both his rustic origin and his present high station in life. By contrast, Calvin Coolidge
posed almost a century later for a series of photographs that represented him as haying
in Vermont. In one of them the President sits on the edge of a hay rig in a white shirt,
collar detached, wearing highly polished black shoes under a fresh pair of overalls; in
the background stands his Pierce Arrow, a secret-service man on the running board,
plainly waiting to hurry the President away from his bogus rural labors.5 That the
second picture is so much more pretentious and disingenuous than the first is a measure
of the increasing hollowness of the myth as it became more and more remote from the
realities of agriculture. Well on into the twentieth century eminent Americans continued
to pay this ritualistic obeisance to what one writer has called “agricultural
fundamentalism.”6 Coolidge himself, who showed monumental indifference to the real
problems of farmers in the 1920’s, none the less declared: “It has been attested by all
experience that agriculture tends to discouragement and decadence whenever the
predominant interests of the country turn to manufacture and trade.”7 Likewise Bernard
Baruch, a metropolitan financier whose chief contact with agriculture consisted in the
absentee ownership of a country estate, asserted: “Agriculture is the greatest and
fundamentally the most important of our American industries. The cities are but the
branches of the tree of national life, the roots of which go deeply into the land. We all
flourish or decline with the farmer.”8
Throughout the nineteenth century hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of farmborn
youths had set the example that Coolidge and Baruch only followed: they sang the
praises of agriculture but eschewed farming as a vocation and sought their careers in the
towns and cities. For all the rhetoric of the pastoral tradition, nothing could keep the
boys on the farm, and nothing could conceal from the farm population itself the
continuous restless movement not merely to farms farther west but to urban areas, East
and West. Particularly after 1840, which marked the beginning of a long cycle of heavy
country-to-city migration, farm children repudiated their parents’ way of life and took
off for the cities, where in agrarian theory, if not in fact, they were sure to succumb to
vice and poverty. Farm journals were full of editorials, stories, and poems voicing the
plaintive theme: “Boys, Stick to the Farm!” and of advice to farmers on how to rear their
sons so that farming as a way of life would be attractive to them.9 A typical bit of this
folklore runs:1
The great busy West has inducements,
And so has the busiest mart,
But wealth is not made in a day, boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to start!
The bankers and brokers are wealthy,
They take in their thousands or so;
Ah! think of the frauds and deceptions—
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
The farm is the safest and surest;
The orchards are loaded today,
You’re free as the air of the mountains,
And monarch of all you survey.
Better stay on the farm a while longer,
Though profits come in rather slow;
Remember you’ve nothing to risk, boys—
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
In the imagery of these appeals the earth was characteristically a mother, trade a
harlot, and desertion of ancestral ways a betrayal that invited Providential punishment.
When a correspondent of the Prairie Farmer in 1849 made the mistake of praising the
luxuries, the “polished society,” and the economic opportunities of the city, he was
rebuked for overlooking the fact that city life “crushes, enslaves, and ruins so many
thousands of our young men who are insensibly made the victims of dissipation, of reckless
speculation, and of ultimate crime.”2 Such warnings, of course, were futile. “Thousands of
young men,” wrote the New York agriculturist Jesse Buel, “do annually forsake the
plough, and the honest profession of their fathers, if not to win the fair, at least from an
opinion, too often confirmed by mistaken parents, that agriculture is not the road to
wealth, to honor, nor to happiness. And such will continue to be the case, until our
agriculturists become qualified to assume that rank in society to which the importance of
their calling, and their numbers, entitle them, and which intelligence and self-respect
can alone give them.”3
Rank in society! That was close to the heart of the matter, for the farmer was
beginning to realize acutely not merely that the best of the world’s goods were to be had
in the cities and that the urban middle and upper classes had much more of them than
he did but also that he was losing in status and respect as compared with them. He
became aware that the official respect paid to the farmer masked a certain disdain felt
by many city people. In time the eulogies of country life that appeared in farm journals
lost their pleasantly complacent tone and took on some of the sharpness of a “defensive
gesture against real or imagined slurs.”4 “There has … a certain class of individuals
grown up in our land,” complained a farm writer in 1835, “who treat the cultivators of
the soil as an inferior caste … whose utmost abilities are confined to the merit of being
able to discuss a boiled potato and a rasher of bacon.” The city was symbolized as the
home of loan sharks, dandies, fops, and aristocrats with European ideas who despised
farmers as hayseeds. One writer spoke in a magnificent stream of mixed metaphor of
“the butterflies who flutter over them in British broadcloth, consuming the fruits of the
sweat of their brows.”5
The growth of the urban market intensified this antagonism. In areas like colonial
New England, where an intimate connection had existed between the small town and
the adjacent countryside, where a community of interests and even of occupations cut
across the town line, the rural-urban hostility had not developed so sharply as in the
newer areas where the township plan was never instituted and where isolated
farmsteads were more common. As settlement moved west, as urban markets grew, as
self-sufficient farmers became rarer, as farmers pushed into commercial production for
the cities they feared and distrusted, they quite correctly thought of themselves as a
vocational and economic group rather than as members of a neighborhood. In the
Populist era the city was totally alien territory to many farmers, and the primacy of
agriculture as a source of wealth was reasserted with much bitterness. “The great cities
rest upon our broad and fertile prairies,” declared Bryan in his Cross of Gold speech.
“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by
magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the
country.” Out of the beliefs nourished by the agrarian myth there had arisen the notion
that the city was a parasitical growth on the country. Bryan spoke for a people raised
for generations on the idea that the farmer was a very special creature, blessed by God,
and that in a country consisting largely of farmers the voice of the farmer was the voice
of democracy and of virtue itself. The agrarian myth encouraged farmers to believe that
they were not themselves an organic part of the whole order of business enterprise and
speculation that flourished in the city, partaking of its character and sharing in its risks,
but rather the innocent pastoral victims of a conspiracy hatched in the distance. The
notion of an innocent and victimized populace colors the whole history of agrarian
controversy, and indeed the whole history of the populistic mind.
For the farmer it was bewildering, and irritating too, to think of the great contrast
between the verbal deference paid him by almost everyone and the real status, the real
economic position, in which he found himself. Improving his economic position was
always possible, though this was often done too little and too late; but it was not within
anyone’s power to stem the decline in the rural values and pieties, the gradual rejection
of the moral commitments that had been expressed in the early exaltations of
agrarianism. It was the fate of the farmer himself, as we shall see, to contribute to this
decline. Like almost all good Americans he had innocently sought progress from the very
beginning, and thus hastened the decline of many of his own values. Elsewhere the rural
classes had usually looked to the past, had been bearers of tradition and upholders of
stability. The American farmer looked to the future alone, and the story of the American
land became a study in futures. In the very hours of its birth as a nation Crèvecoeur had
congratulated America for having, in effect, no feudal past and no industrial present,
for having no royal, aristocratic, ecclesiastical, or monarchical power, and no
manufacturing class, and had rapturously concluded: “We are the most perfect society
now existing in the world.” Here was the irony from which the farmer suffered above all
others: the United States was the only country in the world that began with perfection
and aspired to progress.
II . The Farmer and the Realities
To what extent was the agrarian myth actually false? When it took form in America
during the eighteenth century, its stereotypes did indeed correspond to many of the
realities of American agricultural life. There were commercial elements in colonial
agriculture almost from the earliest days, but there were also large numbers of the kind
of independent yeomen idealized in the myth, men who had remarkable self-sufficiency
and bequeathed to their children a strong penchant for craftsmanlike improvisation and
a tradition of household industry. For a long time the commercial potentialities of
agriculture were held in check by severe obstacles. Only the farmers very near to the
rivers and the towns had adequate transportation. The small industrial population
provided a very limited domestic market, and the villagers raised a large part of their
own food. Outside the South operations above the size of the family farm were cramped
by the absence of a force of wage laborers. At the beginning of the nineteenth century,
when the American population was still living largely in the forests, poised at the edge
of the Appalachians, and standing on the verge of the great drive across the prairies
that occupied settlers for half a century, the yeoman was by no means a fiction.
The early panegyrists of the agrarian myth were, of course, aware of the commercial
farmers, but it was this independent yeoman who caught their fancy. Admiring the
natural abundance produced and consumed by the family on its own farm, they assumed
that the family farm would always be, as it so frequently was in the early days, a
diversified and largely self-sufficient unit. Even Jefferson, who was far from a humble
yeoman, and whose wants were anything but simple, succeeded to a remarkable degree
in living up to the ideal of self-sufficiency. Like many planters, he numbered among his
slaves a balanced group of craftsmen; and even if the luxuries of Jefferson the planter
had to be imported, the necessities at least of Jefferson the farmer, and of all his
“people,” were yielded by his own land.6 This was also the goal set by the theorists for
the yeoman. Making at home almost everything he needed, buying little, using each
year but a pocketful of cash, he would be as independent of the marketplace as he was
of the favors of others. The yeoman, too, valued this self-sufficiency and the savings it
made possible, but he seems to have valued it more often than not as a means through
which he could eventually enter the marketplace rather than as a means of avoiding it.
“My farm,” said the farmer of Jefferson’s time, “gave me and my family a good living
on the produce of it; and left me, one year with another, one hundred and fifty silver
dollars, for I have never spent more than ten dollars a year, which was for salt, nails,
and the like. Nothing to wear, eat, or drink was purchased, as my farm provided all.
With this saving, I put money to interest, bought cattle, fatted and sold them, and made
great profit.”7 Here, then, was the significance of self-sufficiency for the characteristic
family farmer; “great profit.” Commercialism had already begun to enter the American
From colonial days there had always been before the eyes of the yeoman farmer in
the settled areas alluring models of commercial success in agriculture: the tobacco, rice,
and indigo planters of the South, the grain, meat, and cattle exporters of the middle
colonies. In America the spirit of emulation was exceptionally strong, the opportunities
were considerable. The farmer knew that without cash he could never rise above the
hardships and squalor of pioneering and log-cabin life. Self-sufficiency produced
savings, and savings went into the purchase of more land, of herds and flocks, of better
tools; they erected barns and silos and better dwellings, and made other improvements.
When there was spare time, the farmer often worked off the farm to add to his cash
resources, at first in trapping, hunting, fishing, or lumbering, later in the maintenance
and repair of railroads. Domestic politics were persistently affected by his desire for the
means of getting a cash crop to market, for turnpikes and canals. The foreign policy of
the early Republic was determined again and again by the clamor of farmers to keep
open the river outlets for American produce.
Between 1815 and 1860 the character of American agriculture was transformed. The
independent yeoman, outside of exceptional or isolated areas, almost disappeared
before the relentless advance of commercial agriculture. The rise of native industry
created a home market for agriculture, while at the same time demands arose abroad, at
first for American cotton and then for American foodstuffs. A network of turnpikes,
canals, and railroads linked the planter and the advancing Western farmer to these new
markets, while the Eastern farmer, spurred by Western competition, began to cultivate
more thoroughly the nearby urban outlets for his products. As the farmer moved out
onto the flat, rich prairies, he found possibilities for the use of machinery that did not
exist in the forest. Before long he was cultivating the prairies with horse-drawn
mechanical reapers, steel plows, wheat and corn drills, and threshers. The cash crop
converted the yeoman into a small entrepreneur, and the development of horse-drawn
machinery made obsolete the simple old agrarian symbol of the plow. Farmers ceased to
be free of what the early agrarian writers had called the “corruptions” of trade. They
were, to be sure, still “independent,” in the sense that they owned their own land. They
were a hardworking lot in the old tradition. But no longer did they grow or manufacture
what they needed: they concentrated on the cash crop and began to buy more and more
of their supplies from the country store. To take full advantage of mechanization, they
engrossed as much land as they could. To mechanize fully, they borrowed cash. Where
they could not buy or borrow they might rent: by the 1850’s Illinois farmers who could
not afford machines and large barns were hiring itinerant jobbers with machines to do
their threshing. The shift from self-sufficient to commercial farming varied in time
throughout the West and cannot be dated with precision, but it was complete in Ohio by
about 1830 and twenty years later in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. All through the
great Northwest, farmers whose ancestors might have lived in isolation and selfsufficiency
were surrounded by jobbers, banks, stores, middlemen, horses, and
machinery; and in so far as this process was unfinished in 1860, the demands of the
Civil War brought it to completion. As the Prairie Farmer said in 1868: “The old rule that
a farmer should produce all that he required, and that the surplus represented his gains,
is part of the past. Agriculture, like all other business, is better for its subdivisions, each
one growing that which is best suited to his soil, skill, climate and market, and with its
proceeds purchas[ing] his other needs.”8
The triumph of commercial agriculture not only rendered obsolete the objective
conditions that had given to the agrarian myth so much of its original force, but also
showed that the ideal implicit in the myth was contesting the ground with another, even
stronger ideal—the notion of opportunity, of career, of the self-made man. The same
forces in American life that had made Jacksonian equalitarianism possible and had
given to the equalitarian theme in the agrarian romance its most compelling appeal had
also unleashed in the nation an entrepreneurial zeal probably without precedent in
history, a rage for business, for profits, for opportunity, for advancement. If the yeoman
family was to maintain itself in the simple terms eulogized in the myth, it had to
produce consistently a type of character that was satisfied with a traditional way of life.
But the Yankee farmer, continually exposed to the cult of success that was everywhere
around him, became inspired by a kind of personal dynamism which called upon the
individual to surpass traditions. He was, in terms that David Riesman has made familiar,
not a tradition-directed but an inner-directed man.9 Agrarian sentiment sanctified labor
in the soil and the simple life, but the prevailing Calvinist atmosphere of rural life
implied that virtue was rewarded, after all, with success and material goods.
From the standpoint of the familiar agrarian panegyrics, the supreme irony was that
the immense interior that had been supposed to underwrite the dominion of the yeoman
for centuries did as much as anything else to destroy the yeomanlike spirit and replace it
with the spirit of the businessman, even of the gambler. Cheap land invited extensive
and careless cultivation. Rising land values in areas of new settlement tempted early
liquidation and frequent moves, and made of the small entrepreneur a land speculator.
Already in the late eighteenth century writers on American agriculture noticed that
American farmers were tempted to buy more land than they could properly cultivate.
George Washington wrote apologetically to Arthur Young about the state of American
farming, admitting that “the aim of farmers in this country, if they can be called
farmers, is not to make the most they can from the land, which is, or has been cheap,
but the most of the labour, which is dear; the consequence of which has been, much
ground has been scratched over and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have
been,…”1 This tendency was strengthened by the rapid march of settlement across the
prairies. In 1818 the English immigrant Morris Birkbeck wrote from Illinois that
merchants, professional men, and farmers alike were investing their profits and savings
in uncultivated land. The farmer, instead of completing the improvement of his present
possessions, lays out all he can save in entering more land. In a district which is settling,
this speculation is said to pay on the average, when managed with judgment, fifteen per
cent. Who then will submit to the toils of agriculture, further than bare necessity
requires, for fifteen per cent? Or who would loan his money, even at fifteen per cent,
where he can obtain that interest by investing it in land? Thus every description of men,
almost every man, is poor in convertible property.”2
Frequent and sensational rises in land values bred a boom psychology in the American
farmer and caused him to rely for his margin of profit more on the process of
appreciation than on the sale of crops. It took a strong man to resist the temptation to
ride skyward on lands that might easily triple or quadruple their value in one decade
and then double again in the next.3 It seemed ultraconservative to improve existing
possessions if one could put savings or borrowings into new land. What developed in
America was an agricultural society whose real attachment was not to the land but to
land values. In the 1830’s Tocqueville found this the prevailing characteristic of
American agriculture: “Almost all the farmers of the United States combine some trade
with agriculture; most of them make agriculture itself a trade. It seldom happens that an
American farmer settles for good upon the land which he occupies: especially in the
districts of the far West he brings land into tillage in order to sell it again, and not to
farm it: he builds a farmhouse on the speculation that, as the state of the country will
soon be changed by the increase of population, a good price will be gotten for it.… Thus
the Americans carry their business-like qualities into agriculture; and their trading
passions are displayed in that as in their other pursuits.”4
The penchant for speculation and the lure of new and different lands bred in the
American farmer a tremendous passion for moving—and not merely, as one common
view would have it, on the part of those who had failed, but also on the part of those
who had succeeded. For farmers who had made out badly, the fresh lands may have
served on occasion as a safety valve, but for others who had made out well enough on a
speculative basis, or who were beginning a farming “career,” it was equally a risk valve
—an opportunity to exploit the full possibilities of the great American land bubble.
Mobility among farmers had serious effects upon an agricultural tradition never noted
for careful cultivation: in a nation whose soil is notoriously heterogeneous, farmers too
often had little chance to get to know the quality of their land; they failed to plan and
manure and replenish; they neglected diversification for the one-crop system and ready
cash.5 There was among them little attachment to land or locality; instead there
developed the false euphoria of local “boosting,” encouraged by railroads, land
companies, and farmers themselves; in place of village contacts and communal spirit
based upon ancestral attachments, there was professional optimism based upon hopes
for a quick rise in values.6
In a very real and profound sense, then, the United States failed to develop (except in
some localities, chiefly in the East)7 a distinctively rural culture. If a rural culture means
an emotional and craftsmanlike dedication to the soil, a traditional and pre-capitalist
outlook, a tradition-directed rather than career-directed type of character, and a village
community devoted to ancestral ways and habitually given to communal action, then
the prairies and plains never had one. What differentiated the agricultural life of these
regions from the practices widespread in European agriculture—or, for that matter,
from the stereotype of the agrarian myth—was not simply that it produced for a market
but that it was so speculative, so mobile, so mechanized, so “progressive,” so thoroughly
imbued with the commercial spirit.
Immigrant farmers, who really were yeomen with a background of genuine agrarian
values, were frequently bewildered at the ethos of American agriculture. Marcus Hansen
points out: “The ambition of the German-American father, for instance, was to see his
sons on reaching manhood established with their families on farms clustered about his
own. To take complete possession of a township with sons; sons-in-law and nephews
was not an unrealizable ideal. To this end the would-be patriarch dedicated all his
plodding industry. One by one, he bought adjacent farms, the erstwhile owners joining
the current to the farther West. Heavily timbered acres and swamp lands which had
been lying unused were prepared for cultivation by patient and unceasing toil. ‘When
the German comes in, the Yankee goes out,’ was a local proverb that varied as Swedes,
Bohemians or other immigrant groups formed the invading element. But the American
father made no such efforts on behalf of his offspring. To be a self-made man was his
ideal. He had come in as a ‘first settler’ and had created a farm with his ax; let the boys
do the same. One of them perhaps was kept at home as a helper to his aging parents;
the rest set out to achieve beyond the mountains or beyond the river what the father had
accomplished in the West of his day. Thus mobility was fostered by family policy.”8 The
continuing influx of immigrants, ready to settle on cleared and slightly improved land,
greatly facilitated the Yankee race across the continent.9
American agriculture was also distinguishable from European agriculture in the kind
of rural life and political culture it sustained. In Europe the managers of agriculture and
the owners of land were characteristically either small peasant proprietors, or
substantial landholders of traditional and conservative outlook with powerful political
and military connections. The American farmer, whose holdings were not so extensive
as those of the grandee nor so tiny as those of the peasant, whose psychology was
Protestant and bourgeois, and whose politics were petty-capitalist rather than
traditionalist, had no reason to share the social outlook of the rural classes of Europe. In
Europe land was limited and dear, while labor was abundant and relatively cheap; in
America this ratio between land and labor was inverted. In Europe small farmers lived
in villages, where generations of the same family were reared upon the same soil, and
where careful cultivation and the minute elimination of waste were necessary to support
a growing population on a limited amount of land. Endless and patient labor, including
the labor of peasant women and children exploited to a degree to which the Yankee
would not go except under the stress of pioneering conditions, was available to conserve
and tailor the land and keep it fertile. On limited plots cultivated by an ample labor
force, the need for machinery was not urgent, and hence the demand for liquid capital
in large amounts was rare. Diversification, self-sufficiency, and the acceptance of a low
standard of living also contributed to hold down this demand. Much managerial skill
was required for such an agricultural regime, but it was the skill of the craftsman and
the traditional tiller of the soil. Village life provided a community and a cooperative
milieu, a pooling of knowledge and lore, a basis of common action to minimize risks.
In America the greater availability of land and the scarcity of labor made for
extensive agriculture, which was wasteful of the soil, and placed a premium on
machines to bring large tracts under cultivation. His demand for expensive machinery,
his expectation of higher standards of living, and his tendency to go into debt to acquire
extensive acreage created an urgent need for cash and tempted the farmer into
capitalizing more and more on his greatest single asset: the unearned appreciation in
the value of his land. The managerial skill required for success under these conditions
was as much businesslike as craftsmanlike. The predominance in American agriculture
of the isolated farmstead standing in the midst of great acreage, the frequent
movements, the absence of village life, deprived the farmer and his family of the
advantages of community, lowered the chances of association and co-operation, and
encouraged that rampant, suspicious, and almost suicidal individualism for which the
American farmer was long noted and which organizations like the Grange tried to
combat.1 The characteristic product of American rural society was not a yeoman or a
villager, but a harassed little country businessman who worked very hard, moved all too
often, gambled with his land, and made his way alone.
III . The Frontier or the Market?
The American farmer was unusual in the agricultural world in the sense that he was
running a mechanized and commercialized agricultural unit of a size far greater than
the small proprietary holdings common elsewhere, and yet he was running it as a family
enterprise on the assumption that the family could supply not only the necessary capital
and managerial talent but also most of the labor. This system, however applicable to the
subsistence farm or the small yeoman’s farm, was hardly adequate to the conditions of
commercial agriculture.2 As a businessman, the farmer was appropriately hardheaded;
he tried to act upon a cold and realistic strategy of self-interest. As the head of a family,
however, the farmer felt that he was investing not only his capital but his hard work
and that of his wife and children, that when he risked his farm he risked his home—that
he was, in short, a single man running a personal enterprise in a world of impersonal
forces. It was from this aspect of his situation—seen in the hazy glow of the agrarian
myth—that his political leaders in the 1890’s developed their rhetoric and some of their
concepts of political action. The farmer’s commercial position pointed to the usual
strategies of the business world: combination, co-operation, pressure politics, lobbying,
piecemeal activity directed toward specific goals. But the bathos of the agrarian rhetoric
pointed in a different direction: broad political goals, ideological mass politics, third
parties, the conquest of the “money power,” the united action of all labor, rural and
urban. When times were persistently bad, the farmer tended to reject his business role
and its failures to withdraw into the role of the injured little yeoman. This made the
differences between his situation and that of any other victim of exploitation seem
unimportant to him. As a Southern journalist wrote of the situation in the cotton
country: The landowner was so poor and distressed that he forgot that he was a
capitalist … so weary of hand and sick of spirit that he imagined himself in precisely the
same plight as the hired man.…”3
The American farmer thus had a dual character, and one way of understanding our
agrarian movements is to observe which aspect of the farmer’s double personality is
uppermost at a given time. It is my contention that both the Populist rhetoric and the
modern liberal’s indulgent view of the farmers’ revolt have been derived from the “soft”
side of the farmer’s existence—that is, from agrarian “radicalism” and agrarian ideology
—while most farm organizations since the decline of the Populists have been based
primarily upon the “hard” side, upon agricultural improvement, business methods, and
pressure politics. Populism itself had a hard side, especially in the early days of the
farmers’ Alliance and the Populist Party, but this became less and less important as the
depression of the nineties deepened and other issues were dropped in favor of the silver
Most of our views of the historical significance of Popuism have been formed by the
study of the frontier process and the settlement of the internal empire. This approach
turned attention to some significant aspects of American agrarian development, but also
diverted attention from others. To a writer like Frederick Jackson Turner the farmer on
the plains was significant above all as the carrier of the traditions of the frontier. To
Turner the frontier, or the West, was the primary source of most of “what has been
distinctive and valuable in America’s contributions to the history of the human spirit.
…”4 Hence the primary interest of the Populist lay in the fact that he was “a survival of
the pioneer, striving to adjust present conditions to his old ideals.”5 While Turner did on
occasion comment on the capitalistic and speculative character of the farmer, he saw
this as something of no special importance, when compared with the farmer’s role as the
bearer of the yeoman tradition and “the old pioneer ideals of the native American.…”6
The chief difference between Populist thinking and the pioneer tradition, Turner felt,
was that the Populists showed an increasing sense of the need for governmental help in
realizing the old ideals. His explanation of this change in philosophy—indeed, of the
entire agrarian revolt of the 1890’s—was formulated in the light of the frontier theory
and the alleged exhaustion of “free” land. “Failures in one area can no longer be made
good by taking up land on a new frontier,” he wrote in 1896. “The conditions of settled
society are being reached with suddenness and with confusion.… The frontier
opportunities are gone. Discontent is demanding an extension of governmental activity
in its behalf.… A people composed of heterogeneous materials, with diverse and
conflicting ideals and social interests, having passed from the task of filling up the
vacant spaces of the continent, is now thrown back upon itself and is seeking an
equilibrium.”7 The idea that the agrarian uprising was precipitated by the disappearance
of the frontier and the exhaustion of the public domain has also been given
the scholarly support of John D. Hicks’s standard history of The Populist Revolt. Earlier
discontents, Hicks concluded, had been lightened by the departure of the restless and
disgruntled for the West, a process that created new opportunities for them and eased
the pressure on those they left behind. But by the nineties, “with the lands all taken and
the frontier gone, this safety valve was closed. The frontier was turned back on itself.
The restless and discontented voiced their sentiments more and fled from them less.”8
The conclusion that it was the West, the frontier spirit, that produced American
democracy, and that Populism was the logical product of this spirit, is a deceptive
inheritance from the Turnerian school. The decisive role played by the South in
Populism suggests instantly the limitations of this view. Terms that are superficially
appealing when applied to Kansas become meaningless when applied to Georgia.
Southern Populism, which could hardly have been close to the frontier spirit, was at
least as strong as the Western brand and contained the more radical wing of the
agrarian revolt of the nineties.9 Moreover, the extent to which “the West” as a whole
supported the agrarian revolt has commonly been exaggerated, as the distribution of
Populist votes in 1892 and of Bryan votes in 1896 clearly shows.1 Populism had only
three compact centers. Each was overwhelmingly rural. Each was dominated by a
product whose price had catastrophically declined: the South, based chiefly upon cotton;
a narrow tier of four Northwestern states, Kansas, Nebraska, and the two Dakotas,
based upon wheat; and the mountain states, based chiefly upon silver. Silver is a special
case, though strategically an important one, and we can for the moment postpone
consideration of it, except to remark that the free-silver Populism of the mountain-states
variety was not agrarian Populism at all, but simply silverism. Elsewhere agrarian
discontent, where it reached a peak of local intensity sufficient to yield an independent
Populist Party of notable strength or to win a state for Bryan in 1896, was roughly
coterminous with the cash-staple export crops and the burden of heavy mortgage
The common tendency to focus upon the internal frontier as the matrix of Populism
has obscured the great importance of the agrarian situation in the external world, which
is profoundly relevant to both Southern and Western Populism. The frontier obsession
has been identified in America with a kind of intellectual isolationism.2 The larger and
more important answer to the causes of the agrarian crisis of the 1890’s must be found
not in the American West, but in the international market. While American Populism
has been seen almost solely in terms of domestic events and the internal frontier, the
entire European and American world was shaken by an agrarian crisis that knew no
national boundaries and that struck at several nations without internal frontiers on the
verge of real or imagined exhaustion. “Almost everywhere,” declared an English
observer in 1893, “certainly in England, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and the
United States, the agriculturists, formerly so instinctively conservative, are becoming
fiercely discontented, declare they gain less by civilization than the rest of the
community, and are looking about for remedies of a drastic nature.”3
During the last three decades of the nineteenth century a revolution took place in
international communications. For the first time the full effects of steam locomotion and
steam navigation were felt in international trade. In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened
and the first transcontinental railroad in the United States was completed. Europe was
connected by submarine cable with the United States in 1866, and with South America
in 1874. A great network of telegraph and telephone communication was spun
throughout the world. Huge tracts of new land being settled in Argentina, Australia,
Canada, and the American West were now pulled together in one international market,
while improvements in agricultural technology made possible the full exploitation of
areas susceptible to extensive and mechanized cultivation. Agrarian depressions,
formerly of a local or national character, now became international, and with them
came international agrarian discontent, heightened by the almost uninterrupted
international price decline that occurred from the early 1870’s to the 1890’s.4 It is hardly
accidental that the products of the American staple-growing regions showing the highest
discontent were the products most dependent upon exports.5
The notion that the unavailability of free land for further expansion of the American
farming system was chiefly responsible for the remarkable surge of agrarian discontent
no longer seems credible. It is true that many Americans, including some Populist
spokesmen, were concerned during the 1890’s about what they thought to be the
imminent disappearance of the public domain.6 There was also a school of thought
among those interested in the agrarian problem that took pleasure in the prospect that
the approaching exhaustion of new lands would lower the expansion of the agricultural
economy to the point at which the values of already settled land would begin to rise
sharply, and thus put an end to the problem of settled farmers.7 However, the entire
conception of exhausted resources has been re-examined and found to be delusive;
actually an abundance of new land was available long after the so-called disappearance
of the frontier in 1890. During the decade 1890-1900, in which the discontent was most
acute, 1,100,000 new farms were settled, 500,000 more than the number in the previous
decade. In the twenty years after the farmers’ organizations met in 1890 at Ocala,
Florida, to formulate their demands, 1,760,000 new farms and 225,600,000 new acres
were added to the nation’s agricultural domain.8 More land, indeed, was taken up after
1890 under the terms of the Homestead Act and its successors than had been taken up
before. True, a high proportion of this was suitable only for grazing and dry farming,
but the profitability of land is a result not merely of soil chemistry or soil humidity but
also of the economic circumstances under which the land is cultivated; the condition of
the market in the early years of the twentieth century admitted of more profitable
cultivation of these relatively barren lands than of much richer lands in the depressed
period. Finally, there were after 1890 still more supplies of rich land in Ganada, which
farmers from the United States did not hesitate to occupy. In 1914, Canadian officials
estimated that 925,000 Americans had moved, chiefly during the sixteen years past,
across the border to the lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan.9 Lavish opportunities to
settle on new lands or open new acres were still available after 1890,1 and in fact much
use was made of these opportunities during the nineties. In so far as farmers were
deterred from further settlement, it was not by the absence of land but because the
international agrarian depression made the nineties a hazardous time to begin a farm.
The conception that the end of free or cheap land was primarily responsible for
precipitating discontent implies that the existence of such land had been effective in
alleviating it, and suggests that the effects of the Homestead Act up to about 1890 were
what had been hoped for at the time of its passage. But the Homestead Act had never
been successful in creating the inland freehold empire that agrarian reformers had
dreamed of. Its maladministration and its circumvention by speculators and railroads is
by now well known. From 1860 to 1900, for every free farm entered and kept by a bona
fide farmer under the act there were about nine bought from railroads or speculators or
from the government itself.2 Speculators, engrossing immense tracts of land under the
privilege of unrestricted “entry,” which was not abolished until 1888, did far more
damage to rural society in the West than merely transmitting “free” land to farmers at
substantial prices. They drove immigrants to remote parts of the frontier; they created
“speculators’ deserts”—large tracts of uncultivated absentee-owned land—and thus
added to the dispersal of the population, making the operation of roads and railroads
far more costly than necessary; they refused to pay taxes, thus damaging local
government finances and limiting local improvements; they added to all the
characteristic evils of our rural culture while they built up land prices and kept a large
portion of the farm population in a state of tenancy.3
The promise of free Homestead land or cheap land was self-defeating. The Homestead
Act itself, which required five years of residence before title to a free farm was granted,
was based upon the assumption that settlement would take place in a gradual and
stable way, after the manner of the mythical yeoman. It made no allowance for the
mobile habits of the American farmer.4 The number of forfeited entries under the
Homestead Act was extraordinary. What effect the Homestead Act might have had if the
West had been gradually settled by yeoman farmers protected from speculators and
living after the fashion of the myth seems no more than a utopian conjecture. As it
worked out, the Homestead Act was a triumph for speculative and capitalistic forces,
and it translated cheap or free land into a stimulus for more discontent than it could
quiet. The promise of the Homestead Act was a lure for over-rapid settlement in regions
where most settlers found, instead of the agrarian utopia, a wilderness of high costs, low
returns, and mortgages.
The self-defeating tendency of relatively cheap land in a speculative society is
perfectly illustrated in an intensive contemporary study of a Nebraska township by
Arthur F. Bentley. This township was first settled in 1871–2. In the early days when land
prices were low, there was a prosperous period of rapid settlement, and the farmer’s
rate of profit was high whenever he had good crops; this encouraged him to buy and
work more land than he could properly manage. The rapid appreciation of the price of
land led him to try to realize his gains in advance by mortgaging. As fast as he could
increase his loan he would do so, using the funds either to pay temporary losses or for
further investment or speculation. “It is true,” Bentley observed, “the farmer may often
have suffered from excessive interest and grasping creditors; but it was less frequently
the avarice of the lender that got him into trouble than the fact that he was too sanguine
and too prone to believe that he could safely go into debt, on the assumption that crops
and prices in the future would equal those in the present.”5 At any rate, the typical
farmer soon found himself in such a vulnerable position that one bad crop year or a
brief temporary cessation of increase in land values, such as that of 1890-1, would put
him on the verge of failure. Those farmers who came in early and took government
land, who managed with some skill and got clear of heavy debt, made out well; those
who came later, took railroad land, and made the usual errors of management were in
straits.6 By 1892, when Bentley made his study, he concluded that a would-be purchaser
who did not have enough capital to buy his farm outright and to hold it over subsequent
periods of hard times “had almost better throw his money away than invest it in
farming operations in Nebraska at the current prices of land and under the present
agricultural conditions; unless, he be possessed of unusual energy and ability.”7
It is evident that Western Populism was, among other things, the outgrowth of a
period of incredible expansion, one of the greatest in the world history of agriculture.
From 1870 to 1900 more new farm land was taken up than in all previous American
history.8 By the mid-eighties a feverish land boom was under way, and it is the collapse
of this boom that provides the immediate background of Western Populism. We may
take the experience of Kansas as illustrative. The boom, originally based on the high
prices of farm produce, had reached the point of artificial inflation by 1885. It had
swept not only the country, where the rapid advance in prices had caused latecomers to
buy and mortgage at hopelessly inflated values, but also the rising towns, which were
all “bonded to the limit for public improvements [and] public utilities.”9 As a state
official later remarked, “Most of us crossed the Mississippi or Missouri with no money
but with a vast wealth of hope and courage.… Haste to get rich has made us borrowers,
and the borrower has made booms, and booms made men wild, and Kansas became a
vast insane asylum covering 80,000 square miles.”1 In the winter of 1887–8 this boom,
which had been encouraged by railroads, newspapers, and public officials, abruptly
collapsed—in part because of drought in the western third of the state, in part because
farm prices had stopped going up, and in part because the self-created confidence upon
which the fever fed had broken.
The fathers of the Homestead Act and the fee-simple empire had acted upon a number
of assumptions stemming from the agrarian myth which were out of date even before
the act was passed. They trusted to the beneficence of nature, to permanent and
yeomanlike nonspeculative settlement; they expected that the land really would pass
without cost into the hands of the great majority of settlers; and they took it for granted
that the native strength of the farmer would continue to rest upon the abundance
produced on and for the farm. These assumptions were incongruous with the Industrial
Revolution that was already well under way by 1862 and with the Communications
Revolution that was soon to come; they were incongruous even with the natural
character of the plains, with their winds, sandstorms, droughts, and grasshoppers. And
the farmer, caught in the toils of cash-crop commercial farming, did not, and could not,
reckon his prosperity by the abundance produced on the farm but rather by the
exchange value of his products as measured by the supplies and services they could buy.
His standard of living, as well as the security of his home, became dependent upon his
commercial position, which in turn was dependent upon the vicissitudes of the world
In pointing to the farmer’s commercial role I am not trying to deny the difficulties of
his position or the reality and seriousness of his grievances: the appreciation of debts
through deflation, the high cost of credit, inequitable tax burdens, discriminatory
railroad rates,3 unreasonable elevator and storage charges. Populism can best be
understood, however, not as a product of the frontier inheritance, but as another
episode in the well-established tradition of American entrepreneurial radicalism, which
goes back at least to the Jacksonian era.4 It was an effort on the part of a few
important segments of a highly heterogeneous capitalistic agriculture to restore profits
in the face of much exploitation and under unfavorable market and price conditions. It
arose as a part of a transitional stage in the history of American agriculture, in which
the commercial farmer was beginning to cast off habits of thought and action created
almost as much by the persistence of the agrarian myth as by the realities of his
position. He had long since taken from business society its acquisitive goals and its
speculative temper, but he was still practicing the competitive individualism that the
most advanced sectors of industry and finance had outgrown. He had not yet learned
much from business about its marketing devices, strategies of combination, or skills of
self-defense and self-advancement through pressure politics. His dual identity itself was
not yet resolved. He entered the twentieth century still affected by his yeoman
inheritance but with a growing awareness of the businesslike character of his future.
1 By “myth,” as I use the word here, I do not mean an idea that is simply false, but rather one that so effectively embodies
men’s values that it profoundly influences their way of perceiving reality and hence their behavior. In this sense myths
may have varying degrees of fiction or reality. The agrarian myth became increasingly fictional at time went on
2 Writings, ed. by Paul L. Ford (New York, 1892-9), Vol. VII, p. 36. For a full statement of the, agrarian myth as it was
formulated by Jefferson see A. Whitney Griswold: Farming and Democracy (New York, 1948), chapter ii.
3 Quoted by Paul H. Johnstone: “Turnips and Romanticism,” Agricultural History, Vol. XII (July 1938), p. 239. This article
and the same author’s “In Praise of Husbandry,” ibid., Vol. XI (April 1937), pp. 80-95, give an excellent brief history of the
entire agrarian tradition.
With Dryden’s Horace compare Benjamin Franklin’s almanac, quoted by Chester E. Eisinger: “The Farmer in the
Eighteenth Century Almanac,” ibid., Vol. XXVIII (July 1954), p. 112:
O happy he! happiest of mortal Men!
Who far remov’d from Slavery, as from Pride,
Fears no Man’s Frown, nor cringing waits to catch
The gracious Nothing of a great Man’s Nod;
Tempted nor with the Pride nor Pomp of Power,
Nor Pageants of Ambition, nor the Mines
Of grasping Av’rice, nor the poison’d Sweets
Of pamper’d Luxury, he plants his Foot
With Firmness on his old paternal Fields,
And stands unshaken.
4 The prevalence of the myth in eighteenth-century America is shown by Chester E. Eisinger: “The Freehold Concept in
Eighteenth-Century American Letters,” William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. IV (January 1947), pp. 42-59
5 Works, Vol. III, pp. 215-16.
6 Writings, ed. by Albert H. Smyth (New York, 1906), Vol. V, pp. 200-2.
7 Chester E, Eisinger: “The Influence of Natural Rights and Physiocratic Doctrines on American Agrarian Thought during
the Revolutionary Period,” Agricultural History, Vol. XXI (January 1947), pp. 12-23. Cf. Griswold, op. cit., pp. 36-45.
8 It is, of course, no more than a plausible guest what working farmers actually believed, at opposed to what politicians
and other opinion-makers told them. Eisinger notes (“The Farmer in the Eighteenth Century Almanac,” p. 108) that even
in the eighteenth century the editors of the farmers’ almanacs neglected the practical aspects of farming to publish large
amounts of pastoral verse employing the familiar agrarian themes. Apparently these editors felt that it was easier or more
important to reassure the farmer about the value of his role in society than to advise him how to run his farm. If the
premises of the agrarian myth did not appeal to the farmers, then they were completely mis-understood by all those who
spoke to and for them. For an excellent illustration of the acceptance of the agrarian myth in the nineteenth century by an
influential editor, see Roland Van Zandt: “Horace Greeley: Agrarian Exponent of American Idealism,” Rural Sociology, Vol
XIII (December 1948), pp. 411-19. For the place of the myth in Emerson’s thought, see Douglas C. Stenerson: “Emerson
and the Agrarian Tradition,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XIV (January 1953), pp. 95-115.
9 Cf. Griswold’s conclusion that Jefferson’s view of the small farmers as “the most precious part of a state,” it “the classic
American statement of the political theory of the family farm.… [Jefferson’s] ideal of democracy at a community of family
farms has lived on to inspire the modern lawmakers and color the thoughts of their constituents when they turn their
minds to rural life.” Op. cit., pp. 45-6.
1 For a remarkable exposition of the fate of the agrarian myth at a source of political measures and strategies, see Henry
Nash Smith: Virgin Land (Cambridge, 1950), Book Three, “The Garden of the World.”
2 Ibid., p. 170.
3 In fact agricultural spokesmen have long fallen into two types. The flatterers, usually politicians and journalists, are
agrarians whose objective is political and whose approach is to reassure the farmers about the importance and the nobility
of their role in society. The self-critics, usually to be found among agricultural editors and some rural professional people,
are not agrarians but agriculturists. Their objectives are not political but economic and technological. They tell the farmers
that they are neglectful and ignorant, that they largely earn their own misfortunes, and that they must save themselves by
studying science and improving their methods.
4 This nostalgia is a leading theme in the works of James Whitcomb Riley, the most popular of American folk poets. Some
of Hamlin Garland’s stories in Main-Traveled Roads (Boston, 1891) deal with the sense of guilt connected with migration
from country to city.
5 On the survival of the agrarian myth in politics, see Roger Butterfield’s amusing essay “The Folklore of Politics,”
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. LXXIV (April 1950), pp. 165-70; the pictures may be found facing
pp. 166 and 167.
6 Joseph S. Davis has discussed this survival in an essay on “Agricultural Fundamentalism” in On Agricultural Policy
(Stanford, 1939), pp. 24-43.
7 Ibid., p. 38.
8 Ibid., p. 25.
9 Albert J. Demaree: The American Agricultural Press, 1819-1860 (New York, 1941), pp. 86-8, 183 ff.; Richard Bardolph:
Agricultural Literature and the Early Illinois Farmer (Urbana, 1948), pp. 162-4.
1 Quoted by Bardolph, op. cit., p. 164 n.
2 Paul H. Johnstone: “Old Ideals versus New Ideas in Farm Life,” in Farmers in a Changing World, U.S. Department of
Agriculture Year-book (Washington, 1940), p. 119. I am much indebted to this penetrating study of the changing identity
of the American farmer.
3 Quoted by P. W. Bidwell and John I. Falconer: History of Agriculture in the Northern United States (New York, 1941), p.
4 Johnstone: “Old Ideals venus New Ideas,” op. cit., p. 118.
5 Ibid., p. 118, for both quotations.
6 Albert J. Nock: Jefferson (Washington, 1926), pp. 66-8; cf. Wilson Gee: The Social Economics of Agriculture (New York,
1942), p. 39.
7 Quoted by Griswold, op. cit., p. 136.
8 Quoted by Paul H. Johnstone: “On the Identification of the Farmer,” Rural Sociology, Vol. V (March 1940), p. 39. For this
transformation in agriculture, see Bidwell and Falconer, op. cit., pp. 126-32, 164-5, chapters xiii, xix, xxiii, and Everett E.
Edwards: “American Agriculture—the First 300 Years,” in Farmers in a Changing World, esp. pp. 202-8, 213-22, 228-32.
On the foreign market see Edwin G. Nourse: American Agriculture and the European Market (New York, 1924), pp. 8-16,
and on the disappearance of household industry, Rolla M. Tryon: Household Manufactures in the United States, 1640-1860
(Chicago, 1917), chapters vii and viii.
9 David Riesman: The Lonely Crowd (New Haven, 1950). It should be added, however, that the idea of career, as it reached
country youth before the Civil War, was strongly tinctured by Yankee intellectualism and did not as yet exalt businessmen.
Farm boys were encouraged to emulate inventors, scientists, writers, philosophers, and military figures. Of course all these
pointed toward urban life. Johnstone: “Old Ideals versus New Ideas,” pp. 137-8.
1 Bidwell and Falconer, op. cit., p. 119.
2 Ibid., p. 154; cf. pp. 82-3, 115, 166.
3 Benjamin H. Hibbard: History of Agriculture is Dane County, Wisconsin (Madison, 1904), pp. 195 ff.
4 Democracy in America (New York, ed. 1899), Vol. II, p. 644.
5 Some aspects of agrarian mobility and mechanized agriculture for the market are discussed by James C. Malin in
“Mobility and History,” Agricultural History, Vol. XVII (October 1943), pp. 177-91. The general characteristics of American
agriculture in the period after the Civil War are discussed by Fred A. Shannon: The Farmer’s Last Frontier (New York,
1945), passim.
6 Thorstein Veblen, who not only wrote about farmers as an economist but lived among them, deals penetratingly with
“the independent farmer” and “the country town” in Absentee Ownership (New York, 1923), pp. 129-65.
7 Compare Arthur F. Raper’s account of the people of these localities in Carl C. Taylor et al.: Rural Life in the United States
(New York, 1949), chapter xxvi, with the similar picture of the old yeoman farmer. For an excellent account of the
transformation in farming by one who saw it at both ends, see Rodney Welch: “The Farmer’s Changed Condition,” Forum,
Vol. X (February 1891), pp. 689-700.
8 Marcus Lee Hansen: The Immigrant in American History (Cambridge, 1940), pp. 61-2.
9 Ibid., pp. 63-71. I do not wish to imply that the immigrant was in every respect the superior farmer. He took better care
of the land, but was not so quick as the Yankee to take advantage of mechanization or scientific farming. This pattern
persisted for a long time. See John A. Hawgood: The Tragedy of German-America (New York, 1940), chapter i, esp. pp. 26-
33; Edmund de S. Brunner: Immigrant Farmers and Their Children (New York, 1929), chapter ii.
1 There is an excellent comparison of American and European agriculture in Wilson Gee, op. cit., chapter iii.
2 Malin: “Mobility and History,” pp. 182 ff.
3 Quoted by C. Vann Woodward: Origins of the New South (Baton Rouge, 1951), p. 194. During the late 1880’s, when farm
discontent was not yet at its peak, such farm organizations as the farmers’ Alliances developed limited programs based
upon economic self-interest; in the 1890’s, when discontent became most acute, it produced a national third-party
4 Frederick Jackson Turner: The Frontier in American History (New York, 1920; ed., 1947), preface, p. ii; cf. pp. 211, 266.
5 Ibid., p. 155.
6 Ibid., p. 148. Note his comments on another writer’s characterization of the commercial nature of settlement, p. 211.
Turner himself, it should perhaps be added, was not a Populist. He disapproved of the “lax financial integrity” of the
Populists, though he thought it was too much to expect “a primitive society” to show “an intelligent appreciation of the
complexity of business interests in a developed society.” Ibid., p. 32.
7 Ibid., pp. 219-21; cf. pp. 147-8, 218, 276-7, 305-6.
8 John D. Hicks: The Populist Revolt (Minneapolis, 1931), p. 95; cf. also p. vii: “The rôle of the farmer in American history
has always been prominent, but it was only as the West wore out and cheap lands were no longer abundant that welldeveloped
agrarian movements began to appear.” But the Granger movement of the 1870’s, while it may perhaps be
dismissed as an undeveloped agrarian movement, manifested acute agrarian unrest long before the disappearance of the
frontier line in 1890.
9 Woodward: Origins of the New South, p. 200; cf. pp. 277-8 on the greater staying power of Southern Populism.
1 See chapter III, section 1.
2 As an illustration of the misleading consequences of the “closed space” obsession, see Turner’s comment in 1910 that “the
pressure of population upon the food supply is already felt.” Op. cit., p. 279. This at a time when the United States was
rapidly losing its place in the world market because of a surfeit of total world agricultural production. Nourse, op. cit., pp.
3 Quoted from Spectator, Vol. LXX, p. 247, by C. F. Emerick, “An Analysis of Agricultural Discontent in the United States,”
Political Science Quarterly, Vol. XI (September 1896), p. 433; see this series of articles for a valuable contemporary account
of the international aspect of agricultural upheaval, ibid., pp. 433-63, 601-39; Vol. XII (1897), pp. 93-127.
4 For a review of the literature on the Communication Revolution, see Lee Benson: “The Historical Background of Turner’s
Frontier Essay,” Agricultural History, Vol. XXV (April 1951), pp. 59-64. The point of view expressed here was originally
stated by James C. Malin: “Notes on the Literature of Populism,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. I (February 1932), pp.
160-4; the term “Communication Revolution” was first used by Robert G. Albion: “The ‘Communication Revolution,’ ”
American Historical Review, Vol. XXXVII (July 1932), pp. 718-20. See also Hans Rosenberg: “Political and Social
Consequences of the Great Depression of 1873-1896 in Central Europe,” Economic History Review, Vol. XIII (1943), pp. 58-
5 Wheat-growers were dependent for about 30 to 40 per cent of their gross annual income upon the export market; cottongrowers
for about 70 per cent; raisers of pork and pork products for about 15 to 23 per cent. Frederick Strauss: “The
Composition of Gross Farm Income since the Civil War,” National Bureau of Economic Research Bulletin No. 78 (April 28,
1940), esp. pp. 15-18.
6 Cf. Senator William A. Peffer as quoted by Elizabeth N. Barr in William E. Connelley, ed.: A Standard History of Kansas
and Kansans (Chicago, 1919), Vol II, p. 1159; Hamlin Garland: Jason Edwards (Boston, 1892), p. v; Mary E. Lease: The
Problem of Civilization Solved (Chicago, 1895), pp. 177-8.
7 An excellent account of speculations about the approaching exhaustion of the public domain is given by Benson, op. cit.,
pp. 59-82.
8 A. W. Zelomek and Irving Mark: “Historical Perspectives for PostWar Agricultural Forecasts,” Rural Sociology, Vol. X
(March 1945), p. 51; cf. Final Report of the Industrial Commission (Washington, 1902), Vol. XIX, pp. 58, 105-6; Benjamin H.
Hibbard: A History of the Public Land Policies (New York, 1924), pp. 396-8.
9 Marcus L. Hansen and J. Bartlet Brebner: The Mingling of the Canadian and American Peoples (New York, 1940), pp. 219-
35; Paul F. Sharp: The Agrarian Revolt in Western Canada (Minneapolis, 1948), pp. 1-8, 17.
1 As late as 1913, when David F. Houston became Wilson’s Secretary of Agriculture, he found that “less than 60 per cent of
our arable land was under cultivation, and of the land under cultivation not more than 12 per cent was yielding reasonably
full returns.” Eight Years with Wilson’s Cabinet (New York, 1926), Vol. I, p. 200. The largest number of final entries under
the Homestead Act came in 1913, almost a quarter century after the alleged disappearance of the frontier. During World
War I it was still possible to expand crop acreages very substantially even within states long settled. See Lloyd P. Jorgensen:
“Agricultural Expansion,” Agricultural History, Vol., XXIII (January 1949), pp. 30-40.
2 Fred A. Shannon: The Farmer’s Last Frontier (New York, 1945), pp. 51, 55. Shannon estimates that about 400,000 farms
were alienated under Homestead terms during a period in which 3,730,000 new farms were created.
3 Paul Wallace Gates: “Land Policy and Tenancy in the Prairie States,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. I (May 1941), pp.
60-82; see also his “The Homestead Act in an Incongruous Land System,” American Historical Review, Vol. XLI (July 1936),
pp. 652-81.
4 Malin: “Mobility and History,” pp. 181-2. For the maladministration of the Homestead Act, see Roy M. Robbins: Our
Landed Heritage (Princeton, 1942), part III.
5 Arthur F. Bentley: The Condition of the Western Farmer as Illustrated by the Economic History of a Nebraska Township
(Baltimore, 1893), p. 46; for substantial evidence that the speculative and risk-ridden character of Western settlement
could be as important as “the avarice of the lender,” see Allan G. Bogue: “The Land Mortgage Company in the Early Plains
States,” Agricultural History, Vol. XXV (January 1951), pp. 20-33.
6 Bentley, op. cit., pp. 46, 68, 76, 79, 80.
7 Ibid., pp. 69-70.
8 Land in farms rose from 407,735,000 acres in 1870 to 838,592,000 in 1900.
9 William Allen White: Autobiography (New York, 1946), p. 187.
1 Quoted in Raymond C. Miller: The Populist Party in Kansas, ms. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1928, p. 22; cf.
Miller’s article: “The Background of Populism in Kansas,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. II (March 1925), pp.
474-85; Hicks, op. cit., chapter i, has a good brief account of the speculative background.
2 The farmer himself was not content to be told that his living standards had improved, because he looked to his
commercial welfare as well. Disappointments are relative to expectations. While enduring the shortlived rigors of frontier
existence, the farmer lived on expectation and hope, accepting present sacrifices in the interest of a future that seemed
rosy to the mind of the boomer. Once this stage was passed, he assumed that his living standards would rise materially and
was irritated at the very suggestion that this alone should satisfy him. Cf. Bentley, op. cit., p. 87; Henrietta M. Larson: The
Wheat Market and the Farmer in Minnesota, 1858-1900 (New York, 1926), p. 167.
3 Concerning the place of freight rates in the background of the farmer’s situation, Theodore Saloutos has reinforced a
reservation advanced much earlier by Charles F. Adams, Jr.: “Historians have repeatedly attributed the plight of the
farmers, at least in part, to high freight rates, yet available figures show conclusively that the rates dropped drastically
during the last half of the nineteenth century, while the farmers’ returns failed to show anything commensurate with the
drop in rates. Many farmers attributed the sagging prices to these alleged extortionate rates, but by doing so they
overlooked the fact that it was these lower rates that had made it possible for them to reach markets which were formerly
considered incredible … rates that in many other countries would have been considered incredibly low.” See the rest of the
argument in Saloutos’s astute article: “The Agricultural Problem and Nineteenth-Century Industrialism,” Agricultural
History, Vol. XXI (July 1948), p. 167. On this issue, however, see Shannon: The Farmer’s Last Frontier, pp. 295-302.
4 For the entrepreneurial interpretation of Jacksonian democracy see the review by Bray Hammond, Journal of Economic
History, Vol. VI (May 1946), pp. 78-84, and Richard Hofstadter: The American Political Tradition (New York, 1948),
chapter iii.
I . The Two Nations
For a generation after the Civil War, a time of great economic exploitation and waste,
grave social corruption and ugliness, the dominant note in American political life was
complacency. Although dissenting minorities were always present, they were submerged
by the overwhelming realities of industrial growth and continental settlement. The
agitation of the Populists, which brought back to American public life a capacity for
effective political indignation, marks the beginning of the end of this epoch. In the short
run the Populists did not get what they wanted, but they released the flow of protest
and criticism that swept through American political affairs from the 1890’s to the
beginning of the first World War.
Where contemporary intellectuals gave the Populists a perfunctory and disdainful
hearing, later historians have freely recognized their achievements and frequently
overlooked their limitations. Modern liberals, finding the Populists’ grievances valid,
their programs suggestive, their motives creditable, have usually spoken of the Populist
episode in the spirit of Vachel Lindsay’s bombastic rhetoric:
Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West.
There is indeed much that is good and usable in our Populist past. While the Populist
tradition had defects that have been too much neglected, it does not follow that the
virtues claimed for it are all fictitious. Populism was the first modern political
movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal
government has some responsibility for the common weal; indeed, it was the first such
movement to attack seriously the problems created by industrialism. The complaints and
demands and prophetic denunciations of the Populists stirred the latent liberalism in
many Americans and startled many conservatives into a new flexibility. Most of the
“radical” reforms in the Populist program proved in later years to be either harmless or
useful. In at least one important area of American life a few Populist leaders in the
South attempted something profoundly radical and humane—to build a popular
movement that would cut across the old barriers of race—until persistent use of the
Negro bogy distracted their following. To discuss the broad ideology of the Populist does
them some injustice, for it was in their concrete programs that they added most
constructively to our political life, and in their more general picture of the world that
they were most credulous and vulnerable. Moreover, any account of the fallibility of
Populist thinking that does not acknowledge the stress and suffering out of which that
thinking emerged will be seriously remiss. But anyone who enlarges our portrait of the
Populist tradition is likely to bring out some unseen blemishes. In the books that have
been written about the Populist movement, only passing mention has been made of its
significant provincialism; little has been said of its relations with nativism and
nationalism; nothing has been said of its tincture of anti-Semitism.
The Populist impulse expressed itself in a set of notions that represent what I have
called the “soft” side of agrarianism. These notions, which appeared with regularity in
the political literature, must be examined if we are to re-create for ourselves the Populist
spirit. To extract them from the full context of the polemical writings in which they
appeared is undoubtedly to oversimplify them; even to name them in any language that
comes readily to the historian of ideas is perhaps to suggest that they had a formality
and coherence that in reality they clearly lacked. But since it is less feasible to have no
labels than to have somewhat too facile ones, we may enumerate the dominant themes
in Populist ideology as these: the idea of a golden age; the concept of natural
harmonies; the dualistic version of social struggles; the conspiracy theory of history; and
the doctrine of the primacy of money. The last of these I will touch upon in connection
with the free-silver issue. Here I propose to analyze the others, and to show how they
were nurtured by the traditions of the agrarian myth.
The utopia of the Populists was in the past, not the future. According to the agrarian
myth, the health of the state was proportionate to the degree to which it was dominated
by the agricultural class, and this assumption pointed to the superiority of an earlier
age. The Populists looked backward with longing to the lost agrarian Eden, to the
republican America of the early years of the nineteenth century in which there were few
millionaires and, as they saw it, no beggars, when the laborer had excellent prospects
and the farmer had abundance, when statesmen still responded to the mood of the
people and there was no such thing as the money power.1 What they meant—though
they did not express themselves in such terms—was that they would like to restore the
conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the
commercialization of agriculture. It should not be surprising that they inherited the
traditions of Jacksonian democracy, that they revived the old Jacksonian cry: “Equal
Rights for All, Special Privileges for None,” or that most of the slogans of 1896 echoed
the battle cries of 1836.2 General James B. Weaver, the Populist candidate for the
presidency in 1892, was an old Democrat and Free-Soiler, born during the days of
Jackson’s battle with the United States Bank, who drifted into the Greenback movement
after a short spell as a Republican, and from there to Populism. His book, A Call to
Action, published in 1892, drew up an indictment of the business corporation which
reads like a Jacksonian polemic. Even in those hopeful early days of the People’s Party,
Weaver projected no grandiose plans for the future, but lamented the course of recent
history, the growth of economic oppression, and the emergence of great contrasts of
wealth and poverty, and called upon his readers to do “All in [their] power to arrest the
alarming tendencies of our times.”3
Nature, as the agrarian tradition had it, was beneficent. The United States was
abundantly endowed with rich land and rich resources, and the “natural” consequence
of such an endowment should be the prosperity of the people. If the people failed to
enjoy prosperity, it must be because of a harsh and arbitrary intrusion of human greed
and error. “Hard times, then,” said one popular writer, “as well as the bankruptcies,
enforced idleness, starvation, and the crime, misery, and moral degradation growing out
of conditions like the present, being unnatural, not in accordance with, or the result of
any natural law, must be attributed to that kind of unwise and pernicious legislation
which history proves to have produced similar results in all ages of the world. It is the
mission of the age to correct these errors in human legislation, to adopt and establish
policies and systems, in accord with, rather than in opposition to divine law.”4 In
assuming a lush natural order whose workings were being deranged by human laws,
Populist writers were again drawing on the Jacksonian tradition, whose spokesmen also
had pleaded for a proper obedience to “natural” laws as a prerequisite of social justice.5
Somewhat akin to the notion of the beneficence of nature was the idea of a natural
harmony of interests among the productive classes. To the Populist mind there was no
fundamental conflict between the farmer and the worker, between the toiling people
and the small businessman. While there might be corrupt individuals in any group, the
underlying interests of the productive majority were the same; predatory behavior
existed only because it was initiated and underwritten by a small parasitic minority in
the highest places of power. As opposed to the idea that society consists of a number of
different and frequently clashing interests—the social pluralism expressed, for instance,
by Madison in the Federalist—the Populists adhered, less formally to be sure, but quite
persistently, to a kind of social dualism: although they knew perfectly well that society
was composed of a number of classes, for all practical purposes only one simple division
need be considered. There were two nations. “It is a struggle,” said Sockless Jerry
Simpson, “between the robbers and the robbed.”6 “There are but two sides in the conflict
that is being waged in this country today,” declared a Populist manifesto. “On the one
side are the allied hosts of monopolies, the money power, great trusts and railroad
corporations, who seek the enactment of laws to benefit them and impoverish the
people. On the other are the farmers, laborers, merchants, and all other people who
produce wealth and bear the burdens of taxation.… Between these two there is no
middle ground.”7 “On the one side,” said Bryan in his famous speech against the repeal
of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, “stand the corporate interests of the United States,
the moneyed interests, aggregated wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant,
compassionless.… On the other side stand an unnumbered throng, those who gave to the
Democratic party a name and for whom it has assumed to speak.”8 The people versus
the interests, the public versus the plutocrats, the toiling multitude versus the money
power—in various phrases this central antagonism was expressed. From this simple
social classification it seemed to follow that once the techniques of misleading the
people were exposed, victory over the money power ought to be easily accomplished,
for in sheer numbers the people were overwhelming, “There is no power on earth that
can defeat us,” said General Weaver during the optimistic days of the campaign of 1892.
“It is a fight between labor and capital, and labor is in the vast majority.”9
The problems that faced the Populists assumed a delusive simplicity: the victory over
injustice, the solution for all social ills, was concentrated in the crusade against a single,
relatively small but immensely strong interest, the money power. “With the destruction
of the money power,” said Senator Peffer, “the death knell of gambling in grain and
other commodities will be sounded; for the business of the worst men on earth will have
been broken up, and the mainstay of the gamblers removed. It will be an easy matter,
after the greater spoilsmen have been shorn of their power, to clip the wings of the little
ones. Once get rid of the men who hold the country by the throat, the parasites can be
easily removed.”1 Since the old political parties were the pirmary means by which the
people were kept wandering in the wilderness, the People’s Party advocates insisted,
only a new and independent political party could do this essential job.2 As the silver
question became more prominent and the idea of a third party faded, the need for a
monolithic solution became transmuted into another form: there was only one issue
upon which the money power could really be beaten and this was the money issue.
“When we have restored the money of the Constitution,’ said Bryan in his Cross of Gold
speech, “all other necessary reforms will be possible; but … until this is done there is no
other reform that can be accomplished.”
While the conditions of victory were thus made to appear simple, they did not always
appear easy, and it would be misleading to imply that the tone of Populistic thinking
was uniformly optimistic. Often, indeed, a deep-lying vein of anxiety showed through.
The very sharpness of the struggle, as the Populists experienced it, the alleged absence
of compromise solutions and of intermediate groups in the body politic, the brutality
and desperation that were imputed to the plutocracy—all these suggested that failure of
the people to win the final contest peacefully could result only in a total victory for the
plutocrats and total extinction of democratic institutions, possibly after a period of
bloodshed and anarchy. “We are nearing a serious crisis,” declared Weaver. “If the
present strained relations between wealth owners and wealth producers continue much
longer they will ripen into frightful disaster. This universal discontent must be quickly
interpreted and its causes removed.”3 “We meet,” said the Populist platform of 1892, “in
the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.
Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even
the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized.… The newspapers are largely
subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with
mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of the
capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection,
imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army,
unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly
degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly
stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind;
and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.” Such
conditions foreboded “the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute
The common fear of an impending apocalypse had its most striking articulation in
Ignatius Donnelly’s fantastic novel Cæsar’s Column. This book, published under a
pseudonym, was a piece of visionary writing, possibly inspired by the success a few
years earlier of Bellamy’s utopian romance Looking Backward, which called forth a spate
of imitators during the last decade of the century.4 Praised by leading members of the
Populist movement and by persons as diverse as Cardinal Gibbons, George Cary
Eggleston, Frances E. Willard, and Julian Hawthorne,5 Cæsar’s Column became one of
the most widely read books of the early nineties. Donnelly’s was different from the other
utopias. Although in its anticlimactic conclusion it did describe a utopia in a remote spot
of Africa, the main story portrayed a sadistic antiutopia arrived at, as it were, by
standing Bellamy on his head. The idea seems to have occurred to Donnelly in a moment
of great discouragement at the close of the unusually corrupt Minnesota legislative
session of 1889,6 when he was struck with the thought of what might come to be if the
worst tendencies of current society were projected a century into the future. The story
takes place in the year 1988, missing by four years the date of the more recent antiutopia
of George Orwell, with which it invites comparison, though not on literary
Donnelly’s hero and narrator is a stranger, a shepherd of Swiss extraction living in the
state of Uganda, Africa, who visits New York and reports his adventures in a series of
letters. New York is a center of technological marvels much like Bellamy’s. The stranger
approaches it in an airship, finds it lit so brightly that its life goes on both night and
day. Its streets are covered with roofs of glass; underneath them is the city’s subway
system, with smokeless and noiseless electric trains to which passengers are lowered by
electric elevators. Its air-conditioned hotels are capped by roof-top restaurants serving
incredible luxuries, where “star-eyed maidens … wander half seen amid the foliage, like
the houris in the Mohammedan’s heaven.”7
This sybaritic life is supported at the cost of great mass suffering, and conceals a
fierce social struggle. The world of 1988 is governed by an inner council of plutocratic
leaders who stop at nothing to crush potential opposition. They keep in their hire a fleet
of “Demons,” operators of dirigibles carrying poison-gas bombs, whose aid they are
ready to use at any sign of popular opposition. The people themselves have become
equally ruthless—“brutality above had produced brutality below.” The farmers are “no
longer the honest yeomanry who had filled, in the old time, the armies of Washington,
and Jackson, and Grant, and Sherman … but their brutalized descendants—fierce serfs
—cruel and bloodthirsty peasants.”8 The brunt of the social struggle, however, is borne
by the urban laborers, a polyglot, silent mass of sullen, underfed humanity. The traveler
from Uganda learns in a conversation (documented by Donnelly with real articles from
current magazines) that as early as 1889 many writers had warned against the
potentialities of this state of affairs. It was not an inevitable development, but greed
and stupidity had kept the ruling classes from heeding such prophets of disaster.
Rapacious business methods, the bribery of voters, the exploitation of workers and
farmers by the plutocracy, had gone unchecked until the end of the nineteenth century,
when the proletariat had rebelled. The rebellion had been put down by the farmers, not
yet completely expelled by mortgage foreclosures from their position as propertyowners
and businessmen. Now that the farmers too are destroyed as a prop of the
existing order, the rulers rely solely upon the bomb, the dirigible, and a mercenary
The convolutions of Donnelly’s plot, which includes two tasteless love stories, do little
more than entitle the book to be called a novel, and the work is full of a kind of
suppressed lasciviousness that one finds often in popular writing of the period. At the
climax of the story, the secret revolutionary organization, the Brotherhood of
Destruction, after buying off the “Demons,” revolts and begins an incredible round of
looting and massacre which may have been modeled on the French Revolutionary Terror
but makes it seem pale and bloodless in comparison. Some members of the governing
class are forced to build a pyre on which they are then burned. There is so much carnage
that the disposal of the bodies becomes an immense sanitary problem. Cæsar, one of the
three leaders (who is himself beheaded in the end), commands that the corpses be piled
up and covered with cement to form a gigantic pyramidal column as a monument to the
uprising. The city is finally burned, but a saving remnant of decent folk escapes in a
dirigible to the African mountains, where under the guidance of an elite of intellectuals
they form a Christian socialist state in which the Populist program for land,
transportation, and finance becomes a reality and interest is illegal.
Doubtless this fantasy was meant to say what would happen if the warnings of the
reformers and the discontents of the people went unheard and unalleviated. Far more
ominous, however, than any of the vivid and hideous predictions of the book is the
sadistic and nihilistic spirit in which it was written. It is perhaps a childish book, but in
the middle of the twentieth century it seems anything but laughable: it affords a
frightening glimpse into the ugly potential of frustrated popular revolt. When Cæsar’s
Column appeared, the reform movement in America had not yet made a dent upon the
torments and oppressions that were felt by a large portion of the people. In some men
the situation fostered a feeling of desperation, and Donnelly’s was a desperate work. It
came at a moment when the threat of a social apocalypse seemed to many people not at
all remote, and it remains even now a nettlesome if distinctly minor prophetic book.
II . History as Conspiracy
Both sides of Donnelly’s struggle, the Council of governing plutocrats and the
Brotherhood of Destruction, are significantly portrayed as secret organizations—this
despite the fact that the Brotherhood has millions of members. There was something
about the Populist imagination that loved the secret plot and the conspiratorial meeting.
There was in fact a widespread Populist idea that all American history since the Civil
War could be understood as a sustained conspiracy of the international money power.
The pervasiveness of this way of looking at things may be attributed to the common
feeling that farmers and workers were not simply oppressed but oppressed deliberately,
consciously, continuously, and with wanton malice by “the interests.” It would of course
be misleading to imply that the Populists stand alone in thinking of the events of their
time as the results of a conspiracy. This kind of thinking frequently occurs when
political and social antagonisms are sharp. Certain audiences are especially susceptible
to it—particularly, I believe, those who have attained only a low level of education,
whose access to information is poor,9 and who are so completely shut out from access to
the centers of power that they feel themselves completely deprived of self-defense and
subjected to unlimited manipulation by those who wield power. There are, moreover,
certain types of popular movements of dissent that offer special opportunities to
agitators with paranoid tendencies, who are able to make a vocational asset out of their
psychic disturbances.1 Such persons have an opportunity to impose their own style of
thought upon the movements they lead. It would of course be misleading to imply that
there are no such things as conspiracies in history. Anything that partakes of political
strategy may need, for a time at least, an element of secrecy, and is thus vulnerable to
being dubbed conspiratorial. Corruption itself has the character of conspiracy. In this
sense the Crédit Mobilier was a conspiracy, as was the Teapot Dome affair. If we tend to
be too condescending to the Populists at this point, it may be necessary to remind
ourselves that they had seen so much bribery and corruption, particularly on the part of
the railroads, that they had before them a convincing model of the management of
affairs through conspiratorial behavior. Indeed, what makes conspiracy theories so
widely acceptable is that they usually contain a germ of truth. But there is a great
difference between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a
conspiracy, between singling out those conspiratorial acts that do on occasion occur and
weaving a vast fabric of social explanation out of nothing but skeins of evil plots.
When conspiracies do not exist it is necessary for those who think in this fashion to
invent them. Among the most celebrated instances in modern history are the forgery of
the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the grandiose fabrication under Stalin’s regime of
the Trotzkyite-Bukharinite-Zinovievite center. These inventions were cynical. In the
history of American political controversy there is a tradition of conspiratorial
accusations which seem to have been sincerely believed. Jefferson appears really to
have believed, at one time, that the Federalists were conspiring to re-establish
monarchy. Some Federalists believed that the Jeffersonians were conspiring to subvert
Christianity. The movement to annex Texas and the war with Mexico were alleged by
many Northerners to be a slaveholders’ conspiracy. The early Republican leaders,
including Lincoln, charged that there was a conspiracy on the part of Stephen A.
Douglas to make slavery a nationwide institution. Such pre-Civil War parties as the
Know-Nothing and Anti-Masonic movements were based almost entirely upon
conspiratorial ideology. The Nye Committee, years ago, tried to prove that our entry
into the first World War was the work of a conspiracy of bankers and munitions-makers.
And now not only our entry into the second World War, but the entire history of the
past twenty years or so is being given the color of conspiracy by the cranks and political
fakirs of our own age.2
Nevertheless, when these qualifications have been taken into account, it remains true
that Populist thought showed an unusually strong tendency to account for relatively
impersonal events in highly personal terms. An overwhelming sense of grievance does
not find satisfactory expression in impersonal explanations, except among those with a
well-developed tradition of intellectualism. It is the city, after all, that is the home of
intellectual complexity. The farmer lived in isolation from the great world in which his
fate was actually decided. He was accused of being unusually suspicious,3 and certainly
his situation, trying as it was, made thinking in impersonal terms difficult. Perhaps the
rural middle-class leaders of Populism (this was a movement of farmers, but it was not
led by farmers) had more to do than the farmer himself with the cast of Populist
thinking. At any rate, Populist thought often carries one into a world in which the
simple virtues and unmitigated villainies of a rural melodrama have been projected on a
national and even an international scale. In Populist thought the farmer is not a
speculating businessman, victimized by the risk economy of which he is a part, but
rather a wounded yeoman, preyed upon by those who are alien to the life of folkish
virtue. A villain was needed, marked with the unmistakable stigmata of the villains of
melodrama, and the more remote he was from the familiar scene, the more plausibly his
villainies could be exaggerated.
It was not enough to say that a conspiracy of the money power against the common
people was going on. It had been going on ever since the Civil War. It was not enough
to say that it stemmed from Wall Street. It was international: it stemmed from Lombard
Street. In his preamble to the People’s Party platform of 1892, a succinct, official
expression of Populist views, Ignatius Donnelly asserted: “A vast conspiracy against
mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of
the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the
destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.” A manifesto
of 1895, signed by fifteen outstanding leaders of the People’s Party, declared: “As early
as 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and
America.… For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling
over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one
central purpose.… Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every
artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being made use of
to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial
independence of the country.”4
The financial argument behind the conspiracy theory was simple enough. Those who
owned bonds wanted to be paid not in a common currency but in gold, which was at a
premium; those who lived by lending money wanted as high a premium as possible to
be put on their commodity by increasing its scarcity. The panics, depressions, and
bankruptcies caused by their policies only added to their wealth; such catastrophes
offered opportunities to engross the wealth of others through business consolidations
and foreclosures. Hence the interests actually relished and encouraged hard times. The
Greenbackers had long since popularized this argument, insisting that an adequate
legal-tender currency would break the monopoly of the “Shylocks.” Their demand for
$50 of circulating medium per capita, still in the air when the People’s Party arose, was
rapidly replaced by the less “radical” demand for free coinage of silver. But what both
the Greenbackers and free-silverites held in common was the idea that the contraction of
currency was a deliberate squeeze, the result of a long-range plot of the “Anglo-
American Gold Trust.” Wherever one turns in the Populist literature of the nineties one
can find this conspiracy theory expressed. It is in the Populist newspapers, the
proceedings of the silver conventions, the immense pamphlet literature broadcast by the
American Bimetallic League, the Congressional debates over money; it is elaborated in
such popular books as Mrs. S. E. V. Emery’s Seven Financial Conspiracies Which Have
Enslaved the American People or Gordon Clark’s Shylock: as Banker, Bondholder,
Corruptionist, Conspirator.
Mrs. Emery’s book, first published in 1887, and dedicated to “the enslaved people of a
dying republic,” achieved great circulation, especially among the Kansas Populists.
According to Mrs. Emery, the United States had been an economic Garden of Eden in the
period before the Civil War. The fall of man had dated from the war itself, when “the
money kings of Wall Street” determined that they could take advantage of the wartime
necessities of their fellow men by manipulating the currency. “Controlling it, they could
inflate or depress the business of the country at pleasure, they could send the warm life
current through the channels of trade, dispensing peace, happiness, and prosperity, or
they could check its flow, and completely paralyze the industries of the country.”5 With
this great power for good in their hands, the Wall Street men preferred to do evil.
Lincoln’s war policy of issuing greenbacks presented them with the dire threat of an
adequate supply of currency. So the Shylocks gathered in convention and “perfected” a
conspiracy to create a demand for their gold.6 The remainder of the book was a recital
of a series of seven measures passed between 1862 and 1875 which were alleged to be a
part of this continuing conspiracy, the total effect of which was to contract the currency
of the country further and further until finally it squeezed the industry of the country
like a hoop of steel.7
Mrs. Emery’s rhetoric left no doubt of the sustained purposefulness of this scheme—
described as “villainous robbery,” and as having been “secured through the most soulless
strategy.”8 She was most explicit about the so-called “crime of 1873,” the
demonetization of silver, giving a fairly full statement of the standard greenbacksilverite
myth concerning that event. As they had it, an agent of the Bank of England,
Ernest Seyd by name, had come to the United States in 1872 with $500,000 with which
he had bought enough support in Congress to secure the passage of the demonetization
measure. This measure was supposed to have greatly increased the value of American
four per cent bonds held by British capitalists by making it necessary to pay them in
gold only. To it Mrs. Emery attributed the panic of 1873, its bankruptcies, and its train
of human disasters: “Murder, insanity, suicide, divorce, drunkenness and all forms of
immorality and crime have increased from that day to this in the most appalling ratio.”9
“Coin” Harvey, the author of the most popular single document of the whole currency
controversy, Coin’s Financial School, also published a novel, A Tale of Two Nations, in
which the conspiracy theory of history was incorporated into a melodramatic tale. In
this story the powerful English banker Baron Rothe plans to bring about the
demonetization of silver in the United States, in part for his own aggrandizement but
also to prevent the power of the United States from outstripping that of England. He
persuades an American Senator (probably John Sherman, the bête noire of the silverites)
to cooperate in using British gold in a campaign against silver. To be sure that the work
is successful, he also sends to the United States a relative and ally, one Rogasner, who
stalks through the story like the villains in the plays of Dion Boucicault, muttering to
himself such remarks as “I am here to destroy the United States—Cornwallis could not
have done more. For the wrongs and insults, for the glory of my own country, I will
bury the knife deep into the heart of this nation.”1 Against the plausibly drawn
background of the corruption of the Grant administration, Rogasner proceeds to buy up
the American Congress and suborn American professors of economics to testify for gold.
He also falls in love with a proud American beauty, but his designs on her are foiled
because she loves a handsome young silver Congressman from Nebraska who bears a
striking resemblance to William Jennings Bryan!
One feature of the Populist conspiracy theory that has been generally overlooked is its
frequent link with a kind of rhetorical anti-Semitism. The slight current of anti-Semitism
that existed in the United States before the 1890’s had been associated with problems of
money and credit.2 During the closing years of the century it grew noticeably.3 While
the jocose and rather heavy-handed anti-Semitism that can be found in Henry Adams’s
letters of the 1890’s shows that this prejudice existed outside Populist literature, it was
chiefly Populist writers who expressed that identification of the Jew with the usurer and
the “international gold ring” which was the central theme of the American anti-Semitism
of the age. The omnipresent symbol of Shylock can hardly be taken in itself as evidence
of anti-Semitism, but the frequent references to the House of Rothschild make it clear
that for many silverites the Jew was an organic part of the conspiracy theory of history.
Coin Harvey’s Baron Rothe was clearly meant to be Rothschild; his Rogasner (Ernest
Seyd?) was a dark figure out of the coarsest anti-Semitic tradition. “You are very wise in
your way,” Rogasner is told at the climax of the tale, “the commercial way, inbred
through generations. The politic, scheming, devious way, inbred through generations
also.”4 One of the cartoons in the effectively illustrated Coin’s Financial School showed a
map of the world dominated by the tentacles of an octopus at the site of the British Isles,
labeled: “Rothschilds.”5 In Populist demonology, anti-Semitism and Anglophobia went
hand in hand.
The note of anti-Semitism was often sounded openly in the campaign for silver. A
representative of the New Jersey Grange, for instance, did not hesitate to warn the
members of the Second National Silver Convention of 1892 to watch out for political
candidates who represented “Wall Street, and the Jews of Europe.”6 Mary E. Lease
described Grover Cleveland as “the agent of Jewish bankers and British gold”7 Donnelly
represented the leader of the governing Council of plutocrats in Cæsar’s Column, one
Prince Cabano, as a powerful Jew, born Jacob Isaacs; one of the triumvirate who lead
the Brotherhood of Destruction is also an exiled Russian Jew, who flees from the
apocalyptic carnage with a hundred million dollars which he intends to use to “revive
the ancient splendors of the Jewish race, in the midst of the ruins of the world.”8 One of
the more elaborate documents of the conspiracy school traced the power of the
Rothschilds over America to a transaction between Hugh McCulloch, Secretary of the
Treasury under Lincoln and Johnson, and Baron James Rothschild. “The most direful
part of this business between Rothschild and the United States Treasury was not the loss
of money, even by hundreds of millions. It was the resignation of the country itself
INTO THE HANDS OF ENGLAND, as England had long been resigned into the hands of
Such rhetoric, which became common currency in the movement, later passed beyond
Populism into the larger stream of political protest. By the time the campaign of 1896
arrived, an Associated Press reporter noticed as “one of the striking things” about the
Populist convention at St. Louis “the extraordinary hatred of the Jewish race. It is not
possible to go into any hotel in the city without hearing the most bitter denunciation of
the Jews as a class and of the particular Jews who happen to have prospered in the
world.”1 This report may have been somewhat overdone, but the identification of the
silver cause with anti-Semitism did become close enough for Bryan to have to pause in
the midst of his campaign to explain to the Jewish Democrats of Chicago that in
denouncing the policies of the Rothschilds he and his silver friends were “not attacking a
race; we are attacking greed and avarice which know no race or religion.”2
It would be easy to misstate the character of Populist anti-Semitism or to exaggerate
its intensity. For Populist anti-Semitism was entirely verbal. It was a mode of
expression, a rhetorical style, not a tactic or a program. It did not lead to exclusion
laws, much less to riots or pogroms. There were, after all, relatively few Jews in the
United States in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, most of them remote from the areas of
Populist strength. It is one thing, however, to say that this prejudice did not go beyond a
certain symbolic usage, quite another to say that a people’s choice of symbols is of no
significance. Populist anti-Semitism does have its importance—chiefly as a symptom of
a certain ominous credulity in the Populist mind. It is not too much to say that the
Greenback-Populist tradition activated most of what we have of modern popular anti-
Semitism in the United States.3 Thaddeus Stevens and Coin Harvey to Father Coughlin,
and from Brooks and Henry Adams to Ezra Pound, there has been a curiously persistent
linkage between anti-Semitism and money and credit obsessions. A full history of
modern anti-Semitism in the United States would reveal, I believe, its substantial
Populist lineage, but it may be sufficient to point out here that neither the informal
connection between Bryan and the Klan in the twenties nor Thomas E. Watson’s conduct
in the Leo Frank case were altogether fortuitous.4 And Henry Ford’s notorious anti-
Semitism of the 1920’s, along with his hatred of “Wall Street,” were the foibles of a
Michigan farm boy who had been liberally exposed to Populist notions.5
III . The Spirit Militant
The conspiratorial theory and the associated Anglophobic and Judophobic feelings were
part of a larger complex of fear and suspicion of the stranger that haunted, and still
tragically haunts, the nativist American mind. This feeling, though hardly confined to
Populists and Bryanites, was none the less exhibited by them in a particularly virulent
form. Everyone remote and alien was distrusted and hated—even Americans, if they
happened to be city people. The old agrarian conception of the city as the home of
moral corruption reached a new pitch. Chicago was bad; New York, which housed the
Wall Street bankers, was farther away and worse; London was still farther away and
still worse. This traditional distrust grew stronger as the cities grew larger, and as they
were filled with immigrant aliens. As early as 1885 the Kansas preacher Josiah Strong
had published Our Country, a book widely read in the West, in which the cities were
discussed as a great problem of the future, much as though they were some kind of
monstrous malignant growths on the body politic.6 Hamlin Garland recalled that when
he first visited Chicago, in the late 1880’s, having never seen a town larger than
Rockford, Illinois, he naturally assumed that it swarmed with thieves. “If the city is miles
across,” he wondered, “how am I to get from the railway station to my hotel without
being assaulted?” While such extreme fears could be quieted by some contact with the
city, others were actually confirmed—especially when the farmers were confronted with
city prices.7 Nativist prejudices were equally aroused by immigration, for which urban
manufacturers, with their insatiable demand for labor, were blamed. “We have become
the world’s melting pot,” wrote Thomas E. Watson. “The scum of creation has been
dumped on us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American. The most
dangerous and corrupting hordes of the Old World have invaded us. The vice and crime
which they have planted in our midst are sickening and terrifying. What brought these
Goths and Vandals to our shores? The manufacturers are mainly to blame. They wanted
cheap labor: and they didn’t care a curse how much harm to our future might be the
consequence of their heartless policy.”8
Anglo-Saxons, whether Populist or patrician, found it difficult to accept other peoples
on terms of equality or trust. Others were objects to be manipulated—benevolently, it
was often said, but none the less firmly. Mary E. Lease, that authentic voice of inland
Populism who became famous for advising farmers to “raise less corn and more hell,”
wrote a book in 1895 under the ingratiating title: The Problem of Civilization Solved, in
which this ethnic condescension was rather ingenuously displayed. According to Mrs.
Lease, Europe and America stood on the brink of one of two immense catastrophes—a
universal reign of anarchistic terror or the establishment of a worldwide Russian
despotism. The only hope of averting catastrophe was, as she put it, “the most
stupendous migration of races the world has ever known, and thereby relieve the
congested centers of the world’s population of half their inhabitants and provide Free
Homes for half of mankind.”9 She proposed a vast reshuffling of peoples in which the
tropics in both hemispheres be taken over by white planters with Negroes and Orientals
as “tillers of the soil.” “Through all the vicissitudes of time, the Caucasian has arisen to
the moral and intellectual supremacy of the world, until now this favored race is fitted
for the Stewardship of the Earth and Emancipation from Manual Labor.”1 This stewardship,
far from being an imposition on the lesser breeds without the law, would be an act of
mercy; it would take the starved and miserable ryots and coolies of the world and by
giving them management and supervision provide them with the means of life, as well
as rescue them from paganism. Such a change they would “hail with joy.”2
The proposal for colonization under government super-vision and with governmental
subsidies was supplemented by a grand plan for what Mrs. Lease candidly called the
partitioning of the world, in which the Germanic and Latin peoples would be united into
two racial confederations, and the British and Russian empires checked and neutralized
by other powerful states. The role of the United States in this world was to be the head
of the federated American republics. Canada should be annexed—so also Cuba, Haiti,
Santo Domingo, and Hawaii. The Latin republics would be fertile fields for colonization
by the surplus population of the United States—which no longer had a public domain to
give its citizens—and the North Americans would import “vast swarms of Asiatics as
laborers for the plantations.” Mrs. Lease felt that the Latins, like the Asiatics, would
certainly benefit from this and that they ought to like it. Moreover, they owed the
United States a debt of gratitude: “We stand, and have stood for, years, ready to extend
our blood and treasure in defense of Latin America against European aggression. Can
they not reciprocate by giving us the leadership on this continent? If not, we should take
it! We should follow the example of European nations and annex all we can and
establish protectorates wherever possible in America.”3
Mrs. Lease’s book, the work of a naïve but imaginative mind driven to the pitch of its
powers by an extraordinary capacity for suspicion, was hardly as representative or
popular as Coin’s Financial School or Cæsar’s Column, though its author was one of the
indigenous products of Populist political culture. Mrs. Lease’s peculiar ideas of
Weltpolitik, her particular views on tropical colonization, were not common currency in
Populist thinking. But other assumptions in her book could be found among the
Populists with great frequency—the smug assumption of Anglo-Saxon superiority and
benevolence, the sense of a need for some new area of expansion, the hatred of
England, the fear of Russia,4 the anxiety over the urban masses as a potential source of
The nationalist fervor of Mrs. Lease’s book also represents one side of a curiously
ambiguous aspect of Populism. On the surface there was a strong note of anti-militarism
and anti-imperialism in the Populist movement and Bryan democracy. Populists were
opposed to large standing armies and large naval establishments; most of them
supported Bryan’s resistance to the acquisition of the Philippines. They looked upon the
military as a threat to democracy, upon imperialist acquisitions as gains only to
financiers and “monarchists,” not to the people.5 But what they chiefly objected to was
institutional militarism rather than war itself, imperialism rather than jingoism. Under a
patina of pacifist rhetoric they were profoundly nationalistic and bellicose. What the
nativist mind most resolutely opposed was not so much war itself as cooperation with
European governments for any ends at all.6 Those who have been puzzled in our own
time by the anti-European attitudes of men like Senator Taft and General MacArthur,
and by their alternating espousal of dangerously aggressive and near-pacifistic (or
antimilitarist) policies, will find in the Populist mentality a suggestive precedent.
The Populists distinguished between wars for humanity and wars of conquest. The
first of these they considered legitimate, but naturally they had difficulty in
discriminating between the two, and they were quite ready to be ballyhooed into a
righteous war, as the Cuban situation was to show. During the early nineteenth century
popular sentiment in the United States, especially within the democratic camp, had been
strong for the republican movements in Europe and Latin America. With the coming of
the nineties and the great revulsion against the outside world, the emphasis was
somewhat changed; where sympathy with oppressed and revolutionary peoples had
been the dominant sentiment in the past, the dominant sentiment now seemed rather to
be hatred of their governments. That there must always be such an opposition between
peoples and governments the Populist mind did not like to question, and even the most
democratic governments of Europe were persistently looked upon as though they were
nothing but reactionary monarchies.7
After the success of Cæsar’s Column, Donnelly wrote another fantasy called The Golden
Bottle, in which this antagonism had a vivid expression. The first part of the story need
not detain us: it deals with the life of one Ephraim Benezet of Kansas who is given a
bottle that empowers him to turn iron into gold, a windfall which not surprisingly
makes it possible for him to solve his own and the country’s financial problems. Before
long he is elected President, and after foiling a plot to kill him and checking a bankers’
conspiracy to start a civil war, he delivers an extraordinary inaugural message. The one
thing that prevents the American people, he tells them, from rising “to still higher levels
of greatness and happiness” is the Old World. America is “united by a ligament to a
corpse—Europe!” This begins an appeal to close the gates against further wretched
immigrants from Europe who will be used by American capitalists to beat down the
wages of American workingmen. “We could, by wise laws and just conditions, lift up the
toilers of our own country to the level of the middle classes, but a vast multitude of the
miserable of other lands clung to their skirts and dragged them down. Our country was
the safety-valve which permitted the discontent of the Old World to escape. If that vent
was closed, every throne in Europe would be blown up in twenty years.… For the
people of the Old World, having to choose between death by starvation and resistance
to tyrants, would turn upon their oppressors and tear them to pieces.” There follows an
appeal to the peoples of Europe to revolt against their rulers. The countries of Europe
respond by declaring war, and in the great international conflict that follows, the
United States comes to Europe as an invading liberator. President Benezet wins, of
course, and frees even the Russians simply by making them literate. He also establishes
a world government to keep the peace.8
It is no coincidence, then, that Populism and jingoism grew concurrently in the United
States during the 1890’s. The rising mood of intolerant nationalism was a nationwide
thing, certainly not confined to the regions of Populist strength; but among no stratum
of the population was it stronger than among the Populists. Moreover it was on jingoist
issues that the Populist and Bryanite sections of the country, with the aid of the yellow
press and many political leaders, achieved that rapport with the masses of the cities
which they never succeeded in getting on economic issues. Even conservative politicians
sensed that, whatever other grounds of harmony were lacking between themselves and
the populace of the hinterland, grounds for unity could be found in war.
The first, and for the Populists the preferred, enemy would have been England, the
center of the gold power. Coin’s Financial School closed with a better philippic against
England: “If it is claimed we must adopt for our money the metal England selects, and
can have no independent choice in the matter, let us make the test and find out if it is
true. It is not American to give up without trying. If it is true, let us attach England to
the United States and blot her name out from among the nations of the earth. A war
with England would be the most popular ever waged on the face of the earth … the
most just war ever waged by man.”9 Some leaders of the Republican Party, which had
attempted to appease the powerful silver sentiment in 1890 by passing the Sherman
Silver Purchase Act, made a strategic move in the troubled year of 1894 to capture
Western sentiment. On May 2 there opened in London an unofficial bimetallic
conference in which American bimetallists were represented by Brooks Adams and
Senator Wolcott of Colorado; fifteen prominent Senators, including outstanding
Republicans, cabled their endorsement of international bimetallism. Senator Lodge
proposed in the Senate to blackmail Britain by passing a discriminatory tariff against
her if she did not consent to a bimetallic plan, a scheme nicely calculated to hold in line
some of the Western silverite jingoes and Anglophobes.1
This proposal was defeated by the Cleveland Democrats, but the Democratic Party’s
turn to make capital out of jingo sentiment came the next year with the excessively
belligerent conduct of the Venezuela affair, one of the few really popular moves of the
Cleveland administration.2 A west-coast newspaper spoke for many Americans when it
said: “We are at the mercy of England, as far as our finances go, and [war] is our only
way out,”3 “War would be a good thing even if we got whipped,” declared the silver
Senator from Nevada, William M. Stewart, “for it would rid us of English bank rule.”4
And a Congressman from a strong Populist state wrote to congratulate Secretary of
State Olney for having spiked the guns of Populism and anarchism with his vigorous
diplomacy.5 Olney was also urged by the American consul in Havana to identify the
administration and the sound-money Democrats with a strong policy of mediation or
intervention in the war in Cuba; it would either get credit for stopping the atrocities, for
buying Cuba, if that was the outcome, or for “fighting a successful war, if war there be.
In the latter case, the enthusiasm, the applications for service, the employment of many
of the unemployed, might do much towards directing the minds of the people from
imaginary ills, the relief of which is erroneously supposed to be reached by ‘Free
Silver.’ ”6 When the Venezuela matter was settled, the attention of jingoes turned
toward Cuba. The situation of the oppressed Cubans was one with which the Populist
elements in the country could readily identify themselves, and they added their voice to
the general cry throughout the country for an active policy of intervention. After the
defeat of Bryan, popular frustration in the silver areas, blocked on domestic issues,
seemed to find expression in the Cuban question. Here at last was a point at which the
goldbugs could be vanquished. Neither the big business and banking community nor the
Cleveland and McKinley administrations had much sympathy with the crusading fever
that pervaded the country at large, and there were bitter mutual recriminations between
conservative and Populist papers. Wall Street was accused of a characteristic
indifference to the interests of humanity; the Populists in return were charged with
favoring war as a cover under which they could smuggle in an inflationary policy. One
thing seems clear: “most of the leading Congressional backers of intervention in Cuba
represented southern and western states where Populism and silver were strongest.”7
And it appears that one of the reasons why McKinley was advised by many influential
Republicans to yield to the popular demand for war was the common fear, still
meaningful in 1898, that the Democrats would go into the next presidential election
with the irresistible slogan of Free Silver and Free Cuba as its battle cry.8 Jingoism was
confined to no class, section, or party; but the Populist areas stood in the vanguard, and
their pressure went far to bring about a needless war. When the war was over, the
economic and emotional climate in which their movement had grown no longer existed,
and their forces were scattered and confused. A majority of them, after favoring war,
attempted honorably to spurn the fruits of war by taking up the cause of antiimperialism.
Thomas E. Watson, one of the few Populists who had consistently opposed
the war, later insisted that “The Spanish War finished us. The blare of the bugle
drowned the voice of the reformer.”9 The cause of reform was, in fact, too resilient to be
permanently crushed by a short war; but, for the moment, Free Cuba had displaced Free
Silver in public interest, and when reform raised its head again, it had a new face.
As we review these aspects of Populist emotion, an odd parallel obtrudes itself. Where
else in American thought during this period do we find this militancy and nationalism,
these apocalyptic forebodings and drafts of world-political strategies, this hatred of big
businessmen, bankers, and trusts, these fears of immigrants and urban workmen, even
this occasional toying with anti-Semitic rhetoric? We find them, curiously enough, most
conspicuous among a group of men who are in all obvious respects the antithesis of the
Populists. During the late 1880’s and the ’90’s there emerged in the eastern United States
a small imperialist elite representing, in general, the same type that had once been
Mugwumps, whose spokesmen were such solid and respectable gentlemen as Henry and
Brooks Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, and Albert J.
Beveridge. While the silverites were raging openly and earnestly against the bankers
and the Jews, Brooks and Henry Adams were expressing in their sardonic and morosely
cynical private correspondence the same feelings, and acknowledging with bemused
irony their kinship at this point with the mob. While Populist Congressmen and
newspapers called for war with England or Spain, Roosevelt and Lodge did the same,
and while Mrs. Lease projected her grandiose schemes of world partition and tropical
colonization, men like Roosevelt, Lodge, Beveridge, and Mahan projected more realistic
plans for the conquest of markets and the annexation of territory. While Populist
readers were pondering over Donnelly’s apocalyptic fantasies, Brooks and Henry Adams
were also bemoaning the approaching end of their type of civilization, and even the
characteristically optimistic T. R. could share at moments in “Brooks Adams’ gloomiest
anticipations of our gold-ridden, capitalist-bestridden, usurer-mastered future.” Not long
after Mrs. Lease wrote that “we need a Napoleon in the industrial world who, by
agitation and education, will lead the people to a realizing sense of their condition and
the remedies,”1 Roosevelt and Brooks Adams talked about the threat of the eight-hour
movement and the danger that the country would be “enslaved” by the organizers of the
trusts, and played with the idea that Roosevelt might eventually lead “some great
outburst of the emotional classes which should at least temporarily crush the Economic
Not only were the gentlemen of this imperialist elite better read and better fed than
the Populists, but they despised them. This strange convergence of unlike social
elements on similar ideas has its explanation, I believe, in this: both the imperialist elite
and the Populists had been bypassed and humiliated by the advance of industrialism,
and both were rebelling against the domination of the country by industrial and
financial capitalists. The gentlemen wanted the power and status they felt due them,
which had been taken away from their class and type by the arriviste manufacturers and
railroaders and the all-too-potent banking houses. The Populists wanted a restoration of
agrarian profits and popular government. Both elements found themselves impotent
and deprived in an industrial culture and balked by a common enemy. On innumerable
matters they disagreed, but both were strongly nationalistic, and amid the despairs and
anxieties of the nineties both became ready for war if that would unseat or even
embarrass the moneyed powers, or better still if it would topple the established political
structure and open new opportunities for the leaders of disinherited farmers or for
ambitious gentlemen. But if there seems to be in this situation any suggestion of a
forerunner or analogue of modern authoritarian movements, it should by no means be
exaggerated. The age was more innocent and more fortunate than ours, and by
comparison with the grimmer realities of the twentieth century many of the events of
the nineties take on a comic-opera quality. What came in the end was only a small war
and a quick victory; when the farmers and the gentlemen finally did coalesce in politics,
they produced only the genial reforms of Progressivism; and the man on the white horse
turned out to be just a graduate of the Harvard boxing squad, equipped with an
immense bag of platitudes, and quite willing to play the democratic game.
1 Thomas E. Watson: The Life and Times of Andrew Jackson (Thomson, Ga., 1912), p. 325: “All the histories and all the
statesmen agree that during the first half-century of our national existence, we had no poor. A pauper class was unthought
of: a beggar, or a tramp never seen.” Cf. Mrs. S. E. V. Emery: Seven Financial Conspiracies Which Have Enslaved the
American People (Lansing, ed. 1896), pp. 10-11.
2 Note for instance the affectionate treatment of Jacksonian ideas in Watson, op. cit., pp. 343-4.
3 James B. Weaver: A Call to Action (Des Moines, 1892), pp. 377-8.
4 B. S. Heath: Labor and Finance Revolution (Chicago, 1892), p. 5.
5 For this strain in Jacksonian thought, see Richard Hofstadter: “William Leggett, Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy,”
Political Science Quarterly, Vol XLVIII (December 1943), pp, 581-94, and The American Political Tradition, pp. 60-1.
6 Elizabeth N. Barr: “The Populist Uprising,” in William E. Connelley, ed.; A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, Vol.
II, p. 1170.
7 Ray Allen Billington; Westward Expansion (New York, 1949), p. 741.
8 Allan Nevins: Grover Cleveland (New York, 1933), p. 540; Heath, op, cit., p. 27: “The world has always contained two
classes of people, one that lived by honest labor and the other that lived off of honest labor.” Cf. Governor Lewelling of
Kansas: “Two great forces are forming in battle line: the same under different form and guise that have long been in deadly
antagonism, represented in master and slave, lord and vassal, king and peasant, despot and serf, landlord and tenant, lender
and borrower, organized avarice and the necessities of the divided and helpless poor.” James A. Barnes: John G. Carlisle
(New York, 1931), pp. 254-5.
9 George H. Knoles: The Presidential Campaign and Election of 1892 (Stanford, 1942), p. 179.
1 William A. Peffer: The Farmer’s Side (New York, 1891), p. 273.
2 Ibid., pp. 148-50.
3 Weaver, op. cit., p. 5.
4 See Allyn B. Forbes: “The Literary Quest for Utopia,” Social Forces, Vol. VI (1927), pp. 178-9.
5 E. W. Fish: Donnelliana (Chicago, 1892), pp. 121-2.
6 Ibid., pp. 119-20.
7 Cæsar’s Column (Chicago, 1891), p. 327.
8 Ibid.
9 In this respect it is worth pointing out that in later years, when facilities for realistic exposure became more adequate,
popular attacks on “the money power” showed fewer elements of fantasy and more of reality.
1 See, for instance, the remarks about a mysterious series of international assassinations with which Mary E Lease opens
her book. The Problem of Civilization Solved (Chicago, 1895).
2 One by-product of this conspiratorial mania is the myth that the recognition of Russia in 1933 was the result of a plot by
the New Dealers. Paul Boller, Jr., in a highly amusing article, “The ‘Great Conspiracy’ of 1933: a Study in Short Memories,”
Southwest Review, Vol. XXXIX (Spring, 1954), pp. 97-112, shows that some of the same persons who have indulged in the
conspiracy cry were advocates of recognition before 1933.
In reading the excellent study by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit (New York, 1949), a study of
recent authoritarian agitators, I am impressed by certain similarities in the style of thought displayed by their subjects and
that of a certain type of Populist writer represented by Mrs. Emery, “Coin” Harvey, Donnelly, and Mrs. Lease. There seem
to be certain persistent themes in popular agitation of this sort that transcend particular historical eras. Among the themes
delineated by Lowenthal and Guterman that one finds in Populist literature as well as among their agitators are the
following: the conception of history as conspiracy; an obsessive concern with the fabulous enjoyments deemed to be the lot
of the plutocrats; cynicism about the two-party system; the notion that the world is moving toward an immense
apocalypse; the exclusive attention to the greed and other personal vices of bankers and other selected plutocrats, as
opposed to a structural analysis of the social system; anti-Semitism and xenophobia; the appeal to the native simplicity
and virtue of the folk. There are, of course, other themes singled out by Lowenthal and Guterman that seem more peculiar
to the conditions of our own time and lack cognates in the literature of Populism.
3 Frederick L. Paxson: “The Agricultural Surplus: a Problem in History,” Agricultural History, Vol. VI (April 1932), p. 58;
cf. the observations of Lord Bryce in The American Commonwealth (New York, ed. 1897), Vol. II, pp. 294-5.
4 Frank L. McVey: The Populist Movement (New York, 1896), pp. 201-2.
5 Emery, op. cit., p. 13.
6 Ibid., pp. 14-18.
7 The measures were: the “exception clause” of 1862; the National Bank Act of 1863; the retirement of the greenbacks,
beginning in 1866; the “credit-strengthening act” of March 18, 1869; the refunding of the national debt in 1870; the
demonetization of silver in 1873; and the destruction of fractional paper currency in 1875.
8 Ibid., pp. 25, 43.
9 Ibid., pp. 54-5. For a more elaborate statement of this story see Cordon Clark: Shylock: as Banker, Bondholder,
Corruptionist, Conspirator (Washington, 1894), pp. 88-99.
1 W. H. Harvey: A Tale of Two Nations (Chicago, 1894), p. 69.
2 Anti-Semitism as a kind of rhetorical flourish seems to have had a long underground history in the United States. During
the panic of 1837, when many states defaulted on their obligations, many of which were held by foreigners, we find
Governor McNutt of Mississippi defending the practice by baiting Baron Rothschild: “The blood of Judas and Shylock
flows in his veins, and he unites the qualities of both his countrymen.…” Quoted by George W. Edwards: The Evolution of
Finance Capitalism (New York, 1938), p. 149. Similarly we find Thaddeus Stevens assailing “the Rothschilds, Goldsmiths,
and other large money dealers” during his early appeals for greenbacks. See James A. Woodburn: The Life of Thaddeus
Stevens (Indianapolis, 1913), pp. 576, 579.
3 See Oscar Handlin: “American Views of the Jew at the Opening of the Twentieth Century,” Publications of the American
Jewish Historical Society, no. 40 (June 1951), pp. 323-44.
4 Harvey: A Tale of Two Nations, p. 289; cf. also p. 265: “Did not our ancestors … take whatever women of whatever race
most pleased their fancy?”
5 Harvey: Coin’s Financial School (Chicago, 1894), p. 124; for a notable polemic against the Jews, see James B. Goode: The
Modern Banker (Chicago, 1896), chapter xii.
6 Proceedings of the Second National Silver Convention (Washington, 1892), p. 48.
7 Mary E. Lease: The Problem of Civilization Solved, pp. 319-20; cf. p. 291.
8 Donnelly, op. cit., pp. 147, 172, 331.
9 Gordon Clark, op. cit., pp. 59-60; for the linkage between anti-Semitism and the conspiracy theme, see pp. 2, 4, 8, 39, 55-
8, 102-3, 112-13, 117. There was a somewhat self-conscious and apologetic note in populistic anti-Semitism. Remarking
that “the aristocracy of the world is now almost altogether of Hebrew origin,” one of Donnelly’s characters explains that
the terrible persecutions to which the Jews had been subjected for centuries heightened the selective process among them,
leaving “only the strong of body, the cunning of brain, the longheaded, the persistent … and now the Christian world is
paying, in tears and blood, for the sufferings inflicted by their bigoted and ignorant ancestors upon a noble race. When the
time came for liberty and fair play the Jew was master in the contest with the Gentile, who hated and feared him.” Cæsar’s
Column, p. 37. In another fanciful tale Donnelly made amends to the Jews by restoring Palestine to them and making it very
prosperous. The Golden Bottle (New York and St. Paul, 1892), pp. 280-1.
1 Quoted by Edward Flower: Anti-Semitism in the Free Silver and Populist Movements and the Election of 1896,
unpublished M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1952, p. 27; this essay is illuminating on the development of anti-Semitism
in this period and on the reaction of some of the Jewish press.
2 William Jennings Bryan: The First Battle (Chicago, 1897), p. 581.
3 I distinguish here between popular anti-Semitism, which is linked with political issues, and upper-class anti-Semitism,
which is a variety of snobbery. From It is characteristic of the indulgence which Populism has received on this count that
Carey McWilliams in his A Mask for Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America (Boston, 1948) deals with early American anti-
Semitism simply as an upper-class phenomenon. In his historical account of the rise of anti-Semitism he does not mention
the Greenback-Populist tradition. Daniel Bell: “The Grass Roots of American Jew Hatred,” Jewish Frontier, Vol. XI (June
1944), pp. 15-20, is one of the few writers who has perceived that there is any relation between latter-day anti-Semites and
the earlier Populist tradition. See also Handlin, op. cit. Arnold Rose has pointed out that much of American anti-Semitism
is intimately linked to the agrarian myth and to resentment of the ascendancy of the city. The Jew is made a symbol of
both capitalism and urbanism, which are themselves too abstract to be satisfactory objects of animosity. Commentary, Vol.
VI (October 1948), pp. 374-78.
4 For the latter see Woodward: Tom Watson, chapter xxiii.
5 Keith Sward: The Legend of Henry Ford (New York, 1948), pp. 83-4, 113-14, 119-20, 132, 143-60. Cf. especially pp. 145-
6: “Ford could fuse the theory of Populism and the practice of capitalism easily enough for the reason that what he carried
forward from the old platforms of agrarian revolt, in the main, were the planks that were most innocent and least radical.
Like many a greenbacker of an earlier day, the publisher of the Dearborn Independent was haunted by the will-o’-the-wisp
of ‘money’ and the bogy of ‘race.’ It was these superstitions that lay at the very marrow of his political thinking.” For
further illustration of the effects of the Populist tradition on a Mountain State Senator, see Oscar Handlin’s astute remarks
on Senator Pat McCarran in “The Immigration Fight Has Only Begun,” Commentary, Vol. XIV (July 1952), pp. 3-4.
6 Josiah Strong: Our Country (New York, 1885), chapter x; for the impact of the city, see Arthur M. Schlesinger: The Rise
of the City (New York, 1933).
7 Hamlin Garland: A Son of the Middle Border (New York, ed. 1923), pp. 269, 295.
8 Watson: Andrew Jackson, p. 326; cf. Cæsar’s Column, p. 131: “The silly ancestors of the Americans called it ‘national
development’ when they imported millions of foreigners to take up the public lands and left nothing for their own
9 Lease, op. cit., p. 17.
1 Loc. cit.
2 Ibid., pp. 31-2, 34, 35.
3 Ibid., pp. 177-8.
4 Since this was a commonplace in the nineteenth century, it would be too much to ascribe to Mrs. Lease any special
prophetic stature.
5 See W. H. Harvey: Coin on Money, Trusts, and Imperialism (Chicago, 1900), for an expression of popular feelings on these
and other issues.
6 The best illustration was the American bimetallist movement. It was only during the 1870’s that the international gold
standard can be said to have come into existence, and it did so on the eve of the long price decline of the “Great
Depression.” The desire of the silver interests in various parts of the world, together with those groups that sought in
silver a means of raising the general level of prices, gave rise almost from the beginning to bimetallic movements nearly
everywhere in western Europe. Even in England, the commercial center and the creditor nation which did not relish being
paid its debts in depreciated currency, there were eminent statesmen who favored bimetallism; and the two greatest
economists of the era, Jevons and Marshall, considered it seriously. But everywhere except in the United States the
bimetallic movements looked to international action as the method of establishing a bimetallic standard; in the United
States alone the silver interests adhered to the possibility of unilateral action. The constant expectation that the United
States would act alone to maintain the price of silver was an impediment to action elsewhere. From the 1870’s onward
conservative American statesmen who sought to initiate action that would lead to an international bimetallic standard had
been caught between the difficulty of lining up the other nations and the sharp impatience of domestic silver interests,
which insisted with growing asperity as the years went by that reluctance to go it alone was treasonable. See J. B.
Condliffe: The Commerce of Nations (New York, 1950), chapter xii, “The International Gold Standard”; Jeannette P.
Nichols: “Silver Diplomacy,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII (December 1933), pp. 565-88. On the relation
between silverism and isolationism, see Ray Allen Billington: “The Origins of Middle Western Isolationism,” Political
Science Quarterly, Vol. LX (March 1945), esp. pp. 50-2.
7 See Harvey’s Coin on Money, Trusts, and Imperialism, passim.
8 Ignatius Donnelly: The Golden Bottle, pp. 202 ff. “I would be sorry,” said Donnelly in his preface, “if any one should be so
foolish as to argue that the triumph of the People’s Party means a declaration of war against the whole world.” What
concerns us here, however, is not the Populists’ intentions in this sphere, which were doubtless innocent enough, but the
emotions laid bare by Donnelly’s fantasy.
9 Coin’s Financial School, pp. 131-2.
1 Nevins, op. cit., pp. 608-9.
2 On domestic pressures behind this incident, see Nelson M. Blake: “Background of Cleveland’s Venezuela Policy,”
American Historical Review, Vol. XLVII (January 1942), pp. 259-77.
3 James A. Barnes: John G. Carlisle (New York, 1931), p. 410.
4 Nevins, op. cit., p. 641.
5 Alfred Vagts: Deutschland und die Vereinigten Staaten in der Weltpolitik (New York, 1935), Vol. I, p. 511.
6 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 1266 n.
7 J. E. Wisan: The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press (New York, 1934). p. 455; for the relation of this crisis to
the public temper of the nineties, see Richard Hofstadter: “Manifest Destiny and the Philippines,” in Daniel Aaron, ed.:
America in Crisis (New York, 1952).
8 Vagts, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 1308 n.
9 Woodward: Tom Watson, p. 334.
1 Lease, op. cit., p. 7. Thomas E. Watson wrote in 1902 a lengthy biography: Napoleon, a Sketch of His Life, Character,
Struggles, and Achievements, in which Napoleon, “the moneyless lad from despised Corsica, who stormed the high places
of the world, and by his own colossal strength of character, genius, and industry took them,” is calmly described as “the
great Democratic despot.” Elsewhere Watson wrote: “There is not a railway king of the present day, not a single self-made
man who has risen from the ranks to become chief in the vast movement of capital and labor, who will not recognize in
Napoleon traits of his own character; the same unflagging purpose, tireless persistence, silent plotting, pitiless rush to
victory …” —which caused Watson’s biographer to ask what a Populist was doing celebrating the virtues of railroad kings
and erecting an image of capitalist acquisitiveness for his people to worship. “Could it be that the Israelites worshipped
the same gods as the Philistines? Could it be that the only quarrel between the two camps was over a singular disparity in
the favors won?” Woodward, op. cit., pp. 340-2.
2 Matthew Josephson: The President Makers (New York, 1940), p. 98. See the first three chapters of Josephson’s volume
for a penetrating account of the imperialist elite. Daniel Aaron has an illuminating analysis of Brooks Adams in his Men of
Good Hope (New York, 1951).
I . Success Through Failure
A paradox pervades modern interpretations of the agrarian revolt of the nineties. On
one hand the failure of the revolt has been described again and again as the final defeat
of the American farmer. John Hicks, in his history of the movement, speaks of the
Populists as having begun “the last phase of a long and perhaps a losing struggle—the
struggle to save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America,”
while another historian calls Populism “the last united stand of the country’s agricultural
interest … the final attempt made by the farmers of the land to beat back an industrial
civilization whose forces had all but vanquished them already.”1 On the other hand, it
has been equally common to enumerate, as evidence of the long-range power of
Populism, the substantial list of once derided Populist proposals that were enacted
within less than twenty years after the defeat of Bryan, and to assign to the agrarian
agitations of the Populist era an important influence on the golden age of Progressive
reform.2 How can a movement whose program was in the long run so generally
successful be identified with such a final and disastrous defeat for the class it was
supposed to represent?
There is something valid in both these views. Populism and Bryanism were the last
attempt to incorporate what I have called the “soft” side of the farmer’s dual character
into a national mass movement. But the further conclusion that the eclipse of this sort of
reform represents the total and final defeat of agriculture is no more than the modern
liberal’s obeisance to the pathos of agrarian rhetoric. After the defeat of Populism and
Bryanism and the failure of the agrarian catchwords, the “hard” side of the farmers’
movements, based upon the commercial realities of agriculture, developed more
forcefully and prosperously than ever. It was during the twenty years after McKinley
routed Bryan that American agriculture enjoyed its greatest prosperity under modern
peacetime conditions, prior to 1945–55; and it was the same twenty years that saw
agriculture make the greatest gains it had ever made in the sphere of national
The failure of a political movement based upon the old phrases of agrarian ideology
must not be identified with the failure of commercial agriculture as an economic
interest. Certainly no one would maintain that even a victory for Bryan in 1896 could
have seriously delayed the industrialization of the country and the relative shrinkage of
the rural farm population. But it can be said that the Populist movement, despite its
defeat, activated a stream of agrarian organization and protest that subsequently
carried point after point. Before these victories could be won it was necessary that both
the market situation of agriculture and the political climate of the country should
change. The attempt to make agrarianism into a mass movement based upon third-party
ideological politics also had to be supplanted by the modern methods of pressure politics
and lobbying within the framework of the existing party system. Populism was the
expression of a transitional stage in the development of our agrarian politics: while it
reasserted for the last time some old ways of thought, it was also a harbinger of the
new. American agricultural leaders were spurred by its achievements and educated by
its failures. Far from being the final defeat of the farmer, it was the first uncertain step
in the development of effective agrarian organization.
Agrarian organization in the United States has veered back and forth between two
kinds of programs: those based primarily upon local and regional problems and carried
out chiefly through nonpartisan action, and those based upon broader and more
comprehensive goals and tending toward third-party action. The Granger movement of
the 1870’s had emphasized action within the states, and only in 1875 and 1876, when it
was already declining in numbers and prestige, did it hesitantly reach out toward
national legislation.3 The various farmers’ Alliances, which mark the beginnings of the
Populist Party, also began as business, educational, and social organizations, often quite
explicitly nonpartisan. Unlike the Granges, they moved rapidly and decisively toward
political action, and as farmers flocked into the Alliance movement in the late 1880’s,
the possibility of third-party action became more and more real. After an imposing
original success in the state and Congressional elections of 1890, the Populists
proceeded with much enthusiasm to organize for the presidential election of 1892. In the
South the Alliance-men had worked chiefly through the Democratic Party; but the
nomination of Grover Cleveland by the Democrats in 1892, which showed that both
major parties were in the hands of conservatives unsympathetic to the farmers, clinched
the drive for a nationwide third-party movement.
The move toward third-party politics seems to have been a realistic way of
dramatizing the aims of the Alliancemen. The forces they were fighting, the problems
they were trying to solve, were too powerful, too complex for any agency weaker or less
inclusive than the federal government, and the two major parties had been
discouragingly indifferent to their demands. The agrarian myth, which taught them that
any government was a failure that did not foster the interests of the agricultural class,
liberated the farm leaders from allegiance to the prevailing notions of laissez faire and
left them without inhibitions about advocating whatever federal measure seemed likely
to aid the farmers, whether it was government ownership of transportation or
government warehousing.
But third-party leaders in the United States must look for success in terms different
from those that apply to the major parties, for in those terms third parties always fail.
No third party has ever won possession of the government or replaced one of the major
parties. (Even the Republican Party came into existence as a new major party, created
out of sections of the old ones, not as a third party grown to major-party strength.)
Third parties have often played an important role in our politics, but it is different in
kind from the role of the governing parties.4 Major parties have lived more for
patronage than for principles; their goal has been to bind together a sufficiently large
coalition of diverse interests to get into power; and once in power, to arrange
sufficiently satisfactory compromises of interests to remain there. Minor parties have
been attached to some special idea or interest, and they have generally expressed their
positions through firm and identifiable programs and principles. Their function has not
been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the
dynamic element in our political life. When a third party’s demands become popular
enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties and the third party
disappears. Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.
If third parties are judged by the adoption of their principles, their history records
some notable successes. Even the obscure Anti-Masonic Party brought the national
convention into our political system in place of the party caucus. The Liberty and Free-
Soil parties of the pre-Civil War era were notoriously successful in forcing the slavery
issue into the center of politics. The moral and intellectual leverage exerted by the
Socialist Party and Socialist ideas in the Progressive era has never been sufficiently
recognized. The People’s—or Populist—Party is a striking case of the exertion of broad
influence by a relatively small force through third-party action.
If third-party leaders always accepted the premise that third parties are destined to
this peculiar kind of failure-in-success, they might not have the courage and initiative to
start their crusades. What the founders of the People’s Party thought they were trying to
do is not altogether clear, but they seem to have been misled by the early local successes
of the movement and by the more than one million votes cast for General Weaver in the
presidential election of 1892 into believing that they had a major-party future. What
most impresses the historian, however, is the negligible chance they had to replace a
major party. In 1892 General Weaver had 8.5 per cent of the total vote—and it may
help to gauge the dimensions of his support if we remember that this was much closer,
say, to Debs’s 5.9 per cent in 1912 than it was to La Follette’s 16.6 per cent in 1924. The
sharp sectional confinement of Populist, support is also worth noting. Weaver was
strong in a few plains and mountain states and a half-dozen states of the South. But
throughout a great range of states which controlled over 55 per cent of the electoral
college, including, in the West, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois, and ranging eastward
through all the Middle Atlantic and New England states and southward to Virginia, the
Populist Party was almost invisible, receiving everywhere less than 5 per cent of the
total vote. There were only nine states, several of them sparsely populated, in which
Weaver got the vote of more than one third of the electorate. Plainly the Populists had
shown strength enough to influence the local character of the major parties in several
states, or to form a small bloc in the Senate, but little more.
These limitations upon the appeal of the People’s Party are not hard to understand. As
a third-party movement, it was confined to the areas of the most acute agricultural
discontent where one-crop cash staple farming, heavily dependent upon the export
market, was found in combination with exceptional transportation problems or a high
rate of mortgaged indebtedness. It was feeble everywhere else, except in the thinly
populated mountain states. The middle classes, which often took seriously the hysterical
literature describing the Populists as anarchists or socialists, either ridiculed or feared
them. Workingmen did not vote consciously as a class; and between the Knights of
Labor, which was dying, and the American Federation of Labor, which was in its
infancy, there was hardly a labor movement to speak of.5 Eastern farmers who had
acute problems and discontents of their own looked upon Western farmers as
competitors and enemies, and realized that the Populist proposals were not designed to
meet their needs.6 But what was perhaps most decisive in the sectional confinement of
Populism was its failure to gain a following in the farm-belt states of the old Northwest
that only ten or fifteen years before had been leading centers of disaffection. By 1892,
states like Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin had long since passed the period of their most
intense speculative development; they had reckoned with their railroads and middlemen
during the Granger era, and their grievances were much less acute than those in the
regions farther west. Above all, the prosperous and ready-cash industry of dairying and
the more stable corn-hog complex—neither of which was as dependent upon exports and
the world market as wheat or cotton—had replaced wheat in a great many areas.7 A
substantial local urban market had grown up in these states, and agriculture generally
was more prosperous. Not only did Weaver lose these states in 1892, but even Bryan,
running under a major-party label during a severe depression four years later, lost
Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and with them enough electoral support to
lose the election. In these states the steady advance of the cow and the hog had done at
least as much as Mark Hanna’s slush fund to temper the force of the agrarian crusade.
In the Congressional and state elections of 1894 the Populists reached their maximum
strength, but there was evidence that the movement had already passed its peak as a
third-party force. While the two major parties were both still nationally controlled by
conservatives, they were flexible enough at the local level, in areas where Populists
were strong, to head off the movement. In Kansas, where the Populist victory in 1892
had been decisive enough for solid control of the legislature, the Populists had been
lured by the Republicans into a futile “legislative war” and had failed to enact any
important legislation.8 Experience elsewhere—in Minnesota, for example, and Nebraska
—made it clear that where the Populists had programs designed to cope with major
local grievances of the farmers, their issues were either appropriated by the major
parties in sufficient measure to drain off their strength or incorporated by the Populists
in faulty legislation that did not stand the test of the hostile conservative courts.9 In the
South the Negro question was used effectively to divert attention from reform. Populists
were driven, after 1893, to look more searchingly for a general issue that would give
them a broad national appeal, unite their sectional fragments, and constitute a
challenge to the relatively inflexible national leadership of the major parties.
Here it is necessary to consider the nature of Populist leadership. Farmers had never
drawn their political leaders from their own ranks, but rather from a ragged elite of
professional men, rural editors, third-party veterans, and professional reformers—men
who had had much experience in agitation but little or no experience with responsibility
or power.1 It is significant that the leadership of this “radical” movement included a
surprisingly large number of old men born in the Jackson era, gray-haired veterans of
innumerable Granger, Greenback, and antimonopoly campaigns. Many, like General
Weaver, were men with a deep passion for justice; some were cranks or careerists who
had failed to find a place for themselves within the established political machines. Many
had been subsisting for long years upon a monotonous diet of failure, and to them it
appeared that with the crisis of the nineties the time had at last come for one of the
third-party movements to succeed. They hungered for success as major-party leaders
knew it, and this left them open to temptation: they could, without too much difficulty,
be persuaded to give up a large part of their program if they felt that this was the way
to win.
The Populist leaders, moreover, had been confronted all along with a besetting
weakness that was hardly any fault of their own: lack of funds. It has been too little
understood that because of the small sums of money available to the Populists their
movement was almost from the beginning—and out of necessity, not out of corruption
—for sale cheap. It found its takers in the silver interests. Farmers, it should be
remembered, were often generous with enthusiasm but could rarely afford to be
generous with cash. It was difficult to get many poverty-ridden farmers to part, literally,
with a nickel, and the farmers’ Alliance, the People’s Party, the innumerable little
newspapers that were the organs of the movement, were all shoestring operations. For
instance, the treasurer’s report of the Alliance for 1890—a year when the organization
claimed more than one million affiliated farmers—showed receipts from membership
fees of only $11,231. At five cents each the membership should have been able to
provide $50,000!2 When the Populists of Iowa were engaged in their state campaign of
1895, repeated pleas for campaign funds had to be supplemented by a five-cent
assessment—which yielded $317.3 Sometimes substantial farmers were willing and eager
to help but almost completely unable to do so because they were land-poor. One of them
wrote to Ignatius Donnelly: “The … effort I have made for existence since August 29,
1881 places me in a position unable to advance a dollar for the most Riteous Cause on
earth. Onely upon one condition, and that is if you can send me a man who will put up
$35. per acre for 240 acres ($8400) with crops. I will advance $800.… I not onely will
advance this 800 but will put on the harness and work till victory is ours.”4 The meager
amounts with which political campaigns were conducted in the early days of the
Populist Party were indeed pathetic. Some of its leaders believed in 1891 that they could
elect their entire state ticket in Kentucky if they had a few thousand dollars to spend.5
By early August of the following year they had collected only $400 for their state ticket
in Minnesota, though pledged sums uncollected were far greater.6 In 1892 they were
hoping to raise $2,000 for their campaign in the three states of Arkansas, Georgia, and
Between 1889 and 1893, three things happened that gave an immense impetus to the
silver movement. In 1889–90 six new Western states with strong silver movements—
Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming—were
admitted to the Union, expanding considerably the silver bloc in the Senate. In 1893 the
depression broke, bringing hard times to many regions that had been spared some of the
worst consequences of the price decline, and arousing interest in old panaceas. In the
same year the federal fiscal crisis and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act at
the instance of Grover Cleveland further angered the silver inflationists and spurred the
silver-mining interests of the West to action.
Free coinage of silver was not distinctively a People’s Party idea, nor was it
considered one of the more “radical” planks in the People’s Party program. The Kansas
Republicans, for instance, had regularly included free silver in their platforms for years,
and there was a large silver bloc in both major parties in Congress. Almost half the
Democrats in the House of Representatives had voted for an unsuccessful free-coinage
amendment to the bill repealing the Silver Purchase Act. Gold monometallism, after all,
had been American policy only since the 1870’s, and it was still possible in the early
1890’s for a man to stand for free silver as a return to an old policy rather than as a
drastic innovation. Free silver inherited the old banners of American monetary
inflationism that had been kept waving since the Civil War by the Greenbackers. And
while free silver has been much ridiculed, and rightly so, as the single cure-all of the
popular thought of the nineties, it is worth remembering that from the debtor’s
standpoint silver inflation, however inadequate, was not a totally unfitting expedient.
To the most steadfast Populist radicals, however—among them men like Henry
Demarest Lloyd, who hoped to make of Populism the first step in an American socialdemocratic
movement—free silver was a snare and a delusion. The original Populist
program had embraced a number of reforms aimed to meet the central problems of
land, transportation, and finance; those who stood for this balanced platform, with its
demand for government ownership of communications and government aid to farm
credits, felt that free silver was a dangerous obsession that threatened to distract
attention from the full scope of the reform movement.8 The majority, however, of the
“practical,” success-hungry leaders of the People’s Party, like General Weaver and its
permanent national chairman, Herman Taubeneck of Illinois, saw in free silver the one
issue by which the third-party movement could broaden its base among the electorate.
The party became a battleground between a minority who wished to adhere to the
original and “pure” Populist program, including those planks that were considered
ultraradical and collectivism and a majority who hoped to succeed through silver.
In making their decision to go all the way with silver, the leaders gambled everything
on one premise: that neither the Republican Party of Mark Hanna nor the Democratic
Party of Grover Cleveland would accept free silver by 1896. In this case it seemed
reasonably certain that the large silver factions in both parties would bolt (as indeed the
silver Republicans did). Then, it was expected, all the silver forces would unite in a new
party, which would actually have the stature of a major party and in which the People’s
Party leaders would certainly play a major role. These leaders were trying, in short, to
build the silver issue into a bridge that would connect them with the silver forces in the
major parties. They did succeed in building the bridge, but as it turned out, the traffic
that crossed it moved in the opposite direction from what they had hoped.
It was at this point that the role of the organized silver movement became crucial. No
history of this movement has been written, and everything said about it here is based
upon fragmentary evidence; but there is reason to believe that it turned out one of the
best promotional jobs in our history. It did not have lavish funds at its disposal, even by
the standards of the time. But it had the only substantial funds among the forces of
dissent, and it used them to great effect. It subsidized editors, politicians, and
pamphleteers; it organized annual silver conventions in several states of the Union; and
through such agencies as the American Bimetallic League it spread everywhere among
receptive audiences the notion that all the country’s basic ills could be cured by the
single expedient of free coinage of silver.
The problem confronting the People’s Party leaders was whether to fight this effort of
the silver forces to impose a single issue upon the reform movement or to go along with
it and join the silver chorus. To accept silver meant to soft-pedal the other issues, not
only because the dynamic of the free-silver panacea tended to displace them but also
because accepting silver meant reaching out for conservative support (like that of the
silver-mine owners) that frowned on other Populist issues. The practical leaders went
along with silver. Many of them feared, as Taubeneck put it in a letter to Donnelly, that
if they lost touch with the groundswell for silver, the People’s Party, instead of being the
new party of the left, would be merely “the forerunner of a great third party that is to
be organized, as the Abolition Party was to the Republican party.”9
It became clear, as the time approached for the 1896 Democratic convention in
Chicago, that, contrary to Populist expectations, the silver forces predominated. When
the Democrats adopted the free-silver platform by a vote of better than two to one, the
Populists considered nominating Senator Teller, the leader of the schismatic silver
Republicans; but when Teller himself endorsed Bryan, they were left out on a limb.
Their sole issue—silver—was in the hands of Bryan and the Democrats. If they
nominated their own candidate and stressed their own platform, they were not only
sure of losing most of their votes to Bryan but also—as they thought—in danger of
drawing away from him just enough votes to defeat him and elect McKinley. If they
endorsed Bryan, their identity as a party was surely at an end. The cry for victory
carried the day, and after much chicanery on the part of the fusionists the Populist
convention at St. Louis endorsed Bryan and committed suicide.1 It was a bitter pill for
the principled reformers in the party, who saw clearly the inadequacy of the free-silver
panacea and above all for the Southern Populists who had built their party in the teeth
of the stubbornest and often the most unscrupulous resistance by the Southern
Henry Demarest Lloyd insisted that most Populists would privately admit that “they
knew silver was only the most trifling installment of reform” and that “many—a great
many did not conceal their belief that it was no reform at all.” “The delegates,” he
complained, “knew perfectly well that the silver miners were spending a great deal of
money and politics to get them to do just what they were doing,” but he concluded that
their will to insist upon their integrity and their full quota of reforms had been
paralyzed by their desire for success and their fear of disunity among the reform forces.2
Privately he admitted that the Populists had long since paved the way for their own
downfall by their acceptance of the silver issue: “The masses have been taught by us that
‘silver’ is the issue, and they will of course have the common sense to give their votes to
the most powerful of the parties promising it.” He saw clearly that the leadership of the
reform party had undergone a remarkable degree of concentration, though he seems not
to have understood how thoroughly in keeping this was with the history of the agrarian
movement: “Curious that the new party, the Reform party, the People’s party, should be
more boss-ridden, ring-ruled, gang-gangrened than the two old parties of monopoly. The
party that makes itself the special champion of the Referendum and Initiative tricked
out of its very life and soul by a permanent National Chairman-something no other
party has! Our Initiative and Referendum had better begin, like charity, at home!”3
Those writers who have given their sympathy to the Lloyds and the Watsons have
implicitly or openly condemned the abandonment of their rounded and intelligible set of
reforms in favor of the will-o’-the-wisp of free silver. As convincing evidence of the
soundness of the original program, they point to the Populist proposals that eventually
became law: railroad regulation, the income tax, an expanded currency and credit
structure, direct election of Senators, the initiative and referendum, postal savings
banks, even the highly controversial subtreasury plan. It is precisely the enactment of so
much of this program within a twenty-year period that gives us some cause to feel that
third-party action was reasonably successful after all. The People’s Party seems to have
fulfilled its third-party function. It transformed one of the major parties, had a sharp
impact on the other, and in the not too long run saw most of its program become law.
Who succeeded—in the end? The silver miners did not get free silver, and the bones of
the Weavers, the Taubenecks, and the Donnellys soon lay bleaching on the sands in
silent testimony to the sacrificial function of third-party leaders. But the cause itself
went marching on, and the “pure” Populists had the satisfaction of seeing plank after
plank of their platforms made law by the parties whose leaders had once dismissed them
as lunatics. Forming a third party was no way to win office, but given some patience, it
proved a good way of getting things done.4
II . The Golden Age and After
Only two years after McKinley and Hanna inflicted their overwhelming defeat on the
forces of agrarianism, the American commercial farmer entered upon the longest
sustained period of peacetime prosperity he has ever enjoyed. “There has never been a
time,” declared President Theodore Roosevelt’s Commission on Country Life in 1909,”
when the American farmer was as well off as he is today, when we consider not only his
earning power, but the comforts and advantages he may secure.”5 Thus the “final”
victory of industrialism over the farmer was ironically followed by the golden age of
American agriculture, to which agricultural interests later looked back nostalgically
when they were defining a goal for the nation’s farm policy.
How did all this agricultural well-being come to be, at a time when the agricultural
population was shrinking before the advance of industrialism and urbanism? The
answer is that the prosperity of the commercial farmers was achieved not only in spite
of but in good part because of the rise of American industry and the American city. Not
only this, but the political as well as the economic position of the farmer in the golden
age of American agriculture became measurably stronger year by year as his numbers,
relative to the urban sector, progressively grew smaller.
A vital part of the change came, of course, simply with the upturn in prices. The
farmer’s principal relief at first came from a detested source—gold. After 1897 the new
international supplies of gold brought that inflationary movement which the farmers
had tried to win with silver. The general price level, which had been sinking steadily for
the thirty years before 1896, turned sharply upward in the closing years of the old
century and continued to rise until the reaction after the first World War. In the United
States wheat went from 72 cents a bushel in 1896 to 98 cents in 1909; corn from 21
cents to 57 cents; cotton from 6 cents to 14 cents a pound.
However, it was not only the gold inflation but the American city itself that saved the
American farmer. During these very years of the golden age the farmer in most lines of
production was rapidly losing a large part of his foreign market.6 What sustained his
prosperity was the very thing that has been cited as evidence of his political
submergence—the great increase of the urban population. In 1890, 5,737,000 American
farms were supplying a domestic urban population of 22,100,000. Thirty years later
there were only 711,000 additional farms, but there were 32,000,000 additional urban
consumers. Relatively fewer but larger, more efficient, and more mechanized farms
produced an increasing part of their total produce for the home market, and less for the
foreign market, under far stabler and more advantageous conditions of transportation
and finance than had prevailed in the past. True, the farm community was not
expanding nearly as rapidly as it once had. But this slower and saner pace of expansion
was itself a factor in rural well-being. And the surplus rural population found in the fastgrowing
cities an expansive safety valve. Many sons of farmers who were unable to
accommodate themselves in the farm economy moved to the cities to find work or carve
out careers.7
The improved position of the commercial farmer led to a drastic change in dominant
conceptions among farm organizations as to the methods of advancing their interests.
The pre-war gold inflation of course put an end to the primacy of the money question
that had been so characteristic of the agrarian thinking of the nineties. Where
Greenback, Populist, and Bryanite panaceas, arising from a fixation on the quantity of
money, had fostered legislative programs aimed above all at increasing the volume of
currency, the new approach was aimed rather at decreasing and controlling the volume
of the farm products themselves as a means of sustaining or raising prices.
Farm technology and farm acreage had clearly outrun the growth of the world’s
purchasing power. It was increasingly recognized, as the world market was found to be
oversupplied with agricultural products, that costs, inefficiency, and wastes in
distribution and marketing were at the heart of the farm problem.8 Two new farmers’
organizations formed in 1902, the American Society of Equity and the farmers’ Union,
began to point toward the need of controlling the volume of the product and improving
methods of distribution. Their leaders urged the control of production and the
withholding of surpluses from the market through storage schemes.9 These marketing
plans are suggestive of later New Deal methods and of the “ever normal granary” idea,
except that the theorists of these earlier movements hoped to do the job through
voluntary association rather than under government sponsorship.
Another approach to agricultural prices stemmed from a new awareness of the
exactions of middlemen that was shared by farmers and urban Progressives who were
concerned with the high cost of living. Urban leaders argued that the farmer could
produce more abundantly, sell more cheaply to the consumer, and make ample profits,
if the exorbitant “take” of the middlemen could be cut. In 1911, as a result of agitations
along these lines led by the farmers’ Union, bills calling for the creation of a Bureau of
Markets in the Department of Agriculture won a great deal of sympathetic attention in
Congress. Finally in 1913 a separate Office of Markets was created (it was later merged
with the Bureau of Agricultural Economics), and after that year, when David F. Houston
became Secretary of Agriculture, the work of that Department was changed in response
to the changing outlook of agrarian leadership; hitherto devoted almost exclusively to
teaching and helping farmers to increase their yield, the Department of Agriculture now
began to give them more and more information and guidance bearing on the
distribution of their produce.1
corollary of this concern with distribution was the development of farmers’ cooperatives,
which spread from such well-organized industries as dairying into other
fields. Here, as in so many things, the decade of the nineties marked a turning-point and
the following two decades a period of rapid fruition. Statistics are not entirely reliable,
but of the 10,803 marketing and purchasing organizations listed by the Department of
Agriculture in 1925, only 102 had been organized before 1890. There were probably
more associations organized between 1890 and 1895 than in all previous years, and the
number grew thereafter year by year at an accelerated pace until the early 1920’s. In
1928 the total of all business organizations among farmers—including organizations for
credit, mutual insurance, and public utilities, as well as marketing and purchasing
cooperatives—was estimated at 58,000.2
The farmers, who had traditionally raged against trusts and monopolies, now found
themselves (it was eloquent testimony of their coming-of-age as modern businessmen)
afoul of the anti-trust laws. After generations in which no one would have doubted their
anti-monopolist integrity, they were becoming, however unfairly, targets of the
Sherman Act. From 1890 to 1910 many attempts were made to prosecute directors and
officers of farm marketing cooperatives, and although none was convicted of pricefixing,
the legal status of co-operatives remained in doubt until it was defined by statute
in several of the states.3 Under the terms of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914, farmer
as well as labor organizations were specifically exempted from the national anti-trust
laws. The Capper-Volstead Act of 1922 further clarified the legal status of co-operative
marketing associations. But the real significance of the prosecutions lay in the fact that
farm leadership was putting less emphasis upon the traditional fight against bigbusiness
organization and more upon building their own organizations on the business
Along with this concern for marketing and organization came a new respect among
farmers for experts. From the passage of the Morrill Land Grant College Act in 1862 to
the end of the century, farmers had remained persistently hostile to what they called
“book farming,” and agriculture students in the Morrill land-grant schools had been
outnumbered often as much as five to one by engineering students.4 Early in the
twentieth century attitudes changed rapidly and applied science began to influence the
thinking of many farmers. M. L. Wilson recalls: “When I went to Ames to study
agriculture in 1902, I was not the first boy in my Iowa neighborhood to go to college,
but I was the first boy from that neighborhood to go to an agricultural college. Ten or
fifteen years later it was becoming an accepted thing for all who could afford it. A few
farmers began to keep books, count costs, and calculate where profit came and loss
occurred. Still more farmers began to feed their stock scientifically, following the advice
from ‘Feeders’ Hints’ Columns in farm journals. Alfalfa came in, and farmers became
aware of nitrogen needs of the soil. Dairymen began building up new herds of highproducing
Holsteins. Hardy and rust-resistant strains of wheat were eagerly accepted by
more and more farmers. Hog men improved their stock and inoculated against cholera.
And finally came the popular demand for county agents—for thoroughly trained men to
bring to farmers the advantages of scientific training.”5 The long-standing indifference
of the commercial farmer to the techniques of his business was coming to an end.
Changes in the market position and economic techniques of the farmer were matched
by the changes in his political situation. The agrarian organizations of the 1890’s had
had to work in an unfriendly atmosphere, with no strong allies in other classes and
sections. In the Progressive era their isolation was broken down, and a congenial
political climate made it possible for a number of old agrarian reform proposals to be
realized by the two major parties. Henceforth, except for those who supported the La
Follette campaign in 1924, farmers have generally been cold to the idea of nationwide
third-party action. (On a state or regional scale organizations like the Non-Partisan
League and the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party have attempted independent political
activity, and have even propagated old Populist antagonisms and Populist rhetoric.)
With the passing of third-party action and the rise of urbanism came a fundamental
change in the whole strategy of agrarianism. For over a century, when farmers were in
a majority, the ideologists of agrarianism had appealed to majority rule and to the idea
that there is an inherent and necessary relation between agrarianism and democracy.6
The political efforts of farmers had been efforts to secure or underwrite broad popular
democracy, and agrarian thinking had been infused with a strong suspicion of organized
power. Now, as the agrarian sector of the economy shrank, farmers ceased to think of
majority rule and began to rely increasingly upon minority action—indeed, in the end,
upon minority rule. For minority rule was the salvation of the prosperous farmers. One
of the most striking features of twentieth-century American politics has been the way in
which the farm population has gained in political striking power with its relative losses
in numbers, growing more cohesive, more vocal, more effectual almost in proportion as
it has been progressively more outnumbered.7 In 1870, 53 per cent of the nation’s
gainfully employed population earned its living from agriculture, and in 1945 only 15
per cent; yet in the latter year the upper strata among the farmers had more political
weight as a class than they had had in 1870.
The rise of agrarian strength was based upon the fall in agrarian numbers. The same
“relentless” advance of industrialism and urbanism that, as the pathos of agrarian
rhetoric has it, “crushed” the farmer in the lasting defeat of 1896 has actually provided
him with greater and greater over-representation in our legislative bodies year by year.
The legislative process in the United States takes place within the framework of a
constricting rotten-borough system that perennially confronts urban constituencies, both
in the states and in the nation, with a rural stranglehold. Even American cities are
prevented from managing their own affairs by legislatures dominated by rural
representatives. In the Connecticut House of Representatives, for instance, Hartford,
which has a population of 166,000, and Colebrook, which has a population of 547, both
have two members. The 4,125,000 urban residents of Los Angeles County have one
senator in the California legislature, while the 13,560 rural inhabitants of Inyo County
have one also. Such inequities are repeated on a nationwide scale in Congress. An Ohio
district with 908, 403 residents has one Congressman; so does a South Dakota district
with 148,147 residents. A Texas urban district with 802,000 people has the same
Congressional strength as a rural district in the same state which has only 226,000
people. The Senate represents this inequity in its most extreme form. There, in 1940, the
25 smallest states, with a total population of 25,200,000, had 50 seats while the 23
largest states, with a total population of 106,500,000, had 46 seats. Thus 19 per cent of
the population elected a majority of the Senate and the remaining 81 per cent were
represented by a minority. The 24 states of the South Adantic, East South Central, West
South Central and Mountain regions—agrarian regions, generally—with 35 per cent of
the country’s population, had half the total membership of the Senate. When one
considers also the rules of the Senate, which add to the power of determined minorities,
one has a clearer grasp of the agrarian potential.8 Much is said in our political
discussions about the big-city machines and their role in politics. It is testimony to the
grip of our agrarian traditions that relatively little attention is paid by the public to the
exorbitant power of rural blocs.
My major concern here, however, is not with the consequences of rural legislative
power for our own time, but rather with the way the farmers after 1896 found it
possible to use their growing over-representation and their growing capacity for
political and economic organization to win reforms that were, in fact, long overdue.
What is most impressive is the contrast between the periods before and after 1900.
During the long period of price decline and persistent agrarian distress from 1865 to the
turn of the century, farmers had found little sympathy in the federal government and
had won no great measures of legislative policy designed to give them relief.9 But in the
early twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal and Woodrow Wilson’s New
Freedom produced much important farm legislation. One measure of the increasing
services of the federal government to farmers is the budget of the Department of
Agriculture, which in 1920 was over thirty times as large as it had been in 1890.1 Some
of the federal measures of value to the farmer, like the beginning of effective railroad
regulation with the Hepburn Act of 1906 and the passing of the income-tax amendment,
were reminiscent of old Populist proposals.
The list of specifically agricultural measures is imposing. Among the most important
were measures whose goal was to expand agricultural credits: the Federal Farm Loan
Act and the Warehouse Act of 1916 (the latter of which embodied features of the
Populist subtreasury scheme). There were educational measures like the Smith-Lever Act
of 1914, which began the elaborate system of demonstration education for farmers, and
the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which gave subsidies to vocational education in
agriculture. There were measures bearing on the marketing and grading and
standardization of agricultural produce: the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), the Meat
Inspection Act (1907), the Grain Standards Act (1916), the Cotton Futures Act (1916),
the Rural Post Roads Act (1916).
In the 1920’s, despite the powerful Farm Bloc and a strong farm lobby, the two
outstanding schemes for agricultural price-fixing, the equalization-fee and exportdebenture
plans, were both defeated. The ability of the farmers to command effective
federal action slackened chiefly because of stubborn vetoes by President Coolidge. In the
perspective of the 1950’s this relatively lean legislative harvest of the 1920’s appears to
be no more than a temporary check in the political capacity of agriculture. By the end of
the twenties the farmers had at least won common acceptance of the idea that
agriculture is “a special national interest requiring a special public policy.”2 Under the
New Deal this recognition was institutionalized, as the government itself stepped in to
make possible what private farm groups had failed to do—the nationwide organization
of farm producers to maintain prices.
The climactic achievement of the farm lobby was to establish, as a goal of national
policy, the principle of parity—the concept that it is a legitimate end of governmental
policy to guarantee to one interest in the country a price level for its products that
would yield a purchasing power equal to what that class had had during its most
prosperous period in modern times, the so-called “base period” of 1909-14.3 While it
would be misleading to imply that agricultural producers have invariably enjoyed a
parity income since the definition of the policy, it seems hardly questionable that the
agricultural bloc thus succeeded in establishing for the commercial farmers a claim upon
federal policy that no other single stratum of the population can match. To gain the
acceptance of such a principle, to get more than six million farmers on the government
payroll collecting billions in the form of parity payments, might be considered triumph
enough for the agricultural interest. But in 1942, during the war, the exacting power of
the Farm Bloc was shown in the most striking way when Congress wrote into the
Emergency Price Control Act a clause prohibiting the OPA from imposing a price ceiling
of less than 110 per cent of parity on any farm commodity. As a consequence many
agricultural price floors rose higher than the consumers’ ceilings. Consumers paid the
ceiling prices and the government found itself obliged to make up the differences by
paying subsidies to the producers. This exaction beyond the full measure of parity itself,
denounced by President Roosevelt as an “act of favoritism for one particular group in
the community,” was a remarkable token of the political power of American agriculture,
which had developed, as A. Whitney Griswold remarks, “from a ward of charity into a
political force capable of pursuing its own interests even to the point of defying the
head of the nation in wartime.”4 Since the war, the parity issue has been one which all
administrations have had to handle with the greatest care. Thus, a half century after the
defeat of Bryan, while the agrarian rhetoric portrays the farmer as writhing in the
“devouring jaws of industrial America,” the selfsame industrial America goes on
producing the social surpluses out of which the commercial farmers are subsidized.5
III . The Vanishing Hayseed
In the Populist era the dual identity of the American farmer, compounded of the soft
agrarian traditions and his hard commercial role, had not yet been resolved. The
economic, political, and social changes of the twentieth century tended to favor a
candid acceptance by the farmer of his businesslike role. To be sure, the agrarian
conceptions and the Populist rhetoric survived, and in some spots still survive, but they
cover an increasingly solidified conservatism. One of the clearest symptoms of this
conservatism was the rapid decline of the traditional identification with all laboring
men, the growing tendency of substantial farmers to think of themselves as businessmen
and employers. With the increasing mechanization of farming and the rise of berry,
fruit, and vegetable crops relying more than ever upon migratory agricultural labor,
substantial farmers thought of their workers less and less as familiar laborers and
apprentice farmers. This process took place in different areas at different times, but the
years around the turn of the century saw an accelerated change. “The old-fashioned
term, ‘help,’ has been dropped,” a Massachusetts farmer noticed in 1890, “and the word
‘labor’ used with a peculiar significance.”6 Farmers took a dim view of the new kind of
agricultural labor, which was to them simply a disciplinary problem and a factor in the
cost of production.7 The Populists, with their belief in a single oppressed class of
working folk in town and country, had identified themselves with all labor, agricultural
or other. “Wealth belongs to him who creates it,” said their 1892 platform. “The
interests of rural and civic labor are the same; their enemies are identical.” In the
nineteenth-century farmer’s lexicon the word “labor” applied to all work done by hand
in city or country, and even as late as 1860 a Wisconsin farmer who owned 240 acres
and cultivated 80 himself classified himself, when interviewed by the census-taker, as a
“farm laborer.”8 This technical error bespoke a psychic bond that had not yet been
dissolved. The farmer had originally thought of the city “mechanic” as a kind of
craftsman-tradesman in embryo, very much like the farmer himself, and as the fellow
victim of the aristocratic and exploiting classes. The interest of the Knights of Labor in
Populism showed that this sympathy was reciprocated. In the twentieth century, when
stable trade-unionism developed among workers, and when farmers adopted more
businesslike techniques and became increasingly conscious of themselves as employers
of labor, this identification quickly disappeared.9 Despite occasional local co-operation
on specific issues, a sharp tension emerged between labor and farmer groups. Farmers,
with their long hours, could not sympathize with the city workers’ demand for a shorter
working day; and ignoring urban living costs, they often thought labor’s wage demands
excessive. They were encouraged by business propagandists and conservative leaders to
think of labor’s wage gains chiefly as a factor contributing to the high cost of the things
they bought. And the more powerful labor unions have become, the less has labor
commanded the farmer’s sympathy. As one student of farm mores has put it: “Whereas a
century ago the American farmer was inclined to concentrate his suspicion of the city
upon the wealthy and aristocratic, he now tends more and more to look upon the
idleness of the unemployed and the tactics of industrial unions as the most prominent
symbols of urban corruption.”1
There has been, indeed, a certain hardening of the social sympathies among
prosperous and organized farmers (and it is only the prosperous who are organized).2
The Populists had appealed in a rather touching way to the principle of universality:
they were working, they liked to think, for the interests of all toilers and certainly all
farmers. In fact the diversity of interests among American farmers was such that even to
them this could hardly apply; but the Populists’ lip service to the idea was at least a
tribute to their belief in the traditions of agrarian democracy. With the passing of
Populism and with the frank twentieth-century commercialization of American
agriculture, the tone of farmers’ movements was completely transformed. The keynote
was no longer the universality of labor or of the farming interest, but the special crop,
the special skill, the special problem, the particular region, and above all a particular
stratum of the farming population. The modern farmers’ organizations—with the
notable exception of the farmers’ Union—have shown no sympathy for, have often
indeed shown much hostility to, the interests of those farmers who were dispossessed or
bypassed or displaced by the processes of prosperity.3 Farmers on marginal land,
farmers bought out by the large-scale units and unable to relocate, farmers handicapped
by credit difficulties, tenancy, race discrimination, political disfranchisement, the
migratory farm workers who wander with their families from place to place and crop to
crop, making possible the cultivation of seasonal fruit and vegetable crops with a
minimum of labor costs and a minimum of employer responsibility—such interests as
these have been spurned by the commercial farmers. Half the American agricultural
community, after all, has been shut out from the characteristic material and social
benefits of American life, and to this large stratum of the population the commercial
farmers are consistently and actively unfriendly. The most significant organized effort
to do something about this problem—the work of the Resettlement Administration and
the Farm Security Administration—met the implacable opposition of the lobbyists and
wire-pullers of the Farm Bureau Federation, who finally succeeded in destroying it.4
It was during the early years of the twentieth century that American businessmen,
disturbed by the anti-business rhetoric of the agrarian movement and mindful of their
own stake in farm prosperity, began self-consciously to woo the farmers and to build
that rapport between the two interests which is now so characteristic of American
politics. This tendency seems to have started on the local level, chiefly in connection
with the work of the agricultural reformer Seaman A. Knapp in popularizing
demonstration education among the farmers. It was Knapp’s aim to interest farmers in
the proper techniques of cultivation and the care of special crops and livestock. This was
an area in which most farmers were ultraconservative, and Knapp found it necessary, in
order to get a satisfactory hearing, to win the help of local businessmen, merchants and
bankers who had a business interest in agricultural prosperity. These men practically
forced farmers into co-operating by threatening to withhold credit, and in this fashion a
great many technologically reactionary husbandmen were dragooned into progressive
agriculture. In time the railroads began to participate, arranging with the agricultural
colleges to send farm trains with educational exhibits through rural areas. The bankers
also became interested. The American Bankers’ Association set up a Committee on
Agricultural Development and Education to establish rapport between the farmer and
the banker (“the banker has been misunderstood”) and to assist in the work of
promoting farm prosperity that would produce “a more contented and prosperous
people.” The bankers also began to put out a public-relations paper, the Banker-Farmer.
They were followed by the producers of farm equipment, through the National
Implement and Vehicle Association; and these in turn were followed by railroad,
industrial, and merchants’ organizations throughout the country. The Smith-Lever Act of
1914, which made a huge national institution of demonstration education in agriculture,
was passed with the backing of a powerful business lobby.5 American business, while
contributing to agricultural prosperity through its support of agricultural technology and
education, thus laid the foundations of a business-agrarian alliance that has never been
Many farmers responded with enthusiasm to the attempt of business interests and the
agricultural colleges to get them to adopt a businesslike outlook. While American
business m general was beginning to turn its attention from enlarging its physical
production and building new plants to techniques of marketing and salesmanship,
consolidation, internal management, and the pooling of markets, a similar interest
arose in agriculture. In 1907 a subscriber wrote to the editor of Wallace’s Farmer: “Had
you not better take up the subject of how to market our produce, rather than to tell us
all the time how to produce more?”6 Here lay the key to the new farm organizations, the
new type of activity in the Department of Agriculture, and indeed of the “new day” in
agriculture as a whole.
Toward the close of the nineteenth century much of the writing in farm journals and
the work of farm organizations conformed with a dominant tendency to urge the farmer
to think of himself as a businessman and to emulate the businessman in his methods of
management and marketing. Such voices had been heard even before the Civil War on
occasion; but now they rose to a steady and effectual chorus. “The time has come,”
declared a Southern farm journal as early as 1887, “when the farmer must be a
businessman as well as an agriculturist.… He will have to keep farm accounts, know
how much he spends, what his crops cost him, and how much the profit foots up”; and
another writer in an article entitled “The Farmer as a Merchant” echoed: “… the one
who sells best will have the best success.… Watch and study the markets, and the ways
of marketmen, and dealers in all kinds of goods, and learn the art of ‘selling well.’ ”7
“Now the object of farming,” declared a writer in the Cornell Countryman in 1904, “is not
primarily to make a living, but it is to make money. To this end it is to be conducted on
the same business basis as any other producing industry,” and the same journal
announced that the farmers’ Institute meeting held at the agricultural college was “a
business meeting for businessmen.”8
Leaders of the new farmers’ organizations no longer spoke of the humble and
exploited yeoman, but urged farmers to act like captains of industry, restrict production,
withhold surpluses, control markets, and put farming, as the leader of the American
Society of Equity expressed it, “on a safe profitable basis,” with benefits “equalling those
realized in other business undertakings.”9 In 1919 the largest and most powerful of the
farm organizations, the Farm Bureau Federation, was founded. This organization has
expressed from the beginning the outlook of the most conservative and prosperous
farmers and has been built upon quasi-official relations with the Department of
Agriculture through its nationwide liaison with the Department’s county agents. At the
time of its founding, Henry C. Wallace, editor of Wallaces Farmer and later Secretary of
Agriculture under Harding, delivered an influential address in which he urged: “This
federation must get to work at once on a real business program if it is to justify its
existence. That doesn’t mean turning the work over to committees of farmers, either. Every
line of work must be in charge of experts. The best qualified men in the United States
should be hired to manage each of the various lines of work. This federation must not
degenerate into an educational or social institution. It must be made the most powerful
business institution in the country.”1 Like other businessmen, the members of the
Federation were expected to hire experts; they have retained expensive leaders and able
lobbyists at fat salaries, and have admitted into membership and influence men who are
not farmers and whose primary interests lie outside farming.2
What has been true of the prosperous farmer’s economic role has also been true of his
social life, though the transition here has been perhaps less complete and less
spectacular. I remarked earlier that the farmer of the nineteenth century, except in
limited areas, had been deprived of the advantages of a folk culture and a folk
community. The consequent physical, social, and cultural isolation was intensely felt by
the farmers, and perhaps even more by their wives; it was one of the gaps in farm life
that such organizations as the Grange, the Alliance, and the Chautauquas tried to fill.3
The social changes of the twentieth century have gone far to wipe out some of the
cultural differences between the well-to-do farmer and urban groups of comparable
income. While the early farmer was deprived of the satisfactions of a genuine folk
culture, his modern successor has had liberal access to modern popular culture. In rapid
succession, rural free delivery, mail-order catalogues, improved roads, automobiles and
trucks, rural electrification, the telephone and radio, and the movies have introduced
him to the same entertainments as middle-class city people. The old stereotype of the
farmer as the hayseed has become less meaningful, and much less acceptable to the
farmer himself. In 1921 a journal for prosperous farmers ran a series of cartoons and
comments by nationally known cartoonists on the theme: “What the Farmer Really
Looks Like,” in which they generally agreed that the old cartoon figure of the lean,
bewhiskered rustic with a battered straw hat was no longer accurate, and that the
farmer looked just as much like a businessman as anyone else.4
With these changes there has developed in the American countryside a disparity in
living standards and outlook between the most affluent and the least privileged that
almost matches anything the city has to show. While marginal farmers and migratory
laborers live in desperate poverty and squalor, successful agriculturists have been able
to respond to the canons of conspicuous consumption and the American love for
luxurious gadgetry. Automobile manufacturers, advertising in farm journals, can
describe their product as “a regally luxurious motor car … beautifully engineered,
beautifully built—and stylish as the Rue de la Paix,” and a farm reporter can say of a
Farm Bureau Federation convention that “to watch … its milling thousands of farmers
and their wives, prosperous-looking and often stylish, is often more like viewing a giant
world fair or other amusement center.”5
This seems a far cry from the atmosphere of the nineties, and still farther from the old
picture of the yeoman. What it means for rural attitudes in the sphere of consumption
may be illustrated by two quotations. In 1860 when Mary E. Lease, the future Kansas
orator, was a little girl, a farm journal had satirized the imagined refinements and
affectations of a city girl in the following picture; “Slowly [she] rises from her couch, the
while yawning, for being compelled to rise so horrid early. Languidly she gains her feet,
and oh! what vision of human perfection appears before us: Skinny, bony, sickly,
hipless, thighless, formless, hairless, teethless. What a radiant bellet … The ceremony of
enrobing commences. In goes the dentist’s naturalization efforts; next the witching curls
are fashioned to her ‘classically molded head.’ Then the womanly proportions are
properly adjusted; hoops, bustles, and so forth, follow in succession, then a profuse
quantity of whitewash, together with a ‘permanent rose tint’ is applied to a sallow
complexion; and lastly the ‘killing’ wrapper is arranged on her systematical and
matchless form.” Compare with this the following beauty hints for farmers’ wives from
the Idaho Farmer, April 1935: “Hands should be soft enough to flatter the most delicate of
the new fabrics. They must be carefully manicured, with none of the hot, brilliant shades
of nail polish. The lighter and more delicate tones are in keeping with the spirit of
freshness. Keep the tint of your fingertips friendly to the red of your lips, and check both
your powder and your rouge to see that they best suit the tone of your skin in the bold
light of summer.”6
While such advertisements do not tell us how many, even among prosperous farmers’
wives, found time to toy with light and delicate tones of nail polish, neither the
advertiser, the journal, nor, we may assume, most farmers’ wives found it ludicrous that
these things should be treated in a farm magazine. The very presence of such an ideal is
significant. Would Mary Lease, who was accustomed to address weary audiences of farm
women in faded calico dresses, turn over in her grave at the suggestion of these rosytinted
fingertips? I am not sure. What she wanted to win for the farmers and their
families was more of the good things of life—the American standard of living as it was
known in her day. Standards have changed; and it is hard to say exactly where the
embattled farmers would have chosen to stop. The dialectic of history is full of odd and
cunningly contrived ironies, and among these are rebellions waged only that the rebels
might in the end be converted into their opposites.
1 The Populist Revolt, p. 237; Louis Hacker in Hacker and Kendrick: The United States since 1865 (New York, ed. 1949), p.
253. For a similar view see Woodward: Tom Watson, p. 330.
2 Hicks: The Populist Revolt, chapter xv; Hacker and Kendrick, op. cit., pp. 257, 352-3.
3 Solon J. Buck: The Granger Movement (Cambridge, 1933), p. 122.
4 See the astute essay by John D. Hicks: “The Third Party Tradition in American Politics,” Mississippi Valley Historical
Review, Vol. XX (June 1933), pp. 3-28; cf. also Arthur N. Holcombe: The Political Parties of Today (New York, 1924),
chapter xi; on the types of minor parties, see Arthur M. Schlesinger; The American as Reformer (Cambridge, 1950), pp. 54
5 The experience of Illinois suggested that when labor became class-conscious enough to play an independent political role,
it tended toward collectivist programs that were incompatible with the usual Populist outlook. Cf. Chester McA. Destler:
American Radicalism, 1865-1901 (New London, 1946), chapters viii, ix, xi. Cf. Daniel M. Feins: Labor’s Role in the Populist
Movement, 1890-96, unpublished M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1939.
6 Lee Benson: The New York farmers’ Rejection of Populism: the Background, unpublished M.A. thesis, Columbia
University, 1948. American farmers had much in common ideologically, but such was the heterogeneity of American
agriculture that their concrete interests often conflicted head-on. For an account of some of these differences see Herman C.
Nixon: “The Cleavage within the farmers’ Alliance Movement,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. XV (June 1928),
pp. 22-33.
7 There was in fact an almost direct relation in the West between the prevalence of the wheat crop and the centers of thirdparty
action. For an excellent account of the stabilizing effects of diversification and the development of dairying and cornhog
farming, see Chester McA. Destler: “Agricultural Readjustment and Agrarian Unrest in Illinois, 1880-1896,” Agricultural
History, Vol. XXI (April 1947), pp. 104-16. See Benton H. Wilcox: “An Historical Definition of Northwestern Radicalism,”
Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. XXVI (December 1939), pp. 377-94 and the same author’s A Reconsideration of the
Character and Economic Basis of Northwestern Radicalism, un-published Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1933,
pp. 56-8 and passim for an illuminating discussion of Northwestern regional differentiation. Clyde O. Ruggles: “The
Economic Basis of the Greenback Movement in Iowa and Wisconsin,” Mississippi Valley Historical Association
Proceedings, Vol. VI (1912-13), pp. 142-65, esp. pp. 154-7, shows how the development of diversification and dairying
had in earlier years cramped the support of Greenbackism as later it was to do to Populism. For the situation in
prosperous Iowa see Herman C. Nixon: “The Populist Movement in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. XXIV
(January 1926), esp. pp. 3-45, 68-70, 99-100, 103-7.
8 Elizabeth N. Barr, in William E. Connelley: A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, Vol. II (Chicago, 1918), pp. 1167 ff.
9 Hicks: The Populist Revolt, chapter x; on the situation in Minnesota see Hicks: “The People’s Party in Minnesota,”
Minnesota History Bulletin, Vol. V (November 1924), pp. 547 ff.
1 Even Iowa, with its substantial farmers, sent to Congress between 1844 and 1938 only 15 farmers out of a total of 419
elected Congressmen. Other representatives were from the professions (309 were lawyers) and business. Of the 15 farmers,
12 were elected between 1844 and 1890 and 3 between 1932 and 1938—not one during the years from 1890 to 1932.
Johnstone: “Old Ideals versus New Ideas,” pp. 156-7. On the problem of leadership see also Hicks: The Populist Revolt, pp.
An exploration of the Donnelly papers suggests that in the organization of the Alliance in Minnesota the rural middle
class played a crucial part. Farmers were too busy to be available for lecturing or organizing, but men whose farming was
overshadowed by their other business interests—small merchants who sold to farmers and were dependent upon their
prosperity, for instance—were able to undertake such tasks. For them it was possible to combine the functions of agitation
and salesmanship. This need of the movement for leaders also gave an opportunity for country cranks to find a pleasant
vocational outlet for their notions. For this reason one cannot always be sure to what extent the more extreme
manifestations of Populist thinking were representative of the farmers themselves rather than of such rural agitators.
2 Orville M. Kile: The Farm Bureau Movement (New York, 1921), p. 28.
3 Nixon: “The Populist Movement in Iowa,” p. 81; cf. the lament recorded on p. 82.
4 A. L. D. Austin to Ignatius Donnelly, June 19, 1896, Donnelly Papers.
5 H. E. Taubeneck to Donnelly, July 2, 1891.
6 Donnelly to K. Halvorson, August 5, 1892.
7 Taubeneck to Donnelly, July 27, August 4, 1892. The same difficulty had attended the organization of the Alliance itself.
“The most serious obstruction in my way of organizing Alliances is the absence of the fifty cents,” wrote one organizer to
Donnelly. Another: “… in some places money was so scarce it was hard to get 7 men who had 50 cents each.” A farmer
wrote: “We farmers are poor but I think we can surely contribute 10¢ apiece.” Letters to Donnelly, June 10, 11, 1890, July
18, 1891. The Donnelly Papers are full of such evidence. Unable to provide Alliance lectures with salaries, the leaders tried
to meet the problem by giving them a sales agency for hail and crop insurance. In Minnesota this precipitated a fight over
the control of such insurance companies.
8 Cf. Miller: The Populist Party in Kansas, pp. 144-7, 162.
9 Taubeneck to Donnelly, January 29, 1894, Donnelly Papers.
1 For the story of the strategy of the silver forces, see Elmer Ellis: Henry Moore Teller (Caldwell, 1941) and “The Silver
Republicans in the Election of 1896,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. XVIII (March 1932), pp. 519-34. Much light
is shed on the movement for silver and fusion by Hicks: Populist Revolt, chapters xi-xiv; Woodward: Watson, chapters xvi,
xvii; Destler: American Radicalism, chapter xi; Nixon: “Populist Movement in Iowa,” pp. 67-100; Fred E. Haynes: James
Baird Weaver (Iowa City, 1919), chapter xvi; Hicks: “The People’s Party in Minnesota,” pp. 548-58; Barnes: Carlisle, pp.
263-4 and chapter xvii, esp. pp. 433, 448.
2 Henry Demarest Lloyd: “The Populists at St. Louis,” American Review of Reviews, Vol. XIV (September 1896), p. 303.
3 Caro Lloyd: Henry Demarest Lloyd, Vol. I, pp. 259-60; cf. chapter xii, passim.
4 One of the circumstances that made the ultimate success of the People’s Party possible was the fact that the two major
parties were, and had been for some years at the time of its formation, precariously balanced in popular strength. In the
elections of 1880, 1884, and 1888, the difference between their percentages of the total popular vote had not been as much
as one per cent, and in 1892 it was only a fraction over three per cent. The balance in the electoral college was almost as
tenuous. Separated by such a precarious margin, the major parties could not be complacent about losing the votes of any
substantial element in the population, and the capitulation of one of them at an early date to the spirit of Populism was
therefore highly probable.
5 Report of the Commission on Country Life (1909; ed. Chapel Hill, 1944), p. 36.
6 See E. G. Nourse: American Agriculture and the European Market (New York, 1924).
7 For the first elaboration of the idea that the growth of the city acted as a safety valve for agrarian discontent, see Fred A.
Shannon: “A Post Mortem on the Labor-Safety-Valve Theory,” Agricultural History, Vol. XIX (January 1945) and The
Farmer’s Last Frontier, pp. 356-9. The conception seems to me to have great value, but I cannot follow Professor Shannon’s
conclusion that the agrarian distress of the 1890’s can be explained by the hypothesis that “the cities were approaching a
static condition” and that the urban safety valve was closing. On the contrary, urban growth continued at a very high rate
after 1890, and this growth was in great part responsible for agricultural recovery.
8 See the significant article by James C. Malin: “The Background of the First Bills to Establish a Bureau of Markets, 1911-
12,” Agricultural History, Vol. VI (July 1932), pp. 107-29.
9 Both organizations are discussed in Saloutos and Hicks: Agricultural Discontent in the Middle West, 1900-1939 (Madison,
1951), chapters v and viii. See also the manifesto of the founder of the American Society of Equity, J. A. Everitt: The Third
Power (Indianapolis, 1905).
1 See John M. Gaus and Leon O. Wolcott: Public Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture (Chicago,
1940), pp. 30-47; Edward Wiest: Agricultural Organization in the United States(Lexington, Kentucky, 1923), pp. 175 ff. A.
C. True: A History of Agricultural Experimentation and Research in the United States (Washington, 1937), pp. 213, 233-4.
2 On the growth of co-operatives and other associations, see R. H. Elsworth: Agricultural Cooperative Associations, U.S.
Department of Agriculture Technical Bulletin No. 40 (Washington, 1928), esp. pp. 2, 6-8.
3 Saloutos and Hicks, op. cit., pp. 63-4, 288.
4 I. L. Kandel: Federal Aid for Vocational Education (New York, 1917), pp. 98-106. For the early use of the Morrill grants by
states, see Earle D. Ross: Democracy’s College (Ames, Iowa, 1942), chapter iv.
5 M. L. Wilson in O. E. Baker, R. Borsodi, and M. L. Wilson: Agriculture in Modern Life (New York, 1939), pp. 224-5.
Wilson probably locates this change somewhat later than the facts warrant.
6 On this theme and on modern agrarian politics see Grant McConnell: The Decline of Agrarian Democracy (Berkeley,
1953), chapter i.
7 Thus Theodore Saloutos remarks, apropos of the Farm Bloe: “Curiously enough … the farmers found themselves at
political flood-tide when their numbers had reached the lowest point in history.” Saloutos and Hicks, op. cit., p. 341. It is
worth remarking that Populism had served as a school for leadership for many of the later agrarian leaders. Populism not
only taught them what could not be done, but also turned their attention to the possibilities of legislative action. Men who
had been aroused and seasoned by the Populist movement played an important part in such later organizations as the
farmers’ Union, the Society of Equity, and the Non-Partisan League. Ibid., chapter ii, and pp. 117, 221; Edward Wiest, op.
cit., p. 475. On later farm leaders with Populist backgrounds see Gilbert C. Fite: “John A. Simpson,” Mississippi Valley
Historical Review, Vol. XXXV (March 1949), pp. 563-84, and Theodore Saloutos: “William A. Hirth,” ibid., Vol. XXXVIII
(September 1951), pp. 215-32
8 There is, of course, a large literature on this aspect of our political system. I have taken my illustrations from two recent
complaints: Richard L. Neuberger: “Rotten Boroughs and Our Lawless Lawmakers,” The Progressive, December 1951, pp.
22-4, and Senator Paul Douglas’s speech in the Senate: “The Surrender to the Filibuster,” Congressional Record for March
17, 1949. See also the discussion by George A. Graham in Morality in American Politics (New York, 1952), pp. 96-109. In
any discussion of the farm problem, it may be desirable to point out that with the growth of a substantial rural non-farm
population, rural over-representation is not quite identical with over-representation of the farmer. The substantial rural
non-farm population is also over-represented. Urban conservatives, it should be added, support the continuance of this
9 During the Civil War the Republican Party passed three measures: the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land Grant College
Act, and the act creating the Department of Agriculture (not yet at Cabinet rank), all of which manifested an interest in
agrarian development. But from 1862, the year in which all these were passed, to the end of the century, the legislative
field was quite barren. The most significant measure of interest to agriculture was the Hatch Act (1887), creating a system
of agricultural experiment stations under the direction of the land-grant colleges. In time this proved to have great
significance. An act of 1889 also raised the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet rank. For a good brief summary see
Arthur P. Chew: The Response of Government to Agriculture (Washington, 1937); cf. Donald Blaisdell: Government and
Agriculture (New York, 1940).
1 Wiest, op. cit., pp. 31 ff., esp. p. 35; on the evolution of the Department’s structure and functions see Gaus and Wolcott,
op. cit., chapters i-v.
2 Griswold, op. cit., p. 150.
3 For a discussion of the implications of this concept see John D. Black, Parity, Parity, Parity (Cambridge, 1942), and for its
history chapter v of that work.
4 Griswold, op. cit., p. 157; cf. Black, op. cit., chapters iv, xviii, and passim.
5 Here again the presence of a large industrial and a small agricultural sector within the economy has worked to the
farmers’ advantage. Sines the urban sector is proportionately large, it can better afford to buy off the upper strata of the
farmers with subsidies than it could if there were more farmers and fewer city people. This is one reason why the farmers
of western Canada are more radical than those of the United States. A suggestive comparison may be found in Seymour M.
Lipset: Agrarian Socialism (Berkeley, 1950).
6 La Wanda F. Cox: “The American Agricultural Wage Earner, 1865-1900,” Agricultural History, Vol. XXII (April 1948), p.
7 Johnstone; “Old Ideals versus New Ideas,” pp. 147-52.
8 Joseph Schafer: The Social History of American Agriculture (New York, 1936), pp. 199-200.
9 The development of commercial employer-employee relations in modern agriculture has not put an end to attempts to
portray even this aspect of farm life in the light of the agrarian myth. In 1939 a Congressman gave this picture of labor
relations on the farm: “The habits and customs of agriculture of necessity have been different than those of industry. The
farmers and workers are thrown in close daily contact with one another. They, in many cases, eat at a common table. Their
children attend the same school. Their families bow together in religious worship. They discuss together the common
problems of our economic and political life. The farmer, his family, and the laborers work together as one unit. In the
times of stress … the farmer and laborer must stand shoulder to shoulder against the common enemy. This develops a
unity of interest which is not found in industry. This unity is more effective to remove labor disturbances than any law
can be.” Harry Schwartz: Seasonal Farm Labor in the United States (New York, 1945), p. 4.
1 Ibid., p. 152; cf. Saloutos and Hicks, op. cit., pp. 258-61.
2 See the table in McConnell, op. cit., p. 149, which shows that in all farm organizations, including the more “radical”
farmers’ Union, membership is dominated by farmers of high economic status (and to a lesser degree of medium status)
and that low-status farmers are a negligible part of the membership of all such organizations.
3 The farmers’ Union, while carrying on much the same businesslike program as other modern farm organizations, has
continued to express Populist sentiments and support liberal measures. For an excellent summary of its activities, see Carl
C. Taylor: The farmers’ Movement, 1620-1920 (New York, 1953), chapter xiv.
4 For this story see McConnell, op. cit., chapters viii, ix, x.
5 McConnell, op. cit., pp. 29-33, has an excellent brief summary of this movement in the ranks of business. On the
demonstration movement see Joseph C. Bailey: Seaman A. Knapp (New York, 1945), chapters ix-xii.
6 Saloutos and Hicks, op. cit., p. 56.
7 Johnstone, op. cit., pp. 143, 145.
8 Ibid., p. 145. Cf. Everett, op. cit., p. 42: “What the farmer wants to produce is not crops, but money.”
9 Saloutos and Hicks, op. cit., p. 114; cf. pp. 113-15.
1 Orville M. Kile: The Farm Bureau Movement (New York, 1921), p. 123.
2 Saloutos and Hicks, op. cit., p. 273; for an account of the chief farm organizations, see DeWitt C. Wing: “Trends in
National Farm Organizations,” Farmers in a Changing World, pp. 941-79. Leaders of farm co-operatives, it should be added,
are not so well paid as the outstanding national lobbyists.
3 It is noteworthy that the Chautauqua movement, which was a rural institution, and which had flourished since the
1880’s, went rapidly to pieces in the mid-1920’s when the farmer’s isolation became a thing of the past. See Victoria Case
and Robert Ormond Case: We Called It Culture (New York, 1948), and Henry F. Pringle: “Chautauqua in the Jazz Age,”
American Mercury, Vol. XVI (January 1929), pp. 85-93.
4 The series was started by Freeman Tilden’s article: “What a Farmer Really Looks Like,” Country Gentleman, Vol. LXXXVI
(July 2, 1921), pp. 6-7, and was followed by cartoons in the subsequent issues to December 17, 1921. Students of
Americana can find in these cartoons an interesting case in which the makers of stereotypes quite deliberately and selfconsciously
lay one of their creations to rest. The willingness of the cartoonists to abandon the old stereotype was not
matched by their ability to arrive at a new one. Their written comments made it clear that one ancient notion was still
widely shared: that the farmer is, in effect, the moral center of the universe.
5 Johnstone, op. cit., p. 162; William M. Blair in New York Times, December 16, 1951.
6 For both quotations, Johnstone, op. cit., pp. 134, 162.
I . The Plutocracy and the Mugwump Type
Populism had been overwhelmingly rural and provincial. The ferment of the Progressive
era was urban, middle-class, and nationwide. Above all, Progressivism differed from
Populism in the fact that the middle classes of the cities not only joined the trend toward
protest but took over its leadership. While Bryan’s old followers still kept their interest
in certain reforms, they now found themselves in the company of large numbers who
had hitherto violently opposed them. As the demand for reform spread from the farmers
to the middle class and from the Populist Party into the major parties, it became more
powerful and more highly regarded. It had been possible for their enemies to brand the
Populists as wild anarchists, especially since there were millions of Americans who had
never laid eyes on either a Populist or an anarchist. But it was impossible to popularize
such a distorted image of the Progressives, who flourished in every section of the
country, everywhere visibly, palpably, almost pathetically respectable.
William Allen White recalled in his Autobiography, perhaps with some exaggeration,
the atmosphere of the Greenback and Populist conventions he had seen, first as a boy,
then as a young reporter. As a solid middle-class citizen of the Middle West, he had
concluded that “those agrarian movements too often appealed to the ne’er-do-wells, the
misfits—farmers who had failed, lawyers and doctors who were not orthodox, teachers
who could not make the grade, and neurotics full of hates and ebullient, evanescent
enthusiasms.” Years later, when he surveyed the membership of the Bull Moose
movement of 1912, he found it “in the main and in its heart of hearts petit bourgeois”: “a
movement of little businessmen, professional men, well-to-do farmers, skilled artisans
from the upper brackets of organized labor … the successful middle-class country-town
citizens, the farmer whose barn was painted, the well-paid railroad engineer, and the
country editor.”1
White saw himself as a case in point. In the nineties he had been, in his own words,
“a child of the governing classes,” and “a stouthearted young reactionary,” who rallied
with other young Kansas Republicans against the Populists and won a national
reputation with his fierce anti-Populist diatribe: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” In the
Progressive era he became one of the outstanding publicists of reform, a friend and
associate of the famous muckrakers, and an enthusiastic Bull Mooser. His change of
heart was also experienced by a large portion of that comfortable society of which he
was a typical and honored spokesman, a society that had branded the Populists and
Bryan as madmen and then appropriated so much of the Populist program, as White
said of its political leaders, that they “caught the Populists in swimming and stole all of
their clothing except the frayed underdrawers of free silver.”2
Clearly, the need for political and economic reform was now felt more widely in the
country at large. Another, more obscure process, traceable to the flexibility and
opportunism of the American party system, was also at work: successful resistance to
reform demands required a partial incorporation of the reform program. As Bryan
Democracy had taken over much of the spirit and some of the program of Populism,
Theodore Roosevelt, in turn, persistently blunted Bryan’s appeal by appropriating
Bryan’s issues in modified form. In this way Progressivism became nationwide and
bipartisan, encompassing Democrats and Republicans, country and city, East, West, and
South. A working coalition was forged between the old Bryan country and the new
reform movement in the cities, without which the broad diffusion and strength of
Progressivism would have been impossible. Its spirit spread so widely that by the time of
the three-cornered presidential contest of 1912 President Taft, who was put in the
position of the “conservative” candidate, got less than half the combined popular vote of
the “Progressives,” Wilson and Roosevelt.
After 1900 Populism and Progressivism merge, though a close student may find in the
Progressive era two broad strains of thought, one influenced chiefly by the Populist
inheritance, the other mainly a product of urban life. Certainly Progressivism was
characterized by a fresh, more intimate and sympathetic concern with urban problems—
labor and social welfare, municipal reform, the interest of the consumer. However, those
achievements of the age that had a nationwide import and required Congressional
action, such as tariff and financial legislation, railroad and trust regulation, and the
like, were dependent upon the votes of the Senators from the agrarian regions and were
shaped in such a way as would meet their demands.
While too sharp a distinction between Populist and Progressive thinking would distort
reality, the growth of middle-class reform sentiment, the contributions of professionals
and educated men, made Progressive thought more informed, more moderate, more
complex than Populist thought had been. Progressivism, moreover, as the product of a
more prosperous era, was less rancorous. With the exception of a few internally
controversial issues of a highly pragmatic sort, the Populists had tended to be of one
mind on most broad social issues, and that mind was rather narrow and predictable. The
Progressives were more likely to be aware of the complexities of social issues and more
divided among themselves. Indeed, the characteristic Progressive was often of two
minds on many issues. Concerning the great corporations, the Progressives felt that they
were a menace to society and that they were all too often manipulated by unscrupulous
men; on the other hand, many Progressives were quite aware that the newer
organization of industry and finance was a product of social evolution which had its
beneficent side and that it was here to stay. Concerning immigrants, they frequently
shared Populist prejudices and the Populist horror of ethnic mixture, but they were
somewhat more disposed to discipline their feelings with a sense of some obligation to
the immigrant and the recognition that his Americanization was a practical problem
that must be met with a humane and constructive program. As for labor, while they felt,
perhaps more acutely than most Populists of the nineties, that the growth of union
power posed a distinct problem, even a threat, to them, they also saw that labor
organization had arisen in response to a real need among the urban masses that must in
some way be satisfied. As for the bosses, the machines, the corruptions of city life, they
too found in these things grave evils; but they were ready, perhaps all too ready, to
admit that the existence of such evils was in large measure their own fault. Like the
Populists the Progressives were full of indignation, but their indignation was more
qualified by a sense of responsibility, often even of guilt, and it was supported by a
greater capacity to organize, legislate, and administer. But lest all this seem unfair to
the Populists, it should be added that the Progressives did not, as a rule, have the daring
or the originative force of the Populists of the 1890’s, and that a great deal of
Progressive political effort was spent enacting proposals that the Populists had outlined
fifteen or even twenty years earlier.
Curiously, the Progressive revolt—even when we have made allowance for the brief
panic of 1907 and the downward turn in business in 1913—took place almost entirely
during a period of sustained and general prosperity. The middle class, most of which
had been content to accept the conservative leadership of Hanna and McKinley during
the period of crisis in the mid-nineties, rallied to the support of Progressive leaders in
both parties during the period of well-being that followed. This fact is a challenge to the
historian. Why did the middle classes undergo this remarkable awakening at all, and
why during this period of general prosperity in which most of them seem to have
shared? What was the place of economic discontents in the Progressive movement? To
what extent did reform originate in other considerations?
Of course Progressivism had the adherence of a heterogeneous public whose various
segments responded to various needs. But I am concerned here with a large and
strategic section of Progressive leadership, upon whose contributions the movement was
politically and intellectually as well as financially dependent, and whose members did
much to formulate its ideals. It is my thesis that men of this sort, who might be
designated broadly as the Mugwump type, were Progressives not because of economic
deprivations but primarily because they were victims of an upheaval in status that took
place in the United States during the closing decades of the nineteenth and the early
years of the twentieth century. Progressivism, in short, was to a very considerable
extent led by men who suffered from the events of their time not through a shrinkage in
their means but through the changed pattern in the distribution of deference and power.
Up to about 1870 the United States was a nation with a rather broad diffusion of
wealth, status, and power, in which the man of moderate means, especially in the many
small communities, could command much deference and exert much influence. The small
merchant or manufacturer, the distinguished lawyer, editor, or preacher, was a person
of local eminence in an age in which local eminence mattered a great deal. In the
absence of very many nationwide sources of power and prestige, the pillars of the local
communities were men of great importance in their own right. What Henry Adams
remembered about his own bailiwick was, on the whole, true of the country at large;
“Down to 1850, and even later, New England society was still directed by the
professions. Lawyers, physicians, professors, merchants were classes, and acted not as
individuals, but as though they were clergymen and each profession were a church.”3
In the post-Civil War period all this was changed. The rapid development of the big
cities, the building of a great industrial plant, the construction of the railroads, the
emergence of the corporation as the dominant form of enterprise, transformed the old
society and revolutionized the distribution of power and prestige. During the 1840’s
there were not twenty millionaires in the entire country; by 1910 there were probably
more than twenty millionaires sitting in the United States Senate.4 By the late 1880’s
this process had gone far enough to become the subject of frequent, anxious comment in
the press. In 1891 the Forum published a much-discussed article on “The Coming
Billionaire,” by Thomas G. Shearman, who estimated that there were 120 men in the
United States each of whom was worth over ten million dollars.5 In 1892 the New York
Tribune, inspired by growing popular criticism of the wealthy, published a list of 4,047
reputed millionaires, and in the following year a statistician of the Census Bureau
published a study of the concentration of wealth in which he estimated that 9 per cent of
the families of the nation owned 71 per cent of the wealth.6
The newly rich, the grandiosely or corruptly rich, the masters of great corporations,
were bypassing the men of the Mugwump type—the old gentry, the merchants of long
standing, the small manufacturers, the established professional men, the civic leaders of
an earlier era. In a score of cities and hundreds of towns, particularly in the East but
also in the nation at large, the old-family, college-educated class that had deep ancestral
roots in local communities and often owned family businesses, that had traditions of
political leadership, belonged to the patriotic societies and the best clubs, staffed the
governing boards of philanthropic and cultural institutions, and led the movements for
civic betterment, were being overshadowed and edged aside in the making of basic
political and economic decisions. In their personal careers, as in their community
activities, they found themselves checked, hampered, and overridden by the agents of
the new corporations, the corrupters of legislatures, the buyers of franchises, the allies
of the political bosses. In this uneven struggle they found themselves limited by their
own scruples, their regard for reputation, their social standing itself. To be sure, the
America they knew did not lack opportunities, but it did seem to lack opportunities of
the highest sort for men of the highest standards. In a strictly economic sense these men
were not growing poorer as a class, but their wealth and power were being dwarfed by
comparison with the new eminences of wealth and power. They were less important,
and they knew it.
Against the title of new wealth the less affluent and aristocratic local gentry had
almost no protection at all. The richer and better-established among them found it still
possible, of course, to trade on their inherited money and position, and their presence as
window-dressing was an asset for any kind of enterprise, in business or elsewhere, to
which they would lend their sponsorship. Often indeed the new men sought to marry
into their circles, or to buy from them social position much as they bought from the
bosses legislation and franchises. But at best the gentry could only make a static defense
of themselves, holding their own in absolute terms while relatively losing ground year
by year. Even this much they could do only in the localities over which they had long
presided and in which they were well known. And when everyone could see that the
arena of prestige, like the market for commodities, had been widened to embrace the
entire nation, eminence in mere localities ceased to be as important and satisfying as
once it had been. To face the insolence of the local boss or traction magnate in a town
where one’s family had long been prominent was galling enough;7 it was still harder to
bear at a time when every fortune, every career, every reputation, seemed smaller and
less significant because it was measured against the Vanderbilts, Harrimans, Goulds,
Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Morgans.8
The first reaction of the Mugwump type to the conditions of the status revolution was
quite different from that later to be displayed by their successors among the
Progressives. All through the seventies, eighties, and nineties men from the upper ranks
of business and professional life had expressed their distaste for machine politics,
corruption, and the cruder forms of business intervention in political affairs. Such men
were commonly Republicans, but independent enough to bolt if they felt their principles
betrayed. They made their first organized appearance in the ill-fated Liberal Republican
movement of 1872, but their most important moment came in 1884, when their bolt
from the Republican Party after the nomination of James G. Blaine was widely believed
to have helped tip the scales to Cleveland in a close election.
While men of the Mugwump type flourished during those decades most conspicuously
about Boston, a center of seasoned wealth and seasoned conscience, where some of the
most noteworthy names in Massachusetts were among them,9 they were also prominent
in a metropolis like New York and could, be found in some strength in such Midwestern
cities as Indianapolis and Chicago. None the less, one senses among them the
prominence of the cultural ideals and traditions of New England, and beyond these of
old England. Protestant and Anglo-Saxon for the most part, they were very frequently of
New England ancestry; and even when they were not, they tended to look to New
England’s history for literary, cultural, and political models and for examples of moral
idealism. Their conception of statecraft was set by the high example of the Founding
Fathers, or by the great debating statesmen of the silver age, Webster, Sumner, Everett,
Clay, and Calhoun. Their ideal leader was a well-to-do, well-educated, high-minded
citizen, rich enough to be free from motives of what they often called “crass
materialism,” whose family roots were deep not only in American history but in his local
community. Such a person, they thought, would be just the sort to put the national
interest, as well as the interests of civic improvement, above personal motives or
political opportunism. And such a person was just the sort, as Henry Adams never grew
tired of complaining, for whom American political life was least likely to find a place.
To be sure, men of the Mugwump type could and did find places in big industry, in the
great corporations, and they were sought out to add respectability to many forms of
enterprise. But they tended to have positions in which the initiative was not their own,
or in which they could not feel themselves acting in harmony with their highest ideals.
They no longer called the tune, no longer commanded their old deference. They were
expropriated, not so much economically as morally.
They imagined themselves to have been ousted almost entirely by new men of the
crudest sort. While in truth the great business leaders of the Gilded Age were typically
men who started from comfortable or privileged beginnings in life,1 the Mugwump mind
was most concerned with the newness and the rawness of the corporate magnates, and
Mugwumps and reformers alike found satisfaction in a bitter caricature of the great
businessman. One need only turn to the social novels of the “realists” who wrote about
businessmen at the turn of the century—William Dean Howells, H. H. Boyesen, Henry
Blake Fuller, and Robert Herrick, among others—to see the portrait of the captain of
industry that dominated the Mugwump imagination. The industrialists were held to be
uneducated and uncultivated, irresponsible, rootless and corrupt, devoid of refinement
or of any sense of noblesse. “If our civilization is destroyed, as Macaulay predicted,”
wrote Henry Demarest Lloyd in an assessment of the robber barons, “it will not be by
his barbarians from below. Our barbarians come from above. Our great money-makers
have sprung in one generation into seats of power kings do not know. The forces and the
wealth are new, and have been the opportunity of new men. Without restraints of culture,
experience, the pride, or even the inherited caution of class or rank, these men, intoxicated,
think they are the wave instead of the float, and that they have created the business
which has created them. To them science is but a never-ending repertoire of investments
stored up by nature for the syndicates, government but a fountain of franchises, the
nations but customers in squads, and a million the unit of a new arithmetic of wealth
written for them. They claim a power without control, exercised through forms which
make it secret, anonymous, and perpetual. The possibilities of its gratification have
been widening before them without interruption since they began, and even at a
thousand millions they will feel no satiation and will see no place to stop.”2
Unlike Lloyd, however, the typical Mugwump was a conservative in his economic and
political views. He disdained, to be sure, the most unscrupulous of the new men of
wealth, as he did the opportunistic, boodling, tariff-mongering politicians who served
them. But the most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he
either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle
for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses.3 As a rule, he was
dogmatically committed to the prevailing theoretical economics of laissez faire. His
economic program did not go much beyond tariff reform and sound money—both
principles more easily acceptable to a group whose wealth was based more upon
mercantile activities and the professions than upon manufacturing and new enterprises
—and his political program rested upon the foundations of honest and efficient
government and civil-service reform. He was a “liberal” in the classic sense. Tariff
reform, he thought, would be the sovereign remedy for the huge business combinations
that were arising. His pre-eminent journalist and philosopher was E. L. Godkin, the
honorable old free-trading editor of the Nation and the New York Evening Post. His
favorite statesman was Grover Cleveland, who described the tariff as the “mother of
trusts.” He imagined that most of the economic ills that were remediable at all could be
remedied by free trade, just as he believed that the essence of government lay in honest
dealing by honest and competent men.
Lord Bryce spoke of the Mugwump movement as being “made more important by the
intelligence and social position of the men who composed it than by its voting power.”4
It was in fact intellect and social position, among other things, that insulated the
Mugwump from the sources of voting power. If he was critical of the predatory
capitalists and their political allies, he was even more contemptuously opposed to the
“radical” agrarian movements and the “demagogues” who led them, to the city workers
when, led by “walking delegates,” they rebelled against their employers, and to the
urban immigrants and the “unscrupulous bosses” who introduced them to the mysteries
of American civic life. He was an impeccable constitutionalist, but the fortunes of
American politics had made him an equally firm aristocrat. He had his doubts, now that
the returns were in, about the beneficence of universal suffrage.5 The last thing he
would have dreamed of was to appeal to the masses against the plutocracy, and to
appeal to them against the local bosses was usually fruitless. The Mugwump was shut
off from the people as much by his social reserve and his amateurism as by his candidly
conservative views. In so far as he sought popular support, he sought it on aristocratic
One of the changes that made Progressivism possible around the turn of the century
was the end of this insulation of the Mugwump type from mass support. For reasons
that it is in good part the task of these pages to explore, the old barriers melted away.
How the Mugwump found a following is a complex story, but it must be said at once
that this was impossible until the Mugwump type itself had been somewhat transformed.
The sons and successors of the Mugwumps had to challenge their fathers’ ideas, modify
their doctrinaire commitment to laissez faire, replace their aristocratic preferences with a
startling revival of enthusiasm for popular government, and develop greater flexibility
in dealing with the demands of the discontented before they could launch the movement
that came to dominate the political life of the Progressive era.
But if the philosophy and the spirit were new, the social type and the social grievance
were much the same. The Mugwump had broadened his base. One need not be surprised,
for instance, to find among the Progressive leaders in both major parties a large number
of well-to-do men whose personal situation is reminiscent of the Mugwumps of an
earlier generation. As Professor George Mowry has remarked, “few reform movements
in American history have had the support of more wealthy men.”6 Such men as George
W. Perkins and Frank Munsey, who may perhaps be accused of joining the Progressive
movement primarily to blunt its edge, can be left out of account, and such wealthy
reformers as Charles R. Crane, Rudolph Spreckels, E. A. Filene, the Pinchots, and
William Kent may be dismissed as exceptional. Still, in examining the lives and
backgrounds of the reformers of the era, one is impressed by the number of those who
had considerably more than moderate means, and particularly by those who had
inherited their money. As yet no study has been made of reform leaders in both major
parties, but the systematic information available on leaders of the Progressive Party of
1912 is suggestive. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., surveying the backgrounds and careers of
260 Progressive Party leaders throughout the country, has noted how overwhelmingly
urban and middle-class they were. Almost entirely native-born Protestants, they had an
extraordinarily high representation of professional men and college graduates. The rest
were businessmen, proprietors of fairly large enterprises. None was a farmer, only one
was a labor-union leader, and the white-collar classes and salaried managers of large
industrial or transportation enterprises were completely unrepresented. Not
surprisingly, the chief previous political experience of most of them was in local politics.
But on the whole, as Chandler observes, they “had had little experience with any kind of
institutional discipline. In this sense, though they lived in the city, they were in no way
typical men of the city. With very rare exceptions, all these men had been and
continued to be their own bosses. As lawyers, businessmen, and professional men, they
worked for themselves and had done so for most of their lives. As individualists,
unacquainted with institutional discipline or control, the Progressive leaders
represented, in spite of their thoroughly urban backgrounds, the ideas of the older, more
rural America.”7 From the only other comparable study, George Mowry’s survey of the
California Progressives, substantially the same conclusions emerge. The average
California Progressive was “in the jargon of his day, ‘well fixed.’ He was more often
than not a Mason, and almost invariably a member of his town’s chamber of commerce.
… He apparently had been, at least until 1900, a conservative Republican, satisfied with
McKinley and his Republican predecessors.”8
While some of the wealthier reformers were self-made men, like John P. Altgeld,
Hazen Pingree, the Mayor of Detroit and Governor of Michigan, and Samuel (“Golden
Rule”) Jones, the crusading Mayor of Toledo, more were men of the second and third
generation of wealth or (notably Tom Johnson and Joseph Fels) men who had been
declassed for a time and had recouped their fortunes. Progressive ideology, at any rate,
distinguished consistently between “responsible” and “irresponsible” wealth—a
distinction that seems intimately related to the antagonism of those who had had money
long enough to make temperate and judicious use of it for those who were rioting with
newfound means.
A gifted contemporary of the Progressives, Walter Weyl, observed in his penetrating
and now all but forgotten book The New Democracy that this distinction between types
of wealth could often be seen in American cities: “As wealth accumulates, moreover, a
cleavage of sentiment widens between the men who are getting rich and the men who
are rich. The old Cincinnati distinction between the ‘stick-’ems’ (the actual pork-packers)
and the rich ‘stuck-’ems’ is today reflected in the difference between the retired
millionaires of New York and the millionaires, in process or hope, of Cleveland,
Portland, Los Angeles, or Denver. The gilt-edged millionaire bondholder of a standard
railroad has only a partial sympathy with timber thieves, though his own fortune may
have originated a few generations ago in railroad-wrecking or the slave and Jamaica
rum trade; while the cultured descendants of cotton manufacturers resent the advent
into their society of the man who had made his ‘pile’ in the recent buying or selling of
franchises. Once wealth is sanctified by hoary age … it tends to turn quite naturally
against new and evil ways of wealth getting, the expedients of prospective social
climbers. The old wealth is not a loyal ally in the battle for the plutocracy; it inclines, if
not to democratic, at least to mildly reformatory, programs … the battle between the
plutocracy and the democracy, which furiously wages in the cities where wealth is being
actually fought for, becomes somewhat gentler in those cities where bodies of
accumulated wealth exercise a moderating influence. Inheritance works in the same
direction. Once wealth is separated from its original accumulator, it slackens its
advocacy of its method of accumulation.”9
Weyl realized, moreover, that so far as a great part of the dissenting public was
concerned, the central grievance against the American plutocracy was not that it
despoiled them economically but that it overshadowed them, that in the still competitive
arena of prestige derived from conspicuous consumption and the style of life, the new
plutocracy had set standards of such extravagance and such notoriety that everyone else
felt humbled by comparison. Not only was this true of the nation as a whole in respect
to the plutocracy, but there was an inner plutocracy in every community and every
profession that aroused the same vague resentment: “The most curious factor,” he found,
in the almost universal American antagonism toward the plutocracy, was “that an
increasing bitterness is felt by a majority which is not worse but better off than before.
This majority suffers not an absolute decline but a relatively slower growth. It objects
that the plutocracy grows too fast; that in growing so rapidly it squeezes its growing
neighbors. Growth is right and proper, but there is, it is alleged, a rate of growth which
is positively immoral.… To a considerable extent the plutocracy is hated not for what it
does but for what it is.… It is the mere existence of a plutocracy, the mere ‘being’ of our
wealthy contemporaries, that is the main offense. Our over-moneyed neighbors cause a
relative deflation of our personalities. Of course, in the consumption of wealth, as in its
production, there exist ‘non-competitive groups,’ and a two-thousand-dollar-a-year-man
need not spend like a Gould or a Guggenheim. Everywhere, however, we meet the
millionaire’s good and evil works, and we seem to resent the one as much as the other.
Our jogging horses are passed by their high-power automobiles. We are obliged to take
their dust.
“By setting the pace for a frantic competitive consumption, our infinite gradations in
wealth (with which gradations the plutocracy is inevitably associated) increase the
general social friction and produce an acute social irritation.… We are developing new
types of destitutes—the automobileless, the yachtless, the Newport-cottageless. The
subtlest of luxuries become necessities, and their loss is bitterly resented. The discontent
of today reaches very high in the social scale.….
“For this reason the plutocracy is charged with having ended our old-time equality.…
Our industrial development (of which the trust is but one phase) has been towards a
sharpening of the angle of progression. Our eminences have become higher and more
dazzling; the goal has been raised and narrowed. Although lawyers, doctors, engineers,
architects, and professional men generally, make larger salaries than ever before, the
earning of one hundred thousand dollars a year by one lawyer impoverishes by
comparison the thousands of lawyers who scrape along on a thousand a year. The
widening of the competitive field has widened the variation and has sharpened the
contrast between success and failure, with resulting inequality and discontent.”1
II . The Alienation of the Professionals
Whenever an important change takes place in modern society, large sections of the
intellectuals, the professional and opinion-making classes, see the drift of events and
throw their weight on the side of what they feel is progress and reform. In few historical
movements have these classes played a more striking role than in Progressivism. While
those intellectuals and professional men who supported Progressive causes no doubt did
so in part for reasons that they shared with other members of the middle classes, their
view of things was also influenced by marked changes within the professions themselves
and by changes in their social position brought about by the growing complexity of
society and by the status revolution.
In the previous era, during the industrial and political conflicts of the 1870’s and
1880’s, the respectable opinion-making classes had given almost unqualified support to
the extreme conservative position on most issues. The Protestant ministry, for instance,
was “a massive, almost unbroken front in its defense of the status quo.”2 Most college
professors preached the great truths of laissez faire and the conservative apologetics of
social Darwinism, and thundered away at labor unions and social reformers. Lawyers,
except for a rare small-town spokesman of agrarian unrest or little business, were
complacent. And while an occasional newspaper editor launched an occasional crusade,
usually on a local issue, the press was almost as unruffled.
Beginning slowly in the 1890’s and increasingly in the next two decades, members of
these professions deserted the standpat conservatism of the post-Civil War era to join
the main stream of liberal dissent and to give it both moral and intellectual leadership.
The reasons for this reversal are complex. But if the professional groups changed their
ideas and took on new loyalties, it was not in simple response to changes in the nature
of the country’s problems—indeed, in many ways the problems of American life were
actually less acute after 1897—but rather because they had become disposed to see
things they had previously ignored and to agitate themselves about things that had
previously left them unconcerned. What interests me here is not the changed external
condition of American society, but the inward social and psychological position of the
professionals themselves that made so many of them become the advisers and the
gadflies of reform movements. The alienation of the professionals was in fact a product
of many developments, but among these the effects of the status revolution must be
given an important place. Conditions varied from profession to profession, but all
groups with claims to learning and skill shared a common sense of humiliation and
common grievances against the plutocracy.
The contrast between the attitude of the clergy in the 1870’s and that of the 1890’s
measures the change. When the hard times following the panic of 1873 resulted in
widespread labor unrest, culminating in the railway strikes of 1877, the Protestant
religious press was bloodthirsty in its reaction. The laborers were described as “wild
beasts” and “reckless desperadoes,” and some of the religious papers suggested that if
they could not be clubbed into submission they should be mowed down with cannon and
Gatling guns. During the social conflicts of the 1880’s, ministers expressed an attitude
only slightly less hysterical. By the 1890’s a liberal minority was beginning to express a
far milder view of strikes, though the chief religious papers were still completely hostile,
for instance, to the American Railway Union in the Pullman strike of 1894. By this time,
however, a substantial reversal of opinion was under way, and the ideas of social
Christianity and the social gospel had profoundly modified the outlook of many
ministers in the major denominations. From 1895 through the Progressive era “the
doctrines developed by the [early social-gospel] generation … increasingly dominated
the most articulate sections of American Protestantism.”3
The clergy were probably the most conspicuous losers from the status revolution. They
not only lost ground in all the outward ways, as most middle-class elements did, but
were also hard hit in their capacity as moral and intellectual leaders by the considerable
secularization that took place in American society and intellectual life in the last three
decades of the nineteenth century. On one hand, they were offended and at times
antagonized by the attitudes of some of the rich men in their congregations.4 On the
other, they saw the churches losing the support of the working class on a large and
ominous scale. Everywhere their judgments seemed to carry less weight. Religion itself
seemed less important year by year, and even in their capacity as moral and intellectual
leaders of the community the ministers now had to share a place with the scientists and
the social scientists. In the pre-Civil War days, for example, they had had a prominent
place in the control of higher education. Now they were being replaced on boards of
trustees by businessmen, bankers, and lawyers,5 and the newer, more secular
universities that were being founded with the money of the great business lords brought
with them social scientists whose word began to appropriate some of the authority that
the clergy had once held. University learning, in many fields, carried with it the fresh
and growing authority of evolutionary science, while the ministers seemed to be
preaching nothing but old creeds.
The general decline in deference to the ministerial role was shown nowhere more
clearly than in the failure of the lay governors of Protestant congregations to maintain
the standard of living of their pastors under the complex conditions of urban life and the
rising price level of the period after 1897. Not only were the clergy less regarded as
molders of opinion, but they were expected to carry on the arduous work of their
pastorates with means that were increasingly inadequate and to defer meekly to far
more affluent vestrymen.6
In the light of this situation, it may not be unfair to attribute the turning of the clergy
toward reform and social criticism not solely to their disinterested perception of social
problems and their earnest desire to improve the world, but also to the fact that as men
who were in their own way suffering from the incidence of the status revolution they
were able to understand and sympathize with the problems of other disinherited groups.
The increasingly vigorous interest in the social gospel, so clearly manifested by the
clergy after 1890, was in many respects an attempt to restore through secular leadership
some of the spiritual influence and authority and social prestige that clergymen had lost
through the upheaval in the system of status and the secularization of society.
That the liberal clergy succeeded in restoring some of their prestige by making
themselves a strong force in the Progressive ranks no student of the history of American
social Christianity is likely to deny.7 As practical participants and as ideologists and
exhorters the clergy made themselves prominent, and a great deal of the influence of
Progressivism as well as some of its facile optimism and naïveté may be charged to their
place in its councils. Indeed, Progressivism can be considered from this standpoint as a
phase in the history of the Protestant conscience, a latter-day Protestant revival. Liberal
politics as well as liberal theology were both inherent in the response of religion to the
secularization of society. No other major movement in American political history (unless
one classifies abolitionism or prohibitionism as a major movement) had ever received so
much clerical sanction. Jeffersonianism had taken the field against powerful clerical
opposition; Jacksonianism had won its triumphs without benefit of clergy; but the newmodel
army of Progressivism had its full complement of chaplains.
The situation of the professors is in striking contrast to that of the clergy—and yet the
academic man arrived by a different path at the same end as the cleric. While the clergy
were being in a considerable measure dispossessed, the professors were rising. The
challenge they made to the status quo around the turn of the century, especially in the
social sciences, was a challenge offered by an advancing group, growing year by year in
numbers, confidence, and professional standing. Modern students of social psychology
have suggested that certain social-psychological tensions are heightened both in social
groups that are rising in the social scale and in those that are falling;8 and this may
explain why two groups with fortunes as varied as the professoriat and the clergy gave
so much common and similar support to reform ideologies.
Unlike the clergy, academic men in America before 1870 had had no broad public
influence, no professional traditions nor self-awareness, hardly even any very serious
professional standards.9 The sudden emergence of the modern university, however,
transformed American scholarship during the last three decades of the century. Where
there had been only a number of denominational colleges, there were now large
universities with adequate libraries, laboratories, huge endowments, graduate schools,
professional schools, and advancing salaries. The professoriat was growing immensely
in numbers, improving in professional standards, gaining in compensation and security,
and acquiring a measure of influence and prestige in and out of the classroom that their
predecessors of the old college era would never have dreamed of. And yet there was a
pervasive discontent. To overestimate the measure of radicalism in the academic
community is a convention that has little truth. In the Progressive era the primary
function of the academic community was still to rationalize, uphold, and conserve the
existing order of things. But what was significant in that era was the presence of a large
creative minority that set itself up as a sort of informal brain trust to the Progressive
movement. To call the roll of the distinguished social scientists of the Progressive era is
to read a list of men prominent in their criticism of vested interests or in their support
for reform causes—John R. Commons, Richard T. Ely, E. R. A. Seligman, and Thorstein
Veblen in economics, Charles A. Beard, Arthur F. Bentley and J. Allen Smith in political
science, E. A. Ross and Lester Ward in sociology, John Dewey in philosophy, and (for all
his formal conservatism) Roscoe Pound in law. The professors had their intimate
experience with and resentments of the plutocracy—which illustrates Walter Weyl’s apt
remark that the benefactions of the millionaires aroused almost as much hostility as
their evil works. Professors in America had always had the status of hired men, but they
had never had enough professional pride to express anything more than a rare
momentary protest against this condition. Now, even though their professional situation
was improving, they found in themselves the resources to complain against their
position;1 not the least of their grievances was the fact that their professional affairs
were under the control of the plutocracy, since boards of trustees were often composed
of those very businessmen who in other areas of life were becoming suspect for their
predatory and immoral lives. Further, academic men in the social sciences found
themselves under pressure to trim their sails ideologically; and caste self-consciousness
was heightened by a series of academic-freedom cases involving in some instances the
more eminent members of the emerging social sciences—Richard T. Ely, Edward A. Ross,
J. Allen Smith, and others. In 1915 this rising self-consciousness found expression in the
formation of the American Association of University Professors.
If the professors had motives of their own for social resentment, the social scientists
among them had special reason for a positive interest in the reform movements. The
development of regulative and humane legislation required the skills of lawyers and
economists, sociologists and political scientists, in the writing of laws and in the staffing
of administrative and regulative bodies. Controversy over such issues created a new
market for the books and magazine articles of the experts and engendered a new respect
for their specialized knowledge. Reform brought with it the brain trust. In Wisconsin
even before the turn of the century there was an intimate union between the La Follette
regime and the state university at Madison that foreshadowed all later brain trusts.
National recognition of the importance of the academic scholar came in 1918 under
Woodrow Wilson, himself an ex-professor, when the President took with him as
counselors to Paris that grand conclave of expert advisers from several fields of
knowledge which was known to contemporaries as The Inquiry.
The legal profession, which stands in a more regular and intimate relation with
American politics than any other profession or occupation, affords a good example of
the changing position of the middle-class professional in the development of corporate
society. The ambiguous situation of many lawyers, which often involved both profitable
subservience to and personal alienation from corporate business, contributed
significantly to the cast of Progressive thought and the recruitment of Progressive
leaders. While many lawyers could participate in Progressive politics in the spirit of
good counselors caring for their constituents, many also felt the impact of the common
demand for reform as a response to changes in their own profession.
In the opening decades of the century the American legal profession was troubled by
an internal crisis, a crisis in self-respect precipitated by the conflict between the image
of legal practice inherited from an earlier age of more independent professionalism and
the realities of modern commercial practice. Historically the American legal profession
had had four outstanding characteristics. Where it was practiced at its best in the most
settled communities, it had the position of a learned profession with its own standards
of inquiry and criticism, its own body of ideas and ethics. A lawyer’s reputation and
fortune had been based upon courtroom advocacy, forensic skill, learning, and presence.
It was, secondly, a professional group of exceptional public influence and power.
Tocqueville’s famous observation that in the absence of a fixed and venerable class of
rich men the closest thing to an American aristocracy was to be found in the bench and
bar may have been somewhat exaggerated, but it does justice to the mid-nineteenthcentury
position of this professional group—the nursery of most American statesmen
and of the rank and file of practicing politicians. Thirdly, a sense of public responsibility
had been present in the moral and intellectual traditions of the bar—a feeling embodied
in the notion that the lawyer was not simply an agent of some litigant but also by
nature an “officer of the court,” a public servant. Finally, law had been, preeminently in
the United States, one of the smoothest avenues along which a man who started with
only moderate social advantages might, without capital, rise upward through the ranks
to a position of wealth or power. Democratic access to the bar had been jealously
protected—so much so that a peculiar notion of the “natural right” to practice law had
developed and many professional leaders felt that the standards of admission to the
profession had been set far too low.
At the turn of the century lawyers as a group were far less homogeneous than they
had been fifty years before. The large, successful firms, which were beginning even then
to be called “legal factories,” were headed by the wealthy, influential, and normally
very conservative minority of the profession that tended to be most conspicuous in the
Bar Associations. In their firms were many talented young lawyers, serving their time as
cheap labor. There was a second echelon of lawyers in small but well-established offices
of the kind that flourished in smaller cities; lawyers of this sort, who were commonly
attached to and often shared the outlook of new enterprisers or small businessmen,
frequently staffed and conducted local politics. A third echelon, consisting for the most
part of small partnerships or individual practitioners, usually carried on a catch-ascatch-
can practice and eked out modest livings. As the situation of the independent
practitioners deteriorated, they often drifted into ambulance-chasing and taking
contingent fees. Much of the talk in Bar Associations about improving legal ethics
represented the unsympathetic efforts of the richer lawyers with corporate connections
to improve the reputation of the profession as a whole at the expense of their weaker
A body of professional teachers of law, outside the ranks of practicing lawyers, was
also developing as an independent force within the profession. The most effective type
of legal education, then becoming dominant in the best university law schools, was
Langdell’s case method. It had been a part of Langdell’s conception that the proper
training for the teaching of law was not law practice but law study. As the part-time
practicing lawyer became less conspicuous in legal education and the full-time teaching
lawyer replaced him, the independent and professional consciousness of the guild was
once again reinforced. Lawyers who were most attracted by the more intellectual and
professional aspects of their field tended to go into teaching, just as those most
interested in public service went into politics or administration. Young Charles Evans
Hughes, for instance, temporarily deserted an extremely promising career in
metropolitan practice for a relatively ill-paid job as a professor in Cornell’s law school.2
In the movement for broader conceptions of professional service, for new legal concepts
and procedural reforms, for deeper professional responsibility, for criticism of the
courts, the teaching side of the profession now became important. The teachers became
the keepers of the professional conscience and helped implant a social view of their
functions in the young men who graduated from good law schools.
With the rise of corporate industrialism and finance capitalism, the law, particularly
in the urban centers where the most enviable prizes were to be had, was becoming a
captive profession. Lawyers kept saying that the law had lost much of its distinctly
professional character and had become a business. Exactly how much truth lay in their
laments cannot be ascertained until we know more about the history of the profession;
but whether or not their conclusions were founded upon a false sentimentalization of an
earlier era, many lawyers were convinced that their profession had declined in its
intellectual standards and in its moral and social position. Around the turn of the
century, the professional talents of courtroom advocacy and brief-making were referred
to again and again as “lost arts,” as the occupation of the successful lawyer centered
more and more upon counseling clients and offering business advice. General and
versatile talent, less needed than in the old days, was replaced by specialized practice
and the division of labor within law firms. The firms themselves grew larger; the process
of concentration and combination in business, which limited profitable counseling to
fewer and larger firms, engendered a like concentration in the law. Metropolitan law
firms, as they grew larger and more profitable, moved into closer relationships with and
became “house counsel” of the large investment houses, banks, or industrial firms that
provided them with most of their business. But the relation that was the source of profit
brought with it a loss of independence to the great practitioners. The smaller
independent practitioner was affected in another, still more serious way: much of his
work was taken from him by real-estate, trust, and insurance companies, collection
agencies, and banks, which took upon themselves larger and larger amounts of what
had once been entirely legal business.3 A speaker at the meeting of the Baltimore Bar
Association in 1911 estimated that 70 per cent of the members of the profession were
not making a suitable living. “Corporations doing our business are working … to our
detriment,” he said. “Slowly, but with persistence, the corporations are pushing the
lawyer to the wall. They advertise, solicit, and by their corporate influence and wealth
monopolize the legal field.”4
That the dignity and professional independence of the bar had been greatly impaired
became a commonplace among lawyers and well-informed laymen. “How often we
hear,” declared an eminent lawyer in an address before the Chicago Bar Association in
1904, “that the profession is commercialized; that the lawyer today does not enjoy the
position and influence that belonged to the lawyer of seventy-five or a hundred years
ago.…” He went on to deny—what many lawyers did not deny—that the alleged
commercialization was serious; but he conceded that the lawyer had indeed suffered
from what he called “the changed social and industrial conditions.” These conditions, he
observed, had “taken from the lawyer some of his eminence and influence in other than
legal matters” and had also, for that matter, “in the same way and in no less degree
affected the other learned professions, and indeed all educated or exceptional men.”5 Several
years later another lawyer put it somewhat more sharply in an essay entitled “The
Passing of the Legal Profession”: “The lawyer’s former place in society as an economical
factor has been superseded by [the corporation] this artificial creature of his own
genius, for whom he is now simply a clerk on a salary.”6
Lord Bryce, in comparing the America of 1885 with the America of Tocqueville, had
concluded that “the bar counts for less as a guiding and restraining power, tempering
the crudity or haste of democracy by its attachment to rule and precedent, than it did.”
Shortly after the turn of the century he remarked that lawyers “are less than formerly
the students of a particular kind of learning, the practitioners of a particular art. And
they do not seem to be so much of a distinct professional class.”7 Commenting in 1905
on Bryce’s observations, Louis D. Brandeis said that the lawyer no longer held as high a
position with the people as he had held seventy-five or indeed fifty years before; but the
reason, he asserted, was not lack of opportunity, but the failure to maintain an
independent moral focus. “Instead of holding a position of independence, between the
wealthy and the people, prepared to curb the excesses of either, able lawyers have, to a
large extent, allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have
neglected the obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people. We hear
much of the ‘corporation lawyer,’ and far too little of the ‘people’s lawyer.’ ”8
Thus internal conditions, as well as those outward events which any lawyer, as a
citizen, could see, disposed a large portion of this politically decisive profession to
understand the impulse toward change. That impecunious young or small-town lawyers
or practitioners associated with small business, and academic teachers of law, should
often have approached the problems of law and society from a standpoint critical of the
great corporations is not too astonishing—though among these elements only one, the
teacher, was consistently articulate. Somewhat more noteworthy is the occasional
evidence of a mixed state of mind even among some of the outstanding corporation
lawyers, for whom allegiance to the essentials of the status quo was qualified by a
concern with its unremedied abuses and a feeling of irritation with its coarsest
representatives. The top leaders of the law, in their strategic place as the source of
indispensable policy advice to the captains of industry, probably enjoyed more wealth
and as much power as lawyers had ever had. But their influence was of course no longer
independently exercised; it was exerted through the corporation, the bank, the business
leader. As A. A. Berle remarks, “responsible leadership in social development passed
from the lawyer to the business man,” and the principal function of the legal profession
became that of “defending, legalizing, and maintaining this exploitative development.”9
The corporation lawyer lived in frequent association with businessmen who were
oppressively richer, considerably less educated, and sometimes less scrupulous than
himself. By professional tradition and training he saw things with much more
disinterested eyes than they did; and although it was his business to serve and advise
them, he sometimes recoiled. “About half the practice of a decent lawyer,” Elihu Root
once said, “consists in telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should
stop.”1 “No amount of professional employment by corporations,” he wrote to a
correspondent in 1898, “has blinded me to the political and social dangers which exist in
their relations to government and public affairs.…”2 Such men turned to public service
with a sense of release. Root found that his work as Secretary of War under McKinley
brought “a thousand new interests” into his life and that his practice seemed futile in
comparison with his sense of accomplishment in Cabinet work.3 Similarly, Henry L.
Stimson told his Yale classmates at their twentieth reunion, in 1908, that he had never
found the legal profession “thoroughly satisfactory … simply because the life of the
ordinary New York lawyer is primarily and essentially devoted to the making of money
—and not always successfully so.… It has always seemed to me, in the law from what I
have seen of it, that wherever the public interest has come into conflict with private
interests, private interest was more adequately represented than the public interest.”
After the last three years of his private practice, which were concerned with the affairs
of “the larger corporations of New York,” he reported that when he did turn to federal
service as a United States attorney (his important early cases were prosecutions for
rebating), his “first feeling was that I had gotten out of the dark places where I had been
wandering all my life, and got out where I could see the stars and get my bearings once
more.… There has been an ethical side of it which has been of more interest to me, and I
have felt that I could get a good deal closer to the problems of life than I ever did
before, and felt that the work was a good deal more worth while. And one always feels
better when he feels that he is working in a good cause.”4
It may be objected that the progressivism espoused by corporation lawyers on a moral
holiday would be a rather conservative sort of thing. In fact it was, but this was not out
of harmony with the general tone of the Progressive movement, especially in the
Eastern states, where this kind of leadership played an important role. There
Progressivism was a mild and judicious movement, whose goal was not a sharp change
in the social structure, but rather the formation of a responsible elite, which was to take
charge of the popular impulse toward change and direct it into moderate and, as they
would have said, “constructive” channels—a leadership occupying, as Brandeis so aptly
put it, “a position of independence between the wealthy and the people, prepared to
curb the excesses of either.”
III . From the Mugwump to the Progressive
What I have said thus far about the impact of the status revolution may help to explain
the occurrence of the Progressive movement, but will not account for its location in
time. A pertinent question remains to be answered: as the status revolution had been
going on at least since the Civil War and was certainly well advanced by the 1890’s,
why did the really powerful outburst of protest and reform come only with the first
fifteen years of the twentieth century? Why did our middle classes, after six years of
civic anxieties and three years of acute and ominous depression, give Hanna and
McKinley a strong vote of confidence in 1896? And then after this confidence seemed in
fact to have been justified by the return of prosperity, when the nation’s sense of
security and power had been heightened by a quick victory in what John Hay called
“our splendid little war,” and when a mood of buoyant optimism had again become
dominant, why should they have turned about and given ardent support to the forces
that were raking American life with criticism?
First, it must be said that in some areas of American life those phenomena that we
associate with the Progressive era were already much in evidence before 1900. In a
limited and local way the Progressive movement had in fact begun around 1890. On the
part of some business interests the movement for cheap transportation and against
monopoly had already waxed strong enough to impel a reluctant Congress to pass the
Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and the Sherman Act in 1890.5 Likewise the crusade for
municipal reform was well under way in the 1890’s. A very large number of local
organizations dedicated to good government and a variety of reforms had sprung into
existence, and in some cities they had already achieved more than negligible changes.6
Finally, the state legislatures had already begun to pass the sort of social legislation—
regulation of hours and conditions of labor, for instance—that was later fostered more
effectually by the Progressives.7
These were the timid beginnings of a movement that did not become nationwide until
the years after 1901. One important thing that kept them from going further during the
nineties was that the events of that decade frightened the middle classes so thoroughly
that they did not dare dream of taking seriously ideas that seemed to involve a more
fundamental challenge to established ways of doing things. The Progressive appeal was
always directed very largely to people who felt that they did have something to lose.
Populism, which was widely portrayed as “menacing socialism in the Western states,”
the Homestead and Pullman strikes with their violence and class bitterness, the march of
Coxey’s army, the disastrous slump in business activity, and the lengthening breadlines
seemed like the beginnings of social revolution; and in the imagination of the timid
bourgeois, Bryan, Altgeld, and Debs seemed like the Dantons, Robespierres, and Marats
of the coming upheaval. Hence there was a disposition among the middle classes to put
aside their own discontents and grievances until the time should come when it seemed
safe to air them.8
More pertinent, perhaps, is the fact that the Progressive ferment was the work of the
first generation that had been born and raised in the midst of the status revolution. In
1890 the governing generation still consisted of men born in the 1830’s and 1840’s, who
through force of habit still looked upon events with the happier vision of the midnineteenth
century. During the next twenty years the dominant new influence came
from those who were still young enough in the nineties to have their thinking affected
by the hard problems just emerging, problems for which the older generation, reared in
the age of the great transcontinental settlement, had no precedents and no convincing
answers. The crisis of the nineties was a searing experience. During the depression of
1893-7 it was clear that the country was being profoundly shaken, that men everywhere
were beginning to envisage a turning-point in national development after which one
could no longer live within the framework of the aspirations and expectations that had
governed American life for the century past. Americans had grown up with the placid
assumption that the development of their country was so much unlike what had
happened elsewhere that the social conflicts troubling other countries could never
become a major problem here. By the close of the century, however, younger Americans
began to feel that it would be their fate to live in a world subject to all the familiar
hazards of European industrialism. “A generation ago,” said one of the characters in
Henry Blake Fuller’s With the Procession (1895), “we thought … that our pacific processes
showed social science in its fullest development. But today we have all the elements
possessed by the old world itself, and we must take whatever they develop, as the old
world does. We have the full working apparatus finally, with all its resultant noise,
waste, stenches, stains, dangers, explosions.”9
The generation that went Progressive was the generation that came of age in the
nineties. Contemporaries had often noticed how large a portion of the leaders at any
Populist convention were the silver-haired veterans of old monetary reform crusades;
Progressivism, however, passed into the hands of youth—William Allen White
remembered them in his autobiography as the “hundreds of thousands of young men in
their twenties, thirties, and early forties” whose “quickening sense of the inequities,
injustices, and fundamental wrongs” of American society provided the motive power of
reform.1 The ascension of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency, the youngest man ever
to occupy the White House, was no more than symbolic of the coming-of-age of a
generation whose perspectives were sharply demarcated from those of their fathers and
who felt the need of a new philosophy and a new politics.2 T. R. himself had been thirtytwo
in 1890, Bryan only thirty, La Follette thirty-five, Wilson thirty-four. Most of the
Progressive leaders, as well as the muckraking journalists who did so much to form
Progressive opinion, were, at the opening of that crucial fin de siècle decade, in their
early thirties, or perhaps younger, and hence only around forty when the Progressive
era got under way.3
The Progressive leaders were the spiritual sons of the Mugwumps, but they were sons
who dropped much of the ideological baggage of their parents. Where the Mugwumps
had been committed to aristocracy, in spirit if not in their formal theories of
government, the Progressives spoke of returning government to the people; and where
the Mugwumps had clung desperately to liberal economics and the clichés of laissez faire,
the Progressives were prepared to make use of state intervention wherever it suited
their purposes. The Mugwumps had lacked a consistent and substantial support among
the public at large. The Progressives had an almost rabidly enthusiastic following. The
Mugwumps, except on sporadic occasions, were without allies among other sectors of
the country. The Progressives had, on a substantial number of national issues, reliable
allies in the very agrarian rebels for whom the Mugwumps had had nothing but
contempt. In many ways the Mugwump type was refashioned into the Progressive by
the needs and demands of its own followers. The circumstances that awakened the
public and provided the Progressive leaders with large urban support are the subject of
the next two chapters. But I may anticipate here at least one constellation of events that
had vital importance, which centered on the reversal in the price trend. The
unorganized middle class now found itself in the midst of a steady upward trend in the
price cycle that was linked with the growing organization of American industry and
labor. Prices, which began to go up after 1897, continued to go up steadily throughout
the Progressive era, and indeed even more steeply during the war that followed. In the
years between 1897 and 1913 the cost of living rose about 35 per cent. Those of us who
have endured the inflation of the past fifteen years may smile at such a modest rise in
prices; but the price movement of 1897-1913 was not accepted complacently by the
generation that experienced it—particularly not by those who lacked the means to
defend themselves against it by augmenting their incomes or by those who found the
growth in their incomes largely eaten up by the higher cost of living. Just as the falling
prices of the period 1865-96 had spurred agrarian discontents, so the rising prices of this
era added to the strength of the Progressive discontents.
Rising prices in themselves were trouble enough; but the high cost of living took on
added significance because it was associated in the public mind with two other
unwelcome tendencies: the sudden development of a vigorous, if small, labor
movement, and an extraordinary acceleration in the trustification of American industry.
Both of these took place with alarming suddenness in the years from 1898 to 1904. John
Moody singles out 1898 as “the year in which the modern trust-forming period really
dates its beginning.”4 General business prosperity, rising prices, and an active securities
market spurred on this burst of trust formation. Of the 318 trusts listed by Moody in
1904, 82, with a total capitalization of $1,196,700,000, had been organized before 1898.
But 234, with a capitalization of over $6,000,000,000, had been organized in the years
between January 1, 1898, and January 1, 1904.5 Thus in this short period almost three
quarters of the trusts and almost six sevenths of the capital in trusts had come into
existence. It was during the last years of McKinley’s administration and the early years
of Roosevelt’s that such frighteningly large organizations as the United States Steel
Corporation, Standard Oil, Consolidated Tobacco, Amalgamated Copper, International
Mercantile Marine Company, and the American Smelting and Refining Company were
incorporated. Major local consolidations simultaneously took place in the fields of the
telephone, telegraph, gas, traction, and electric power and light.
Far less spectacular, but none the less nettlesome to the middle-class mentality, were
the developments in labor organization. During the long price decline of 1865-96 the
real wages of labor had been advancing steadily at the average rate of 4 per cent a
year.6 But beginning with the upward trend of prices in 1897, these automatic gains not
only ceased but were turned into losses, as unorganized workers found themselves
unable to keep abreast of the steady advance in commodity prices. While real annual
wages rose slightly during the period 1900-14, real hourly wages remained almost
stationary.7 Under the spur of rising prices and the favorable auspices of good business
conditions, the young A.F. of L. seized its opportunity to organize skilled workers. By
1911 the membership of all American trade unions was five times what it had been in
1897; that of the A.F. of L. was almost seven times as large. Total union membership
had grown from 447,000 to 2,382,000,8 and, as in the case of industry, most of this new
organization was concentrated in a sharp organizing drive between 1897 and 1904, a
drive marked by a large increase in the number of strikes.
The price rise after 1897 was a part of a world-wide trend, connected with the
discovery of new gold supplies and new refining processes. How much of it can properly
be laid to the growing organization of industry is a moot point. What is most relevant
here, however, is that the restive consuming public was not content to attribute the high
cost of living to such impersonal causes. The average middle-class citizen felt the pinch
in his pocketbook.9 On one side he saw the trusts mushrooming almost every day and
assumed that they had something to do with it. On the other he saw an important
segment of the working class organizing to protect itself, and in so doing also
contributing, presumably, a bit more to higher prices. He saw himself as a member of a
vast but unorganized and therefore helpless consuming public. He felt that he
understood very well what Woodrow Wilson meant when he declared that “The high
cost of living is arranged by private understanding,”1 and he became indignant. The
movement against the trusts took on new meaning and new power. To be sure, there
had always been anti-trust sentiment, and the argument that the trusts would squeeze
the consumers after they had eliminated their competitors had been familiar for more
than a generation. So long, however, as prices were declining, this fear had lacked
urgency. Now that prices were rising, it became a dominant motif in American life.2
It was in the Progressive era that the urban consumer first stepped forward as a
serious and self-conscious factor in American social politics. “We hear a great deal about
the class-consciousness of labor,” wrote Walter Lippmann in 1914. “My own observation
is that in America today consumers’-consciousness is growing very much faster.”3 Week
after week the popular magazines ran articles of protest or speculations about the
causes of the difficulty, in which the high protective tariff and the exactions of
middlemen and distributors sometimes shared with the conspiratorial decisions of the
trust executives as objects of denunciation. While such men as Theodore Roosevelt and
E. A. Ross were decrying small families among the “best” family stocks and warning
about the dangers of “race suicide,” women writers in the magazines were asserting that
the high cost of rent, food, and fuel made smaller families inevitable.4
Of the actual organization of consumers there was very little, for consumers’ cooperation
was a form of action that had no traditional roots in the United States. In the
absence of organizations, consumers discontent tended to focus upon political issues.
This itself marked a considerable change. In 1897, when Louis D. Brandeis had testified
against the Dingley tariff before the House Ways and Means Committee as a
representative of the consumers, he was greeted with jeers.5 By 1906, when the Pure
Food and Drug Act was being debated, it had become clear that consumer interests
counted for something at least in politics. By 1909, when the Republican insurgents
were waging their battle against the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill in the name of “the
American housewife,” the sophistries of Senator Aldrich at the expense of the consumers
(“Who are the consumers? Is there any class except a very limited one that consumes
and does not produce?”)6 were altogether out of tune with popular feeling. The Payne-
Aldrich tariff was as important as any other mistake in bringing about the debacle of the
Taft administration.7
Vague as it was, consumer consciousness became a thing of much significance because
it was the lowest common political denominator among classes of people who had little
else to unite them on concrete issues. A focus for the common interests of all classes that
had to concern themselves over family budgets, it cut across occupational and class
lines, and did a great deal to dissolve the old nineteenth-century American habit of
viewing political issues solely from the standpoint of the producer. In the discussion of
many issues one now heard considerably less about their effects on the working class,
the middle class, and the farmer, and a great deal more about “the plain people,” “the
common man,” “the taxpayer,” “the ultimate consumer,” and “the man on the street.” A
token of a major shift in the American economy and American life from an absorbing
concern with production to an equal concern with consumption as a sphere of life, this
trend gave mass appeal and political force to many Progressive issues and provided the
Progressive leaders with a broad avenue of access to the public.
1 Autobiography, pp. 482-3.
2 Quoted by Kenneth Hechler: Insurgency (New York, 1940), pp. 21-2.
3 The Education of Henry Adams (New York, Modern Library ed., 1931), p. 32; cf. Tocqueville: Democracy in America (New
York, 1912), Vol. I, pp. 40-1.
4 Sidney Ratner: American Taxation (New York, 1942), pp. 136, 275.
5 Thomas G. Shearman: “The Coming Billionaire,” Forum, Vol. X (January 1891), pp. 546-57; cf. the same author’s “The
Owners of the United States,” ibid., Vol. VIII (November 1889), pp. 262-73.
6 Ratner, op. cit., p. 220. Sidney Ratner has published the Tribune’s list and one compiled in 1902 by the New York World
Almanac, together with a valuable introductory essay in his New Light on the History of Great American Fortunes (New
York, 1953), The Tribune’s list was compiled chiefly to prove to the critics of the tariff that an overwhelming majority of
the great fortunes had been made in businesses that were not beneficiaries of tariff protection. For an analysis of the
Tribune’s list, see G. P. Watkins: “The Growth of Large Fortunes,” Publications of the American Economic Association, third
series, Vol. VIII (1907), pp. 141-7. Out of the alarm of the period over the concentration of wealth arose the first American
studies of national wealth and income. For a review of these studies, see C. L. Merwin: “American Studies of the
Distribution of Wealth and In-come by Size,” in Studies in Income and Wealth, Vol. III (New York, 1939), pp. 3-84.
7 In the West and South it was more often the absentee railroad or industrial corporation that was resented. In more recent
times, such local resentments have frequently taken a more harmful and less constructive form than the similar
resentments of the Progressive era. Seymour M. Lipset and Reinhard Bendix have pointed out that in small American cities
dependent for their livelihood upon large national corporations, the local upper classes, who are upper class only in their
own community, resent their economic weakness and their loss of power to the outsiders. “The small industrialist and
business man of the nation is caught in a struggle between big unionism and big industry, and he feels threatened. This
experience of the discrepancy between local prominence and the decline of local economic power provides a fertile ground
for an ideology which attacks both big business and big unionism.” “Social Status and Social Structure,” British Journal of
Sociology, Vol. II (June 1951), p. 233.
8 It may be significant that the era of the status revolution was also one in which great numbers of patriotic societies were
founded. Of 105 patriotic orders founded between 1783 and 1900, 34 originated before 1870 and 71 between 1870 and
1900. A high proportion of American patriotic societies is based upon descent and length of family residence in the United
States, often specifically requiring family participation in some such national event as the American Revolution. The
increase of patriotic and genealogical societies during the status revolution suggests that many old-family Americans, who
were losing status in the present, may have found satisfying compensation in turning to family glories of the past. Of
course, a large proportion of these orders were founded during the nationalistic outbursts of the nineties; but these too
may have had their subtle psychological relation to status changes. Note the disdain of men like Theodore Roosevelt for
the lack of patriotism and aggressive nationalism among men of great wealth. On the founding of patriotic societies, see
Wallace E. Davies: A History of American Veterans’ and Hereditary Patriotic Societies, 1783-1900, unpublished doctoral
dissertation, Harvard University, 1944, Vol. II, pp. 441 ff.
9 Notably Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Edward Atkinson, Moorfield Storey, Leverett Saltonstall, William Everett, Josiah
Quincy, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
1 See William Miller: “American Historians and the Business Elite,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. IX (November
1949), pp. 184-208; “The Recruitment of the American Business Elite,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. LXIV (May
1950), pp. 242-53, C. Wright Mills: “The American Business Elite: a Collective Portrait,” Journal of Economic History, Vol.
V (Supplemental issue, 1945), pp. 20-44. Frances W. Gregory and Irene D. Neu: “The American Industrial Elite in the
1870’s,” in William Miller, ed.: Men in Business (Cambridge, 1952), pp. 193-211.
2 Henry Demarest Lloyd: Wealth against Commonwealth (New York, 1894, ed. 1899), pp. 510-11; italics added. For some
characteristic expressions on the plutocracy by other writers, see the lengthy quotations in Lloyd’s article: “Plutocracy,” in
W. D. P. Bliss, ed.: Encyclopedia of Social Reform (New York, 1897), pp. 1012-16.
3 For a cross-section of the views of this school, see Alan P. Grimes: The Political Liberalism of the New York NATION,
1865-1932 (Chapel Hill, 1953), chapter ii.
4 The American Commonwealth, Vol. II, p. 45; see pp. 45-50 for a brief characterization of the Mugwump type.
5 Grimes, op. cit., chapter iii.
6 George Mowry: Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement (Madison, 1946), p. 10.
7 Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.: “The Origins of Progressive Leadership,” in Elting Morison, ed.: The Letters of Theodore
Roosevelt, Vol. VIII (Cambridge, 1954), pp. 1462-5. Chandler found the 260 leaders distributed as follows: business, 95;
lawyers, 75; editors, 36; other professional (college professors, authors, social workers, and a scattering of others), 55.
Chandler also found significant regional variations. In the cities of the Northeast and the old Northwest, the role of the
intellectuals and professionals was large, while the businessmen were chiefly those who managed old, established
enterprises. In the South, however, a rising social elite of aggressive new businessmen took part. In the West and the rural
areas, editors and lawyers dominated party leadership, while the businessmen tended to be from businesses of modest size,
like cattle, real estate, lumber, publishing, small manufacturing.
8 George Mowry: The California Progressives (Berkeley, 1951), pp. 88-9; see generally chapter iv, which contains an
illuminating brief account of 47 Progressive leaders. Three fourths of these were college-educated. There were 17 lawyers,
14 journalists, 11 independent businessmen and real-estate operators, 3 doctors, 3 bankers. Of the ideology of this group
Mowry observed that they were opposed chiefly to “the impersonal, concentrated, and supposedly privileged property
represented by the behemoth corporation. Looking backward to an older America [they] sought to recapture and reaffirm
the older individualistic values in all the strata of political, economic, and social life.” Ibid., p. 89.
9 Walter Weyl: The New Democracy (New York, 1914), pp. 242-3.
1 Ibid., pp. 244-8.
2 Henry F. May: Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York, 1949), p. 91.
3 Ibid., pp. 202-3.
4 An interesting but by no means representative case was the controversy between W. S. Rainsford, rector of St. George’s
(Episcopal) Church in New York City, and one of his vestrymen, J. Pierpont Morgan. See Rainsford: Story of a Varied Life
(Garden City, 1924), p. 281.
5 In 1860, clergymen comprised 39 per cent of the governing boards of Earl McGrath’s sample of private institutions; in
1930, 7 per cent, McGrath: “The Control of Higher Education in America.” Educational Record, Vol. XVII (April 1936), pp.
259-72. During the Progressive era clergymen were also beginning to be replaced with laymen in the college and university
6 In 1918 a Literary Digest survey showed that only 1,671 of the 170,000 ministers in the United States paid taxes on
incomes over $3,000. In 1920 a survey by the Interchurch World Movement found that the average annual pastoral income
was $937. Christian Advocate, Vol. XCV (July 22, 1920), p. 985. Preachers were well aware that they had reached a point
at which their wages were lower than those of many skilled workers, especially masons, plumbers, plasterers, and
bricklayers. On preachers’ salaries, see Homiletic Review, Vol. LXXXVI (December 1923), p. 437; Vol. LXXXVII (January
1924), p. 9.
7 May, op. cit., chapter iv, “The Social Gospel and American Progressivism.”
8 Cf. Joseph Greenbaum and Leonard I. Pearlin: “Vertical Mobility and Prejudice,” in Reinhard Bendix and Seymour M,
Lipset, eds.: Class, Status and Power (Glencoe, Illinois, 1953), pp. 480-91; Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz: “Ethnic
Tolerance: a Function of Personal and Social Control,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. IV (1949), pp. 137-45.
An amusing parallel to the professoriat is provided by the architects. Nothing could be clearer than that the standards
and status of this profession had been much improved in the years before the turn of the century, yet we find one of its
older members complaining in 1902 that when he was a boy “an architect was somebody.… He ranked with the judge, the
leading lawyer, the eminent physician—several pegs higher in the social rack than the merely successful merchant or
broker.” F. W. Fitzpatrick: “The Architects,” Inland Architect, Vol. XXXIX (June 1902), pp. 38-9. What could have been
responsible for this false consciousness of a decline in the position of the profession but the fact that the rise of the
architect and the development of urban business had brought him into intimate contact with a plutocracy that made him
feel small? He was unhappy not because he had actually lost out but because the “reference group” by which he measured
his position was a different one. There were, of course, elements of alienation from the clients based on professional
considerations. See Fitzpatrick: “Architect’s Responsibilities,” ibid., Vol. L (October 1907), p. 41.
9 Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger: The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (New York, 1955),
esp. chapters v, vi, ix.
1 Cf. the lament of John Dewey in 1902: “The old-fashioned college faculty was pretty sure to be a thoro-going democracy
in its way. Its teachers were selected more often because of their marked individual traits than because of pure
scholarship. Each stood his own and for his own.” “Academic Freedom,” Education Review, Vol. XXIII (January 1902), p.
13. This very idealization of the professional past was a product of the rise of the profession. For the falseness of this
idealization, see Hofstadter and Metzger, op. cit., chapters v and vi, and passim.
2 Merlo Pusey: Charles Evans Hughes (New York, 1951), Vol. I, pp. 95-104.
3 See Joseph Katz: The American Legal Profession, 1890-1915, unpublished M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1953, for an
illuminating discussion of trends in the profession during this period.
4 “Corporate Monopoly in the Field of Law,” 15 Law Notes (1911), p. 22.
5 Lloyd W. Bowers: “The Lawyer Today,” 38 American Law Review (1904), pp. 823, 829; italics added.
6 George W. Bristol: “The Passing of the Legal Profession,” 22 Yale Law Journal (1912-13), p. 590. For other discussions of
this and similar issues, see George F. Shelton: “Law as a Business,” 10 Yale Law Journal (1900), pp. 275-82; Robert Reat
Platt: “The Decadence of Law as a Profession and Its Growth as a Business,” 12 Yale Law Journal (1903), pp. 441-5;
Newman W. Hoyles: “The Bar and Its Modern Development,” 3 Canadian Law Review (1904), pp. 361-6; Henry Wynans
Jessup: “The Professional Relations of the Lawyer to the Client, to the Court, and to the Community,” 5 Brief (1904), pp.
145-68, 238-55, 335-45; Albert M. Kales: “The Economic Basis for a Society of Advocates in the City of Chicago,” 9 Illinois
Law Review (1915), pp. 478-88; Julius Henry Cohen: The Law: Business or Profession? (New York, 1916); John R. Dos
Passos: The American Lawyer (New York, 1907); Willard Hurst: The Growth of American Law: the Law Makers (Boston,
1950), chapter xiii.
7 Quoted by Louis D. Brandeis: Business—a Profession (Boston, 1927), pp. 333-4.
8 Ibid., p. 337; cf. Woodrow Wilson: “The Lawyer and the Community,” North American Review, Vol. CXCII (November
1910), pp. 604-22. Brandeis’s interest in having the lawyers play a mediating role between social classes may be compared
with the comments of Tocqueville on this function of the profession: Democracy in America, Vol. I, chapter xvi.
9 A. A. Berle: “Modern Legal Profession,” in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.
1 Willard Hurst, op. cit., p. 345; there are many complexities in lawyer-client relationships not dealt with here. On lawyerclient
alienation, see David Riesman: “Some Observations on Law and Psychology,” University of Chicago Law Review, Vol.
XIX (Autumn 1951), pp. 33-4, and “Toward an Anthropological Science of Law and the Legal Profession,” American
Journal of Sociology, Vol. LVII (September 1951), pp. 130-1.
2 Hurst, op. cit., p. 369.
3 Ibid., p. 369.
4 Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy: On Active Service in Peace and War (New York, 1948), p. 17. Stimson’s
background provides an interesting insight into the moral atmosphere of the Mugwump type. His father, an old-family
New Yorker, had been a banker and broker, After earning a modest fortune, he had quit business for the study and practice
of medicine. He lived modestly and carried on his medical work in connection with philanthropic organizations. Ibid., p.
5 The traditional emphasis on agrarian discontent has diverted attention from the pressure from business for such
measures. See Lee Benson: New York Merchants and Farmers in the Communications Revolution, unpublished Ph.D.
dissertation, Cornell University, 1952.
6 Clifford W. Patton: The Battle for Municipal Reform (Washington, 1940), chapter iv. William Howe Tolman: Municipal
Reform Movements in the United States (New York, 1895) has a suggestive summary of over seventy such organizations.
7 Legislation in this field before and after 1900 may be compared in Elizabeth Brandeis’s treatment of the subject, John R.
Commons, ed.: History of Labor in the United States, Vol. III (New York, 1935), pp. 399 ff. The chief fields that had been
entered by state legislatures before 1900 were child labor, hours of women’s labor, and employers’ liability.
8 There were, for instance, Eastern urban election districts, normally heavily Democratic, in which Bryan’s support fell
drastically in 1896 from its normal level both before and after.
9 Henry Blake Fuller: With the Procession (New York, 1895), p. 245.
1 White: Autobiography, p. 367.
2 As a consequence of the sharp difference in the viewpoint of the generations, family conflicts around the turn of the
century tended to take on an ideological coloring. For the treatment of this theme in the works of the most popular
Progressive novelist, see Richard and Beatrice Hofstadter: “Winston Churchill: a Study in the Popular Novel,” American
Quarterly, Vol. II (Spring 1950), pp. 12-28.
3 Cf. Mowry: “Compositely, the California progressive leader was a young man, often less than forty years old.… In 1910
the average age of ten of the most prominent Progressives was thirty-eight.” The California Progressives, pp. 87, 313.
4 John Moody: The Truth about the Trusts (New York, 1904), p. 486.
5 Henry R. Seager and Charles A. Gulick, Jr.: Trust and Corporation Problems (New York, 1929), pp. 60-7.
6 Black: Parity, Parity, Parity, p. 74.
7 Paul H. Douglas: Real Wages in the United States, 1890-1926 (Boston, 1930), p. 111.
8 Leo Wolman: The Growth of Trade Unionism (New York, 1924), p. 33. Figures for all unions are estimates; they exclude
the membership of company unions.
9 Those portions of the middle classes that were on fixed salaries lost ground; notable among them were postal employees,
many clerical workers, government employees, and ministers. Harold U. Faulkner: The Decline of Laissez Faire (New York,
1951), p. 252.
1 The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. II (New York, 1925), p. 462. For a discussion of the cost-of-living issue by a
contemporary, see Frederic C. Howe: The High Cost of Living (New York, 1917).
2 Cf. Walter Weyl, op. cit., p. 251: “The universality of the rise of prices has begun to affect the consumer as though he
were attacked by a million gnats. The chief offense of the trust becomes its capacity to injure the consumer.”
3 Walter Lippmann: Drift and Mastery (New York, 1914), p. 73; cf. pp. 66-76.
4 Christine T. Herrick: “Concerning Race Suicide,” North American Review, Vol. CLXXXIV (February 15, 1907), p. 407,
argued that it was impossible to raise large families and maintain an adequate standard of living, especially for clerks,
clergymen, newspapermen, and writers, on whom she felt the inflation worked the greatest hardship.
In 1907 the Independent published an article by a New York City woman who reported that she had been forced to go to
work to supplement her husband’s income. After submitting a detailed analysis of the family budget, she closed with this
stark manifesto: “Now, gentlemen, You Who Rule Us, we are your ‘wage slaves.’ … You Who Rule Us may take our savings
and go to Europe with them, or do sleight of hand tricks in insurance and railroading with them, so that we will not know
where they are. You may raise our rent and the prices of our food steadily, as you have been doing for years back, without
raising our wages to correspond. You can refuse us any certainty of work, wages, or provision for old age. We cannot help
ourselves. But there is one thing you cannot do. You cannot ask me to breed food for your factories,” “A Woman’s Reason,”
Independent (April 4, 1904), pp. 780-4.
5 Alpheus T. Mason: Brandeis (New York, 1946), pp. 91-2.
6 Hechler, op. cit., p. 106.
7 Cf. Henry F. Pringle: The Life and Times of William Howard Taft (New York, 1939), Vol. I. chapter xxiv.
I . The Urban Scene
From 1860 to 1910, towns and cities sprouted up with miraculous rapidity all over the
United States. Large cities grew into great metropolises, small towns grew into large
cities, and new towns sprang into existence on vacant land. While the rural population
almost doubled during this half century, the urban population multiplied almost seven
times. Places with more than 50,000 inhabitants increased in number from 16 to 109.1
The larger cities of the Middle West grew wildly. Chicago more than doubled its
population in the single decade from 1880 to 1890, while the Twin Cities trebled theirs,
and others like Detroit, Milwaukee, Columbus, and Cleveland increased from sixty to
eighty per cent.2
The city, with its immense need for new facilities in transportation, sanitation,
policing, light, gas, and public structures, offered a magnificent internal market for
American business. And business looked for the sure thing, for privileges, above all for
profitable franchises and for opportunities to evade as much as possible of the burden of
taxation. The urban boss, a dealer in public privileges who could also command public
support, became a more important and more powerful figure. With him came that train
of evils which so much preoccupied the liberal muckraking mind: the bartering of
franchises, the building of tight urban political machines, the marshaling of hundreds of
thousands of ignorant voters, the exacerbation of poverty and slums, the absence or
excessive cost of municipal services, the co-operation between politics and
“commercialized vice”—in short, the entire system of underground government and
open squalor that provided such a rich field for the crusading journalists.
Even with the best traditions of public administration, the complex and constantly
changing problems created by city growth would have been enormously difficult. Cities
throughout the industrial world grew rapidly, almost as rapidly as those of the United
States. But a great many of the European cities had histories stretching back hundreds of
years before the founding of the first white village in North America, and therefore had
traditions of government and administration that predated the age of unrestricted
private enterprise. While they too were disfigured and brutalized by industrialism, they
often managed to set examples of local administration and municipal planning that
American students of municipal life envied and hoped to copy.3 American cities,
springing into life out of mere villages, often organized around nothing but the mill, the
factory, or the railroad, peopled by a heterogeneous and mobile population, and
drawing upon no settled governing classes for administrative experience, found the pace
of their growth far out of proportion to their capacity for management. “The problem in
America,” said Seth Low, “has been to make a great city in a few years out of nothing.”4
The combination of underdeveloped traditions of management and mushroom growth
put a premium on quick, short-range improvisation and on action without regard for
considered rules—a situation ideal for the development of the city boss and informal
government. The consequences were in truth dismal. Lord Bryce thought that the
government of cities was “the one conspicuous failure of the United States.”5 Andrew D.
White asserted in 1890 that “with very few exceptions, the city governments of the
United States are the worst in Christendom—the most expensive, the most inefficient,
and the most corrupt.”6
One of the keys to the American mind at the end of the old century and the beginning
of the new was that American cities were filling up in very considerable part with smalltown
or rural people. The whole cast of American thinking in this period was deeply
affected by the experience of the rural mind confronted with the phenomena of urban
life, its crowding, poverty, crime, corruption, impersonality, and ethnic chaos. To the
rural migrant, raised in respectable quietude and the high-toned moral imperatives of
evangelical Protestantism, the city seemed not merely a new social form or way of life
but a strange threat to civilization itself. The age resounds with the warnings of
prophets like Josiah Strong that the city, if not somehow tamed, would bring with it the
downfall of the nation. “The first city,” wrote Strong, “was built by the first murderer,
and crime and vice and wretchedness have festered in it ever since.”7
In the city the native Yankee-Protestant American encountered the immigrant.
Between the close of the Civil War and the outbreak of the first World War, the rise of
American industry and the absence of restrictions drew a steady stream of immigrants,
which reached its peak in 1907 when 1,285,000 immigrant entries were recorded. By
1910, 13,345,000 foreign-born persons were living in the United States, or almost one
seventh of the total population. The country had long been accustomed to heavy
immigration, but the native Yankee was not prepared for the great shift in the sources
of immigration, especially noticeable after 1900, from the familiar English, Irish,
Scandinavians, and Germans to the peasantry of southern and eastern Europe—swarms
of Poles, Italians, Russians, eastern European Jews, Hungarians, Slovaks, and Czechs.
The native was horrified by the conditions under which the new Americans lived—their
slums, their crowding, their unsanitary misery, their alien tongues and religion—and he
was resentful of the use the local machines made of the immigrant vote.8 For it was the
boss who saw the needs of the immigrant and made him the political instrument of the
urban machine. The machine provided quick naturalization, jobs, social services,
personal access to authority, release from the surveillance of the courts, deference to
ethnic pride. In return it garnered votes, herding to the polls new citizens, grateful for
services rendered and submissive to experienced leadership.
In many great cities the Yankee found himself outnumbered and overwhelmed. A city
like Baltimore, where native children of native parents outnumbered immigrants and
their children, was a rarity among the large cities. Far more characteristic of the East
and Midwest were Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and
St. Louis, where the native stock was considerably outnumbered by the foreign-born and
their children of the first generation.9 Often the Yankee felt himself pushed into his own
ghetto, marked off perhaps by its superior grooming but also by the political
powerlessness of its inhabitants.1 The Irish politician—the established immigrant who
knew how to manage—surveyed the situation and found it good, but the Yankee
brooded over “the Irish conquest of our cities,” and wondered if it meant the beginning
of the end of traditional American democracy.2 The Mugwump type, resentful of the
failure of both capitalist and immigrant to consider the public good before personal
welfare, had always been troubled about the long-range consequences of unrestricted
immigration and had begun to question universal suffrage out of a fear that traditional
democracy might be imperiled by the decline of ethnic homogeneity.3 Early civic reform
was strongly tainted with nativism.
Hostility to immigrants was probably most common near the extreme ends of the
political spectrum, among ultraconservatives and among those Progressives whose
views were most influenced by the Populist inheritance.4 The Populistic Progressives
were frank to express their dislike of the immigrant and to attack unrestricted
immigration with arguments phrased in popular and “liberal” language. Many labor
leaders stood with them on this issue,5 and so did a number of academic scholars. Men
like Edward A. Ross, John R. Commons, and Edward Bemis, all three of whom were
considered radicals and lost academic jobs on this ground, gave learned support to the
anti-immigrant sentiment.6 Ross, formerly a Populist and now one of the leading
ideologues of Progressivism, a stalwart member of the La Follette brain trust at the
University of Wisconsin, in 1914 wrote a tract on immigration, The Old World in the
New, that expressed the anti-immigrant case from the Anglo-Saxon Progressive
standpoint. Although he discussed the older immigrant stocks with some indulgence,
Ross was unsparing with the currently most numerous immigrants from southern and
eastern Europe. Immigration, he said, was good for the rich, the employing class, and a
matter of indifference to the shortsighted professional classes with whom immigrants
could not compete, but it was disastrous for native American workers. Immigrants were
strike-breakers and scabs, who lowered wage levels and reduced living standards toward
their “pigsty mode of life,” just as they brought social standards down to “their brawls
and their animal pleasures.” They were unhygienic and alcoholic, they raised the rate of
illiteracy and insanity, they fostered crime and bad morals; they lowered the tone of
politics by introducing ethnic considerations and of journalism by providing readership
for the poorest newspapers, the yellow journals; they threatened the position of women
with their “coarse peasant philosophy of sex,” and debased the educational system with
parochial schools; they spurred the monstrous overgrowth of cities, and by selling their
votes for protection and favors increased the grip of the bosses upon city politics; they
bred in such numbers that they were increasingly dominant over the native stock and
thus threatened to overwhelm “American blood” and bastardize American civilization.7
Ross’s book was an expression by an articulate and educated man of feelings that
were most common among the uneducated and among those who were half ashamed to
articulate them. Hardly anyone devoted to the ways of the predominantly Anglo-Saxon
civilization and political culture of the United States could help giving some troubled
thought to the consequences for its future of such heavy immigration on the part of
peoples whose ways were so completely different. But more characteristic of the
educated Progressive than Ross’s harsh judgments and his studied appeal to what he
called “pride of race” was the attempt to meet the immigration problem with a program
of naturalization and Americanization.8 Moderate conservatives and liberal-minded
Progressives alike joined in the cause of Americanizing the immigrant by acquainting
him with English and giving him education and civic instruction. One senses again and
again in the best Progressive literature on immigration that the old nativist Mugwump
prejudice is being held in check by a strenuous effort of mind and will, that the decent
Anglo-Saxon liberals were forever reminding themselves of their own humane values, of
the courage of the immigrant, the reality of his hardships, the poignancy of his
deracination, the cultural achievements of his homeland, his ultimate potentialities as
an American, and, above all, of the fact that the bulk of the hard and dirty work of
American industry and urban life was his. Those Progressives who were engaged in
practical politics in industrial communities also realized that they must appeal to the
pride as well as to the interests of the immigrant if they were to have lasting success.
But the typical Progressive and the typical immigrant were immensely different, and
the gulf between them was not usually bridged with much success in the Progressive era.
The immigrant could not shear off his European identity with the rapidity demanded by
the ideal of Americanization. He might be willing to take advantage of the practical
benefits of night schools and English-language courses and to do what he could to take
on a new nationality and learn about American ways. But even if he felt no hostility, he
could hardly fail to sense the note of condescension in the efforts of those who tried to
help him.9 More often than not, he rebuffed the settlement worker or the agent of
Americanization, and looked elsewhere for his primary contacts with American political
and civic life. He turned, instead, to the political boss, who accepted him for what he
was and asked no questions.
In politics, then, the immigrant was usually at odds with the reform aspirations of the
American Progressive. Together with the native conservative and the politically
indifferent, the immigrants formed a potent mass that limited the range and the
achievements of Progressivism. The loyalty of immigrant voters to the bosses was one of
the signal reasons why the local reform victories were so short-lived. It would be hard to
imagine types of political culture more alien to each other than those of the Yankee
reformer and the peasant immigrant. The Yankee’s idea of political action assumed a
popular democracy with widespread participation and eager civic interest. To him
politics was the business, the responsibility, the duty of all men. It was an arena for the
realization of moral principles of broad application—and even, as in the case of
temperance and vice crusades—for the correction of private habits. The immigrant, by
contrast, coming as a rule from a peasant environment and from autocratic societies
with strong feudal survivals, was totally unaccustomed to the active citizen’s role.1 He
expected to be acted on by government, but not to be a political agent himself. To him
government meant restrictions on personal movement, the arbitrary regulation of life,
the inaccessibility of the law, and the conscription of the able-bodied. To him
government was the instrument of the ruling classes, characteristically acting in their
interests, which were indifferent or opposed to his own. Nor was government in his eyes
an affair of abstract principles and rules of law: it was the actions of particular men
with particular powers. Political relations were not governed by abstract principles;
they were profoundly personal.2
Not being reared on the idea of mass participation, the immigrant was not especially
eager to exercise his vote immediately upon naturalization. Nor was he interested in
such reforms as the initiative, referendum, and recall, which were intelligible only from
the standpoint of the Anglo-American ethos of popular political action. When he finally
did assume his civic role, it was either in response to Old World loyalties (which became
a problem only during and after the first World War) or to immediate needs arising out
of his struggle for life in the American city—to his need for a job or charity or protection
from the law or for a street vendor’s license. The necessities of American cities—their
need for construction workers, street-cleaners, police and firemen, service workers of all
lands—often provided him with his livelihood, as it provided the boss with the necessary
patronage. The immigrant, in short, looked to politics not for the realization of high
principles but for concrete and personal gains, and he sought these gains through
personal relationships. And here the boss, particularly the Irish boss, who could see
things from the immigrant’s angle but could also manipulate the American environment,
became a specialist in personal relations and personal loyalties.3 The boss himself
encouraged the immigrant to think of politics as a field in which one could legitimately
pursue one’s interests. This was, indeed, his own occupational view of it: politics was a
trade at which a man worked and for which he should be properly paid. As George
Washington Plunkitt, the sage of Tammany Hall, once said, all the machines were
agreed “on the main proposition that when a man works in politics, he should get
something out of it.”4 The boss, moreover, was astute enough to see that the personal
interests that were pursued in politics must be construed broadly enough to include selfrespect.
Where the reformers and Americanizers tried to prod the immigrant toward the
study of American ways, the boss contented himself with studying the immigrant’s ways,
attending his weddings and christenings (with appropriate gifts) and his funerals, and
making himself a sympathetic observer of immigrant life and in a measure a participant
in it. Reformers might try on occasion to compete with this, but they lacked the means.
The boss, rich with graft, could afford to be more generous; and having doled out many
a favor to businessmen, he could draw upon the world of private business as well as the
public payroll to provide jobs for his constituents. Where reformers identified patriotism
with knowledgeable civic action and self-denial, the bosses were satisfied to confine it to
party regularity, and they were not embarrassed by a body of literature purporting to
show that to trade one’s vote for personal services was a form of civic iniquity.
While the boss, with his pragmatic talents and his immediate favors, quickly appealed
to the immigrant, the reformer was a mystery. Often he stood for things that to the
immigrant were altogether bizarre, like women’s rights and Sunday laws, or downright
insulting, like temperance. His abstractions had no appeal within the immigrant’s
experience—citizenship, responsibility, efficiency, good government, economy,
businesslike management. The immigrant wanted humanity, not efficiency, and
economies threatened to lop needed jobs off the payroll. The reformer’s attacks upon the
boss only caused the immigrant to draw closer to his benefactor. Progressives, in return,
reproached the immigrant for having no interest in broad principles, in the rule of law
or the public good. Between the two, for the most part, the channels of effective
communication were closed. Progressive reform drew its greatest support from the more
discontented of the native Americans, and on some issues from the rural and small-town
constituencies that surrounded the great cities. The insulation of the Progressive from
the support of the most exploited sector of the population was one of the factors that,
for all his humanitarianism, courage, and vision, reduced the social range and the
radical drive of his program and kept him genteel, proper, and safe.
On some issues, to be sure, especially those, like workmen’s compensation, that bore
directly on the welfare of the working population, the bosses themselves saw areas of
agreement with the reformers. The reformer could preach and agitate over such
questions and the machines would help him legislate. Indeed, it was one of the classic
urban machine politicians, Al Smith, who made the first effectual bridge between the
humanity of the reformers and the humanity of the bosses. But this tendency, which
Smith brought to consummation only during his postwar governorship of New York, was
of slow development in the Progressive era itself. The uneasy and partial but
occasionally effective union between the idealistic reformer and the boss foreshadowed
only vaguely a development that was to reach its peak under Franklin D. Roosevelt.5
II . Muckraking: the Revolution in Journalism
To an extraordinary degree the work of the Progressive movement rested upon its
journalism. The fundamental critical achievement of American Progressivism was the
business of exposure, and journalism was the chief occupational source of its creative
writers. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Progressive mind was
characteristically a journalistic mind, and that its characteristic contribution was that of
the socially responsible reporter-reformer. The muckraker was a central figure. Before
there could be action, there must be information and exhortation. Grievances had to be
given specific objects, and these the muckraker supplied. It was muckraking that
brought the diffuse malaise of the public into focus.
The practice of exposure itself was not an invention of the muckraking era, nor did
muckraking succeed because it had a new idea to offer. The pervasiveness of graft, the
presence of a continuous corrupt connection between business and government, the link
between government and vice—there was nothing new in the awareness of these things.
Since the 1870’s, exposure had been a recurrent theme in American political life. There
had been frequent local newspaper crusades. Henry Adams and his brother Charles
Francis had muckraked the Erie ring and the “Gold Conspiracy”; the New York Times,
Harper’s Weekly, and Thomas Nast had gone after Tammany in the seventies. There had
been a great deal of exposure in the nineties, when Parkhurst and the Lexow Committee
were active in New York, and W. T. Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago had caused a
sensation in that city. Henry Demarest Lloyds Wealth against Commonwealth, published in
1894, was a brilliant piece of muckraking. Hamlin Garland’s Populist novel, A Spoil of
Office, showed how general was the familiarity with state corruption. Indeed, during the
last three decades of the nineteenth century, literally dozens upon dozens of novels were
published which have been designated, because of their concentration upon corruption,
“premuckraking” novels.6
What was new in muckraking in the Progressive era was neither its ideas nor its
existence, but its reach—its nationwide character and its capacity to draw nationwide
attention, the presence of mass muckraking media with national circulations, and huge
resources for the research that went into exposure. The muckraking magazines had
circulations running into the hundreds of thousands. They were able to pour funds into
the investigations of their reporters—S. S. McClure estimated that the famous articles of
Ida Tarbell cost $4,000 each and those of Lincoln Steffens $2,0007—and they were able,
as very few of the practitioners of exposure had been able before, not merely to name
the malpractices in American business and politics, but to name the malpractitioners and
their specific misdeeds, and to proclaim the facts to the entire country. It now became
possible for any literate citizen to know what barkeeps, district attorneys, ward heelers,
prostitutes, police-court magistrates, reporters, and corporation lawyers had always
come to know in the course of their business.
Behind muckraking there was a long history of change in journalism, the story of a
transformation in the newspaper and magazine world. The immensely rapid
urbanization of the country had greatly enlarged daily newspaper circulation. In 1870
there were 574 daily newspapers in the country; by 1899 there were 1,610; by 1909,
2,600.8 The circulation of daily newspapers increased over the same span of time from
2,800,000 to 24,200,000.9 This expansion had opened up to publishers remarkable
promotional opportunities, which brought in their train a number of changes in
journalistic practice.
The newspaper owners and editors soon began to assume a new role. Experienced in
the traditional function of reporting the news, they found themselves undertaking the
more ambitious task of creating a mental world for the uprooted farmers and villagers
who were coming to live in the city. The rural migrants found themselves in a new
urban world, strange, anonymous, impersonal, cruel, often corrupt and vicious, but also
full of variety and fascination. They were accustomed to a life based on primary human
contacts—the family, the church, the neighborhood—and they had been torn away from
these and thrust into a more impersonal environment, in which they experienced a much
larger number of more superficial human relationships. The newspaper became not only
the interpreter of this environment but a means of surmounting in some measure its vast
human distances, of supplying a sense of intimacy all too rare in the ordinary course of
its life. Through newspaper gossip it provided a substitute for village gossip. It began to
make increased use of the variety and excitement of the city to capture personal interest
and offer its readers indirect human contacts.1 The rural mind, confronted with the city,
often responded with shock, and this too the newspaper did not hesitate to exploit. So
one finds during the seventies, eighties, and nineties an increasing disposition on the
part of editors to use the human-interest story, the crusade, the interview, and the stunt
or promotional device to boom circulation. The large newspaper with a growing
circulation became less dependent upon the political party. There were more politically
independent or quasi-independent papers, and publishers felt more inclined to challenge
the political parties and other institutions. In business terms the benefits to booming
circulation of crusades and exposés far outstripped the dangers from possible retaliation.
In an age when news was at a premium and when more and more copy was needed to
surround the growing columns of advertisement, there was a tendency for publishers
and editors to be dissatisfied with reporting the news and to attempt to make it. The
papers made news in a double sense; they created reportable events, whether by sending
Nelly Bly around the world or by helping to stir up a war with Spain. They also elevated
events, hitherto considered beneath reportorial attention, to the level of news
occurrences by clever, emotionally colored reporting. They exploited human interest, in
short. This was something that had existed almost from the beginning of the popular
penny press—one remembers, for instance, the elder James Gordon Bennett’s capacity
to exploit his own flamboyant personality. But the new exploitation of human interest
was different. There was more of it, of course, and it was more skillfully done, but, most
symptomatic, there was a change in its character. Where the old human interest had
played up the curious concern of the common citizen with the affairs and antics of the
rich, the new human interest exploited far more intensely the concern of comfortable
people with the affairs of the poor. The slum sketch, the story of the poor and
disinherited of the cities, became commonplace.2 And it was just this interest of the
secure world in the nether world that served as the prototype of muckraking.
All this concern with news, interviews, exposure, and human interest set a premium
on the good reporter and reduced the importance of editorial writing and the editorial
page. As early as 1871 a writer on journalism observed: “For the majority of readers it is
the reporter, not the editor, who is the ruling genius of the newspaper.”3 The old editors
of the pre-Civil War era had put a great deal of stock in themselves as makers of
opinion through their editorial columns. Now their successors began to realize that their
influence on the public mind, such as it was, came from their treatment of the news, not
from editorial writing. But getting the news, especially when it came to exposes and
human-interest stories, was the reporter’s business. Bold reportorial initiative, good
reportorial writing, were now very much in demand. In the period from 1870 to about
1890 the salaries of reporters doubled. Better-educated men were more attracted to the
profession and were more acceptable in it.4 Editors who had scorned college graduates
began to look for them. The Spanish-American War, a triumph of the new journalism,
was nowhere fought more brilliantly than in the columns of the newspapers, and it was
covered by a battery of reporters numerous enough and well enough equipped to be
used in emergency as military reinforcements. As the reporter’s job rose in status, even
in glamour, more and more young men with serious literary aspirations were attracted
to it as a provisional way of earning a living. These men brought to the journalistic life
some of the ideals, the larger interests, and the sense of public responsibility of men of
Finally, the occupational situation of the reporter was uniquely illuminating. It was
not merely that reporters saw and heard things, got the inside story; they sat at the
crossroads between the coarse realities of their reportorial beats and the high
abstractions and elevated moral tone of the editorial page. Reporters saw what fine
things the newspapers said about public responsibility, and they also saw the gross
things newspaper managers did to get news or advertising. As Theodore Dreiser, then a
young reporter, recalled, they became alert to hypocrisy, perhaps a little cynical
themselves, but fundamentally enlightened about the immense gaps between the lofty
ideals and public professions of the editorial page and the dirty realities of the business
office and the newsroom.5 And it was into this gap that the muckraking mind rushed
with all its fact-finding zeal.
It was, of course, the popular magazine, not the daily newspaper, that stood in the
forefront of muckraking, but the muckraking periodicals were profoundly affected by
newspaper journalism. The old, respectable magazines, the Atlantic, Harper’s, the
Century, and Scribner’s, had been genteel, sedate enterprises selling at thirty-five cents a
copy and reaching limited audiences of about 130,000. These periodicals were run by
literary men; implicit in their contents was the notion that the magazine is a book in
periodical form; they were managed by the conservative publishing houses. The new
magazines that emerged at the turn of the century sold at ten or twelve or fifteen cents
a copy and reached audiences of from 400,000 to 1,000,000. Their publishers were not
literary men but business promoters; their editors were usually former newspaper
editors, and they ran a good deal of news copy written by reporters. These magazines,
by contrast, were newspapers in periodical form; they took many of their ideas from
daily journalism or the Sunday supplements. They contained not only literature but
features that resembled news. And like the daily press they soon began to make news
and to become a political force in their own right.
As businessmen, the publishers of these magazines, Frank Munsey, S. S. McClure, John
Brisben Walker, and others, resembled their promotion-minded forerunners in daily
journalism like E. W. Scripps, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst.
Muckraking for them was the most successful of the circulation-building devices they
used. Neither the muckraking publishers and editors nor the muckraking reporters set
out to expose evils or to reform society. Although the experience of the Ladies’ Home
Journal, Munsey’s, and the Saturday Evening Post showed that immense circulations could
be achieved without ever entering in any serious sense upon it, muckraking was a byproduct,
perhaps an inevitable one, of the development of mass magazines. Even
McClure’s, the magazine that touched off the movement, had already built a large
circulation upon an enterprising use of popular fiction and upon Ida Tarbell’s series on
the lives of Napoleon and Lincoln. The so-called “muckraking” magazines themselves
devoted only a small proportion of their total space to muckraking articles. Only after
exposure had proved its popularity did other magazines, notably Hampton’s, boom their
circulations by focusing on muckraking.
A significant illustration of the accidental sources of muckraking was Miss Tarbell’s
famous series on Standard Oil. S. S. McClure was running, during the late 1890’s, a
series of articles which he describes in his autobiography as dedicated to “the greatest
American business achievements.” He had observed that the “feeling of the common
people [about the trusts] had a sort of menace in it; they took a threatening attitude
toward the Trusts, and without much knowledge.”6 He and his editors decided that a
study of Standard Oil, the greatest of the trusts, would have some educational value, and
they called in Ida Tarbell, who “had lived for years in the heart of the oil region of
Pennsylvania, and had seen the marvelous development of the Standard Oil Trust at
first hand.”7 It happened also that Miss Tarbell, whose family had suffered the common
disastrous fate of the independent oil-producers, had a great feeling for them.8 The
methods that had been used by Standard Oil were altogether too vulnerable to be played
down, and although she hoped her inquiry “might be received as a legitimate historical
study … to my chagrin I found myself included in a new school, that of the muckrakers.”
She decided that she would have done with the whole business and seems to have
resented the demand of some of her following that she go on with the work of exposure
—“I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced
findings.”9 Later she did some further work in exposing tariff politics, but she afterwards
recalled: “My conscience began to trouble me. Was it not as much my business as a
reporter to present this [the favorable] side of the picture as to present the other?” “The
public was coming to believe,” she felt, as a result of all the work of exposure, “that the
inevitable result of corporate industrial management was exploitation, neglect,
bullying, crushing of labor, that the only hope was in destroying the system.” So she
began to write about achievements and improvements in business—under the
considerable handicap, to be sure, of her muckraking reputation—became a eulogist of
business, and eventually wrote an apologetic biography of the industrialist Judge Gary.1
In her case the impulse that had been expressed by McClure when he first set out to
publicize business achievements came full circle.
Most of the other outstanding figures of the muckrake era were simply writers or
reporters working on commission and eager to do well what was asked of them. A few,
among them Upton Sinclair and Gustavus Myers, were animated by a deep-going dislike
of the capitalist order, but most of them were hired into muckraking or directed toward
it on the initiative of sales-conscious editors or publishers. Probably the most socially
minded and inquisitive of the muckrakers, except for the Socialists, was Lincoln Steffens;
but even his muckraking of American cities began more or less accidentally when
McClure refused to allow him to take over an editorship without getting out and
familiarizing himself with the country.2 Others were reluctant dragons. Ray Stannard
Baker, whose chief desire was to be a novelist, came to McClure’s as a writer of secretservice
stories and of a book celebrating America’s prosperity. Before he began
muckraking he was writing faintly eulogistic articles on big business and the trusts! It is
perhaps a significant token of the way in which memory rearranges facts in the light of
myth that many years later, when Louis Filler was writing his study of the muckrakers,
Baker could—no doubt sincerely—refer him to these pieces as examples of early
muckraking articles. In fact Baker’s first muckraking work tended in a far different
direction—it showed up abuses in labor-unionism. Thomas Lawson, the author of the
popular Frenzied Finance, was a bruised speculator with a bitter contempt for popular
democracy.3 David Graham Phillips, who wrote The Treason of the Senate, was making
large sums writing novels for the Saturday Evening Post when Bailey Millard, the editor of
the Cosmopolitan, talked him into writing the attack on the Senate. Phillips was
extremely reluctant at first, insisting that someone else be engaged to “gather the facts,”
and agreed to undertake the work only when Gustavus Myers, the Socialist writer, was
hired to do the research. Once engaged upon the task, however, he developed a real
interest in it.
If, from the standpoint of the editors and journalists themselves, the beginning of
muckraking seemed to be more or less “accidental,” its ending did not. The large
magazine built on muckraking was vulnerable as a business organization. The
publishing firm was so large an enterprise and sold its product for so little that it
became intensely dependent upon advertising and credit, and hence vulnerable to
pressure from the business community. Advertisers did not hesitate to withdraw orders
for space when their own interests or related interests were touched upon. Bankers
adopted a discriminatory credit policy, so that modest loans could not be secured even
for the maintenance of a business of great value and proved stability. In one case, that
of Hampton’s, even espionage was employed to destroy the magazine.4 One magazine,
Pearsons, continued to muckrake after 1912, when all the others had fallen into new
hands or changed their policies, and its vitality, sustained down to the time of the first
World War, has been cited as evidence that muckraking sentiment did not die a
spontaneous death, but was choked off at its sources by those who were most affected by
its exposures.5 This is a suggestive, but to my mind not a conclusive, point. It is
conceivable that there may have been enough muckraking sentiment left to support one
well-run periodical with a large circulation, but not a half-dozen plus a large number of
smaller imitators. Certainly business was hostile and made its hostility felt, but it also
seems that the muckraking mood was tapering off. By 1912 it had been raging at a high
pitch for nine years. To imagine that it could have gone on indefinitely is to mistake its
Consider who the muckrakers were, what their intentions were, and what it was they
were doing. Their criticisms of American society were, in their utmost reaches, very
searching and radical, but they were themselves moderate men who intended to propose
no radical remedies. From the beginning, then, they were limited by the disparity
between the boldness of their means and the tameness of their ends. They were working
at a time of widespread prosperity, and their chief appeal was not to desperate social
needs but to mass sentiments of responsibility, indignation, and guilt. Hardly anyone
intended that these sentiments should result in action drastic enough to transform
American society. In truth, that society was getting along reasonably well, and the
muckrakers themselves were quite aware of it. The group of leading muckrakers that left
McClure’s in 1906 to form the American Magazine,6 as Ray Stannard Baker recalled, was
“far more eager to understand and make sure than to dream of utopias.… We
‘muckraked’ not because we hated our world but because we loved it. We were not
hopeless, we were not cynical, we were not bitter.”7 Their first announcement promised
“the most stirring and delightful monthly book of fiction, humor, sentiment, and joyous
reading that is anywhere published. It will reflect a happy, struggling, fighting world, in
which, as we believe, good people are coming out on top.… Our magazine will be
wholesome, hopeful, stimulating, uplifting.…”8
Finally, it is perhaps necessary to point out that within the limited framework of the
reforms that were possible without structural alterations in the American social and
economic system, the muckrakers did accomplish something in the form of legislative
changes and social face-washing. They enjoyed, after all, some sense of real
achievement. Presumably the temper of the early writers for McClure’s was far more
akin to that of the majority of their middle-class audience than was the attitude of the
Socialist muckrakers like Gustavus Myers, Upton Sinclair, and Charles Edward Russell,
who wanted to push the implications of muckraking discoveries to their utmost practical
III . Reality and Responsibility
The muckrakers had a more decisive impact on the thinking of the country than they did
on its laws or morals. They confirmed, if they did not create, a fresh mode of criticism
that grew out of journalistic observation. The dominant note in the best thought of the
Progressive era is summed up in the term “realism.” It was realism that the current
literature and journalism fostered, just as it was realism that the most fertile thinkers of
the age brought into philosophy, law, and economics. Although Western sectional
consciousness, which was curiously united to a sort of folkish nationalism, made its own
contribution to realistic writing, the chief source of realism lay in the city and city
journalism. With few exceptions the makers of American realism, even from the days of
Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, were men who had training in journalistic
observation—Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Harold Frederic, David Graham Phillips
—or men like Edward Kirkland, Edward Eggleston, Hamlin Garland, and Jack London
who in some other capacity had also seen the rough side of life to which the reporters
and human-interest writers were exposed. What they all had in common—the realistic
novelists, the muckrakers, and the more critical social scientists of the period—was a
passion for getting the “inside story.”
Robert Cantwell once suggested that the primary reason for the success of the
muckrakers was not political at all, but literary, and that their work was in a sense the
journalistic equivalent of the literary realism that also flourished at the time. It had
never been customary in America to write about America, but especially not about the
life of industry and labor and business and poverty and vice. Now, while novelists were
replacing a literature bred out of other literature with a genre drawn from street scenes
and abattoirs or the fly-specked rural kitchens of Hamlin Garland’s stories, the
muckrakers were replacing the genteel travel stories and romances of the older
magazines with a running account of how America worked. “It was not,” says Cantwell,
“because the muckrakers exposed the corruption of Minneapolis, for example, that they
were widely read, but because they wrote about Minneapolis at a time when it had not
been written about, without patronizing or boosting it, and with an attempt to explore
its life realistically and intelligently. They wrote, in short, an intimate, anecdotal,
behind-the-scenes history of their own times.… They traced the intricate relationship of
the police, the underworld, the local political bosses, the secret connections between the
new corporations … and the legislatures and the courts. In doing this they drew a new
cast of characters for the drama of American society: bosses, professional politicians,
reformers, racketeers, captains of industry. Everybody recognized these native types;
everybody knew about them; but they had not been characterized before; their social
functions had not been analyzed. At the same time, the muckrakers pictured stage
settings that everybody recognized but that nobody had written about—oil refineries,
slums, the red-light districts, the hotel rooms where political deals were made—the
familiar, unadorned, homely stages where the teeming day-to-day dramas of American
life were enacted. How could the aloof literary magazines of the East, with their essays
and their contributions from distinguished English novelists, tap this rich material?”9
What the muckrakers and the realistic writers were doing in their fields the
speculative thinkers and social scientists were also doing in theirs. As scholars reached
out for their own “realistic” categories, the formalistic thought of an earlier and more
conservative generation fell under close and often damaging scrutiny. Economists were
pondering Veblen’s effort to replace the economic man of the classical school with his
wasteful consumer and his predatory captain of industry. Legal realists were
supplanting the “pure” jurisprudential agent of earlier legal theorists with the flesh-andblood
image of the corporation lawyer dressed in judicial robes and stuffed with
corporation prejudices. Political scientists were losing their old veneration for the state
as an abstract repository of something called sovereignty and accepting the views of
men like Charles A. Beard and Arthur F. Bentley, who conceived of the state as a
concrete instrument that registered the social pressures brought to bear upon it by
various interest groups. Historians were beginning to apply the economic interpretation
of history. The new discipline of sociology, intimately linked with social-settlement work
and Christian social reform, was criticizing the older notions of individuality and
morality and developing a new, “realistic” social psychology. John Dewey was
attacking formalistic categories in philosophy and trying to develop a more descriptive
and operational account of the uses of ideas.1 The supreme achievement of this
pervasive iconoclasm came in 1913 with Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of
the Constitution of the United States, a book that scandalized the conservative world. This
consummatory attack on the traditional symbols had now carried the Progressive mind
to the inner citadel of the established order: a nation of Constitution-worshippers and
ancestor-worshippers was confronted with a scholarly muckraking of the Founding
Fathers and the Constitution itself. V. L. Parrington, himself a representative of Populist
and Progressive thinking, once suggested that the “chief contribution of the Progressive
movement to American political thought was its discovery of the essentially
undemocratic nature of the federal constitution.”2
But Beard’s treatment of the Founding Fathers also shows some of the limitations of
the Progressive conception of reality. When he wrote about the economic interests and
activities of the Founding Fathers, especially those activities related to politics in a way
not always above question from the highest standards of disinterested morality, he
wrote fully and with illumination. When he dealt with their ideas about democracy, he
was relatively casual; his mind did not become fully engaged with his object, and he was
content with a spare and rather literal-minded compound of scattered quotations from
the debates in the Constitutional Convention.3 The muckraking model of thought had
brought with it a certain limiting and narrowing definition of reality and a flattening of
the imagination. William Dean Howells, in one of his less fortunate remarks, had
accepted the earlier tendency of American literature to deal with “the smiling aspects of
life” that were more characteristically American. This complacency the realists reversed
with a vengeance. Reality now was rough and sordid. It was hidden, neglected, and offstage.
It was conceived essentially as that stream of external and material events which
was most likely to be unpleasant.4 Reality was the bribe, the rebate, the bought
franchise, the sale of adulterated food. It was what one found in The Jungle, The
Octopus, Wealth against Commonwealth, or The Shame of the Cities. It was just as
completely and hopelessly dissociated from the world of morals and ideals as, say, a
newspaper editorial on Motherhood might be from the facts about infant mortality in
the slums.
To the average American of the Progressive era this ugly thing that presented itself as
reality was not a final term. Reality was a series of unspeakable plots, personal
iniquities, moral failures, which, in their totality, had come to govern American society
only because the citizen had relaxed his moral vigilance. The failures of American
society were thus no token of the ultimate nature of man, of the human condition, much
less the American condition; they were not to be accepted or merely modified, but
fought with the utmost strenuosity at every point. First reality must in its fullness be
exposed, and then it must be made the subject of moral exhortation; and then, when
individual citizens in sufficient numbers had stiffened in their determination to effect
reform, something could be done. As Josiah Strong put it: “If public opinion is educated
concerning a given reform—political, social, industrial, or moral—and if the popular
conscience is sufficiently awake to enforce an enlightened public opinion, the reform is
accomplished straightway. This then is the generic reform—the education of public
opinion and of the popular conscience.”5 First the citizen must reclaim the power that he
himself had abdicated, refashioning where necessary the instruments of government.
Then—since the Yankee found the solution to everything in laws—he must see that the
proper remediable laws be passed and that existing laws be enforced. He must choose
men of the highest moral qualities for his political leaders. It was assumed that such
moral qualities were indestructible and that decent men, once found and installed in
office, would remain decent. When they had regained control of affairs, moral rigor
would not flag again.
An excellent illustration of the spirit of Progressivism as it manifested itself in the new
popular literature is provided by a famous editorial by S. S. McClure in the January
1903 issue of McClure’s.6 In this editorial McClure stood back and took a fresh look at his
publication and suddenly realized what it was that he and his writers were doing. He
observed that his current issue, which was running an article muckraking Minneapolis
by Lincoln Steffens, another on Standard Oil by Ida Tarbell, and still another by Ray
Stannard Baker on labor, showed a striking and completely unplanned convergence
upon a central fact in American life: a general disrespect for law on the part of
capitalists, workingmen, politicians, and citizens. Who, he asked, was left in the
community to uphold the law? The lawyers? Some of the best of them made a living
from advising business firms how to evade it. The judges? Among too many of them the
respect for law took the form of respect for quibbles by which they restored to liberty
men who on the evidence of common sense would be convicted of malfeasances. The
churches? “We know of one, an ancient and wealthy establishment, which had to be
compelled by a Tammany hold-over health officer to put its tenements in sanitary
condition.” “The colleges? They do not understand.” “There is no one left,” concluded
McClure, “none but all of us.… We all are doing our worst and making the public pay.
The public is the people. We forget that we all are the people.… We have to pay in the
end, every one of us.”
The chief themes of the muckraking magazines are stated here. First is the progressive
view of reality—evil-doing among the most respectable people is seen as the “real”
character of American life; corruption is found on every side. Second is the idea that the
mischief can be interpreted simply as a widespread breaking of the law. I have
remarked that Anglo-Saxon thinking emphasized governance by legal rules, as opposed
to the widespread tendency among immigrants to interpret political reality in the light
of personal relations. If the laws are the right laws, and if they can be enforced by the
right men, the Progressive believed, everything would be better.7 He had a great and
abiding faith in the appeal to such abstractions as the law and patriotism, and the
efficacy of continued exhortation. Third, there was the appeal to universal personal
responsibility and the imputation of personal guilt.
To understand the reform mentality, we must consider the vigor with which the
Progressives attacked not only such social questions as the powers of trusts and bosses,
but also such objects of reform as the liquor traffic and prostitution. The Progressive
mind, I have said, was preeminently a Protestant mind; and even though much of its
strength was in the cities, it inherited the moral traditions of rural evangelical
Protestantism. The Progressives were still freshly horrified by phenomena that we now
resignedly consider indigenous to urban existence. However prosperous they were, they
lived in the midst of all the iniquities that the agrarian myth had taught them to expect
of urban life, and they refused to accept them calmly. Here it was that a most important
aspect of the Protestant personality came into play: its ethos of personal responsibility.
American life and American mythology had been keyed to the conditions of rural
simplicity and village neighborliness under which personal responsibility for the
problems—and the morals—of others could in fact often be assumed.8 Moreover it was
the whole effect of the Protestant ethic to heighten the sense of personal responsibility
as much as possible. The more the muckrakers acquainted the Protestant Yankee with
what was going on around him, the more guilty and troubled he felt. The religious
institutions of Protestantism provided no mechanism to process, drain off, and
externalize the sense of guilt.9 American political traditions provided no strong native
tradition of conservatism to reconcile men to evils that could not easily be disposed of.
The native ethos of mass participation in politics and citizenlike civic consciousness—so
strange, as we have remarked, to the immigrants—confirmed the idea that everyone
was in some very serious sense responsible for everything.
Frederic C. Howe’s candid and highly illuminating autobiography, The Confessions of a
Reformer, shows with fine self-awareness how the preachings of evangelical
Protestantism and the civic teachings of Mugwumpery laid the foundations for the
Progressive sense of responsibility. Howe had been raised in Meadville, Pennsylvania,
as the child of moderately well-to-do and sincerely pious Methodist parents. Attending a
small sectarian college in the great age of secularization that came in with Darwinism,
Howe found himself unable to respond any longer to evangelical revivalism; but, as he
reports, the “morality of duty, of careful respectability,” that was inculcated in him from
his earliest years was not so easily dislodged as the theology that went with it. “Early
assumptions as to virtue and vice, goodness and evil remained in my mind long after I
had tried to discard them. This is, I think, the most characteristic influence of my
generation. It explains the nature of our reforms, the regulatory legislation in morals
and economics, our belief in men rather than in institutions and our messages to other
peoples. Missionaries and battleships, anti-saloon leagues and Ku Klux Klans, Wilson
and Santo Domingo are all a part of that evangelistic psychology that makes America
what she is.”1 When Howe went to Johns Hopkins University for graduate study, he was
well prepared to respond to the passionate preachings of an academic Mugwump like
Woodrow Wilson, who spoke out against the indifference and loss of responsibility
among the public, and to the high-minded addresses of Lord Bryce, who lamented the
spoils system, corruption, the failure of democracy, and the “decay of a sense of
responsibility among the kind of people whom I knew. That was what impressed me
most: the kind of people I knew had neglected their duties.”2 As so often happens in the
development of ideas and public moods, the remarkable group of teachers and students
that gathered at Johns Hopkins in the late 1880’s and the 1890’s was simply
anticipating by a few years the civic consciousness that soon swept over a vastly larger
public. What Howe observes of the Johns Hopkins men of the nineties—“We felt that the
world had been wished onto our shoulders”3—became true of a large part of the nation
not long afterward. After the turn of the century the men who were in best rapport with
public sentiment were preaching to the whole nation the necessity of taking up,
personally and individually, those civic burdens which the previous generation had
forsaken. “No hard-and-fast rule can be laid down,” said Theodore Roosevelt, “as to the
way in which such work [reform] must be done; but most certainly every man, whatever
his position, should strive to do it in some way and to some degree.”4
One is impressed, in a review of the literature, with the enormous amount of selfaccusation
among Progressives. William Allen White saw it when he attributed much of
the movement to the fact that “in the soul of the people there is a conviction of their
past unrighteousness.”5 The moral indignation of the age was by no means directed
entirely against others; it was in a great and critical measure directed inward.
Contemporaries who spoke of the movement as an affair of the conscience were not
mistaken. Lincoln Steffens had the key to this sense of personal involvement when he
entitled his famous muckraking volume The Shame of the Cities.
Nothing, indeed, illustrates better than the Introduction to Steffens’s volume the
fashion in which the Yankee ethos of responsibility had become transmuted into a sense
of guilt. Again and again Steffens laid the responsibility for the ugly state of affairs
portrayed in his book at the doorsteps of his own readers. “The misgovernment of the
American people,” he declared, “is misgovernment by the American people.… Are the
people honest? Are the people better than Tammany?… Isn’t our corrupt government,
after all, representative?… There is no essential difference between the pull that gets
your wife into society or for your book a favorable review, and that which gets a heeler
into office, a thief out of jail, and a rich man’s son on the board of directors of a
corporation.… The boss is not a political, he is an American institution, the product of a
freed people that have not the spirit to be free.… We are responsible, not our leaders,
since we follow them.… The spirit of graft and of lawlessness is the American spirit.…
The people are not innocent. That is the only ‘news’ in all the journalism of these
articles.… My purpose was … to see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame,
would not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.” Steffens
closed his introduction by dedicating his book “to the accused—to all the citizens of all
the cities in the United States.”6
It may seem that there was remarkable boldness in this accusatory procedure, but such
appearances are often deceptive. Steffens had good reason to know that the substantial
American citizen accepted such accusation as valid. The people of Minneapolis and St.
Louis had written not in resentment but in encouragement after his exposure of those
cities had been published in McClure’s, and—still more significant—hundreds of
invitations poured in from citizens, as individuals or in organized groups, of many other
cities inviting exposure on their own premises: “come and show us up; we’re worse than
they are.”7
Steffens’s argument that it was the people, and particularly the “best” people, who
were responsible for corruption cannot be taken, however, as an ultimate comment on
human nature or the human condition. He was not preaching universal sinfulness as a
token of the fact that most men would be damned, but because he hoped and expected
that all could be saved—saved through this ardent appeal to their pride. This is the real
function of the pervasively ugly character of reality that the Progressives so frequently
harped on: pervasive as it was, it was neither impenetrable nor irremovable: it was an
instrument of exhortation, not a clue to life but a fulcrum for reform. Steffens hoped, at
bottom, “that our shamelessness is superficial, that beneath it lies a pride which, being
real, may save us yet,”8 For when the chips were down he could not but believe, as he
said of the situation in St. Louis, that “the people are sound.”9
Among some reformers this ethos of responsibility to which Steffens appealed simply
took the form of an effort to participate in what the rhetoric of the time called “the race
life”—which meant, by and large, to get nearer to those who suffered in a more
profound and poignant way from the burdens of “reality.” As early as 1892 Jane
Addams had delivered a fine, penetrating lecture on “The Subjective Necessity for Social
Settlements,” in which she explained how the sheltered and well-brought-up young
Americans of her generation, reared on the ideal of social justice and on Protestant
moral imperatives, had grown uncomfortable about their own sincerity, troubled about
their uselessness, and restless about being “shut off from the common labor by which
they live and which is a great source of moral and physical health.”1 Similarly a
character in one of the social novels of H. H. Boyesen, the son of a rich contractor,
professed “a sneaking sense of guilt when I am too comfortable,” and left high society to
plunge into what he called “the great discordant tumultuous life, with its passions and
cries of distress.”2 Characters with the same motivation were constantly to be found in
the pages of McClure’s—now, however, no longer only as the protagonists of fiction, but
as the authors of articles.3 Where this impulse was translated into action it sent a host of
earnest reformers into the field to engage themselves in various useful philanthropies.
But on the purely verbal level, where of necessity it had to remain for most people, it
resulted on occasion in a rather strenuous moral purgation, not unlike the pathetic
proletarianism that swept over many American intellectuals in the 1930’s. One Florence
Wilkinson contributed to McClure’s a poem entitled “The Tortured Millions”:4
. . . They are dying that I may live, the tortured millions.
By the Ohio River, the Euphrates, the Rhone.
They wring from the rocks my gold, the tortured millions;
Sleepless all night they mix my daily bread;
With heavy feet they are trampling out my vintage;
They go to a hungry grave that I may be fed.…
I warm my hands at the fires of ruining houses;
On a dying mother’s breast I sink my head;
Last night my feet were faint from idleness,
I bathed my feet in blood her children shed.
O thou eternal Law, I wish this not to be.
Nay, raise them from the dust and punish me.
So the middle-class citizen received quite earnestly the exhortations that charged him
with personal responsibility for all kinds of social ills. It was his business to do
something about them. Indeed, he must do something if he was ever to feel better. But
what should he do? He was too substantial a fellow to want to make any basic changes
in a society in which he was so typically a prosperous and respectable figure. What he
needed, therefore, was a feeling that action was taking place, a sense that the moral
tone of things was being improved and that he had a part in this improvement.
Corruption thus became a particularly fine issue for the moral energies of the
Progressive. He was ready to be convinced that the country was thoroughly wicked, and
the muckrakers supplied him with a wealth of plausible evidence.
In time the muckraking and reform writers seem to have become half conscious of the
important psychic function their work was performing for themselves and their public,
quite apart from any legislative consequences or material gains. They began to say, in
effect, that even when they were unable to do very much to change the exercise of
political power, they liked the sense of effort and the feeling that the moral tone of
political life had changed. “It is not the material aspect of this,” they began to say, “but
the moral aspect that interests us.” William Allen White dated the beginnings of this
shift from “materialism” to “moral values” from the war with Spain when “the spirit of
sacrifice overcame the spirit of commercialism,” and the people saw “that if we could
learn to sacrifice our own interest for those of a weaker people, we would learn the
lesson needed to solve the great problem of democracy—- to check our national greed
and to make business honest.”5 McClure himself gave characteristic expression to this
high valuation of the intangibles when he praised Charles Evans Hughes’s exposure of
the New York life-insurance companies for the enormous “tonic effect of the inquiry,”
which, he felt, had very likely saved thousands of young men from making compromises
with honor. They saw that “public disgrace” awaited evildoers, and “there is no
punishment so terrible as public disclosure of evil doing.”6 Related to this emphasis on
moral as opposed to material values was a fresh assertion of disdain for money and
monetary success, very reminiscent of the disdain of the Mugwump type for the
materialists.7 With this came a disparagement of material achievement. San Francisco,
remarked George Kennan, was a successful and prosperous city, but it had put stress
“upon material achievement and business prosperity rather than upon civic virtue and
moral integrity. But what shall it profit a city if it gain the whole world and lose its own
soul?”8 Probably no statesman of the time had a better intuitive understanding of the
interest of the reform mind in moral intangibles than Theodore Roosevelt, whose
preachments exploited it to the full. And no observer had a better insight into T. R.’s
relation to his time than the Sage of Emporia, who declared quite properly that
“Roosevelt’s power in this land is a spiritual power. His is not a kingdom of this earth.…
It is immaterial whether or not the Supreme Court sustains him in his position on the
rate bill, the income tax, the license for corporations, or the inheritance tax; not for the
establishment of a system of statutes was he born into this world; but rather like all
great teachers, that by his life and his works he should bear witness unto the truth.”9
This was a penetrating comment upon the meaning of the reform literature as a kind of
symbolic action. For, besides such material accomplishment as they had to show for
themselves, the Progressive writers could claim that they had provided a large part of
the American people with a necessary and (as they would have said) wholesome
1 I have followed recent census designations in defining “urban” population as that living in incorporated places having
2,500 inhabitants or more. The rural population grew from 25,226,000 to 49,973,000 while the urban grew from 6,216,000
to 41,998,000. The most rapid rate of growth was shown in the very large cities of 100,000 or more. See Historical
Statistics of the United States, 1789-1945 (Washington, 1949), pp. 16, 25, 29.
2 Arthur M. Schlesinger: The Rise of the City (New York, 1933), p. 64.
3 The works of the city reformer Frederic C. Howe are still worth study. See The City: the Hope of Democracy (New York,
1905); The British City (New York, 1907), esp. chapter xv; European Cities at Work (New York, 1913), esp. chapter xxi; and
The Modern City and Its Problems (New York, 1915). On city development see also Lewis Mumford: The Culture of Cities
(New York, 1938).
4 In the chapter on municipal government he wrote for Bryce’s American Commonwealth, Vol. I, p. 652.
5 Ibid., p. 637.
6 Forum, Vol. X (December 1890), p. 25.
7 Josiah Strong; The Twentieth Century City (New York, 1898), p. 181.
8 “In those days educated citizens of cities said, and I think they believed—they certainly acted upon the theory—that it
was the ignorant foreign riff-raff of the big congested towns that made municipal politics so bad.” Lincoln Steffens:
Autobiography (New York, 1931), p. 400.
9 See the charts in Frank Julian Warne: The Immigrant Invasion (New York, 1913), facing pp. 118-19.
1 Cf. Thomas Bailey Aldrich: “Kipling described exactly the government of every city and town in the … United States
when he described that of New York as being ‘a despotism of the alien, by the alien, for the alien, tempered with
occasional insurrections of decent folk!’ ” Ferris Greenslet: Life of Thomas Bailey Aldrich (New York, 1908), p. 169.
2 Cf. John Paul Bocock: “The Irish Conquest of Our Cities,” Forum, Vol. XVII (April 1894), pp. 186-95, which lists a large
roster of cities ruled by the Irish minority. “Philadelphia, Boston, and New York were once governed by the Quaker, the
Puritan, and the Knickerbockers. Are they better governed now, since from the turbulence of municipal politics the Irish
American has plucked both wealth and power? Surely those who are too scrupulous to contend with him for those
rewards should be the last to decry him for his success in securing them.” Ibid., p. 195.
3 See John Higham: “Origins of Immigration Restriction, 1882-1897: a Social Analysis,” Mississippi Historical Review, Vol.
XXXIX (June 1952), pp. 77-88; and Barbara Miller Solomon: “The Intellectual Background of the Immigration Restriction
Movement in New England,” New England Quarterly, Vol. XXV (March 1952), pp. 47-59. For the views of historians see
Edward Saveth: American Historians and European Immigrants (New York, 1948).
4 Thus in the election of 1912 the Taft Republicans adopted a platform that gestured vaguely toward immigration
restriction while the Bull Moosers spoke of the necessity to aid, protect, and Americanize the immigrant. The Democratic
Party, containing both the urban machines and the more radical agrarians, who stood most sharply at odds on this issue,
straddled it by making no reference to the problem.
5 Of course one reason why the immigrant held so fast to his ethnic loyalties was that he could not develop any class
loyalties because he was excluded by the unions. Their attitude confirmed his feeling that he was different. For Samuel
Gompers’s views on “racial purity,” see Arthur Mann’s illuminating essay: “Gompers and the Irony of Racism,” Antioch
Review (Summer 1953), pp. 203-14.
6 See, for instance, Commons’s Races and Immigrants in America; cf. Higham. op. cit., pp. 81, 85.
7 Edward A. Ross: The Old World in the New (New York, 1914), passim, esp. pp. 219, 220, 226-7, 237, 272, 279-80, 286-7,
304, and chapters vii, ix, x. Cf. some of the nonsense about “race” in William Allen White’s The Old Order Changeth (New
York, 1910), pp. 128-30, 197-9, 252, which, however, takes a more optimistic view of the future. Ross’s views should be
compared with those of the racist, anti-immigrant faction in the Socialist Party. Ira Kipnis: The American Socialist
Movement, 1897-1912, pp. 276-88. In 1936, when Ross published his autobiography, he repudiated some of the racist
implications of his earlier work. Seventy Years of It (New York, 1936), chapter xxvii.
8 Edward G. Hartmann: The Movement to Americanize the Immigrant (New York, 1948). The Populists who accused
businessmen of being indifferent to the immigrant’s status in American life were not altogether correct. Such organizations
as the North American Civic League for Immigrants received much support from businessmen who were interested in
introducing immigrants to American life and keeping them clear of agitators.
9 For a spirited statement of the immigrant reaction, see Bagdasar K. Baghdigian: Americanism in Americanization (Kansas
City, Mo., 1921). The immigrant reaction became most outspoken during the war, when the Americanizers, startled by the
sudden realization of the strength of alien loyalties, accelerated their efforts. “The immigrant is by no means stupid,”
declared an immigrant newspaper in 1919. “He feels the patronizing attitude the American adopts towards him, and
therefore never opens his soul.” Hartmann, op. cit., p. 258.
1 I have drawn here upon the perceptive discussion of the immigrant in politics by Oscar Handlin: The Uprooted (Boston,
1951), chapter viii.
2 Cf. Henry Cabot Lodge’s complaint that the idea of patriotism—devotion to one’s country—was Roman, while the idea of
devotion to the emperor as the head of state was Byzantine. It was the Byzantine inheritance, he said, that the Eastern
immigrants were bringing in. Henry Cabot Lodge: “Immigration—a Review,” in Philip David, ed.: Immigration and
Americanization (Boston, 1920), p. 55.
The boss’s code of personal loyalty and the reformer’s code of loyalty to civic ideals could not easily be accommodated,
with the consequence that when the two had dealings with each other there were irreparable misunderstandings. Thus
Woodrow Wilson in New Jersey and Joseph Folk in Missouri were made, respectively, Governor and Attorney General
through agreements with bosses, and both turned on their benefactors, Wilson in matters of program and patronage, Folk
to the extent of a prosecution for corruption. To bosses Jim Smith and Ed Butler, Wilson and Folk were ingrates and
scoundrels. But in their own minds the reformers were justified in placing civic ideals and public commitments over and
above mere personal obligations.
3 Ross reported the words of a New England reformer: “The Germans want to know which candidate is better qualified for
the office. Among the Irish I have never heard such a consideration mentioned. They ask, ‘Who wants this candidate?’
‘Who is behind him?’ I have lined up a good many Irish in support of Good Government men, but never by setting forth
the merits of a matter or a candidate. I approach my Irish friends with the personal appeal, ‘Do this for me!’ ” The Old
World in the New, p. 262.
Later, as new immigrant groups became more Americanized, they began to resent the Irish tendency to monopolize
political leadership, and formed factions of their own, with which the Irish bosses learned to do business.
4 William L. Riordan: Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, ed. by Roy V. Peel (New York, 1948), p. 52. This work, which consists of
a record of Plunkitt’s utterances, was originally published in 1905. It is instructive to set its basic assumptions alongside
those of the reformers.
5 Nothing I have said in the text should be taken to imply that the urban machines based upon immigrant support were
the first or only ones to develop a spirit of political participation based upon the economics of self-interest. Of course the
whole nineteenth-century sectional-interest scramble, with its tariff trading and its pork-barrel procedures, would belie
any such notion, and it is worth adding that this political tradition was represented by Anglo-Saxon politicians, many of
them with rural backgrounds. The notion that politics should be an area for high-minded and disinterested service was
revived (it was by no means new in America among them) by the Mugwump idealists of the late nineteenth century. After
them it became a creed with a much broader following during the Progressive era. I have singled out, as a phenomenon of
the Progressive era, the antipathy between the ethos of the boss-machine-immigrant complex and that of the reformerindividualist-
Anglo-Saxon complex not because I hold it to be the only struggle going on at the time but because it serves as
an archetypical illustration of undercurrents of political feeling that were then beginning to be of especial importance. (For
later developments in this line see chapter vii, section 2.) We need more studies of the types of political organizations that
have flourished in the United States and of the codes of loyalties they have developed to sustain them. Such studies would
concern themselves with at least five major variants: not only the immigrant machines and the reform movements, but the
durable reform machines, the native interest-politics machines of the mid-nineteenth century, and the modes of
government developed by the interlocking local elites of the middle and late eighteenth century.
6 John Lydenberg: Premuckraking, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 1946.
7 S. S. McClure: My Autobiography (New York, 1914), p. 245.
8 Alfred McClung Lee: The Daily Newspaper in America (New York, 1937), pp. 716-17.
9 Ibid., pp. 725-6.
1 See Helen MacGill Hughes: News and the Human Interest Story (Chicago, 1940).
2 The modern newspaper reader often shrinks from the vulgarity and sentimentality of sob-sister journalism. While the
manifest function of such writing, however, may be to exploit sentiment for the sake of sales, its latent function is to help
create an urban ethos of solidarity and to put some limits on the barbarization of urban life. No American newspaperreader
can fail to notice the widespread generous response that is given almost every day to some widely publicized
personal disaster. Even a dignified newspaper like the New York Times taps this generosity each year by raising funds for
charity on the basis of poignantly written accounts of the city’s “Hundred Neediest Cases.” A civilization that needs sobsister
journalism is a sad one, but the same civilization incapable of producing it would be worse.
3 Frank Luther Mott: American Journalism (New York, 1947), p. 385.
4 Ibid., pp. 488-90.
5 “While the editorial office might be preparing the most flowery moralistic or religionistic editorials regarding the worth
of man, the value of progress, character, religion, morality, the sanctity of the home, charity, and the like, the business
office and news room were concerned with no such fine theories. The business office was all business, with little or no
thought of anything save success, and in the city news room the mask was off and life was handled in a rough-and-ready
manner, without gloves.… Pretense did not go here. Innate honesty on the part of any one was not probable. Charity was a
business with something in it for somebody. Morality was in the main for public consumption only.” Theodore Dreiser: A
Book about Myself (New York, 1922), pp. 151-2. Thus the newspaper itself provided a model for the Progressive
dissociation of morals and “reality.”
6 S. S. McClure, op. cit., pp. 237-8.
7 Ibid., p. 238.
8 Ida Tarbell. All in the Day’s Work (New York, 1939), pp. 202 ff.
9 Ibid., p. 242.
1 Ibid., chapter xiv, pp. 364 ff.
2 Lincoln Steffens: Autobiography, p. 364.
3 C. C. Fegier: The Era of the Muckrakers (Chapel Hill, 1932), p. 130.
4 For accounts of the decline of muckraking, see Louis Filler: Crusaders for American Liberalism (New York, 1939), chapter
xxviii, and C. C. Regier, op. cit., chapter xii.
5 Filler, op. cit., pp. 370-3. The whole subject of the decline of muck-raking deserves a full-length study of its own,
centering not simply on the resistance of the business community but on such factors as popular mood and the internal
business and promotional methods of the magazines themselves. In the latter connection see Walter A. Gaw; Some
Important Trends in the Development of Magazines in the United States as an Advertising Medium, unpublished doctoral
dissertation, New York University, 1942.
6 Most of the principals have left this incident obscure in their memoirs. The most informative account is that of Ida
Tarbell, op. cit., pp. 256-7; cf. Steffens: Autobiography, pp. 535-6.
7 Ray Stannard Baker: American Chronicle (New York, 1945), p. 226.
8 Ibid., pp. 226-7. Cf. Miss Tarbell’s recollection that the American Magazine “had little genuine muckraking spirit.… The
idea that there was something fundamentally sound and good in industrial relations, that in many spots had gone far
beyond what either labor or reformers were demanding, came to the office as a new attack on the old problem.” Op. cit., p.
281. “It seems to me,” wrote William Allen White, another member of the group, to editor John S. Phillips in 1906, “the
great danger before you is that of being too purposeful. People will expect the pale drawn face; the set lips and a general
line of emotional insanity. You should fool ’em. Give ’em something like ‘Pigs is Pigs.’ From the prospectus they will judge
that you are going to produce a ‘Thin red line of heroes,’ and instead of which you should have the sharp claque of the
slap stick.…” Walter Johnson; William Allen White’s America (New York, 1947), p. 159.
9 Robert Cantwell: “Journalism—the Magazines,” in Harold E. Stearns, ed.: America Now (New York, 1938), p. 347.
1 On the intellectual achievement of this generation see Morton G. White: Social Thought in America (New York, 1949),
esp. chapter ii.
2 In his Introduction to J. Allen Smith: Growth and Decadence of Constitutional Government (New York, 1930), p. xi.
3 I have dealt with this problem at greater length in “Beard and the Constitution,” American Quarterly, Vol. II (Fall 1950),
pp. 195-213; the same essay is in Howard K. Beale, ed.: Charles A. Beard (Lexington, Ky., 1954), pp. 75-92.
4 Cf. the discussion of “Reality in America” by Lionel Trilling, in The Liberal Imagination (New York, 1950), pp. 3-21.
5 Josiah Strong, op. cit., p. 159.
6 I have chosen not only this editorial from McClure’s, but that periodical’s contents during this whole era as being
completely representative of the average magazine-reader’s fare, and of the thought and sensibility of the muckraking
7 “In brief, so long as the trust question is a question of law, the people may feel as the President does, that it is safe in
clean, steady hands and a loyal, legal mind.” L. A. Coolidge: “Attorney-General Knox, Lawyer,” McClure’s, Vol. XIX
(September 1902), p. 473.
“… the dull indifference of the people. They do not insist that the laws be enforced.” S. S. McClure: “The Increase of
Lawlessness in the United States,” ibid., Vol. XXIV (December 1904), p. 163.
“The only remedy is a strict enforcement of all the laws, all along the line, all the time …” Ray Stannard Baker: “What Is
a Lynching?” ibid. (February 1905), p. 430.
“… a failure to observe the elementary principles of law …” Burton J. Hendrick: “Governor Hughes,” ibid., Vol. XXX
(April 1908), p. 681.
“I would like to see all saloons legislated out of existence …” “The Story of an Alcohol Slave,” ibid., Vol. XXXIII (August
1909), p. 430.
“… my chief constructive work was devoted to securing a system by which I could compel the body of men under me—
against its old custom and obvious self-interest—really to enforce the law.” General Theodore A. Bingham: “The Organized
Criminals of New York,” ibid., Vol. XXXIV (November 1909), p. 62.
This was one of the points at which the more sophisticated thinking of the era deviated most sharply from common
discourse; for while the Progressive moralists and popular exhorters were demanding a return to the “law,” conceived as a
glittering abstraction, writers like Charles A. Beard, Arthur F. Bentley, and Frank G. Goodnow were trying to show that law
too is responsive to political pressures and that it reflects class interests.
8 E. A. Ross wrote a very popular book, Sin and Society (Boston, 1907), whose entire purpose was to show how the new
conditions of life demanded a new code of morality. Sinning—the commission of evil acts harmful to others—had become
corporate and impersonal. The characteristic wrong arose not out of aggression but from betrayal. Usually it was
committed by men who were entirely virtuous in private and personal relationships, for the chief problem now was not
the evil impulse itself but moral insensibility. The modern sinners could not see the results of their own acts because these
would be remote in time and space. Therefore it was necessary to become ever so much more imaginative than formerly in
appraising one’s own sins and those of others. Among other things, directors of companies should be held personally
accountable for every preventable abuse committed by their corporations.
9 In evangelical Protestantism the individual is expected to bear almost the full burden of the conversion and the salvation
of his soul. What his church provides him with, so far as this goal is concerned, is an instrument of exhortation. In
Catholicism, by contrast, as in some other churches, the mediating role of the Church itself is of far greater importance
and the responsibility of the individual is not keyed up to quite the same pitch. A working mechanism for the disposal and
psychic mastery of guilt is available to Roman Catholics in the form of confession and penance. If this difference is
translated into political terms, the moral animus of Progressivism can be better understood.
1 Howe: The Confessions of a Reformer, p. 17.
2 Ibid., p. 3.
3 Ibid., p. 8.
4 Theodore Roosevelt: “Reform through Social Work,” McClure’s, Vol. XVI (March 1901), p. 454.
“… in the final analysis it was the voters who decided whether New York should be ‘open’ or ‘shut.’ ” Josiah Flynt: “In
the World of Graft,” ibid. (April 1901), p. 576.
“In short, if we want self-government … we have got to work at it ourselves. President Roosevelt is right when he
preaches broad morality; the necessity of each man getting down and doing something himself.” Ray Stannard Baker: “The
Trust’s New Tool—-the Labor Boss,” ibid., Vol. XXII (November 1903), p. 43. Cf. the same author’s conclusion that
everyone was guilty “who has not, himself obedient to the law, demanded the election of men who will enforce the law.”
“The Reign of Lawlessness,” ibid., Vol. XXIII (May 1904), p. 56.
“They [the Christian citizens] could accomplish it by each individual resolving to vote for God at the polls—that is to
say, vote for the candidate whom God would approve.” Anonymous: “Christian Citizenship,” ibid., Vol. XXVI (November
1905), p. 110.
5 William Allen White: The Old Order Changeth, p. 30.
6 Lincoln Steffens: The Shame of the Cities (New York, 1904); the quotations are drawn, passim, from the introduction, pp,
7 Ibid., p. 25.
8 Ibid., p. 24.
9 Ibid., p. 140.
1 Jane Addams et al.: Philanthropy and Social Progress (New York, 1893), pp. 1-26.
2 H. H. Boyesen: Social Strugglers (New York, 1893), pp. 78, 83-4, 273. The ethos of guilt and indignation, work and
service, and the idea of an implacable opposition between material gratification and spiritual development are outstanding
themes in the work of the most popular Progressive novelist, Winston Churchill, who portrayed the whole movement as
“the springing of a generation of ideals from a generation of commerce.” See Richard and Beatrice Hofstadter: “Winston
Churchill: a Study in the Popular Novel,” passim.
3 “Blair Carrhart goes as a laborer into the steel works, that he may better know the men whom he wants to help.… With
him we live a life full of dangers and struggles and suffering.” A review of I. K. Friedman’s By Bread Alone, McClure’s, Vol.
XVII (September 1901), pp. 502-3.
“She was a woman of superior education and wide social experience, and, like many other American women of similar
qualifications, had that tireless energy that could not be satisfied with remaining a passive spectator to the progressive life
about her.” Lewis E. MacBrayne: “The Promised Land,” ibid., Vol. XX (November 1902), p. 66.
“If we were not reading about matters calculated to fill us with unutterable shame, we should be captivated by a style so
frank, strong, and fervent. Here is something better than entertainment.” Everybody’s, reviewing the work of Lincoln
Steffens, as quoted in McClure’s, Vol. XXIII (November 1904), p. 111. The significance of that last sentence should not be
passed over.
“We were as blind to real civil morals as the Spaniards of the Inquisition must have been to the morality of Christ.”
William Allen White: “Roosevelt: a Force for Righteousness,” ibid., Vol. XXVIII (January 1907), p. 388. “… the whole
infernal system of money-bought government, money-bought churches and schools, was as surely made from the
commercial malice in our own hearts as the golden calf set up in the wilderness was the god of the Israelites.” Ibid., p. 394.
See also the article by Rudolph Cronau: “A Continent Despoiled,” ibid., Vol. XXXII (April 1909), with its
“incontrovertible and convicting evidence of grave sins of which our nation has been guilty” (p. 639).
4 McClure’s, Vol. XXIII (June 1904), pp. 167-8. The same author published (December 1906) another expression of her
feelings, “A Salutation to Russia,” written in a Whitmanesque manner and beginning: “You, millions of muzhiks, huddled
in the smoky doorways of your huts …” This should be compared with her “Hands,” ibid. (June 1910), p. 229:
Oh, wonderful hands of toilers,
Graved with the signs of your crafts,…
I honor you, hands of toilers,
I kneel and kiss your hands.
5 The Old Order Changeth, p. 29.
6 McClure’s, Vol. XXVI (December 1905), p. 223. Cf. Burton J. Hendrick, who remarked concerning Hughes’s governorship
that it was too early to judge the permanent effects of his changes but it was clear “that he has permanently increased the
influence of his office, established new ideals for his successors, impressed upon legislators new conceptions of their
responsibilities and greatly improved the tone and efficiency of public life.” “Governor Hughes,” ibid., Vol. XXX (April
1908), p. 681 (italics added).
7 Cf. Miss Tarbell’s “John D. Rockefeller; a Character Study,” ibid., Vol. XXV (July-August 1905).
8 George Kennan: “Criminal Government and the Private Citizen,” ibid., Vol. XXX (November 1907), p. 71. (This George
Kennan, 1845-1924, the explorer and journalist, should not be confused with George F. Kennan the diplomat, who is his
nephew.) Cf. the opinion of Judge Ben B. Lindsey that the most appalling price of lawlessness and corruption was not the
material but the moral cost. “The bottom of the whole trouble is a kind of selfishness that in this country is exalting money
above manhood, and no business is ever going to be permanently successful so long as it is based upon an iniquitous
doctrine like that.” Ibid. (January 1908), p. 386. Compare with this the extraordinary idealization of both business and the
professions expressed in Brandeis’s famous essay “Business—a Profession,” in which it is argued that “success in business
must mean something very different from mere money-making” and that the joys of business must not be “the mere vulgar
satisfaction which is experienced in the acquisition of money, in the exercise of power or in the frivolous pleasure of
mere winning.” Business—a Profession (Boston, 1944), pp. 3, 5; this essay was originally written in 1912.
9 William Allen White: “Roosevelt, a Force for Righteousness,” ibid., Vol. XXVIII (January 1907), p. 393.
I . Organization and the Individual
Progressivism, at its heart, was an effort to realize familiar and traditional ideals under
novel circumstances. As I have emphasized, the ordinary American’s ideas of what
political and economic life ought to be like had long since taken form under the
conditions of a preponderantly rural society with a broad diffusion of property and
power. In that society large aggregates had played a minor role. Corporate businesses
were then just emerging, and they had not yet achieved the enormous size and national
scope which they acquired during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, when
the Progressive generation was still growing up. Political machines, though an
important feature of American life since the days of Aaron Burr, had not played the
massive managerial role that they now assumed in American cities and states, and in
any case had appeared less formidable threats to civic virtue and democratic politics
than they now seemed to be in the corrupting presence of the great corporations. The
American tradition had been one of unusually widespread participation of the citizen in
the management of affairs, both political and economic.1 Now the growth of the large
corporation, the labor union, and the big impenetrable political machine was clotting
society into large aggregates and presenting to the unorganized citizen the prospect that
all these aggregates and interests would be able to act in concert and shut out those men
for whom organization was difficult or impossible. As early as 1894 William Dean
Howells, who had grown up in a small Midwestern community, remarked that the
character of American life had undergone a drastic change. “The struggle for life,” he
said, “has changed from a free fight to an encounter of disciplined forces, and the free
fighters that are left get ground to pieces between organized labor and organized
capital.”2 Ray Stannard Baker, writing in McClure’s almost a decade later, pointed out
that a number of well-knit local combinations of capital and labor had recently been
organized, and gave voice to the fears of the potential victims: “The unorganized public,
where will it come in? The professional man, the lecturer, the writer, the artist, the
farmer, the salaried government employee, and all the host of men who are not
engaged in the actual production or delivery of necessary material things, how will they
fare?… Is there any doubt that the income of organized labor and the profits of
organized capital have gone up enormously, while the man-on-a-salary and most of the
great middle class, paying much more for the necessaries of life, have had no adequate
increase in earnings?”3 The central theme in Progressivism was this revolt against the
industrial discipline: the Progressive movement was the complaint of the unorganized
against the consequences of organization.
Of course there was a problem underlying this effort that did not escape the most
astute contemporaries, including many who sympathized deeply with the Progressives.
The processes of modern technology and machine industry—not to speak of the complex
tasks of civic life—make organization, specialism, hierarchy, and discipline utterly
necessary. The Progressives, object though they might to the many sacrifices of
traditional values that the new society demanded, did not seriously propose to dismantle
this society, forsake its material advantages, and return to a more primitive technology.
Nor did they always make the mistake of thinking that the revolt against organization
could go on without itself developing new forms of organization. They were trying, in
short, to keep the benefits of the emerging organization of life and yet to retain the
scheme of individualistic values that this organization was destroying. In order to
understand them sympathetically, then, it is important to think of them not as stupid or
incapable men who fumbled a simple task, but as men of reasonable and often indeed of
penetrating intelligence whose fate it was to attempt, with great zeal and
resourcefulness, a task of immense complexity and almost hopeless difficulties.
Long before the Progressives arose, some Americans had seen that organization had
its disadvantages and dangers, but it was in the Progressive era that the social types
expropriated and alienated by the new organization reached a new peak in numbers
and a pitch of restiveness such as they have not shown since. Many historians have
pointed out that Progressivism appealed powerfully to small businessmen who were
being overwhelmed or outdistanced by great competitors. It also appealed—as all the
rhetoric about the trusts and the consumer made evident—to the new middle class of
technicians and salaried professionals, clerical workers, salespeople, and public-service
personnel that multiplied along with the great corporations and the specialized skills of
corporate society. This was by far the most rapidly growing stratum in the population.
From 1870 to 1910, when the whole population of the United States increased two and
one-third times, the old middle class—business entrepreneurs and independent
professional men—grew somewhat more than two times; the working class, including
farm labor, grew a little more than three times; the number of farmers and farm tenants
doubled. But the new middle class grew almost eight times, rising from 756,000 to
5,609,000 people. When we compare the latter figure with the 3,261,000 independent
enterprisers and self-employed professionals, we have some notion of the relative
strength of these two strata of the population from which Progressivism drew so much of
its urban following.4
A large and significant political public had emerged that was for the most part fairly
well educated, genteel in its outlook, full of aspiration, and almost completely devoid of
economic organization. It had no labor unions, no trade associations; its professional
societies were without bargaining power. It had only political means through which to
express its discontents. While it could not strike or fix prices or support expensive
lobbies, it could read the muckraking magazines, listen to the Progressive orators, and
vote. I suspect that this class was recruited in very large measure from people who had
either risen upwards or moved sideways in the social scale—of Yankee farmers’ sons
who had come to the city, of native workmen’s children aspiring to white-collar
respectability—of people, in short, who had been bred upon the Horatio Alger legend
and the American dream of success and who had not given up hope of realizing it.
Today the white-collar class is more apathetic and more self-indulgent; it hopes chiefly
for security, leisure, and comfort and for the enjoyment of the pleasures of mass
entertainment. But in the Progressive era this class still lived within the framework of
the old ambitions.5 While it resented the swollen wealth of the tycoons and the crass
impersonal conditions of economic life under the corporate economy, it none the less
maintained a half-suppressed feeling of admiration and envy for the captains of
industry who had after all done no more than fulfill the old dream of heroic personal
ascendancy. This may explain why the very journals that ran the devastating
muckrakers’ exposures of the predations and excesses of the corporations also published
hero tales about the outstanding figures of American industry. It may also explain why
the same Progressive periodicals, and even the Socialist periodicals,6 that pilloried the
evils of American society, tore into its established ideas, and offered blueprints for
progress and reform were full of little individualistic advertisements intended to tell
clerks how they could improve themselves and “get ahead”—so that simply by moving
one’s eye from left to right, from one column to the next, one could pass from the world
in which the Beef Trust or Standard Oil was being exposed and denounced, to the world
in which “You Too Can Be a Certified Public Accountant.”
The discontent over the trusts expressed familiar ideals of entrepreneurship and
opportunity which great numbers of Americans were quite unwilling to abandon. In the
old society upon which American ideas of the right and the good had been founded, the
fluid capital of the middle classes had commonly found an outlet in investments over
which the investors exercised a large measure of control. The typical business unit of the
early and middle nineteenth century was owned by an individual or a small group, was
limited in size by the personal wealth of the individuals who controlled it, and was
managed either directly by them or by their agents. As the corporate form of
organization grew and a large market in corporate securities was developed, the savings
and investments and insurance of the substantial middle class, and with these more and
more of the power to make the vital economic decisions of society, passed into the
hands of the masters of corporations and the investment bankers. The restlessness of the
Progressive era owed much of its force to a class of substantial property-owning citizens
whose powers of economic decision had been expropriated by the system of corporate
It would be misleading to imply that the development of the corporation eliminated
profitable direct small-scale investments. Quite the contrary, for the urbanization of the
country brought a growing need for the work of service industries that are usually
organized in small units, and Such lines of enterprise continued to offer much
opportunity for small investors who were satisfied to operate profitably on a small scale
in marginal lines of business. But such enterprises could not absorb more than a part of
middle-class savings; and atter 1870 the decisive and strategic lines of enterprise that
called the tune for the economy as a whole, that afforded the richest profits and aroused
the highest excitement in the entrepreneurial imagination, passed increasingly under the
corporate form of organization. Confined in the pre-Civil War period to a few types of
industries, the business corporation had taken a new lease on life as a consequence of
the Civil War. The necessities of war finance and the success of Jay Cooke in reaching
the domestic investor with government securities had awakened men to the possibilities
of a domestic investment market. In the period after the war this market had grown
swiftly, spreading from the railroad and banking fields into public utilities, mining and
quarrying, manufacturing, and eventually merchandising. By 1900 there were estimated
to be 4,400,000 stockholders in American corporations; by 1917, 8,600,000.7
One area in which middle-class savings became a focus of poignant conflict was that
of life insurance. As a major pivot of finance, life insurance was a product of the post-
Civil War era. Life-insurance protection in the United States, which amounted to $5.47
per capita in 1860, rose to $40.69 in 1885, and to $179.14 in 1910.8 The aggregate of
insurance in force rose by 577 per cent between 1870 and 1896, while the total admitted
assets of the insurance companies rose by 958 per cent.9 With these changes in the size
of the business came internal changes in company policy. The adoption of the so-called
deferred-dividend contract made available to the insurance managers large
undistributed surpluses that did not have the legal status of liabilities in the companies’
accounts. These surpluses, supposedly to be distributed at the end of stated periods to
policy-holders, were drawn upon by the managers of some of the large companies and
used for speculative purposes through subsidiary companies. The exposure of these lifeinsurance
practices in the work of the New York State legislature’s Armstrong
Committee and in such books as Burton J. Hendricks’s The Story of Life Insurance made it
painfully clear to the policy-holding public that even in the citadels of security they
were being shamelessly and ruthlessly gulled.1
A thought most galling to middle-class investors was that the shrinkage of their own
power and the growth in the power of the “plutocracy” were based upon their own
savings —that, as Louis D. Brandeis put it, “the fetters which bind the people are forged
from the people’s own gold.”2 The American had been brought up to accept as “natural”
a type of economy in which enterprise was diffused among a multitude of firms and in
which the process of economic decision, being located everywhere, could not be located
anywhere in particular. Now it was shocking to learn that this economy had been selfdestructive,
that it was giving way to small bodies of men directing great corporations
whose decisions, as Woodrow Wilson protested, were “autocratic,” who could
concentrate in themselves “the resources, the choices, the opportunities, in brief, the
power of thousands.” The poor stockholder, Wilson continued, “does not seem to enjoy
any of the substantial rights of property in connection with [corporate stocks]. He is
merely contributing money for the conduct of a business which other men run as they
please. If he does not approve of what they do, there seems nothing for it but to sell the
stock (though their acts may have depreciated its value immensely). He cannot even
inquire or protest without being told to mind his own business—the very thing he was
innocently trying to do!”3 The Pujo Committee investigators underlined this argument
when they revealed that none of the witnesses that appeared before them was able to
mention a single instance in the country’s history in which stockholders had either
successfully overthrown the management of any large corporation or secured an
investigation of its conduct.4
People readily acknowledged that in spite of all this they were prosperous. But many
of them could not help feeling that this prosperity was being obtained on false
pretenses, that it was theirs in disregard of sound and ancient principles, and that for
this disregard they would in good time come to grief. It had been their tradition to
believe that prosperity and economic progress came not through big or monopolistic
businesses—that is, through the gains and economies of organization—but rather
through competition and hard work and individual enterprise and initiative. They had
been brought up to think of the well-being of society not merely in structural terms—not
as something resting upon the sum of its technique and efficiency—but in moral terms,
as a reward for the sum total of individual qualities and personal merits. This tradition,
rooted in the Protestant ethic itself, was being wantonly defied by the system of
corporate organization.
In 1905 Judge Peter S. Grosscup of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals
published in McClure’s an article that reveals, coming as it did from a man of
impeccable conservatism,5 how widespread this concern was. Although Grosscup
acknowledged that the nation was enjoying a prosperity and power such as it had never
seen before, he expressed his fear that it was losing its soul. It was the intangibles that
worried him. Neither the prosperity nor the power was in danger, but “the soul of
republican America … is individual opportunity.… The loss that republican America
now confronts is the loss of individual hope and prospect—the suppression of the
instinct that … has made us a nation of individually independent and prosperous
people.” The country was in the midst of a trend that, if not deflected, would eventually
reach a point at which “the acquisition of property, by the individuals who constitute
the bulk of the people, will cease to be one of the opening and controlling purposes of
their lives. This means that, as a republican political institution, America will have lost
the spirit which alone promises its life. It means social and, eventually, political
revolution.” The widespread apprehension about corporations was not merely a
consequence of anxiety over high prices. It was rather the result of an “intuitive
perception that, somewhere, something is wrong—that in the face of the future there is
a disturbing, even sinister look.” What was wrong was that the corporation was putting
an unbearable strain on the institution of private property, upon which the civilization
of the world rested; for it was the desire and the hope of acquiring private property
upon which the entire moral discipline of an individualist society must rely. The nation
was at a crossroad leading on one side to corporate paternalism and on the other to
state socialism—both fatal to individual liberties. Fortunately there was another path
that could still be taken: “Individual Opportunity—the opportunity, actual as well as in
theory, to each individual to participate in the proprietorship of the country.”
Grosscup proposed, in short, to reverse the entire process by which the individual had
been expropriated. This he thought could be done if the matter was taken out of the
hands of the states and vested in the federal government, if “stock-jobbing” and stockwatering
were prevented (that is, if the corporation was “regenerated”), and if the
“road to proprietorship” was opened to the wage-earners of the country.6 How such
proprietorship could be made possible he did not say.
Grosscup was expressing an attitude toward economic life that was to appear with
increasing frequency down to the end of the Progressive era. While the great
theoretician and technician of this protest was Louis D. Brandeis, its master spokesman
in politics was Woodrow Wilson, whose campaign speeches in 1912 provide us with a
magnificently articulate expression of the whole impulse. Like Grosscup’s article,
Wilson’s evocative speeches express the tendency of the middle-class public to think of
the economic order not quite so much as a system organized for the production and
distribution of goods as a system intended to stimulate and reward certain traits of
personal character. The public to which Wilson appealed had been brought up on the
nineteenth-century ideal of opportunity and the notion that success was a reward for
energy, efficiency, frugality, perseverance, ambition, and insight. In their thinking,
people competed—or ought to compete—in the exercise of these qualities, and success
ought properly to go to those who had the most of them. The metaphor they most often
and most significantly used in describing their economic ideal was that of a race—“the
race of life,” as it was commonly called. What Wilson was pointing to—and what he
refused to accept as a governing principle for American industry—was the fact that this
race was no longer being run. It had once been true that a man could “choose his own
calling and pursue it just as far as his abilities enable him to pursue it.” America had
been committed to “ideals of absolutely free opportunity, where no man is supposed to
be under any limitations except the limitations of his character and of his mind … where
men win or lose on their merits.” By various means the new system of organization had
destroyed this body of ideals. But: “America will insist upon recovering in practice those
ideals which she has always professed.”7
Wilson saw that Americans were living under “a new organization of society,” in
which the individual had been “submerged” and human relations were pervasively
impersonal. Wilson’s hero, the rising individual entrepreneur of classical economics and
of earlier days of diffused property management, had been done in by just such
impersonal organization. This entrepreneurial hero—referred to by Wilson as the
“beginner,” the “man with only a little capital,” the “new entry” in the race, “the man
on the make” —was the figure for whom he was particularly solicitous. For Wilson was
profoundly interested, he said, in “the constant renewal of society from the bottom,”
upon which the genius and enterprise of America had always depended. And while it
was true that the country was still prosperous, the “middle class is being more and more
squeezed out by the processes which we have been taught to call processes of prosperity.
Its members are sharing prosperity, no doubt; but what alarms me is that they are not
originating prosperity.” The real treasury of America lay in the ambitions and energies
that were not restricted to a special favored class but depended upon the inventions and
originations of “unknown men.” “Anything that depresses, anything that makes the
organization greater than the man, anything that blocks, discourages, dismays the
humble man, is against all the principles of progress.”8 According to the ideals of
individualism, then, the acknowledged power and prosperity of the country had been
achieved by means that must in the long run be considered retrogressive. For was it not
true that the big fellows had narrowed and stiffened the lines of endeavor, cut the little
man off from credit, and shut the markets against him?9 This process had gone so far
that men were about to forget “the ancient time when America lay in every hamlet,
when America was to be seen in every fair valley, when America displayed her great
forces on the broad prairies, ran her fine fires of enterprise up over the mountainsides
and down into the bowels of the earth, and eager men were everywhere captains of
industry, not employees; not looking to a distant city to find out what they might do,
but looking about among their neighbors, finding credit according to their character, not
according to their connections, finding credit in proportion to what was known to be in
them and behind them, not in proportion to the securities they held that were approved
where they were not known.”1
While the worst forebodings of the Progressives were not to be realized, one must see
with sympathy the view of affairs taken by the men of their generation whose historical
consciousness had been formed on the American experience with individual enterprise.
The drama of American history had been played out on a continent three thousand miles
wide and almost half as long. Great political issues had been fought out over this
terrain, great economic risks taken on it, fantastic profits exacted from it. The
generation that had not yet passed from the scene had produced and admired, even as it
resented and feared, a Carnegie, a Rockefeller, a Hill, a Harriman, a Morgan. America
had engendered a national imagination keyed to epic dimensions, a soul unhappy
without novelty and daring, raised on the conquest of a continent, the settlement of an
immense domain, the creation within the life span of one man of a gigantic system of
industry and transportation. Its people had pioneered, improvised, and gambled their
way across the continent. And now were its young men to become a nation of
employees, at best of administrators, were they to accept a dispensation under which
there was nothing but safe investment, to adapt themselves passively to a life without
personal enterprise even on a moderate scale? How, then, was the precious spiritual
bravura of the whole American enterprise to be sustained? And if it could not be
sustained, what would become of America? The Progressives were not fatalists; they did
not intend quietly to resign themselves to the decline of this great tradition without at
least one brave attempt to recapture that bright past in which there had been a future.
II . The State and the Trusts
The Progressive case against business organization was not confined to economic
considerations, nor even to the more intangible sphere of economic morals. Still more
widely felt was a fear founded in political realities—the fear that the great business
combinations, being the only centers of wealth and power, would be able to lord it over
all other interests and thus to put an end to traditional American democracy. Here
Wilson eloquently expressed a fear that troubled a great many men who did not fully
share his burning interest in creating economic opportunities for small entrepreneurs
and for men out of unknown homes. While the entrepreneurial resentment of the trusts
had its greatest meaning for small businessmen, the lower middle class, and those who
had inherited Populistic traditions, the fear of the trusts as a threat to democratic
government, which of course disturbed the same groups, also affected other types—
urban lawyers, professionals and intellectuals, practical politicians recruited from the
old elites, who often looked with disdain upon the purely economic jealousies of wouldbe
competitors of big business. Only in limited numbers did men aspire to go into
business, but men in any segment of society might become concerned as to whether the
enormous combinations of capital were at all compatible with a free society.
By the close of his 1912 campaign there was no doubt left in Wilson’s mind that a
great part of the public considered an attack on business monopoly necessary to
political freedom, for he had seen campaign crowds respond with marked enthusiasm to
his denunciation of restraints and his effort to link political and economic liberties. He
was engaged, he said, in “a crusade against powers that have governed us—that have
limited our development—that have determined our lives—that have set us in a
straitjacket to do as they please.” Drawing himself up to assert the full import of his
own ideas, he continued: “This is a second struggle for emancipation.… If America is not
to have free enterprise, then she can have freedom of no sort whatever.”2
The fear that Americans might be completely divested of control over their own
affairs confirmed a well-established trait in the national character: the distrust of
authority. While it has been a familiar observation at least since the time of Tocqueville
that the American yields all too readily to the tyranny of public opinion, it is important
to understand that in this context public opinion is hard to locate rigorously: it is diffuse
and decentralized, and it belongs, after all, to the people themselves—or so it seems. But
authority that can be clearly located in persons, or in small bodies of persons, is
characteristically suspect in America. Historically, individual enterprise has been at a
premium. For the many tasks that cannot be handled by individuals Americans have
preferred to found voluntary group associations. For the remaining tasks that cannot be
handled without the sanction of government and law they have preferred where
possible to act through local government, which seems close to them, and then through
state government; and only when these resources have failed have they called upon the
federal government for action. This distrust of authority has often been turned against
government, particularly when government was felt to be strong or growing in
strength. It was called upon during the agitations that led to the American Revolution,
and it gave tenacity to the most ardent supporters of the Revolutionary War. It helped
impede the adoption of the Federal Constitution, it was invoked to justify secession, it
caused Americans to postpone into the twentieth century governmental responsibilities
that were assumed decades earlier among other Western societies, and in recent years it
has sustained a large part of the population in its resistance to the innovations of the
New Deal.
But this distrust of authority has on other occasions been turned primarily against
business, or at least against some portions of the business community. In the Jackson
era the United States Bank paid dearly for its growing power over the country’s credit.
In the Progressive era the entire structure of business similarly became the object of a
widespread hostility which stemmed from the feeling that business was becoming a
closed system of authoritative action. Suppose, it was argued, that the process of
business combination goes on in the future as it has in the past, with ever larger
combinations emerging. Then suppose that, perhaps under the auspices of the
investment bankers, there should covertly come to be a “combination of the
combinations … ‘a community of interest’ more formidable than any conceivable single
combination that dare appear in the open.”3 What then would be the situation of
American democracy? Already the power of economic decision had been expropriated
from the owners of property in the great lines of corporate enterprise. The next step
would be the expropriation of political decision, for it would not be too difficult for such
a great combination to buy up the political process, as it were, to bend the corrupt
political machines and the venal politicians to its purposes—as, indeed, on a local and
limited scale some of the existing combinations had already done. Then the voice of the
ordinary voter would be as effectually eliminated from political influence as the voice of
the ordinary stockholder had been from the conduct of the giant corporation. Even if the
intentions of the masters of industry should prove benevolent, it would not suit a free
people to submit to paternalism, to guardianship, to restraints imposed from without. In
a more moderate and more justified form Progressive thinking thus displays some of
that same fear of a secret conspiratorial plutocracy which had had such a melodramatic
formulation among the Populists. It was less common among the Progressives to impute
sinister intent or all-embracing design to the plutocrats, but they were still restive under
the awareness that vital decisions were being made with which they had nothing to do.
“Somewhere, by somebody,” said Wilson, “the development of industry is being
controlled.” It was imperative for “the law to step in” and create new and more
tolerable conditions of life under which there would be no more secrecy of decision.
“There ought to be no place where anything can be done that everybody does not know
about.” All legislation, all economic operations, should take place in the open. If the
people knew what decisions were being made, knew how they were being governed,
and had in their hands the instruments of action, they would have a fair opportunity to
elect men who would devise the necessary remedies.4 (Here, as in so many instances,
one can see the domestic analogue of Wilson’s foreign policy: in business, as in world
affairs, there was to be no more secret diplomacy, nothing but open covenants of
business, openly arrived at.)
In the past the state and federal governments had been limited in their functions, in
the size of their operations, in their power to regulate. In the earlier nineteenth century
these governments, considered as units of organization, had been small entities in a
world of small entities. Into the midst of this system of diffused power and unorganized
strength the great corporations and investment houses had now thrust themselves,
gigantic units commanding vast resources and quite capable of buying up political
support on a wholesale basis, just as they bought their other supplies. The Progressives
were thus haunted by the specter of a private power far greater than the public power
of the state. As early as 1888 Charles William Eliot, in a well-known essay on “The
Working of the American Democracy,” had pointed out that the great corporations, as
units of organization, had far outstripped the governments of the states. He remarked
that a certain railroad with offices in Boston employed 18,000 persons, had gross
receipts of about $40,000,000 a year, and paid its highest-salaried officer $35,000. At
the same time the Commonwealth of Massachusetts employed only 6,000 persons, had
gross receipts of about $7,000,000 and paid no salary higher than $6,500. And a really
great railroad like the Pennsylvania would overshadow the Commonwealth far more
imposingly than the Boston organization.5 As units of organization the state
governments were now relatively small enough to become the fiefs of the corporations.
Eliot wrote at a time when the movement toward combination was still far from its
peak. The organization of the giant corporations after 1898 and the system of
interlocking directorates revealed during the Progressive era suggested that all
government, federal as well as state, was overshadowed. The capital, for instance,
raised to organize the billion-dollar steel trust in 1901 was enough to pay the costs of all
functions of the federal government for almost two years. In March 1908 Senator La
Follette made a memorable speech in the Senate on the control of American industry,
transportation, and finance, in which he attempted to prove with careful documentation
from the interlocking directorates of American corporations that fewer than one
hundred men, acting in concert, controlled the great business interests of the country.
“Does anyone doubt,” he asked, “the community of interest that binds these men
Four years later the investigations of the Pujo Committee spelled out in alarming
detail what La Follette had pointed to: the Morgan interests at the peak of the financial
system held 341 directorships in 112 corporations (insurance companies, transportation
systems, manufacturing and trading corporations, and public utilities) with aggregate
resources or capitalization of $22,245,000,000. This inventory—an incomplete one—
thus showed a single network of interests commanding more than three times the
assessed value of all the real and personal property in New England; or more than twice
the assessed value of all the property in the thirteen Southern states; or more than all
the property in the twenty-two states west of the Mississippi.7 The mind reeled in horror
at the thought of such a vast power, unchecked by any comparable or equal power
responsible to the public, moving quietly and relentlessly toward the achievement of its
political goals. Ignatius Donnelly’s nightmare about a society ruled by an inner council
of plutocrats now seemed, even to much soberer minds than his, not altogether
fantastic. “If monopoly persists,” declared Wilson, “monopoly will always sit at the
helm of the government. I do not expect to see monopoly restrain itself. If there are men
in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going
to own it.”8
Now, reluctantly rather than enthusiastically, the average American tended more and
more to rely on government regulation, to seek in governmental action a counterpoise
to the power of private business. In his resentment against the incursions of business
organization upon his moral sensibilities and his individualistic values, he began to
support governmental organization and to accept more readily than he had been willing
to do before the idea that the reach of government must be extended. Since the state
governments, so long the central agencies of political action, had been clearly
outdistanced by business interests (which were in any case constitutionally beyond the
reach of state control), he looked to the federal government as his last resource for the
control of business, thus ironically lending support to another step in the destruction of
that system of local and decentralized values in which he also believed. The long-range
trend toward federal regulation, which found its beginnings in the Interstate Commerce
Act of 1887 and the Sherman Act of 1890, which was quickened by a large number of
measures in the Progressive era, and which has found its consummation in our time, was
thus at first the response of a predominantly individualistic public to the uncontrolled
and starkly original collectivism of big business. In America the growth of the national
state and its regulative power has never been accepted with complacency by any large
part of the middle-class public, which has not relaxed its suspicion of authority, and
which even now gives repeated evidence of its intense dislike of statism. In our time this
growth has been possible only under the stress of great national emergencies, domestic
or military, and even then only in the face of continuous resistance from a substantial
part of the public. In the Progressive era it was possible only because of a widespread
and urgent fear of business consolidation and private business authority. Since it has
become common in recent years for ideologists of the extreme right to portray the
growth of statism as the result of a sinister conspiracy of collectivists inspired by foreign
ideologies, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that the first important steps toward the
modern organization of society were taken by arch-individualists—the tycoons of the
Gilded Age—and that the primitive beginning of modern statism was largely the work of
men who were trying to save what they could of the eminently native Yankee values of
individualism and enterprise.
But if the power of the state had to be built up, it would be more important than it
had ever been that the state be a neutral state which would realize as fully as possible
the preference of the middle-class public for moderation, impartiality, and “law.” If big
business sought favoritism and privilege, then the state must be powerful enough to be
more than a match for business. But the state must not be anti-business, nor even antibig-
business: it must be severely neutral among all the special interests in society,
subordinating each to the common interest and dealing out even-handed justice to all. It
would be for neither the rich man nor the poor man, for labor nor capital, but for the
just and honest and law-abiding man of whatever class. It would stand, in fact, where
the middle class felt itself to be standing—in the middle, on neutral ground among selfseeking
interests of all kinds. The government’s heightened power was to represent not
its more intimate linkage with any of these interests, but rather its ability with greater
effectuality to stand above them, and where necessary against them.
The first major political leader to understand this need of the public for faith in the
complete neutrality of the powerful state was Theodore Roosevelt, whose intuitive sense
of the importance of this motive, as well as his genuine personal sympathy with it,
explains much of his popularity.9 In this respect the most important year of his
presidency was 1902, when he brought the great anthracite strike to a successful
arbitration and launched the prosecution of the Northern Securities Company. These
moves, by suggesting that the country at last had a President capable of taking a strong
and independent stand in such matters, gave people confidence. They were symbolic
acts of the highest importance.1 While previous Presidents had intervened in labor
disputes—Hayes, for instance, in the railroad strikes of 1877, Cleveland in the Pullman
strike—it had been as partisans of the captains of industry, not as an independent force
representing a neutral view and the “public” interest. Now T. R. seemed in the public
eye to stand not only apart from but above the opposing sides. During the course of the
negotiations that led up to the final compromise, he loomed larger than either the mine
workers or the operators. At first he saw his independence as the source of a
considerable disadvantage: “Unfortunately the strength of my public position before the
country is also its weakness,” he wrote to Lodge. “I am genuinely independent of the big
monied men in all matters where I think the interests of the public are concerned, and
probably I am the first President of recent times of whom this could be truthfully said. I
think it right and desirable that this should be true of the President. But where I do not
grant any favors to these big monied men which I do not think the country requires that
they should have, it is out of the question for me to expect them to grant favors to me in
return.… The sum of this is that I can make no private or special appeal to them, and I
am at my wits’ end how to proceed.”2
In fact T. R.’s wits were much more with him than he had imagined—and so were the
sympathies of a few of the big moneyed men. Ironically, it was Mark Hanna and J.
Pierpont Morgan, both of them paramount symbols of the public of the bloated
plutocracy, whose help and influence made the ultimate settlement possible,3 for
without them the obstinate mine operators might never have been prevailed upon to
agree to arbitration. Nor did Hanna or Morgan expect in return any direct and
immediate “favors” of the sort Roosevelt felt he could not grant. His own conduct in the
affair, after all, was intended to fend off widespread suffering, mass discontent, possible
mob violence, a potential sympathetic general strike, and perhaps even “socialistic
action,”4 and he appealed to these men primarily in their capacity as responsible
conservatives who might be able to head off a social disaster. In the public mind the
incident redounded much to Roosevelt’s credit, and properly so. The historian, however,
cannot refrain from adding that it ill accorded with the stereotypes of Progressive
thinking that “Dollar Mark” Hanna and J. P. Morgan should have attended as midwives
at the birth of the neutral state.
The psychological impact of the Northern Securities prosecution was comparable to
that of the strike settlement, though the economic content was relatively meaningless.
This great railroad merger, which had been consummated only after a spectacular war
for control between financial forces directed by E. H. Harriman and others directed by
James J. Hill and Morgan, had brought about a frightful financial panic in which a
great many personal fortunes were made and unmade. Of necessity the new
combination had attracted a great deal of public attention, and it was everywhere
known as a Morgan interest. To move for its dissolution, though hardly a blow at any
vital concern either of Morgan or of the business community, was to appear to
challenge the dragon in his den. (And indeed Morgan, offended because he had not been
informed in advance, came bustling down to Washington to find out if T. R. intended
“to attack my other interests.”) The government’s suit encouraged everyone to feel at
last that the President of the United States was really bigger and more powerful than
Morgan and the Morgan interests, that the country was governed from Washington and
not from Wall Street. Roosevelt was immensely gratified when the dissolution was
finally upheld by the Supreme Court in 1904, and he had every right to be—not because
he had struck a blow at business consolidation, for the decree was ineffective and
consolidation went on apace, but because for the first time in the history of the
presidency he had done something to ease the public mind on this vital issue. It was, he
said, “one of the great achievements” of his first administration, “for through it we
emphasized in signal fashion, as in no other way could be emphasized, the fact that the
most powerful men in this country were held to accountability before the law.”5
Henceforth, whatever he might do or say, a large part of the public persisted in thinking
of him as a “trust-buster.”
Representing as they did the spirit and the desires of the middle class, the Progressives
stood for a dual program of economic remedies designed to minimize the dangers from
the extreme left and right. On one side they feared the power of the plutocracy, on the
other the poverty and restlessness of the masses. But if political leadership could be
firmly restored to the responsible middle classes who were neither ultra-reactionary nor,
in T. R.’s phrase, “wild radicals,” both of these problems could be met. The first line of
action was to reform the business order, to restore or maintain competition—or, as the
case might be, to limit and regulate monopoly—and expand credit in the interests of the
consumer, the farmer, and the small businessman. The second was to minimize the most
outrageous and indefensible exploitation of the working population, to cope with what
was commonly called “the social question.” The relations of capital and labor, the
condition of the masses in the slums, the exploitation of the labor of women and
children, the necessity of establishing certain minimal standards of social decency—
these problems filled them with concern both because they felt a sincere interest in the
welfare of the victims of industrialism and because they feared that to neglect them
would invite social disintegration and ultimate catastrophe. They were filled with a
passion for social justice, but they also hoped that social justice could be brought about,
as it were, conspicuously. Men like Roosevelt were often furious at the plutocrats
because their luxury, their arrogance, and the open, naked exercise of their power
constituted a continual provocation to the people and always increased the likelihood
that social resentments would find expression in radical or even “socialistic” programs.
Writing to Taft in 1906 about the tasks of American political leadership as he
envisaged them for the next quarter century, Roosevelt declared: “I do not at all like the
social conditions at present. The dull, purblind folly of the very rich men; their greed
and arrogance, and the way in which they have unduly prospered by the help of the
ablest lawyers, and too often through the weakness or shortsightedness of the judges or
by their unfortunate possession of meticulous minds; these facts, and the corruption in
business and politics, have tended to produce a very unhealthy condition of excitement
and irritation in the popular mind, which shows itself in part in the enormous increase
in the socialistic propaganda. Nothing effective, because nothing at once honest and
intelligent, is being done to combat the great amount of evil which, mixed with a little
good, a little truth, is contained in the outpourings of the Cosmopolitan, of McClure’s, of
Collier’s, of Tom Lawson, of David Graham Phillips, of Upton Sinclair. Some of these are
socialists; some of them merely lurid sensationalists; but they are all building up a
revolutionary feeling which will most probably take the form of a political campaign.
Then we may have to do, too late or almost too late, what had to be done in the silver
campaign when in one summer we had to convince a great many good people that what
they had been laboriously taught for several years previous was untrue.”6
Roosevelt represented, of course, the type of Progressive leader whose real impulses
were deeply conservative, and who might not perhaps have been a Progressive at all if
it were not for the necessity of fending off more radical threats to established ways of
doing things. The characteristic Progressive thinker carried on a tolerant and mutually
profitable dialogue with the Socialists of the period, perhaps glancing over his shoulder
with some anxiety from time to time, to be sure that Marxian or Fabian ideas were not
gaining too much ground in the United States, but chiefly because in this age of broad
social speculation he was interested to learn what he could from Socialist criticism.
Fundamentally, however, the influence of such criticism was negative: if the Socialist
said that the growing combinations of capital were natural products of social evolution
and that the challenge they represented to democracy must be met by expropriating
their owners, the typical Progressive was only spurred all the more to find ways of
limiting or regulating monopoly within a capitalist framework; when the Socialist said
that the grievances of the people could be relieved only under Socialism, the typical
Progressive became the more determined to find ways of showing that these grievances
were remediable under capitalism. In these ways the alleged “threat” of Socialism, much
talked about in the Progressive period, actually gave added impetus to middle-class
At bottom, the central fear was fear of power, and the greater the strength of an
organized interest, the greater the anxiety it aroused. Hence it was the trusts, the
investment banking houses, the interlocking directorates, the swollen private fortunes,
that were most criticized, and after them the well-knit, highly disciplined political
machines. The labor unions, being far weaker than the big businesses and the machines,
held an ambiguous place in Progressive thinking. The Progressive sympathized with the
problems of labor, but was troubled about the lengths to which union power might go if
labor-unionism became the sole counterpoise to the power of business. The danger of
combinations of capital and labor that would squeeze the consuming public and the
small businessman was never entirely out of sight. The rise in the price of coal after the
anthracite strike aroused much public concern. And wherever labor was genuinely
powerful in politics—as it was, for instance, in San Francisco, a closed-shop town where
labor for a time dominated the local government—Progressivism took on a somewhat
anti-labor tinge.8
Where the labor movement was of no more than moderate strength and where it
clearly represented the middle-class aspirations of native workers and of business
unionism, it was readily accepted, if only as a minor third partner in the alliance
between agrarians and the urban middle class that constituted the Progressive
movement. Those Progressives who lived in the midst of industrial squalor and strife
seem to have felt that the best way of meeting the “social question” was through means
more benevolently disinterested than those of direct labor action. Here again the ideal
of the neutral state came into play, for it was expected that the state, dealing out
evenhanded justice, would meet the gravest complaints. Industrial society was to be
humanized through law, a task that was largely undertaken in the state legislatures. In
the years following 1900 an impressive body of legislation was passed dealing with
workmen’s compensation, the labor of women and children, hours of work, minimum
wages for women, and old-age pensions.9 Even when much allowance is made for
spottiness in administration and enforcement, and for the toll that judicial decisions
took of them, the net effect of these laws in remedying the crassest abuses of
industrialism was very considerable. Today it is perhaps necessary to make a strong
effort of the imagination to recall the industrial barbarism that was being tamed—to
realize how much, for instance, workmen’s compensation meant at a time when every
year some 16,000 or 17,000 trainmen (about one out of every ten or twelve workers so
classified) were injured. The insistence that the power of law be brought to bear against
such gratuitous suffering is among our finest inheritances from the Progressive
Progressivism was effective, moreover, not only for the laws it actually passed but for
the pressure it put on business to match public reform with private improvements.
American business itself had entered a new phase. Before the 1890’s it had been too
much absorbed in the problems of plant construction, expanding markets, and falling
prices to pay much attention to either the efficiency or the morale of its working force.
American plant management had been backward. But in the early twentieth century
thoughtful American businessmen, pressed by the threat of union organization,
condemned by muckrakers, and smarting under comparisons with the most efficient
managers in Europe, began to address themselves to poor working conditions and
employee morale and to the reformation of their haphazard shop methods.1 Between
1900 and 1910, 240 volumes on business management were published. Frederick
Winslow Taylor’s interest in efficiency was popularized among businessmen. The
emerging business schools, nonexistent in the country before 1898, provided numerous
new agencies for discussion, education, and research in the field of management.
Employers began to study personnel problems, consider devices for cutting fatigue and
improving work conditions, and launched in some cases upon their own welfare and
pension programs and profit-sharing schemes.2 Much of this was resisted by labor
unions as an attempt to set up a system of paternalistic control, and much was indeed
associated with the fostering of company unions. Few employers went as far as Edward
A. Filene in encouraging labor participation in managerial decisions. But the whole
Progressive atmosphere did help to give rise to a system of private welfare capitalism
alongside the statutory system of business regulation that was growing up. During and
after the first World War this private system developed with notable rapidity.
So far as those important intangibles of political tone were concerned in which so
many Progressives were deeply interested, they won a significant victory, for they
heightened the level of human sympathy in the American political and economic system.
One of the primary tests of the mood of a society at any given time is whether its
comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements
of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged. In a large
and striking measure the Progressive agitations turned the human sympathies of the
people downward rather than upward in the social scale. The Progressives, by creating
a climate of opinion in which, over the long run, the comfortable public was disposed to
be humane, did in the end succeed in fending off that battle of social extremes of which
they were so afraid. Thanks in part to their efforts, the United States took its place
alongside England and the Scandinavian countries among those nations in which the
upper and middle classes accepted the fundamental legitimacy of labor aspiration and
labor-unionism, and took a different path from those countries of the Continent where
the violence of class antagonism and class struggle was heightened by the moral
rejection of Labor. To realize the importance of the change in the United States itself,
one need only think of the climate of opinion in which the Pullman strike and the
Homestead strike were fought out and compare it with the atmosphere in which labor
organization has taken place since the Progressive era. There has of course been
violence and bloodshed, but in the twentieth century a massive labor movement has
been built with far less cost in these respects than it cost the American working class
merely to man the machines of American industry in the period from 1865 to 1900.
Although the Progressives were thus capable, except in special instances, of coming to
terms with the organization of labor, the objective problem as well as the confusing
mixture of feelings involved in their approach to business organization gave them far
greater trouble. While the Progressive citizen was alarmed at the threat to economic
competition and political democracy, he was also respectful of order, aware of
prosperity, and cautious about launching any drastic attack upon propertied
institutions. While he was hostile to private business power, he also admired bigness,
efficiency, and success. While he was devoted to the moral virtues and believed in the
material benefits of price competition, he was also willing to reckon with social change,
and he worshipped that god of progress which the consolidation of business was said by
many men to represent.
The Progressive discussion of the so-called trust or monopoly question is therefore
filled with all that uneasiness and inconsistency which we may expect to see when men
find themselves enmeshed in institutions and practices that seem to be working to
considerable effect but that violate their inherited precepts and their moral preferences.
When a social problem is, in its largest aspects, insoluble, as this one was, and when the
feelings aroused over it are as urgent as the feelings of the Progressive generation, what
usually happens is that men are driven to find a purely ceremonial solution. Among
later generations, which do not approach the problem in the same way or have feelings
of the same urgency about it, such ceremonial solutions are a temptation to the satirical
intelligence. But we must be wary of falling too readily into that easy condescension
which one may feel when speaking with hindsight about the problems of an earlier age.
Since we no longer experience with anything like the same intensity some of the
Progressives’ anxieties or their sense of loss, we have outgrown the problem of business
organization that they faced: and in so far as we recognize it as a real problemas we do,
for instance, in relation to the preservation of democracy—we have by no means solved
From the very beginning, at any rate, when the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed in
1890, it was recognized by most of the astute politicians of that hour as a gesture, a
ceremonial concession to an overwhelming public demand for some kind of reassuring
action against the trusts. Senator Orville Platt was candid enough to say at the time that
it was just the result of a desire “to get some bill headed: ‘A Bill to Punish Trusts’ with
which to go to the country.”3 Before the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency very
little attempt had been made, and negligible results had been achieved, in employing
the act to check business consolidations, and the Supreme Court had already made it
clear that enforcement would be no simple matter. T. R., as we have seen, dramatized
the issue in his Northern Securities prosecution, which was followed in time by a few
other selected prosecutions of comparable public-relations value. The readiness with
which his reputation as a “trust-buster”—a reputation that despite all the efforts of the
historians still clings to his name—grew up around these prosecutions is itself striking
testimony to the public’s need to believe in the effectiveness of action in this sphere;4 for
not only did T. R. fail to prosecute many trusts, and fail to check the accelerating
business consolidation that occurred during his administrations, but he did not even
believe in the trust-busting philosophy and he was utterly and constantly candid in
saying so in his presidential messages and other public statements. He inveighed
regularly and with asperity against attempting “the impossible task of restoring the
flintlock conditions of business sixty years ago by trusting only to a succession of
lawsuits under the antitrust law.…”5 “The man who advocates destroying the trusts,” he
said early in his presidency, “by measures which would paralyze the industries of the
country is at least a quack and at worst an enemy to the Republic.”6 Lacking faith in the
viability or workability of all efforts to restore the old competitive order, he urged, as
did those Progressive intellectuals who followed the lead of Herbert Croly, that the
whole system of organization be accepted as a product of modern life, and that such
efforts as must be made to control and check overgrown organization be carried out
along the lines of counter-organization: “A simple and poor society can exist as a
democracy on a basis of sheer individualism. But a rich and complex industrial society
cannot so exist; for some individuals, and especially those artificial individuals called
corporations, become so very big that the ordinary individual … cannot deal with them
on terms of equality. It therefore becomes necessary for these ordinary individuals to
combine in their turn, first in order to act in their collective capacity through that
biggest of all combinations called the government, and second, to act also in their own
self-defense, through private combinations, such as farmers’ associations and trade
These remarks come as close as a brief statement could do to foreshadowing the
important developments in this sphere since Roosevelt’s time. It was his belief that while
business combinations should be accepted and recognized, their affairs, their acts and
earnings, should be exposed to publicity; and that they should be subject to regulation
and be punished when they were “bad.” The Bureau of Corporations, which was created
at his instance in 1903, did in fact carry out useful studies of the conduct of a number of
major industries, including lumber, meat-packing, oil, steel, and tobacco. Roosevelt
seems to have thought of the Bureau of Corporations as the tentative beginning of a
somewhat more effective system of regulation, whose ultimate form was, not
surprisingly, rather vague in his mind.8 As time passed, however, he put more and more
emphasis on the distinction between good and bad trusts. Monopoly power itself was
not to be the object of concern, but only such monopoly or near-monopoly as was
achieved or maintained by unfair methods. This distinction might be difficult to realize
satisfactorily in positive law—but such a consideration seems not to have concerned
him. The facilities of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice were limited to
five attorneys working with a budget of about $100,000 a year. By definition, since only
a handful of suits could be undertaken each year, there could hardly be very many “bad”
businesses. Such was the situation as T. R. left it during his presidency.
Despite the efforts of President Taft to put some force into the anti-trust movement,
public dissatisfaction continued to grow, as the appetite for the regulation of business
consolidation seemed to enlarge with such small evidences of success as the politicians
were able to produce. There was a growing awareness of the danger of what Wilson
called “a combination of the combinations”—the union of all the great business interests
under the leadership of the chief investment banking houses. More and more Americans
were coming to the conclusion that what had been done thus far did not go nearly deep
enough. The view expressed by Herbert Croly, T. R., Charles H. Van Hise, and some
others that monopoly must be accepted and regulated may have had widespread appeal
among many lawyers, intellectuals, and the more sophisticated businessmen, but it was
probably not the predominant sentiment among those who had strong feelings about the
matter. The idea of Brandeis, Wilson, La Follette, and Bryan that a real effort should be
made to restore, maintain, and regulate competition rather than regulate monopoly
seems to have been more congenial to the country at large, to most of the reformers,
and especially to rural people and small businessmen in the West and South, where
Populist anti-monopoly traditions had some strength.9 No doubt it was this large public
that Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall had in mind when he declared in 1913: “The
people were told in the last campaign that trusts were a natural evolution, and that the
only way to deal with them was to regulate them. The people are tired of being told
such things. What they want is the kind of opportunity that formerly existed in this
This remark summarizes the issue of business consolidation as it had been dramatized
in the election campaign of 1912. Both Wilson and Roosevelt ran on platforms so
generally Progressive that only their difference on the trust issue clearly marked them
off from each other. The issue, as Brandeis put it, was regulated competition versus
regulated monopoly, and although it was vigorously debated in these terms, giving
strong expression to the feelings of the two schools of thought, it is doubtful that the
difference was in fact as sharp as the debate made it seem. To be sure, men like Wilson
and La Follette at times seemed really to believe that the title of business consolidation
could be swept back by Sherman Act methods. La Follette declared in 1912 that “the
executive could have saved the people from the appalling conditions which confront us
today, if all the power of this government had been put forth to enforce the [Sherman]
Anti-Trust law.”2 Wilson asserted in the same year that the community of business
interests by which the United States was in danger of being governed was “something
for the law to pull apart, and gently, but firmly and persistently dissect”3—a threat that
raises the image of a surgical president, perhaps with Brandeis and La Follette in
attendance, exercising his scalpel over the palpitating body of the American business
In fact Wilson’s approach was not so straightforward or unequivocal as this menacing
surgical metaphor suggests—for he too recognized that “the elaboration of business
upon a great co-operative scale is characteristic of our time and has come about by the
natural operation of modern civilization,” and admitted that “we shall never return to
the old order of individual competition, and that the organization of business upon a
grand scale of co-operation is, up to a certain point, itself normal and inevitable.”4
While he believed deeply in the little entrepreneur and in competition, he rested his
hope in what he called “free competition,” not in “illicit competition.” Free competition
was anything that promoted the victory of superior efficiency, while illicit competition
was the use of unfair means to surpass competitors by firms that were not actually more
efficient. Wilson had to admit that free competition, too, would kill competitors, and
that these competitors would be just as dead as those killed by illicit competition. But in
such cases the net result would be good, because it would add to the total efficiency of
the nation’s production. Thus a big business that grew big through superior efficiency
was good; only one that grew big by circumventing honest competition was bad.5 “I am
for big business,” said Wilson in one of his more inscrutable sentences, “and I am
against the trusts.”6 But no one, not even Brandeis, knew how to define or measure
superior efficiency, or to draw a line in the progress toward bigness beyond which a
business would lose rather than gain in efficiency. While it was possible to draw up a
list of business practices that most honest men would agree to condemn, no one knew a
constructive or responsible way of dissolving great businesses that had already grown
up by employing just such practices. No one knew how to make empirical sense out of
Wilson’s distinction between the big business he favored and the trusts he disliked. And
no one could be sure that there was any real working difference between the distinction
T. R. made between good and bad trusts and the distinction Wilson made between free
and illicit competition.
A Progessive voter who felt impelled to take a rational view of the trust question
might well have been confused, and may have wondered whether the warm debate
expressed a really profound difference between the candidates. In fact, by the time of
the 1912 campaign the decisions of the Supreme Court had already whittled the
Sherman Act down to the point at which it was no longer possible to imagine that the
law could be—without a juridical revolution—an instrument for a broad frontal attack
on business consolidation.7 What remained was the possibility that particular businesses
guilty of flagrantly unfair competition could occasionally be singled out for action—a
procedure not signally different from the Rooseveltian distinction between good and
bad trusts. What is perhaps most worthy of comment is that the further antitrust
legislation of the Wilson administration, the Clayton Act and the creation of the Federal
Trade Commission, did not include any provisions aimed at circumventing the Supreme
Court’s extremely damaging approach to antitrust suits. Nor was any serious effort made
by Wilson to launch a vigorous policy. Under him the Antitrust Division was expanded,
but only to eighteen men—and even this was done only after wartime conditions had
sent prices sky-high. (The most elementary policing of the economy, more recent
experience has shown, calls for a staff of well over ten times as many attorneys.8)
Wilson also disappointed those who hoped that the Federal Trade Commission would
become an effective agency of regulation by choosing commissioners who were either
ineffectual or primarily interested in making the agency useful to business.9 Brandeis,
who had helped to draft the act creating the Federal Trade Commission, later dismissed
its management under Wilson as “a stupid administration.”1
No one who follows the trust question at the level of both public discussion and
legislative action can fail to be impressed by the disparity between the two: the
discussions were so momentous in their character and so profound —for nothing less
was at stake than the entire organization of American business and American politics,
the very question of who was to control the country—and the material results were by
comparison so marginal, so incomplete, so thoroughly blocked at all the major strategic
points. It is impossible not to conclude that, despite the widespread public agitation
over the matter, the men who took a conservative view of the needs of the hour never
lost control. It was not merely that, on the main issues to be adjudicated, the Supreme
Court stood with them, but that the executive leaders who occupied the White House and
the sober gentry of the Senate were in the final analysis quite reliable. It proved
impossible for me like Byran and La Follette, who did not enjoy the confidence of at
least large segments of the business community, to find their way to the White House;
and the considerable influence that these men had throughout the country was carefully
filtered through the hands of more conservative politicians before it was embodied in
legislative or administrative action. A leader like Theodore Roosevelt, and with him
several prominent Republicans, who understood the urgency of Progressive sentiments,
knew also how to act as a balance wheel between what he considered to be the most
irresponsible forces of left and right (In 1912 George Roosevelt remarked to him that
whereas earlier he had been the progressive leader of the conservatives, he was now the
conservative leader of the progressives. “ ‘Yes, yes,’ T. R. muttered, as he rocked back
and forth in his favorite rocking chair, ‘that’s it. I have to hold them in check all the
time. I have to restrain them.’ ”2)
Historians have long been aware how T. R., while enjoying the support and indeed
even on occasion whipping up the sentiments of the insurgent forces in American life,
turned for advice in the solution of his problems to the great conservative leaders in the
Senate and to the great spokesmen of Eastern industry and finance capital; and how
much support he accepted for his campaigns from the financial interests whose
custodians these men always were. Woodrow Wilson had a different temperament, and
in his administration the same forces worked in a somewhat roundabout way. To
preserve his own sense of integrity, Wilson had fewer direct dealings with the captains
of industry and finance; but his closest adviser, Colonel House, became a personal agent
through whom the needs and views of capital could be expressed to the White House,
and House’s diary records frequent conferences with J. P. Morgan, Felix M. Warburg,
Henry Clay Frick, Francis L. Higginson, Otto H. Kahn, and Frank Vanderlip.3 Moreover,
when a depression developed late in 1913 which grew more serious in the following
year, Wilson himself began openly and assiduously to cultivate the support of business,
began to welcome bankers and business leaders back to the White House, and issued
unequivocal reassurances to the effect that the wave of reform legislation was nearing
its end.4 Progressive intellectuals, who were familiar with the praise Herbert Croly had
lavished upon the circumspect Roosevelt, must have been bemused to see this editor
scold Woodrow Wilson in 1914 for his failure to go very far with the program of
Progressive reform.5
But to say all this about the ceremonial function of the agitation over big business
should not divert us from our search for its other uses. The relations of the reform
movement to business were not limited to the effort to restore competition or check
monopoly. There were other, more pragmatic reforms under consideration; and it was
the effect of all the monitory writing and speaking, and all the heated agitation over the
trusts and their threat to democracy and enterprise and liberty, to throw big business
and the vested interests on the defensive and to create a climate of public opinion in
which some reform legislation was possible. The Progressives may not have been able to
do much about business consolidation, but they did manage, in the Hepburn Act, to take
the first step toward genuine regulation of the railroads, a thing long overdue; they did
manage, in the creation of the Federal Reserve System, to establish a more satisfactory
system of credit subject to public control; they did bring about, in the Underwood tariff,
a long-sought downward revision of duties; and on a number of fronts, both state and
national, they won other legislative reforms of real value to farmers and workers and
the consuming public that would have been far more difficult to achieve in a social
atmosphere unaffected by the widespread demand to challenge the power of big
In a number of ways the problem of business consolidation now presents itself, even
to liberals and reformers, in different forms from those in which it appeared to the men
of the Progressive generation. Fewer men by far experience the passing of independent
entrepreneurship with the same anguish. The process of capital formation has changed
in such a way as to reduce the importance of the investment banking houses and thus to
lay the specter of the money trust. Product competition has in some respects replaced
the old price competition. The great distributive agencies, themselves giant concerns,
have given consumers some protection from the exactions of monopoly. Big business has
shown itself to be what the Progressives of the Brandeis school resolutely denied it
would be—technologically more progressive than the smaller units it has replaced. The
political power of capital has been more satisfactorily matched by an enormous growth
in labor organization. The very dissociation of ownership from control, so alarming to
the Progressives, has created a class of salaried managers who have a stake in their own
respectability and civic comfort that is as large as or greater than their stake in profitsat-
any-cost. It is conceivable that such men may continue to show more industrial
flexibility than the hard-pressed entrepreneurs of old-fashioned enterprise could afford.
None the less, subsequent generations of Americans still owe a great debt to the antitrust
inheritance they hold from the Progressive era. The rise of big business may have
been inevitable, but if so it was salutary that it should have taken place in a climate of
opinion that threw it intermittently on the defensive. Even Thurman Arnold, whose
name is conspicuously identified with the argument that the chief effect of the anti-trust
rhetoric “was to promote the growth of great industrial organizations by deflecting the
attack on them into purely moral and ceremonial channels,”6 had to concede, when he
elaborated this thesis in The Folklore of Capitalism, that the same anti-trust rhetoric, by
encouraging the notion that great corporations could be disciplined and made
respectable, had something to do with the fact that they finally did become respectable;
and that without the presence of hostile laws the pricing policies of big business might
have been a good deal more unfavorable to the public interest.7 His own subsequent
career as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division of the
Department of Justice was, in a broad historical sense, built upon intangibles of
sentiment inherited from the Progressives and their anti-monopoly predecessors. For
even though he and the other planners of the latter-day New Deal movement against
monopoly planned no such general assault on bigness as was foreshadowed in the more
exalted campaign talk of the Brandeis-Wilson school, they did rely upon political
sentiments that the Progressives had nourished and strengthened. Franz Neumann,
examining the conditions that led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of
the Nazis in Germany, pointed out that in Germany there had never been anything like
a popular anti-monopoly movement such as the United States experienced under
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, that the middle classes had not been
articulate against the cartels and the trusts, and that labor, looking at concentration
through Marxist eyes, had consistently favored it. This, he suggests, weakened the
opposition, within the business order, to authoritarian controls. This comparison
suggests another respect in which the anti-trust tradition has justified itself.8
Paradoxically, while hostility to big business and finance has on occasion led to local
authoritarianism and to unhealthy modes of rebellion,9 it has also been one of the
resources upon which American democracy has drawn. So, after all, even the overblown
rhetoric of the anti-trust movement finds its place, and even the Progressive charade of
anti-monopoly takes on a function that goes beyond mere entertainment. No doubt the
immediate material achievement was quite small in proportion to all the noise; but
there are many episodes in history in which intense struggle has to be waged to win
modest gains, and this too must be remembered before we pass too severe a judgment
on the great Progressive crusade against the trusts.
III . The Citizen and the Machine
If big business was the ultimate enemy of the Progressive, his proximate enemy was the
political machine. The problem of political organization gave him somewhat the same
sort of perplexity as that of economic organization; it similarly divided the Progressive
community between those who proposed an aggressive and uncompromising struggle
against organization as such and those who proposed to meet it by counterorganization,
by increasing specialism and leadership, and by the assumption of new responsibilities.
Unless the machine and its leader, the boss, could be broken, unless the corrupt alliance
between special interests and the machine could be smashed, it seemed that no lasting
reform could be accomplished. Hence this particular form of the struggle over
organization was prominent in political discussions from the beginning to the end of the
Progressive era. What the majority of the Progressives hoped to do in the political field
was to restore popular government as they imagined it to have existed in an earlier and
purer age. This could be done, it was widely believed, only by revivifying the morale of
the citizen, and using his newly aroused zeal to push through a series of changes in the
mechanics of political life—direct primaries, popular election of Senators, initiative,
referendum, recall, the short ballot, commission government, and the like. Such
measures, it was expected, would deprive machine government of the advantages it had
in checkmating popular control, and make government accessible to the superior
disinterestedness and honesty of the average citizen. Then, with the power of the bosses
broken or crippled, it would be possible to check the incursions of the interests upon the
welfare of the people and realize a cleaner, more efficient government.
The Progressives set about the task of political reform with great energy and
resourcefulness. By 1910 they had had a considerable measure of success in getting their
reforms incorporated into the electoral and governmental machinery, and this success
engendered in some quarters a high optimism about the future of the movement for
popular government. William Allen White’s book The Old Order Changeth, published in
that year, deserves analysis as a hearty expression of this optimism and as a statement
of what was probably the dominant popular philosophy of politics. America, White
believed, was in the midst of an inexorable “drift” toward democracy, which had
produced gain after gain in the sphere of popular government—victories for the secret
ballot and the direct primary, the widespread adoption of the recall of officials, the
impending triumph of the popular referendum. Such changes would not have been
dreamed of ten years before, “and to have told the campaign managers of ’84 or ’88
that within a quarter of a century the whole nation would be voting a secret ballot, the
candidates nominated in two-thirds of the American states by a direct vote of the
people, without the intervention of conventions or caucuses, and that … every dollar
spent by a candidate or by a party committee would have to be publicly accounted for,”
would have aroused only a cackle of derision. Now in twenty-six states of the Union,
Senators had to go directly to the people for their nomination, not to the railroads and
utilities as before. “Capital is not eliminated from politics, but it is hampered and
circumscribed, and is not the dominant force it was ten years ago.” “It is safe to say that
the decree, of divorce between business and politics will be absolute within a few
years.” “Now the political machine is in a fair way to be reduced to mere political scrap
iron by the rise of the people.… Under the primary system any clean, quick-witted man
in these states can defeat the corporation senatorial candidate at the primary if the
people desire to defeat him.”1
White fully shared the dominant Progressive philosophy concerning organization. The
business of reform in politics, he said, had to be done by taking the power to nominate
and elect candidates and to set policies out of the hands of the old ruling caste of the
machines. Such a thing “could always be done by breaking the machine of the moment
or of any locality and establishing another machine.” But such a remedy was no good—
and here was the crux of the matter—because it was not “a permanent cure.” The only
permanent cure was in changing the system.2 If theory was to be effective in practice,
one would have no machines at all. White did not hesitate to emphasize the underlying
individualism of the popular revolt: it was a change in “the public’s moral average,” the
aggregate result of the transformation of a multitude of individual wills. Yet for all its
need to bring property under control, it was far from socialistic: “the modern movement
in American politics is bristling with rampant, militant, unhampered men crowding out
of the mass for individual elbow-room.”3
None of this movement for elbow-room was considered to be excessively selfregarding.
White’s book was full of references to the intelligence, the self-restraint, the
morality, the breadth of view of the average man, the emergent New Citizen. The whole
process of revolt was indeed so benign that he could only attribute it to the workings of
“a divinely planted instinct” For it was essential that the individual be—as he was
proving himself—disinterested. The New Citizen was the guilty and neglectful citizen of
the muckraking literature after he had been reformed and aroused by all the exhortatory
literature of the age. “The people are controlling themselves. Altruism is gaining
strength for some future struggle with the atomic force of egoism in society.”4 It
followed from this view of the citizen that his contribution to the public weal grew not
out of his pursuit in politics of his own needs but, in the manner of the old Mugwump
ideal, out of his disinterested reflection upon the needs of the community. Of course the
struggle against the machines could not take place without the benefit of some form of
counterorganization; but it was characteristic of this style of thought to conceive of these
counterorganizations as private organizations based upon high principles rather than
group interests—organizations like the National Civil Service Reform League, the Pure
Food Association, the Child Labor Committee, the Consumers’ League, the National Civic
Federation, the Masons, and other fraternal groups. What all such things rested upon for
their success was the civic virtue—White spoke rather of “righteousness” and
“altruism”—of the individual, his willingness not to pursue his interests but to transcend
them. “Democracy is, at base, altruism expressed in terms of self-government.”
“Practically all the large national organizations which jam the trains annually going to
their conventions are fundamentally altruistic.”5
We can see now in its broad outlines the persistent individualism of these
Progressives. Although it was necessary for them to make some use of organization, they
had a profound inherited distrust of it. At the core of their conception of politics was a
figure quite as old-fashioned as the figure of the little competitive entrepreneur who
represented the most commonly accepted economic ideal. This old-fashioned character
was the Man of Good Will, the same innocent, bewildered, bespectacled, and mustached
figure we see in the cartoons today labeled John Q. Public—a white collar or small
business voter-taxpayer with perhaps a modest home in the suburbs. William Graham
Sumner had depicted him a generation earlier as “the forgotten man,” and Woodrow
Wilson idealized him as “the man on the make” whose type, coming “out of the
unknown homes,” was the hope of America. In a great deal of Progressive thinking the
Man of Good Will was abstracted from association with positive interests; his chief
interests were negative. He needed to be protected from unjust taxation, spared the high
cost of living, relieved of the exactions of the monopolies and the grafting of the bosses.
In years past he had been careless about his civic responsibilities, but now he was rising
in righteous wrath and asserting himself. He was at last ready to address himself
seriously to the business of government. The problem was to devise such governmental
machinery as would empower him to rule. Since he was dissociated from all special
interests and biases and had nothing but the common weal at heart, he would rule well.
He would act and think as a public-spirited individual, unlike all the groups of vested
interests that were ready to prey on him. Bad people had pressure groups; the Man of
Good Will had only his civic organizations. Far from joining organizations to advance
his own interests, he would dissociate himself from such combinations and address
himself directly and high-mindedly to the problems of government. His approach to
politics was, in a sense, intellectualistic: he would study the issues and think them
through, rather than learn about them through pursuing his needs. Furthermore, it was
assumed that somehow he would really be capable of informing himself in ample detail
about the many issues that he would have to pass on, and that he could master their
intricacies sufficiently to pass intelligent judgment.
Without such assumptions the entire movement for such reforms as the initiative, the
referendum, and recall is unintelligible. The movement for direct popular democracy
was, in effect, an attempt to realize Yankee-Protestant ideals of personal responsibility;
and the Progressive notion of good citizenship was the culmination of the Yankee-
Mugwump ethos of political participation without self-interest. But while this ethos
undoubtedly has its distinct points of superiority to the boss-machine ethos of hierarchy,
discipline, personal loyalty, and personal favors, it was less adapted to the realities of
the highly organized society of the late nineteenth and the twentieth century. It is not
surprising, then, that so much of the political machinery designed to implement the aims
of direct democracy should have been found of very limited use.
Of course, not all his Progressive contemporaries were quite so optimistic as William
Allen White. There were a number of Progressive spokesmen who found fault with his
assumptions, and there were a few outstanding Progressive leaders who surmounted
them in their practical political dealings. Just as Progressive discussions of the business
order were pervaded by an argument between two schools with contrasting schemes for
dealing with the trusts, so the discussions of political reform took place between two
sides that were divided by a difference in philosophy. On the left was a populistic school
of thought that seemed to have hardly any reservations about the extent to which the
management of affairs could and should be given into the hands of the populace. This
school, which can be traced as far back as the time when Jackson argued for rotation in
office on the ground that “the duties of all public offices are, or at least admit of being
made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for
their performance,” found its contemporary expression in William Jennings Bryan’s
contention that the people were competent “to sit in judgment on every question which
has arisen or which will arise, no matter how long our government will endure,” and his
argument that the great political questions were in the final analysis moral questions
concerning which the intuitions of the people were as good as almost any degree of
experience. Even a man like Woodrow Wilson, whose native impulses and earlier
philosophy ran quite to the contrary, fell into this populistic conception of democracy
when he asserted that the Democratic Party aimed “to set up a government in the world
where the average man, the plain man, the common man, the ignorant man, the
unaccomplished man, the poor man had a voice equal to the voice of anybody else in
the settlement of the common affairs, an ideal never before realized in the history of the
This faith in the lowest common denominator of political action was frequently
coupled with an attack on political organization. The political evils that plagued the
country, it was often argued, were not the consequences of deficient organization but of
over-organization. The answer to these evils was to move as close as possible to a
system of “direct government” by the people. It was considered not only that the people
were capable of acting effectively as individuals, but that they were at their best when
acting in this capacity because only then were they free of the corrupting and selfinterested
influence of parties and machines. Thus Albert Baird Cummins, when he ran
for the governorship of Iowa in 1910, declared that his great object was “to bring the
individual voter into more prominence, and to diminish the influence of permanent
organization in the ranks of the party.”7
Those who shared this style of thought tended to deny that the parties should be the
property of the party organizations—that is, of the groups of persons who did the work
of the party and held offices under its name—and to insist that the parties properly
belonged to the voters at large. Indeed, the rhetoric of American party politics had
encouraged this notion, and it was easy to conclude that in so far as the party was in
fact not the property of the voters, democracy was being flouted. Democracy was
considered to require not merely competition between party organizations that would
afford the voters a choice, but rank-and-file control or dissolution of the organizations
themselves. The movement for the direct primary was the chief embodiment of this
conception of democracy.8 Its historical inspiration presumably came from the townmeeting
model, and from the widespread direct participation of the American citizen in
civic affairs in the early and middle years of the nineteenth century.
Counterposed to this philosophy was a more conservative view, expressed by a good
many men who recognized the value of the Progressive demands for reform and saw the
importance of popular discontent, but who looked to new forms of political
organization under responsible leadership as the most desirable and effective remedy for
the evils against which the Progressives were working. The historical root of this point
of view lay in the long-standing Mugwump concern with good government and in the
implicit Mugwump belief in elite leadership. Brandeis, as we have seen, expressed its
impulse when he called upon the lawyers to assume “a position of independence
between the wealthy and the people, prepared to curb the excesses of either,” and so did
T. R. when he entitled one of his talks to businessmen “The Radical Movement under
Conservative Direction.”9 Henry L. Stimson, writing to Roosevelt in 1910, gave vent to a
somewhat partisan statement of this philosophy: “To me it seems vitally important that
the Republican party, which contains, generally speaking, the richer and more
intelligent citizens of the country, should take the lead in reform and not drift into a
reactionary position. If, instead, the leadership should fall into the hands of either an
independent party, or a party composed, like the Democrats, largely of foreign elements
and the classes which will immediately benefit by the reform, and if the solid business
Republicans should drift into new obstruction, I fear the necessary changes could hardly
be accomplished without much excitement and possible violence.”1
Somewhat more congenial to Mugwump traditions was the idea that the evils against
which the Progressives were fighting could be remedied by a reorganization of
government in which responsibility and authority could be clearly located in an
executive, whose acts would be open to public view. The power of the boss, they argued,
like the overweening power of great corporations, was a consequence of the weakness
of the political executive and the more general division of authority and impotence in
government. Spokesmen of this view scoffed at the inherited popular suspicion of
executive power as an outmoded holdover from the days of the early Republic when
executive power was still identified with royal government and the royal governors.
“The true remedy for American misgovernment,” said Stimson, “would lie, then, in
exactly the opposite direction from that indicated by the advocates of direct democracy.
The elected officials must have more power, not less.…”2 The purpose of such devices
would not be to flout public opinion, but to give expression to its demands in conformity
with principles of organization that accepted the realities of a complex society.
The most ardent debate, however, did not take place between the two schools of
reformers, but between the direct-government reforms and the ultraconservatives. To
attend to the terms in which the various reforms intended to promote direct democracy
were debated—and to these one should add the proposal for women’s suffrage—one
might think that the issue was utopia versus apocalypse. The conservatives moaned and
admonished as though each new reform proposal portended the end of the nation, while
many Progressives seemed to imagine and often, indeed, said that these reforms, once
achieved, would open the way to a complete and permanent victory over the machines
and corruption. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, once said of the short ballot that it was
“the key to the whole problem of the restoration of popular government in this
country”3—which was a heavy burden, sound reform though it was, for the short ballot
to bear. There were of course more moderate men on both sides,4 and in retrospect it is
clearly these men who were right; for the popular reforms neither revolutionized nor
restored anything; they had, indeed, only a marginal effect on the conduct of American
Here the more general Progressive uprising against bossism, corruption, and
misgovernment must be distinguished from the attempt to realize mechanical changes
that would guarantee permanent popular rule. Where the reform movements succeeded
as they did in sufficient measure to bring a distinct improvement in American
government, it was largely because they came in on a strong wave of popular
enthusiasm or indignation or under the guidance of local leaders of exceptional
magnetism. Such leaders and such public sentiments, I believe, would have had
somewhat the same results within the framework of the older mechanism of
government. In their search for mechanical guarantees of continued popular control the
reformers were trying to do something altogether impossible—to institutionalize a
mood. When the mood passed, some of the more concrete reforms remained; but the
formal gains for popular government, while still on the books, lost meaning because the
ability of the public to use them effectively lapsed with the political revival that brought
them in, and the bosses and the interest promptly filtered back. Herbert Croly, while by
no means unsympathetic to the “professional democrats,” as he called them, argued
cogently that their tendency “to conceive democracy as essentially a matter of popular
political machinery” was one of their great weaknesses. Their dominant impulse was to
protect the people against knavery, a negative goal, rather than “to give positive
momentum and direction to popular rule.” They sought, above all, “to prevent the
people from being betrayed—from being imposed upon by unpopular policies and
unrepresentative officials. But to indoctrinate and organize one’s life chiefly for the
purpose of avoiding betrayal is to invite sterility and disintegration.” He concluded that
the impulse toward popular rule was without meaning whenever it was divorced from a
specific social program.5
The history of Progressive reform justified Croly’s argument, for under the impact of
the Progressive movement the people in many places won better public services, better
parks, better schools, better tax policies, but they did not destroy narrowly partisan
government, break up machines, or gain direct control of their affairs. With a few
exceptions, the bosses found ways either to deflect or to use the new reforms that were
meant to unseat them.6 The direct primary, for instance, for all its wide adoption
throughout the country, did not noticeably change the type of men nominated for office.
It was expensive both to the government and to the candidates—for it introduced two
campaigns in the place of one. It put a new premium on publicity and promotion in
nominating campaigns, and thus introduced into the political process another entering
wedge for the power of money. Without seriously impairing the machines, it weakened
party government and partly responsibility. The initiative and referendum were also
disappointing as instruments of popular government. As critics like Herbert Croly
pointed out, they were perfectly designed to facilitate minority rule in so far as the
complex questions set before the voters in referendums could be passed with a distinct
minority of the total registration.7 Confronted by an array of technical questions, often
phrased in legal language, the voters-shrank from the responsibilities the new system
attempted to put upon them. Small and highly organized groups with plenty of funds
and skillful publicity could make use of these devices, but such were not the results the
proponents of initiative and referendum sought; nor was the additional
derationalization of politics that came with the propaganda campaigns demanded by
referendums. Finally, the more ardent reformers who expected that the public will, once
expressed directly, would bring a radical transformation of the old order were surprised
to find the voters exercising their prerogative in the most conservative way, rejecting,
for instance, proposals for municipal ownership, the single tax, and pensions for city
The reformers were, of course, entirely right in feeling that effective action against
the old political machines and their bosses was both possible and desirable. Reform has
been the balance wheel of the governmental system. The existing machines did their
work at unnecessary cost and with gross inequities, and their humane care of their own
constituents was matched by the outright brutality and the crass disregard of civil
liberties with which they frequently dealt with opposition. Unopposed by the reform
principle, the machine principle tended to deteriorate to the point at which good
government and liberal politics both were threatened. But the characteristic mistake of
the more dogmatic enthusiasts for direct government was their unwillingness to consider
the possibility of a synthesis between the two principles, their faith in contrivances that
would somehow do away with the machine process and even with party responsibility.
Too many of these enthusiasts failed to see that the machine organizations they were
trying to destroy did have a number of real functions, however badly they often
performed them, and that any attempt to replace the existing machines had to provide
not William Allen White’s “permanent cure” for the whole machine system, but rather
alternative machines. There are machines and machines. The real choice that lay before
the reformers was not whether to have direct popular government or party
organizations and machines, but whether, in destroying the existing organizations, they
could create organizations of their own, with discipline enough to survive, that would be
cleaner and more efficient than those they were trying to break up. It must be admitted
at once that in this respect the practice of some skilled Progressive leaders was often
superior to their theories and their rhetoric. La Follette was an excellent case in point.
Although he expressed great faith in the efficacy of the direct-government reforms, he
remained in power for a long time and exerted a strong and salutary influence on
Wisconsin life because he was an extremely astute machine-master, who knew the
techniques of the bosses and used some of them to build a militant and well-disciplined
state organization.9
It is in our own times that the most notable decline in the strength and importance of
the old-fashioned machines has taken place. This has occurred not because the machines
have yielded to frontal assault but because some of their former functions have ceased to
be necessary and others have been taken over by new agencies. There is no longer the
great mass of immigrants to be patronized and introduced to American life. Federal
centralization, especially since the New Deal, has nibbled away at the role of the local
organizations, particularly in the sphere of social welfare. The growth of the mass trade
unions has displaced the machines in some respects, while the development of stronger
executives in state and local government has deprived them of some of their former
patronage and power. Much of the work of political indoctrination and education that
once belonged to them has been assumed by the mass media—radio, television, and the
mass periodicals, while the work of sounding public sentiment has been taken over in
some part by professional pollsters. These latter developments suggest that we are in a
certain sense moving closer to the plebiscitarian ideals, the mass democracy, that the
advocates of direct government had in mind. But they would not have been pleased with
the prospect of having their goals approached in this way, for the means of influencing
mass sentiment on a grand scale require the big money and the crass manipulative
techniques that the Progressives were trying to eliminate from politics. This brings us
back again to a central problem of the modern democrat: whether it is possible in
modern society to find satisfactory ways of realizing the ideal of popular government
without becoming dependent to an unhealthy degree upon those who have the means to
influence the popular mind. Without taking an excessively indulgent view of the old
machines or imagining that their failings were any less serious than they actually were,
it is still possible to wonder whether the devices that are replacing them are superior as
instruments of government.
1 On the historic roots of this participation, see the illuminating essay by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick: “A Meaning
for Turner’s Frontier, Part I: Democracy in the Old Northwest,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. LXIX (September 1954),
pp. 321-53.
2 Howells: A Traveler from Altruria (Edinburgh, 1894), p. 164.
3 Ray Stannard Baker: “Capital and Labor Hunt Together,” McClure’s, Vol. XXI (September 1903), p. 463; cf. the remarks of
Mr. Dooley [Finley Peter Dunne]: Dissertations by Mr. Dooley (New York, 1906), p. 64.
4 The new middle class had risen from 33 per cent of the entire middle class in 1870 to 63 per cent in 1910. I have followed
the computations of Lewis Corey: “The Middle Class,” Antioch Review (Spring 1945), based upon Population: Comparative
Occupational Statistics for the United States, 1870 to 1940, published by the United States Bureau of the Census. For a
critical view of the new middle class today, see C. Wright Mills: White Collar (New York, 1951).
5 The decline of career aspiration and the growing tendency to seek comfort and interpret life from the standpoint of the
consumer is the theme of Leo Lowenthal’s suggestive study: “Biographies in Popular Magazines,” in Paul F. Lazarsfeld and
Frank Stanton, eds.: Radio Research 1942-1943 (New York, 1944), pp. 507-48.
6 Daniel Bell points out how common in the columns of the International Socialist Review, the chief magazine of American
Socialism, were the advertisements instructing readers in the art of “DOUBLING OR TRIPLING YOUR MONEY THROUGH
CLEAN HONEST INVESTMENT,” or earning $300 a month selling cream separators. Socialists seem to have been very fond
of real-estate promotions and gold-mine stocks. Daniel Bell: “Marxian Socialism in the United States,” in Donald Drew
Egbert and Stow Persons, eds.: Socialism and American Life (Princeton, 1952), Vol. I, pp. 298-9. On the middle-class
character of American Socialism, see David A. Shannon: “The Socialist Party before the First World War,” Mississippi Valley
Historical Review, Vol. XXXVIII (September 1951), pp. 279-88.
7 A. A. Berle and G. Means: The Modern Corporation and Private Property (ed. New York, 1947), p. 56.
8 Shepard B. Clough: A Century of Life Insurance (New York, 1946), pp. 3, 6.
9 Ibid., pp. 128-30.
1 Ibid., chapter xii; Marquis James: The Metropolitan Life (New York, 1947), chapters viii and ix; Merlo J. Pusey: Charless
Evans Hughes (New York, 1951), Vol. I, chapter xv; and Douglass North: “Capital Accumulation in Life Insurance between
the Civil War and the Investigation of 1905,” in William Miller, ed.: Men in Business (Cambridge, 1952), pp. 238-53.
2 Louis D. Brandeis: Other People’s Money (1914; ed., National Home Library Foundation, 1932), pp. 12-13.
3 Woodrow Wilson: “The Lawyer and the Community,” North American Review, Vol. CXCII (November 1910), pp. 612,
4 Brandeis, op. cit., p. 41.
5 A McKinley Republican and a distinguished jurist, Grosscup had been one of two judges issuing the injunction against
Debs and other American Railway Union officials in 1894, and he had been among those calling on President Cleveland to
use troops in the Pullman strike. He also was presiding judge of the Circuit Court of Appeals that reversed District Judge
Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s imposition of a $29,240,000 fine on Standard Oil for accepting rebates.
6 Peter S. Grosscup: “How to Save the Corporation,” McClure’s, Vol. XXIV (February 1905), pp. 443-8.
7 Wilson: The New Freedom (New York, 1913), pp. 14-15, 30.
8 Ibid., pp. 3, 5, 6, 15-18, 82, 85, 86-7.
9 Ibid., pp. 14-19.
1 Ibid., pp. 18-19.
2 Arthur S. Link: Wilson: the Road to the White House (Princeton, 1947), p. 514. When one reflects that this idea, that
“free enterprise” is the cornerstone upon which all other freedoms rest, has become the rallying cry of the conservatives in
America and the supreme shibboleth of the National Association of Manufacturers, one realizes why so many men who
were ardent Progressives before the first World War could have become equally ardent conservatives during the past
twenty years without any sense that they were being inconsistent. Indeed, they had held to the same ideas with great
constancy; it was history itself that was inconsistent, and the world at large that had changed.
3 The phrase is Wilson’s: The New Freedom, p. 187.
4 Ibid., pp. 20, 22, 62, 114, 125-6, and chapter vi passim.
5 Charles William Eliot: American Contributions to Civilization (New York, 1907), pp. 85-6. Eliot was not so much in fear of
corporate power as some of the Progressives came to be, but he was concerned to make the observation that “the activity
of corporations, great and small, penetrates every part of the industrial and social body, and their daily maintenance brings
into play more mental and moral force than the maintenance of all the governments on the [American] Continent
combined.” Cf. the remarks of Wilson: The New Freedom, pp. 187-8.
6 Congressional Record, 60th Cong., 1st Sess., March 17, 1908, p. 3450.
7 Brandeis: Other People’s Money, pp. 22-3.
8 Wilson: The New Freedom, p. 286.
9 No one familiar with T. R.’s writings will fail to recognize the assertion of this impulse in his vigorously equivocal
rhetoric. “This sums up my whole attitude in the matter.… [it] is, after all, simply the question of treating each man, rich
or poor, on his merits, and making him feel that at the White House, which is the Nation’s property, all reputable citizens
of the Nation are sure of like treatment.” The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. by Elting R. Morison, Vol. IV (Cambridge,
1951), p. 880. “… the success of such suits as that against the Northern Securities Company which gave a guaranty in this
country that rich man and poor man alike were held equal before the law, and my action in the so-called Miller case which
gave to trades-unions a lesson that had been taught corporations—that I favored them while they did right and was not in
the least afraid of them when they did wrong.” Ibid., p. 993. “At the same time I wished the labor people absolutely to
understand that I set my face like flint against violence and lawlessness of any kind on their part, just as much as against
arrogant greed by the rich, and that I would be as quick to move against one as the other.” Ibid., Vol. III, p. 482. There are
scores of similar utterances in T. R.’s public and private writings. For a penetrating analysis of T. R.’s presidential role see
John Morton Blum: The Republican Roosevelt (Cambridge, 1954).
1 The character of such action was also recognized by Roosevelt’s friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. “You have no power
or authority, of course,” he wrote to the President as the coal crisis grew acute. “… Is there anything we can appear to
do?” Henry Cabot Lodge, ed.: Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, 1884-1918
(New York, 1925), Vol. I, pp. 528-32; italics added.
2 The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. III, p. 332.
3 See T. R.’s cordial letters of thanks to both men, ibid., pp. 353, 354. The whole episode, which is enormously instructive,
can be followed in T. R.’s letters, ibid., pp. 323-66.
4 Ibid., p. 337; cf. pp. 329-30, 336, 338, 340-1, 349, 357, 360, 362-3.
5 Ibid., Vol. IV, p. 886. Some years later he admitted, in effect, that the intangible, ceremonial consequences of the
prosecution—i.e., establishing “the principle that the government was supreme over the great corporations”—were the
only consequences. Works, Memorial Edition (New York, 1923-6), Vol. XIX, p. 448; cf. Outlook, Vol. CII (September 21,
1912), p. 105.
6 The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. V, pp. 183-4. It hardly needs to be said that Roosevelt was unduly concerned. The
writers he mentioned were doing far more to build up support for him among the public than they were to create
“revolutionary feeling.” Six years later Roosevelt himself was building up a “revolutionary feeling” about as menacing as
that created by the Cosmopolitan et al.
7 The growth of Socialist sentiment had greater leverage than it is usually credited with on the more conservative
politicians of the Progressive era. It enabled a man like T. R. to argue more plausibly that the sort of moderate and gradual
reform he stood for was urgently needed, over the long run, to stave off more drastic forms of protest. Of course, few of the
more ardently Progressive men of the age were much worried by the advancing interest in Socialism. Many of them saw in
it simply another variant of the general protest rather than a genuine interest in creating a Socialist society. Cf. Wilson: The
New Freedom, pp. 26-7. The general interest in Socialist speculation is attested by the attention paid to Socialist
muckrakers and publicists such as W. J. Ghent, Robert Hunter, Jack London, Gustavus Myers, Algie M. Simmons, Upton
Sinclair, John Spargo, and William English Walling. Eugene Debs’s vote in the presidential elections rose from 94,000 in
1900 to 402,000 and 420,000 in the succeeding campaigns and finally to 897,000 in 1912, which represented the highest
figure and the largest percentage (almost 6 per cent) ever received by a Socialist Party candidate. While voters rarely sent
Socialists to Congress or the state legislatures, they frequently put them into municipal offices, largely in connection with
protest against local corruption. By May 1912, 1,039 Socialists had been elected to office, including 56 mayors, 160
councilmen, and 145 aldermen. The Socialist press had grown to the point at which there were eight foreign-language and
five English dailies, and 262 English and 36 foreign-language weeklies. J. A. Wayland’s Socialist weekly, Appeal to Reason,
which was published in Kansas, reached a circulation of 500,000. On Socialist political successes see R. F. Hoxie: “The
Rising Tide of Socialism,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. XIX (October 1911), pp. 609-31, and Daniel Bell: “Marxian
Socialism in the United States,” pp. 259, 283-4, and passim.
8 For the situation in San Francisco see the excellent account by Walton Bean: Boss Reuf’s San Francisco (Berkeley, 1952);
George Mowry: The California Piogressives, p. 295, points to a similar development in Los Angeles during a period of labor
9 This legislation is summarized in John R. Commons, ed.: History of Labor in the United States, Vol. III (New York, 1935).
1 On this movement see Cochran and Miller: The Age of Enterprise, pp. 243-8, and Commons, op. cit., Vol. III, section III.
2 See the comments on this movement in W. J. Ghent: Our Benevolent Feudalism, pp. 59-66.
3 L. A. Coolidge: An Old-fashioned Senator: Orville H. Platt (New York, 1910), p. 444.
4 It was characteristic of the age that Taft, who started twice as many anti-trust actions as T. R., but had not half his gift
for dramatization, was not thought of as a trust-buster.
5 Works, Memorial Edition (New York, 1923-6), Vol. XIX, p. 401; this was his speech before the Progressive National
Convention of 1912.
6 Presidential Addresses and State Papers (New York, 1910), Vol. I, p. 139; from a speech at Fitchburg, Massachusetts,
September 2, 1902.
7 John Morton Blum: The Republican Roosevelt, p. 110; for a more elaborate statement of this argument, see Herbert Croly:
The Promise of American Life (New York, 1909), esp. chapter xii.
8 The Letters of Theodore Roesevelt, Vol. III, pp. 591-2, 680.
9 George Mowry points out that Roosevelt’s paternalistic philosophy, with it’s acceptance of regulated consolidation, its
labor reforms, and its protective tariff had more urban than rural appeal, and that in the eighteen largest cities he ran 10
per cent ahead of his vote in the country at large. Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement, p. 280.
1 Quoted in William English Walling: Progressivism and After (New York, 1914), p. 104.
2 Autobiography, pp. 704-5.
3 The New Freedom, p. 188.
4 Ibid., p. 163; William Diamond: The Economic Thought of Woodrow Wilson (Baltimore, 1943), p. 108.
5 See the discussion of “Monopoly or Opportunity,” The New Freedom, chapter viii.
6 Ibid., p. 180.
7 This was completely clear after the American Tobacco Company and the Standard Oil cases, both decided in 1911, as a
consequence of the application of the “rule of reason” to anti-trust suits. In his dissenting opinion in the latter case Mr.
Justice Harlan declared that the Court had “by mere interpretation, modified the act of Congress, and deprived it of
practical value as a defensive measure against the evils to be remedied.” This was the view generally taken of these
decisions by the anti-trust reformers.
8 When the Antitrust Division was revived under Franklin D. Roosevelt after 1938, with the intention not of launching a
frontal attack on consolidation but of policing price policies and competitive practices, it acquired a force of about 250
lawyers and economists. The Securities’ and Exchange Commission needs a personnel of over 1,200 to carry out its work
today. Walton Hamilton and Irene Till: Antitrust in Action, T.N.E.C. Monograph No. 16 (Washington, 1941), pp. 23-6 gives a
good brief account of the historic non-enforcement of the Sherman Act; cf. Walton Hamilton: The Pattern of Competition
(New York, 1940), pp. 58-82, on difficulties and limitations of enforcement; and Thurman Arnold: The Bottlenecks of
Business (New York, 1940), esp. chapter viii.
9 Arthur S. Link: Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era (New York, 1954), pp. 70-5.
1 Ibid., p.74.
2 Nicholas Roosevelt: A Front Row Seat (Norman, Oklahoma, 1953), p. 53.
3 Matthew Josephson: The President Makers (New York, 1940), is most penetrating on this aspect of Progressive politics.
4 Arthur S. Link: Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, pp. 75-9.
5 Ibid., pp. 79-80.
6 Thurman Arnold: The Folklore of Capitalism (New Haven, 1937), p. 212; the thesis seems to have been foreshadowed by
C. H. Van Hise: Concentration and Control, p. 233.
7 Arnold, op. cit., pp. 221, 228.
8 Franz Neumann: Behemoth (New York, 1942), pp. 15-16.
9 Lipset and Bendix: “Social Status and Social Structure,” passim.
1 White: The Old Order Changeth, pp. 34, 36. 39, 47-53.
2 Ibid., p. 39.
3 Ibid., p. 121.
4 Ibid., pp. 57, 60-3, 66, 71, 120.
5 Ibid., pp. 132, 143; see chapter vi passim.
6 Link: Wilson: the Road to the White House, p. 518.
7 Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. IV (New York, 1930), p. 597. This point of view was expressed as late at 1923 by
Senator George W. Norris in a defense of the direct primary: “One of the [most important] objections that is always made
to the direct primary is that it takes away party responsibility and breaks down party control.… Politicians, political
bosses, corporations and combinations seeking special privilege and exceptional favor at the hands of legislatures and
executive officials, always urge this as the first reason why the direct primary should be abolished. But this objection thus
given against the direct primary I frankly offer as one of the best reasons for its retention. The direct primary will lower
party responsibility. In its stead it establishes individual responsibility. It does lessen allegiance to party and increase
individual independence, both as to the public official and as to the private citizen. It takes away the power of the party
leader or boss and places the responsibility for control upon the individual. It lessens party spirit and decreases
partisanship.” “Why I Believe in the Direct Primary,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol.
CVI (March 1923), p. 23.
8 See E. E. Schattschneider: Party Government (New York, 1942), pp. 53-61.
9 Theodore Roosevelt: Works, National Edition (New York, 1926), Vol. XVI, pp. 86-99.
1 Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, op. cit., p. 22.
2 Ibid., p. 58; see the general argument of chapter iii, “Responsible Government,” pp. 56-81.
3 Quoted in Austin F. Macdonald: American City Government and Administration, 3rd ed. (New York, 1941), p. 279. Cf.
Walter Lippmann in 1914: “I have just read a book by a college professor which announces that the short ballot will be as
deep a revolution as the abolition of slavery. There are innumerable Americans who believe that a democratic constitution
would create a democracy.” Drift and Mastery, p. 187. Cf. La Follette’s hopes for the direct primary, Autobiography, pp.
4 An excellent contemporary discussion of the whole problem of the public will and representative institutions was A.
Lawrence Lowell’s Public Opinion and Popular Government (New York, 1913); see also the critical reflections of Herbert
Croly in Progressive Democracy (New York, 1914).
5 Croly: Progressive Democracy, pp. 213-14; see in general chapters x and xiii.
6 Where the tone of a community was congenial to bossism it was impossible to find political mechanics that would
prevent it. One of the signal illustrations of this comes from New Jersey, where the Walsh Act of 1911 permitted
municipalities to change to the commission system of government. This was one of the reforms that worked to good effect
in some places, but in New Jersey Frank Hague used his position as commissioner of public safety—i.e., the police and fire
departments—as a stepping-stone toward that execrable regime for which he became notorious. Dayton D. McKean: The
Boss: the Hague Machine in Action (Boston. 1940), pp. 37-45.
7 Herbert Croly: Progressive Democracy, p. 306.
8 There is an extensive literature on such practices as direct primaries, the short ballot, initiative, referendum, recall,
commission government, the city-manager plan, and other reforms of the age. For a brief general critique see William B.
Munro: The Government of American Cities, 4th ed. (New York, 1933).
Some sober party estimates of the direct primary may be found in Annals of the American Academy of Political and
Social Sciences, Vol. CVI (March 1933). The comments of working politicians on the direct primary in Ralph S. Boots: The
Direct Primary in New Jersey (New York, 1917), pp. 262-76, are of unusual interest.
One of the more successful changes, useful chiefly in smaller municipalities, was the city-manager plan, which paid
more deference to the need for concentration of power and expertise than the devices aimed to bring about direct popular
government. The value even of this plan, however, has been impaired by the unwillingness of American voters to see their
city managers (or their other administrators or political leaders) paid adequate salaries. On this see Thomas H. Reed:
Municipal Governments in the United States (New York, 1934), chapter xiv.
9 The whole subject of the types of political machines and the character of what might be called reform machines needs
study by historians and political scientists. See, however, the suggestive article by Robert S. Maxwell: “La Follette and the
Progressive Machine in Wisconsin,” Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. XLVIII (March 1952), pp. 55-70, in which the
author briefly analyzes the La Follette machine as a particular instance of the general proposition: “On those rare occasions
when successful reform organizations have been welded together they have developed techniques of political astuteness,
leadership, and discipline not unlike the traditional machines.” Cf. George Mowry’s remarks on Hiram Johnson’s California
machine: The California Progressives, pp. 138-9, 292. The administration of Fiorello La Guardia in New York affords a
municipal example of a reform movement that used machine methods.
I . Progressivism and War
War has always been the Nemesis of the liberal tradition in America. From our earliest
history as a nation there has been a curiously persistent association between democratic
politics and nationalism, jingoism, or war. Periodically war has written the last scene to
some drama begun by the popular side of the party struggle. In the age of Jefferson and
Madison it was the Jeffersonian Republican Party, and particularly that faction of the
Republican Party associated with the democratic hinterland and the frontier, that did
most to bring on the War of 1812, and it was the war that finally liquidated the
Jeffersonian policies and caused their reversal. Jacksonian democracy, the next popular
upsurge, was at first built upon nationalist hero-worship and the military reputation of
a leader whose ideas about domestic policies were unknown. Although it fell short of
actual war with a European power, the diplomacy of Jacksonian democracy was
pugnacious. After their primary domestic reforms were accomplished, Jacksonian
leaders prodded the nation toward bellicose expansionism, risked war with England,
and finally did go to war with Mexico. In the subsequent “young America” movement of
the 1850’s, democracy and nationalism were again marching hand in hand. After the
long period of continental settlement that followed the Civil War, a period of
predominantly peaceful relations with foreign countries, it fell for the first time in 1898
to the more conservative forces to be at the helm in a time of war—but, as I pointed out
in dealing with the Populists, it was the more radical and popular and dissenting forces
in American life that felt the strongest impulse toward the Cuban crusade, and it was the
Mark Hanna, Wall Street kind of Republican that showed the strongest initial opposition
to the war. Again, as after Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, the war, soon
followed by prosperity, was a strong if only temporary solvent of the reform impulse.
By the turn of the century, it is possible to distinguish two chief strains of feeling in
the Populist-Progressive tradition. The first, more Populist than Progressive, more rural
and sectional than nationwide in its appeal, represents, in a sense, the roots of modern
American isolationism. But this Populist impulse was less pacifistic and isolationist than
it was nationalist, anti-European, and anti-English. Although it was by no means devoid
of belligerent potential, it was opposed to imperialism or colonialism or militarism. To
the good Populist, imperialism was doubly accursed—appeal though it might to his
national pride—because it was held to benefit the capitalist and the Wall Streeter rather
than the nation at large, and because it was too strongly imitative of the British
example. To the Populist who was also a Southerner, imperialism was further
questionable because it brought new alien races into the national fold. Hence a great
many Americans who had responded with enthusiasm to the war against Spain as a
crusade to liberate underdogs in Cuba and to strike at a decadent European aristocratic
and Catholic power became as ardently anti-imperialist as they had been prowar, just as
soon as they saw some capitalists express an interest in the Philippines as an imperial
When all this has been said, it must be added that alongside this nationalist
belligerence and crusading credulity of the native American, there was a genuine streak
of Christian pacifism, too inconsistently held to be an overruling force and yet far from
a negligible influence in the conduct of national affairs. It was this pacifism that Bryan
at times appealed to and that Wilson in good part relied on during the period when he
was “too proud to fight.” Both men drew on the same strain of moral idealism in their
conduct of what Arthur S. Link has called “missionary diplomacy,” in relation to China,
Mexico, and the Caribbean countries.1
The second source of patriotic and imperialist sentiment was neither among the
Populists nor the ultraconservatives of the country, but among the fervently patriotic
and nationalistic middle-class Americans in all parts of the country who were deeply
attracted to Republican insurgency. It is true that there were among the Republican
Progressives a few ardent pacifists like Jane Addams as well as a small group of
isolationists who followed men like the elder La Follette and George W. Norris in their
courageous last-ditch resistance to American participation in the first World War. But
the main stream of feeling in the ranks of insurgency was neither anti-war nor antiimperialist.
Its real spiritual leader, in this as in other respects, was T. R., with his
militarist preachments and his hearty appeals to unselfish patriotism and manliness
against self-seeking and materialistic motives. As William Leuchtenburg has shown, the
Progressives, with few exceptions on scattered issues, either supported the imperialist
policies of the era or quietly acquiesced in them. The majority of them voted for
increased naval expenditures, leaving to conservatives the task of leading the
opposition to big-navy measures. They took no issue with “Dollar Diplomacy,” or with
Taft’s policy when he landed marines in Nicaragua. Most of them supported T. R. in his
adventures in Panama and the Far East, and his naval expansion. They fought and
voted for policies underwriting American hegemony in the Caribbean, followed
Roosevelt in his contemptuous (and not altogether unjustified) criticisms of Taft’s
arbitration treaties, opposed Wilson’s magnanimous bill to repeal the Panama Canal
tolls. By 1914 the Progressive Party, which owed its origins in no small degree to
insurgency over the tariff issue, came out for a higher protective tariff, and by 1916 it
was entirely committed to the defense of “national honor,” excoriation of Wilson,
preparedness, and Americanism. By 1916 “imperialism and militarism had replaced the
old liberal formulas of protest, and within a year the party was dead.”2
Participation in the war put an end to the Progressive movement. And yet the
wartime frenzy of idealism and self-sacrifice marked the apotheosis as well as the
liquidation of the Progressive spirit. It would be misleading to imply that American
entrance into the war was in any special sense the work of the Progressives, for the
final movement toward war was a nationwide movement, shared by the majority of
Americans in both major parties. What is significant, however, is that the war was
justified before the American public—perhaps had to be justified—in the Progressive
rhetoric and on Progressive terms; and that the men who went to work for George Creel
(himself a crusading journalist) in the Committee on Public Information, whose job it
was to stimulate public enthusiasm for the war, were in so many instances the same
men who had learned their trade drumming up enthusiasm for the Progressive reforms
and providing articles for the muckraking magazines. By 1912 the Progressive spirit had
become so pervasive that any policy—whether it was entrance into the war as
rationalized by Wilson or abstention from the war as rationalized by La Follette—could
be strengthened if a way could be found to put it in Progressive language. In the end,
when the inevitable reaction came, the Progressive language itself seemed to have been
In the course of the long struggle over neutrality Wilson is the key figure, not merely
because of the central power of leadership he exercised but because he was, on this
issue, a representative American and a good Progressive citizen who expressed in every
inconsistency, every vacillation, every reluctance, the predominant feelings of the
country. He embodied, too, the triumph of the Progressive need to phrase the problems
of national policy in moral terms.3 At first, while sharing the common reluctance to
become involved in the struggle, he eschewed the “realistic” formula that the whole
struggle was none of America’s business and that the essence of the American problem
was to stay out at all costs. Even his plea for neutrality was pitched in high moral terms:
the nation must stay out in order to be of service, to provide a center of sanity uncorrupted
by the strains and hatreds of belligerence. It must —the phrase was so
characteristic—maintain “absolute self-mastery” and keep aloof in order that it might in
the end bring a “disinterested influence” to the settlement.
Then, as the country drew closer to involvement under the pressure of events, Wilson
again chose the language of idealism to formulate the American problem—the problem
not only whether the United States should intervene, but what might be the valid
reasons for intervening. One view—a view widely shared within the Wilson
administration and among thoughtful men in the country at large—rested chiefly upon
the national interest and cool calculations of the future advantage of the United States.
According to this view, a victory for imperial Germany would represent a threat to the
long-term interests of the United States in some sense that a victory for the Allies would
not. It was expected that a victorious Germany would be more aggressive, more
formidable, more anti-American, and that after the defeat of the Allies and the surrender
of the British fleet it would either turn upon the United States at some future time or at
least present so forceful and continuous a threat as to compel this country to remain a
perpetual armed camp in order to protect its security. Therefore, it was argued, it was
the business of the United States, as a matter of self-interest, to see to it that the Allies
were not defeated—acting if possible as a nonbelligerent, but if necessary as a
belligerent. Another view was that intervention in the war could not properly be
expressed in such calculating and self-regarding terms, but must rest upon moral and
ideological considerations—the defense of international law and freedom of the seas,
the rights of small nations, the fight against autocracy and militarism, the struggle to
make the world safe for democracy.4 To be sure, the argument from self-preservation
and national interest and the argument from morals and ideals were not mutually
contradictory, and both tended to have a place in the course of public discussion. But
Wilson’s course, the characteristically Progressive course, was to minimize and
subordinate the self-regarding considerations, and to place American intervention upon
the loftiest possible plane. He committed himself to this line of action quite early in the
game when he rested so much of his diplomacy on the issue of the conduct of German
submarine warfare and the freedom of the seas. This was quixotically formulated
because it linked the problem of American intervention or non-intervention to an issue
of international law—though one entirely congenial to the Progressive concern over
lawlessness. To Wilson’s critics it seemed hypocritical because in purely formal terms
British violations of maritime law were about as serious as German violations. American
concern over them could never be pressed so vigorously because such a course of action
would trip over the more urgent desire to do nothing to impair the chances of Allied
Our experience after the second World War suggests that in the long run there was
nothing Wilson could have done to prevent a reaction against both the war itself and
the Progressive movement that preceded the war. But this too seems almost certain: that
by pinning America’s role in the war so exclusively to high moral considerations and to
altruism and self-sacrifice, by linking the foreign crusade as intimately as possible to the
Progressive values and the Progressive language, he was unintentionally insuring that
the reaction against Progressivism and moral idealism would be as intense as it could
be. For he was telling the American people, in effect, not that they were defending
themselves, but that as citizens of the world they were undertaking the same broad
responsibilities for world order and world democracy that they had been expected,
under the Yankee ethos of responsibility, to assume for their own institutions.5 The
crusade for reform and for democratic institutions, difficult as it was at home, was now
to be projected to the world scene.6
Wilson turned his back on the realistic considerations that might be offered as reasons
for intervention, and continually stressed the more grandiose idealistic reasons. He did
more than ignore the self-regarding considerations: on occasion he repudiated them.
“There is not a single selfish element, so far as I can see, in the cause we are fighting
for,” he told the people shortly after American entry. “We are fighting for what we
believe and wish to be the rights of mankind and for the future peace and security of the
world.”7 Again: “We have gone in with no special grievance of our own, because we
have always said that we were the friends and servants of mankind. We look for no
profit. We look for no advantage.”8 “America,” he said, all too truthfully, during the
debate over the treaty, “… is the only idealistic Nation in the world.”9
What takes the sting of chauvinism out of this extraordinary assertion is that Wilson
justified it by going to the peace conference without a single distinctively nationalist
demand to make, without a single claim for territory, indemnities, or spoils, with no
more self-regarding national object than to restrain his allies, make a durable and just
peace, and form a League that would secure such a peace for an incalculable future. It
was an amazing episode in the history of diplomacy, an episode that repeated with
ironic variations the themes of American domestic Progressivism: for here was Wilson,
the innocent in the presence of the interests, the reformer among such case-hardened
“bosses” of Europe as Lloyd George and Clemenceau, the spokesman of the small man,
the voiceless and unrepresented masses, flinging his well-meaning program for the
reform of the world into the teeth of a tradition of calculating diplomacy and an ageless
history of division and cynicism and strife. But it was not merely upon Europe that
Wilson was making impossible demands: he had pushed the idealism and the resolution
of his own people—and even, among his own people, of those who were closest to him
—beyond the breaking-point. The vein of idealism he was trying to mine was there; but
the demands he made upon it assumed that it would be inexhaustible, and his effort to
give to the idealism of America an internationalist form reckoned without the fact that
his country was not, even in the remotest sense, a country with an internationalist
outlook. The traditional American idea had been not that the United States was to lead,
rescue, or redeem Europe, but that it was to take its own people in a totally different
direction which Europe was presumably incapable of following. The United States was
to be a kind of non-Europe or anti-Europe.1 Where European institutions were old,
static, decadent, and aristocratic, American institutions were to be modern, progressive,
moral, and democratic. This undercurrent of feeling was as strong in the native
American as the uplifting passions of Progressivism and far stronger than the ephemeral
passions of the war period. For a moment the Western Allies might be thought of as
exempt from these charges, but before long they would again be considered, as England
for instance so characteristically was in the populistic mind, as the embodiment of
It was remarkable that Wilson should have succeeded even for a moment in uniting
behind him as large a part of the country as he did in an enterprise founded upon the
notion of American responsibility for the world. But it is in no way surprising that he
should have been resoundingly repudiated in the election of 1920—more resoundingly
than any administration before or since. Not long after they began to pay the price of
war, the people began to feel that they had been gulled by its promoters both among the
allies and in the United States. In this respect the historical revisionists of the postwar
period were merely tardy in catching up with them. The war purged the pent-up guilts,
shattered the ethos of responsibility that had permeated the rhetoric of more than a
decade. It convinced the people that they had paid the price for such comforts of modern
life as they could claim, that they had finally answered to the full the Progressive
demand for sacrifice and self-control and altruism. In repudiating Wilson, the treaty, the
League, and the war itself, they repudiated the Progressive rhetoric and the Progressive
mood—for it was Wilson himself and his propagandists who had done so much to tie all
these together. Wilson had foreseen that the waging of war would require turning the
management of affairs over to the interests the Progressives had been fighting—but this
was hardly the change that he had imagined it to be, for only on limited issues and in
superficial respects had the management of affairs ever been very far out of those
hands. The reaction went farther than this: it destroyed the popular impulse that had
sustained Progressive politics for well over a decade before 1914. The pressure for civic
participation was followed by widespread apathy, the sense of responsibility by neglect,
the call for sacrifice by hedonism. And with all this there came, for a time, a sense of
self-disgust. By 1920, publishers were warning authors not to send them manuscripts
about the war—people would not hear of it.3 When at last they were willing to think
about it at all, they thought of it as a mistake, and they were ready to read books about
the folly of war.
II . Entr’acte
Progressivism had been founded on a mood, and with the reaction that followed the war
that mood was dissipated. Many months before Wilson and his party were repudiated in
the election of 1920 the reaction had begun under Wilson’s own administration. For it
was his Attorney General who did more than any other man to make the postwar Red
scare official. Wilson himself, in refusing a pardon to Eugene Debs for opposition to the
war (a pardon that was eventually granted by Harding), merely expressed the political
absolutism of a style of thought whose exponents intended to wipe out every vestige of
sympathy with Bolshevism, just as their fellows had been planning to wipe out all
political corruption and then to put a final end to the consumption of alcohol. Moods
are intangible, and yet the change in America hung on mood as much as anything else.
It will not do to say, as it has often been said, that the returning conservatism of the
1920’s can be attributed simply to the return of prosperity, though it is doubtless true
that this age of conservatism would have been shorter if the prosperity itself had not
lasted until 1929. The reaction, in fact, was at its most intense pitch right after the war
and during the brief postwar depression. But still more important, the whole Progressive
mood from 1900 to 1914 had been a response, we must remember, not to depression but
to prosperity and economic well-being.
Naturally it was impossible that a mood so completely dominant in, say, 1912 should
have evaporated without any trace ten years later. Yet what stands out is the extent to
which Progressivism had either disappeared or transmuted its form. The independent La
Follette campaign of 1924 is commonly cited as evidence that Progressivism was not
dead during the twenties. Certainly La Follette’s platform of 1924, calling for a number
of bold and unmistakably Progressive proposals—public ownership of water power,
eventual public ownership of railroads, recognition of collective bargaining, greater
governmental aid to farmers, a child-labor law, and several mechanical reforms aimed
to expand popular democracy—went somewhat farther than the characteristic pre-war
Progressivism; and La Follette, without substantial funds or machine support outside his
home state, did well to poll 16.6 per cent of the popular vote. But twelve years earlier,
when T. R. snatched the banner of Republican insurgency from La Follette, Progressive
sentiment had been so general in the country that Taft, the only avowed conservative in
the field, could not, even with the aid of several state machines and ample funds, muster
so much as one fourth of the total vote. It is the disappearance of this Progressive
consensus of 1912 that seems most significant. Moreover, the La Follette vote, often
considered as measuring the minimum of Progressive sentiment in the country, was
doubtless much stronger than Progressive sentiment itself: much of his support was an
ethnic vote based upon his reputation as an opponent of the war; much of it, also, came
from disgruntled farmers who resented their exclusion from the general prosperity but
who would not have supported the broad program of social-democratic reform promised
in La Follette’s platform.4 Four years later most of La Follette’s supporters seem to have
voted for Hoover.
There was, throughout the twenties, a continuous sputtering of insurgency in the
Senate, set off primarily by the agricultural depression and the refusal of the Republican
Presidents to support strong measures of farm relief. Now and then the old Populist
rhetoric could be heard on Capitol Hill, but it came chiefly from Western leaders who
could be relied on not to bolt in the presidential elections, and who indeed, as Hiram
Johnson saw when he referred to Senator William E. Borah as “our spearless leader,”
could usually be expected to do nothing drastic. Congressmen from farm states,
expressing the “hard” side of agrarian thinking, formed the Farm Bloc to advance
agrarian interests. But the Congressional Progressives of the twenties, except for the
activities of a rare soul like George W. Norris and the exposure of the Teapot Dome
scandal, were on the whole a fake, and many contemporaries knew it.5
Under the cover of public indifference, and even with a large measure of public
applause, an old-style conservative leadership, of a sort that the country had almost
forgotten in the years since 1900, came back into power, unchecked by any serious
opposition. While here and there, notably in New York, where Alfred E. Smith’s
administrations continued to extend social legislation, the reforms of Progressivism still
had some modicum of meaning, in the nation at large it was a simple matter to reverse
the Progressive policies. The Republican administrations of the twenties raised the tariff
to unheard-of heights, devised tax policies that would benefit the “plutocrats” and the
large corporations, applauded and assisted in the continued process of business
consolidation, and even used such an agency as Wilson’s Federal Trade Commission to
further the process of consolidation that it had been created to check. Secure in their
domination of national politics, the Republican Presidents of the twenties dared even to
spurn the farmers and to veto schemes to uphold domestic prices. With the first of these
Presidents, corruption, always more or less normal in state and municipal politics,
moved to Washington; when it was exposed by insurgents, no one seemed to care, for
the Republicans were returned to power with overwhelming majorities.6 Nothing else
could have made quite so clear how little the nation at large responded to the old
Progressive rallying cries.
Among the intellectuals themselves, upon whose activities the political culture of
Progressivism had always been so dependent, there was a marked retreat from politics
and public values toward the private and personal sphere, and even in those with a
strong impulse toward dissent, bohemianism triumphed over radicalism. Among the
writers of the younger generation John Dos Passos was almost alone in his concern for
what had been called “the social question.” As for the generation of the muckrakers, it
was now becoming the older generation, by and large; for a man who had been thirty in
the year of Theodore Roosevelt’s sudden accession to the presidency was fifty-three in
the year of La Follette’s gallant campaign, and if he was characteristic of his type he
was in all probability the “Tired Radical” of Walter Weyl’s essay. On the whole, it must
be said, the Progressive generation had few regrets. In 1926, when Frederic C. Howe in
his autobiography, Confessions of a Reformer, raised the question: Where are the
radicals? a liberal magazine held a symposium on the subject which sounded out a good
sample of Progressive opinion.7 Almost none of the old reformers found it necessary to
indulge in self-recrimination or apologetics, and a few expressed the conviction that the
very success of the reformers had made a continuation of their work unnecessary.
Several believed that the spirit of reform would revive and attach itself, when it was
needed, to new causes, perhaps more radical than the old ones. But the dominant note
was the feeling that at least for the moment prosperity had cut the ground from under
all movements of reform. All seemed to have forgotten the prosperity of the Progressive
era,8 but underneath this misconception lay one implicit prediction that proved correct:
the new indifference would last as long as the new prosperity.
But indifference is too strong, or at least too categorical a word. For if the course of
American politics and the control of affairs by the grosser and more obtuse type of
businessman was widely accepted, the battle with America went on among the
intellectuals on a double front. This was the age of “the revolt against the village,” the
attack on the country mind, that savage repudiation of the old pieties that one found,
for instance, in H. L. Mencken’s famous diatribe against the American farmer and in his
acidulous sketches of Wilson, Bryan, and Roosevelt. And if American capitalism was
almost everywhere accepted as a hard fact, it was not accepted as an ideal. Where the
writers of the Progressive era had attacked the businessman for his economic and
political role, the intellectuals of the twenties still assailed him for his personal and
cultural incapacities. Where once he had been speculator, exploiter, corrupter, and
tyrant, he had now become boob and philistine, prude and conformist, to be dismissed
with disdain along with most of the institutions of the country. Aloofness from practical
politics was not the same as complacency; but if American intelligence, could be
measured by the Scopes trial, American justice by the Sacco-Vanzetti case, American
tolerance by the Klan, and American political morals by the Prohibition farce and
Teapot Dome, it seemed simpler to catch the first liner to Europe or to retire to the
library with the American Mercury than to engage oneself seriously with proposals to
reform American life.
The widespread revolt among liberals and intellectuals against the village mind and
the country mind was altogether symptomatic of the breach in Progressivism, for it had
been essential to Progressivism to keep the rural and urban insurgents in harmony. For
its achievements in the national arena—whether in the line of railroad regulation, antitrust
laws, or financial reform—the Populist-Progressive tradition had always been
dependent upon the support it could muster from the West and the South, from the
agrarian flanks of reform. Now it was precisely in the West and the South, in the old
Bryan country, that the public mood swung most sharply away from the devotion to
necessary reforms that had characterized Progressivism at its best. To be sure, the new
prosperity of the twenties was spottiest in the farm belt, and there the old Populist
discontents were not altogether forgotten. But the strongest enthusiasms of the rural and
small-town Americans who understood and loved Bryan were now precisely what the
more sophisticated urban Progressive leadership disdained: the crusade to protect
fundamentalist religion from modern science, which had its culmination in the Scopes
trial; the defense of the eighteenth amendment from all criticism at all costs; and the
rallying of the Ku Klux Klan against the Catholics, the Negroes, and the Jews. The
pathetic postwar career of Bryan himself, once the bellwether for so many of the
genuine reforms, was a perfect epitome of the collapse of rural idealism and the
shabbiness of the evangelical mind. For was it not Bryan who made a fortune lecturing
on old-time religion, attacking freedom of thought, and promoting Prohibition, while his
erstwhile followers celebrated him, no doubt inaccurately, as “the greatest Klansman of
our time”?
When the crusading debauch was over, the country’s chief inheritance from the
Yankee-Protestant drive for morality and from the tensions of the war period was
Prohibition. To the historian who likes to trace the development of the great economic
issues and to follow the main trend of class politics, the story of Prohibition will seem
like a historical detour, a meaningless nuisance, an extraneous imposition upon the
main course of history. The truth is that Prohibition appeared to the men of the twenties
as a major issue because it was a major issue, and one of the most symptomatic for those
who would follow the trend of rural-urban conflicts and the ethnic tensions in American
politics. It is also one of the leading clues to the reaction against the Progressive temper.
For Prohibition, in the twenties, was the skeleton at the feast, a grim reminder of the
moral frenzy that so many wished to forget, a ludicrous caricature of the reforming
impulse, of the Yankee-Protestant notion that it is both possible and desirable to
moralize private life through public action.
To hold the Progressives responsible for Prohibition would be to do them an injustice.
Men of an urbane cast of mind, whether conservatives or Progressives in their politics,
had been generally antagonistic, or at the very least suspicious, of the pre-war drive
toward Prohibition; and on the other side there were many advocates of Prohibition who
had nothing to do with other reforms. We cannot, however, quite ignore the diagnostic
significance of prohibitionism. For Prohibition was a pseudo-reform, a pinched,
parochial substitute for reform which had a widespread appeal to a certain type of
crusading mind.9 It was linked not merely to an aversion to drunkenness and to the
evils that accompanied it, but to the immigrant drinking masses, to the pleasures and
amenities of city life, and to the well-to-do classes and cultivated men. It was carried
about America by the rural-evangelical virus: the country Protestant frequently brought
it with him to the city when the contraction of agriculture sent him there to seek his
livelihood. Students of the Prohibition movement find it easy to believe that the majority
sentiment of the country stood in favor of Prohibition at the time the amendment was
passed and for some years before; for even many drinking people were sufficiently
persuaded by the note of moral uplift to concede that Prohibition might, after all, be a
good thing.1 And even if the desire for Prohibition was a minority sentiment, it was the
sentiment of a large minority, one whose intensity and insistency gave its members a
power disproportionate to their numbers. Politicians, at any rate, catered to their
demands, and there were among them some—one thinks of Bryan as Secretary of State
with his much-ridiculed wineless dinners or of Josephus Daniels with his absurd
insistence on depriving the Navy officers of their drink—who unquestionably believed
that the conquest of the demon rum was one of the important tasks of political life.
Prohibition had not been a sudden product of the war. The demand for liquor reform,
long familiar in American politics, seems to have quickened during the Progressive era,
notably after about 1908, and the final victory of the amendment was the culmination
of five years of heightened agitation by the Anti-Saloon League. The alcohol issue had
been approached with the usual Populist-Progressive arguments: it was one of the
means by which the interests, in this case the “whisky ring,” fattened on the toil of the
people. Drinking was pre-eminently a vice of those classes—the plutocrats and corrupt
politicians and ignorant immigrants—which the reformers most detested or feared. The
saloon, as an institution pivotal in the life of vice on one side and of American urban
politics on the other, fell under particular reprobation. Like everything else, drink was
subject to muckraking, and the readers of the magazines were entertained by articles on
alcohol as “the arch enemy of progress,” “The Experiences and Observations of a New
York Saloon-Keeper,” and “The Story of an Alcohol Slave, as Told by Himself,” and were
even titillated by such pale efforts as “Confessions of a Moderate Drinker.”2
George Kibbe Turner, a leading muckraker for S. S. McClure, who specialized in
exposing prostitution, probably went to the heart of the Prohibition sentiment when he
wrote an article attacking the city saloon in which he pointed out that city people
constituted each year a larger and larger portion of the whole population and insisted
that the first thing to be done in the movement for city reform was “to remove the
terrible and undisciplined commercial forces which, in America, are fighting to saturate
the populations of cities with alcoholic liquor.”3 During the war the alleged need to
conserve materials and the Germanic names of the leading brewers added some force to
the prohibitionist propaganda; but what stood the drys in the best stead was the same
strong undercurrent of public self-castigation, the same reaction against personal and
physical indulgence and material success, that underlay the Progressive tirades against
the plutocracy and instigated those appeals to Lincoln Steffens to “come and show us
up” The sense that others were fighting battles and making sacrifices in which one
somehow ought to share was greatly heightened by the war; and the dry agitation, with
its demand for self-denial, struck an increasingly congenial note.4 When one of the
muckrakers wrote the fantasy I have mentioned about the liberation of the country from
German invasion, he did not fail to celebrate the heroism of the women’s clubs that
drew together in a “Women’s National War Economy League,” whose members all
pledged, among many other pledges, to buy “no jewelry or useless ornaments,” to buy
fewer clothes and cut their entertaining, and “to abstain from cocktails, highballs and
all expensive wines, also from cigarettes, to influence husbands, father, brothers, sons
and men friends to do the same, and to contribute the amount thus saved to the
Woman’s National War Fund.”5 Of course this sort of thing could not last forever, but
while it was at its pitch the dry lobbyists struck, and when they were finished the
Prohibition mania was fixed in the Constitution; and there it remained for almost fifteen
years, a symbol of the moral overstrain of the preceding era, the butt of jokes, a
perennial source of irritation, a memento of the strange power of crusades for absolute
morality to intensify the evils they mean to destroy.
But Prohibition was more than a symbol—it was a means by which the reforming
energies of the country were transmuted into mere peevishness. All through the period
before the passage of the Volstead Act—and especially before the emergence of the AntiSaloon
League—when the dry crusade spoke the language of social and humanitarian
reform, leading Prohibitionists had often been leading reformers,6 and the churches that
gave the strongest support to the Social Gospel movement in American Protestantism
were all by the same token supporters of the dry cause. The victory of Prohibition, the
transformation of the drinker from a victim of evil to a lawbreaker, the necessity of
defending a law that was widely violated, drew many onetime reformers toward the
camp of the conservatives, while the circumstances of American politics led them into
Catholic-baiting and city-baiting in 1924 and 1928. Prohibition became a low-grade
substitute for the old Social Gospel enthusiasms.7
The Ku Klux Klan, another rural Protestant enthusiasm of the twenties, also seemed to
mock at the old reforming energies of the pre-war period. I say rural, though the
important centers of Klan activity were the small towns of the nation almost
everywhere outside the Northeast. It did not pay the often mercenary organizers of the
Klan to do the traveling and hard work that is necessary to organize the widely
scattered dirt farmers; but in the small towns, where gullible nativists were gathered in
sufficient numbers to be worth organizing, the spirit of country Protestantism was still
strong, and there it was that the fiery crosses were to be found burning. The Klan
appealed to relatively unprosperous8 and uncultivated native white Protestants who had
in them a vein of misty but often quite sincere idealism. Generally they lived in areas
where they had little real contact with the Catholics and Jews against whom their voices
were raised, though of course in the South the Klan became the chief carrier of white
The Klan impulse was not usually a response to direct personal relationship or face-toface
competition, but rather the result of a growing sense that the code by which rural
and small-town Anglo-Saxon America had lived was being ignored and even flouted in
the wicked cities, and especially by the “aliens,” and that the old religion and morality
were being snickered at by the intellectuals. The city had at last eclipsed the country in
population and above all as the imaginative center of American life. For a century and
more the surplus rural population, coming to the city, had been able to bring to its life a
tincture of rural nostalgia and rural ideals, but now the city was providing to the nation
at large the archetype of the good life. It was the city that enjoyed the best of the new
prosperity, the countryside that lagged behind. But, above all, the city was the home of
liquor and bootleggers, jazz and Sunday golf, wild parties and divorce. The magazines
and newspapers, the movies and radio, brought tidings of all this to the countryside, and
even lured children of the old American stock away from the old ways. The blame fell
upon the immigrants, the Catholics, the Jews—and not really upon the harmless ones
who lived in the neighborhood, but upon those who peopled the remoter Babylons like
New York and Chicago. The Anglo-Saxon Americans now felt themselves more than ever
to be the representatives of a threatened purity of race and ideals, a threatened
Protestantism, even a threatened integrity of national allegiance—for the war and its
aftermath had awakened them to the realization that the country was full of naturalized
citizens still intensely concerned with the politics of Europe and divided in their
The Klan’s Imperial Wizard and Emperor, Hiram Wesley Evans, once wrote a candid
and at points eloquent statement of Klan aims which states as clearly as any analyst
could the relation between the movement and the decline of rural Protestant America:1
“… Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly
uncomfortable and finally deeply distressed. There appeared first confusion in thought
and opinion, a groping hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp
contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years. There was futility in
religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing.… Finally came the moral
breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional
moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be
binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of
our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths
were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face
of constant ridicule.
“Along with this went economic distress. The assurance for the future of our children
dwindled. We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and
commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity
against us. Shortly they came to dominate our government. The bloc system by which
this is done is now familiar to all.…
“So the Nordic American today is a stranger in large parts of the land his fathers gave
him.… Our falling birth rate, the result of all this, is proof of our distress. We no longer
feel that we can be fair to children we bring into the world, unless we can make sure
from the start that they shall have capital or education or both, so that they need never
compete with those who now fill the lower rungs of the ladder of success. We no longer
dare risk letting our youth make its own way’ in the conditions under which we live.…
“We are a movement of the plain people, very weak in the matter of culture,
intellectual support, and trained leadership. We are demanding … a return of power
into the hands of the everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but
entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized, average citizen of the old stock. Our
members and leaders are all of this class—the opposition of the intellectuals and liberals
who held the leadership, betrayed Americanism … is almost automatic.
“This is undoubtedly a weakness. It lays us open to the charge of being ‘hicks’ and
‘rubes’ and ‘drivers of second hand Fords.’ We admit it.… Every popular movemen has
suffered from just this handicap, yet the popular movements have been the mainsprings
of progress, and have usually had to win against the ‘best people’ of their time.”
The Klansmen felt themselves to be on the defensive against encroaching evils—but
these evils were also temptations. The Klansmen had the characteristic preoccupation of
censors with the thing censored. (For this reason it was a particularly terrible blow to
them when one of their most exalted hobgoblins, the leader of the powerful Indiana
Klan, was convicted for a rape-murder.) In many places they presumed to set themselves
up as custodians of the public morals or as informal enforcement agents for Prohibition.
If a covert yearning for the license of the city underlay some of their activities, an
acknowledged need for romance and the exotic may have heightened their hatred of
Catholicism. While the Catholics were the primary objects of their resentment, at least
outside the South, among the most striking features of the Klan was its enthusiasm for
things suggestive of Catholic practices—its elaborate hierarchy of Cyclopses, Kleagles,
Klaliffs, Klokards, Kluds, Kligrapps, Klabees, and Klexters, its pride in its ritual (which,
said the Imperial Wizard, the members of other orders admitted to be beautiful and
extremely dignified), and its clean white vestments, which every layman could wear.2
Some estimates of Klan strength indicate that at its peak the Klan had a membership
of a little less than 4,000,000,3 and if this figure is too high for enrolled members, it can
hardly be too high if it embraces as well those whose sentiments were represented by
the Klan but who lived outside the reach of its organizing efforts. At any rate its
influence was used in the service of political reaction; and the popularity of a man like
Bryan among the Klansmen in some areas suggests that its followers included large
numbers who had once given their support to the cause of rural reformism.
The Prohibition and Klan issues always divided the Democrats more sharply than the
Republicans, and it was within the Democratic Party that the ethnic tensions in
American life were more dramatically acted out. Moreover, the collapse of the
Democratic Party after the war was so severe that it brought about an effectual
breakdown of the two-party system and of useful opposition. The Democrats had
traditionally been the minority party since the Civil War, but the balance of the parties
during the Progressive era had been close enough to force opportunistic politicians
within the Republican ranks to stave off public criticism by adopting in some form many
of the most appealing Democratic proposals. In 1912 only the Republican split had
made it possible for Wilson to put an end to sixteen years of Republican rule, while
Wilson’s narrow re-election in 1916 rested upon his success in staying out of the war.
The political capital based on the cry: “He kept us out of war” was of course altogether
dissipated, and in 1920 the national Democratic ticket polled only 34.S per cent of the
total vote, which was the poorest showing of any major-party ticket since the Civil War
era.4 This disaster, followed by the bitter wrangling and the interminable balloting of
the 1924 convention, all but finished the Democrats as a serious opposition.5 It was the
wide gap between the parties that made it easier for the Republican standpatters to
rebuff the farmers, survive the exposure of corruption, and ignore the La Follette revolt
of 1924, for it is when the major-party contest is quite close that third-party revolts are
most likely to have a serious impact.
It was not so much in the La Follette movement as in the Democratic Party that the
most interesting denouement of Progressivism was to be found and in which the
problems of future reform politics were most clearly posed. For it was within the
Democratic Party that the conflict between the rural Protestant Yankees and the urban
machines raged at its highest. It was in the twenties and in the person of Al Smith that
urban immigrant Catholic America first produced a national hero. Smith was a paradox,
for he was a Tammanyite and yet a Progressive, a product of an urban machine whose
name was synonymous with corruption, and yet a political leader whose governorship
gave ample evidence of warm interest in popular welfare. A Catholic, a wet, a graduate
of the city streets who had never been to college, an adroit politician with a history of
genuine achievement, he became a symbol of the possibilities of urban America. With
his coarse voice and uncertain pronunciation and syntax he was a perfect victim for
American snobbism, but for the same reason he was a sympathetic figure to those who
were shut out from the respectabilities of American middle-class life, and above all to
the immigrant stocks. Although the gates to further large-scale immigration had been
shut, the active power of the immigrants in politics was just beginning to be felt. The
first generation had been relatively passive and submissive, but now the second and
even the third generation of the descendants of the great wave of the late nineteenth
century were coming of age. They were also growing in pride and self-consciousness.
Their interest in politics as something more than a medium of the barest adjustment to
American life was beginning to be aroused. Many of them had taken an interest in
politics for the first time in connection with the European war, which awakened old
loyalties, and many had been moved for the first time to violent enthusiasms on one
side or the other by the policies of Wilson, which had an intimate bearing on the fate of
almost every European country. Their pride, and often their family plans, had been
affected by the closing of the gates in 1921. Their leisure and their amusements had
been struck at by the preposterous restrictions of Prohibition, and even their sense of
security in America was threatened by the antics of the Klan. To the immigrants, thus
aroused, Smith became a natural leader, the more esteemed because the snobs of native
stock looked down upon him. The ethnic conflict, heightened by the fight over
Prohibition, became during an age of prosperity far more acute than any economic
The ethnic battle went through two phases. The first was fought out within the
Democratic Party in 1924. The rural representatives, from the old Bryan constituency,
and the Smith followers battled over their differences for seventeen days at Madison
Square Garden, while Smith and William Gibbs McAdoo deadlocked the convention for
103 ballots. The fierceness of the squabble was heightened by the dead even equipoise
between the forces. On the issue of denouncing the Klan by name the final roll-call
decided in the negative by a vote of 543 3/20 to 542 7/20. The delegates left after
having nominated a man not conspicuously involved with either faction but also
without marked appeal to either, and his showing at the polls was pitiful. Four years
later the Smith forces carried the day and named their man, and now the ethnic battle
was fought out between the major parties rather than within one of them. Although
Smith represented more liberal views than Hoover and was supported by the liberal
intelligentsia, both parties truckled so openly to big business that no major economic
identification was at stake,6 and the election was fought out quite clearly along the
division between the dry-Protestant-rural and the wet-Catholic-urban-immigrant
Smith’s overwhelming defeat in 1928 (he was beaten almost as badly as four years
later Hoover was beaten by Roosevelt) diverted attention from some of the major
undercurrents in American political life. For one thing, the election inflicted upon
American Catholics, in their civic capacity, a trauma from which they never fully
recovered and the consequences of which still haunt the nation. Although Hoover, as the
candidate of the incumbent party in a time of prosperity, and the inheritor of the then
normal Republican majority, would almost certainly have been elected in any case, the
dimensions of his victory had a great deal to do with the personal snobbery and
religious bigotry invoked against Smith. Not only did the election underline the fact that
it was impossible for a Catholic to be elected president, but the underground campaign
impugned the Americanism of Catholics and thus gave a blow to their efforts at
assimilation and at the achievement of a full American identity.
Of equal importance were the rise of an urban politics, and the shrinkage of the
Republican majority in the great industrial centers. As Samuel Lubell has pointed out,
this process went on almost unnoticed, under the cover of Republican victories. But even
in those days of Republican triumph, the Republican plurality in the twelve largest cities
of the nation shrank from 1,638,000 in 1920 to 1,252,000 in 1924 and fell away
altogether before a Democratic plurality of 38,000 in 1928. As Lubell remarks, the
Republican hold on the cities was broken not by Roosevelt but by Smith. “Before the
Roosevelt Revolution there was an Al Smith Revolution.”8 The growing Americanization
and the increasing political awareness of the urban immigrant had set in motion an
undercurrent that was pulling away from the Republican Party, for in most great
centers, the working class, heavily immigrant, Catholic, and wet, and “democratic” in its
social bias, moved into the Democratic Party far more readily than it did into the party
of Ceolidge and Hoover.
What was evident, too, after the internal Democratic strife of 1924 and the defeat of
Smith in 1928 was that the Democratic Party, when it was finally to have an
opportunity really to challenge the Republicans, must make this challenge behind a
candidate who could surmount the feuding that had almost torn the party to pieces. No
one realized in 1928 how soon and with what favorable auspices that challenge would
be made, but it was becoming clear who could best make it. Franklin D. Roosevelt had
long been a Smith supporter and had placed Smith in nomination at the 1924
convention, and yet he was not identified with Tammany in the public mind. At the
same time he was a Protestant, and an old-family American, an upstate New Yorker
who could make some claims to being a gentleman farmer. As an Assistant Secretary of
the Navy under Wilson and as Cox’s running mate in the ill-fated campaign of 1920, he
had roots in the Progressive past and had made friendships throughout the country that
he had not permitted the battles of the twenties to destroy. He was, in short, a
thoroughly skilled professional politician who had managed to walk the narrow line
between the party factions and maintain relations in both camps. It was his gift to be
the first major leader in the history of American reform to surmount the old dualism, so
troublesome to the Progressives, between the political ethos of the urban machine and
that of nativist Protestant America.
III . The New Departure
The Great Depression, which broke the mood of the twenties almost as suddenly as the
postwar reaction had killed the Progressive fervor, rendered obsolete most of the
antagonisms that had flavored the politics of the postwar era. Once again the demand
for reform became irresistible, and out of the chaotic and often mutually contradictory
schemes for salvation that arose from all corners of the country the New Deal took form.
In the years 1933–8 the New Deal sponsored a series of legislative changes that made
the enactments of the Progressive era seem timid by comparison, changes that, in their
totality, carried the politics and administration of the United States farther from the
conditions of 1914 than those had been from the conditions of 1880.
It is tempting, out of a desire for symmetry and historical continuity, to see in the
New Deal a return to the preoccupations of Progressivism, a resumption of the work of
reform that had begun under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and a
consummation of the changes that were proposed in the half-dozen years before the first
World War. Much reason can be found for yielding to this temptation. Above all, the
New Dealers shared with the Progressives a far greater willingness than had been seen
in previous American history to make use of the machinery of government to meet the
needs of the people and supplement the workings of the national economy. There are
many occasions in its history when the New Deal, especially in its demand for
organization, administration, and management from a central focus, seems to stand
squarely in the tradition of the New Nationalism for which such Progressives as Herbert
Croly had argued. Since it is hardly possible for any society to carve out a completely
new vocabulary for every new problem it faces, there is also much in the New Deal
rhetoric that is strongly reminiscent of Progressivism. Like the Progressives, the New
Dealers invoked a larger democracy; and where the Progressives had their “plutocrats,”
the New Dealers had their “economic royalists.” F. D. R., asserting in his first inaugural
address that “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our
civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths,” sounds very much
like almost any inspirational writer for McClure’s in the old days.9 On a number of
particular issues, moreover, like the holding-company question, monopoly, and public
power, one feels as though one is treating again, in the New Deal, with familiar
problems—just as, in the crucial early days of 1933, the formation of a strong bloc of
inflationist Senators from the West seemed to hark back to the Populist movement.
Still, granting that absolute discontinuities do not occur in history, and viewing the
history of the New Deal as a whole, what seems outstanding about it is the drastic new
departure that it marks in the history of American reformism.1 The New Deal was
different from anything that had yet happened in the United States: different because its
central problem was unlike the problems of Progressivism; different in its ideas and its
spirit and its techniques. Many men who had lived through Progressivism and had
thought of its characteristic proposals as being in the main line of American traditions,
even as being restoratives of those traditions, found in the New Deal an outrageous
departure from everything they had known and valued, and so could interpret it only as
an effort at subversion or as the result of overpowering alien influences. Their
opposition was all too often hysterical, but in their sense that something new had come
into American political and economic life they were quite right.
Consider, to begin, the fundamental problem that the New Dealers faced, as compared
with the problems of the Progressives. When Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901, the
country was well over three years past a severe depression and in the midst of a period
of healthy economic development. Its farmers were more prosperous than they had been
for about forty years, its working class was employed and gaining in living standards,
and even its middle class was far busier counting the moral costs of success than it was
worrying about any urgent problems of family finance. When F. D. R. took his oath of
office, the entire working apparatus of American economic life had gone to smash. The
customary masters and leaders of the social order were themselves in a state of near
panic. Millions were unemployed, and discontent had reached a dangerous pitch on the
farms and in the cities.
Indeed, the New Deal episode marks the first in the history of reform movements
when a leader of the reform party took the reins of a government confronted above all
by the problems of a sick economy. To be sure, the whole nineteenth-century tradition
of reform in American politics was influenced by experience with periodic economic
breakdowns; but its political leaders had never had to bear responsibility for curing
them. Jefferson in 1801, Jackson in 1829, and after them T. R. and Wilson—all took
over at moments when the economy was in good shape. While each of them had
experience with economic relapse-Jefferson in 1807, as the consequence of his embargo
policies, the Jacksonians briefly in 1834 and again after 1837, T. R. briefly during the
“bankers’ panic” of 1907, and Wilson with a momentary recession just before the
wartime boom—their thinking, and the thinking of the movements they represented,
was centered upon sharing an existing prosperity among the various social classes
rather than upon restoring a lost prosperity or preventing recurrent slumps.
The earlier American tradition of political protest had been a response to the needs of
entrepreneurial classes or of those who were on the verge of entrepreneurship—the
farmers, small businessmen, professionals, and occasionally the upper caste of the
artisans or the working class. The goal of such classes had generally been to clear the
way for new enterprises and new men, break up privileged business, big business, and
monopolies, and give the small man better access to credit. The ideas of this Progressive
tradition, as one might expect, were founded not merely upon acceptance but even
upon glorification of the competitive order. The Jeffersonians, the Jacksonians, and
after them most of the Progressives had believed in the market economy, and the only
major qualification of this belief they cared to make stemmed from their realization that
the market needed to be policed and moralized by a government responsive to the needs
of the economic beginner and the small entrepreneur. Occasionally, very occasionally,
they had argued for the exercise of a few positive functions on the part of the national
government, but chiefly they preferred to keep the positive functions of government
minimal, and, where these were necessary, to keep them on the state rather than put
them on the national level. Their conceptions of the role of the national government
were at first largely negative and then largely preventive. In the Jeffersonian and
Jacksonian days it was to avoid excessive expenditure and excessive taxation, to refrain
from giving privileged charters. Later, in the corporate era, it was to prevent abuses by
the railroads and the monopolists, to check and to regulate unsound and immoral
practices. It is of course true that some of the more “advanced” thinkers of the Populist
and Progressive movements began to think tentatively of more positive functions for
government, but it was just such proposals—the subtreasury scheme for agricultural
credits and the various public-ownership proposals—that provoked the greatest
opposition when attempts were made to apply them on a national scale.
The whole reformist tradition, then, displayed a mentality founded on the existence of
an essentially healthy society; it was chiefly concerned not with managing an economy
to meet the problems of collapse but simply with democratizing an economy in sound
working order. Managing an economy in such a way as to restore prosperity is above
all a problem of organization,2 while democratizing a well-organized economy had
been, as we have seen, in some important respects an attempt to find ways of attacking
or limiting organization. Hence the Progressive mind was hardly more prepared than
the conservative mind for what came in 1929. Herbert Hoover, an old Bull Mooser,
while more disposed to lead the country than any president had been in any previous
depression, was unprepared for it, and was prevented from adjusting to it by a
doctrinaire adherence to inherited principles. F. D. R.—a fairly typical product of
Progressivism who had first won office in 1910—was also unprepared for it in his
economic thinking, as anyone will see who examines his career in the 1920’s;3 but he
was sufficiently opportunistic and flexible to cope with it somewhat more successfully.
Hoover, an engineer born in Iowa, represented the moral traditions of native
Protestant politics. An amateur in politics who had never run for office before he was
elected President in 1928, he had no patience with the politician’s willingness to
accommodate, and he hung on, as inflexibly as the situation would permit, to the
private and voluntary methods that had always worked well in his administrative
career.4 F. D. R., a seasoned professional politician who had learned his trade straddling
the terrible antagonisms of the 1920’s, was thoroughly at home in the realities of
machine politics and a master of the machine techniques of accommodation. Unlike
Hoover, he had few hard and fast notions about economic principles, but he knew that it
would be necessary to experiment and improvise. “It is common sense,” he said in 1932,
“to take a method and try it If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all,
try something.”
To describe the resulting flood of legislation as economic planning would be to
confuse planning with interventionism. Planning was not quite the word for the New
Deal: considered as an economic movement, it was a chaos of experimentation. Genuine
planners like Rexford Guy Tug-well found themselves floundering amid the crosscurrents
of the New Deal, and ended in disillusionment. But if, from an economic
standpoint, the New Deal was altogether lacking in that rationality or consistency which
is implied in the concept of planning, from a political standpoint it represented a
masterly shifting equipoise of interests. And little wonder that some of the old
Republican insurgents shuddered at its methods. If the state was believed neutral in the
days of T. R. because its leaders claimed to sanction favors for no one, the state under F.
D. R. could be called neutral only in the sense that it offered favors to everyone.
Even before F. D. R. took office a silent revolution had taken place in public opinion,
the essential character of which can be seen when we recall how little opposition there
was in the country, at the beginning, to the assumption of the New Dealers that
henceforth, for the purposes of recovery, the federal government was to be responsible
for the condition of the labor market as a part of its concern with the industrial problem
as a whole. Nothing revolutionary was intended—but simply as a matter of politics it
was necessary for the federal government to assume primary responsibility for the relief
of the unemployed. And, simply as a matter of politics, if the industrialists were to be
given the power to write enforceable codes of fair practice, labor must at least be given
some formal recognition of its right of collective bargaining. Certainly no one foresaw,
in the first year or two of the New Deal, that the immense infusions of purchasing power
into the economy through federal unemployment relief would be as lasting or as vital a
part of the economy of the next several years as they proved in fact to be. Nor did
anyone foresee how great and powerful a labor movement would be called into being
by the spirit and the promise of the New Deal and by the partial recovery of its first few
years. But by the end of 1937 it was clear that something had been added to the social
base of reformism. The demands of a large and powerful labor movement, coupled with
the interests of the unemployed, gave the later New Deal a social-democratic tinge that
had never before been present in American reform movements. Hitherto concerned very
largely with reforms of an essentially entrepreneurial sort and only marginally with
social legislation, American political reformism was fated henceforth to take
responsibility on a large scale for social security, unemployment insurance, wages and
hours, and housing.5
Still more imposing was the new fiscal role of the federal government. Again, none of
this was premeditated. Large-scale spending and unbalanced budgets were, in the
beginning, a response to imperative needs. While other schemes for recovery seemed to
fall short of expectations, spending kept the economy going; and it was only when F. D.
R. tried in 1937 to cut back expenditures that he learned that he had become the
prisoner of his spending policies and turned about and made a necessity into a virtue.
His spending policy never represented, at any time before the outbreak of the war, an
unambiguous or wholehearted commitment to Keynesian economics. Here only the war
itself could consummate the fiscal revolution that the New Deal began. In 1940 Lord
Keynes published in the United States an article in which he somewhat disconsolately
reviewed the American experience with deficit spending during the previous decade. “It
seems politically impossible,” he concluded, “for a capitalistic democracy to organize
expenditure on the scale necessary to make the grand experiment which would prove
my case—except in war conditions.” He then added that preparations for war and the
production of armaments might teach Americans so much about the potentialities of
their economy that it would be “the stimulus, which neither the victory nor the defeat of
the New Deal could give you, to greater individual consumption and a higher standard
of life.”6 How remarkably prophetic this was we can now see. There had been under
peacetime conditions an immense weeping and wailing over the budgets of F. D. R.—
which at their peak ran to seven billion dollars. Now we contemplate budgets of over
eighty billion dollars with somewhat less anguish, because we know that most of this
expenditure will be used for defense and will not be put to uses that are politically more
controversial. But, above all, we have learned things about the possibilities of our
economy that were not dreamed of in 1933, much less in 1903. While men still grow
angry over federal fiscal and tax policies, hardly anyone doubts that in the calculable
future it will be the fiscal role of the government that more than anything else
determines the course of the economy.
And what of the old Progressive issues? They were bypassed, sidestepped, outgrown—
anything but solved. To realize how true this was, one need only look at the New Deal
approach to those two bêtes noires of the Progressive mind, the machines and the trusts.
Where the Progressives spent much of their energy, as we have seen, trying to defeat
the bosses and the machines and to make such changes in the political machinery of the
country as would bring about direct popular democracy and “restore government to the
people,” the New Deal was almost completely free of such crusading. To the discomfort
of the old-fashioned, principled liberals who were otherwise enthusiastic about his
reforms, F. D. R. made no effort to put an end to bossism and corruption, but simply
ignored the entire problem. In the interest of larger national goals and more urgent
needs, he worked with the bosses wherever they would work with him—and did not
scruple to include one of the worst machines of all, the authoritarian Hague machine in
New Jersey. As for the restoration of democracy, he seemed well satisfied with his
feeling that the broadest public needs were at least being served by the state and that
there was such an excellent rapport between the people and their executive leadership.7
The chief apparent exception to this opportune and managerial spirit in the field of
political reform—namely, the attempt to enlarge the Supreme Court—proves on
examination to be no exception at all. F. D. R.’s fight over the Supreme Court was
begun, after all, not in the interest of some large “democratic” principle or out of a
desire to reform the Constitutional machinery as such, but because the Court’s decisions
had made it seem impossible to achieve the managerial reorganization of society that
was so urgently needed. His first concern was not that judicial review was
“undemocratic” but that the federal government had been stripped, as he thought, of its
power to deal effectively with economic problems. Nor was this fight waged in the true
Progressive spirit. The Progressives, too, had had their difficulties with the judiciary, and
had responded with the characteristically principled but practically difficult proposal for
the recall of judicial decisions. In short, they raised for reconsideration, as one might
expect of principled men, the entire question of judicial review. F. D. R. chose no such
method.8 To reopen the entire question of the propriety of judicial review of the acts of
Congress under a representative democracy would have been a high-minded approach
to what he felt was a Constitutional impasse, but it would have ended perhaps even
more disastrously than the tactic he employed. F. D. R. avoided such an approach, which
would have involved a cumbersome effort to amend the Constitution, and devised a
“gimmick” to achieve his ends—the pretense that the age of the judges prevented them
from remaining abreast of their calendar, and the demand for the right to supplement
the judiciary, to the number of six, with an additional judge for each incumbent who
reached the age of seventy without retiring.
Students of the Court fight are fond of remarking that Roosevelt won his case, because
the direction of the Court’s decisions began to change while the fight was in progress
and because Justice Van Devanter’s retirement enabled the President to appoint a
liberal justice and decisively change the composition of the Court.9 It seems important,
however, to point out that a very heavy price had to be paid for even this pragmatic
attempt to alter a great and sacrosanct conservative institution. The Court fight
alienated many principled liberals and enabled many of F. D. R.’s conservative
opponents to portray him to the public more convincingly as a man who aspired to
personal dictatorship and aimed at the subversion of the Republic.
If we look at the second of the two great foes of Progressivism, big business and
monopoly, we find that by the time of the New Deal public sentiment had changed
materially. To be sure, the coming of the depression and the revelation of some of the
less palatable business practices of the 1920’s brought about a climate of opinion in
which the leadership of business, and particularly of big business, was profoundly
distrusted and bitterly resented. Its position certainly was, in these respects,
considerably weaker than it had been twenty-five years before. Still, by 1933 the
American public had lived with the great corporation for so long that it was felt to be
domesticated, and there was far more concern with getting business life on such a
footing as would enable it to provide jobs than there was with breaking up the larger
units. The New Deal never developed a clear or consistent line on business
consolidation, and New Dealers fought over the subject in terms that were at times
reminiscent of the old battles between the trust-busters and the trust-regulators. What
can be said, however, is that the subject of bigness and monopoly was subordinated in
the New Deal era to that restless groping for a means to bring recovery that was so
characteristic of Roosevelt’s efforts. The New Deal began not with a flourish of trustbusting
but rather, in the NRA, with an attempt to solve the problems of the business
order through a gigantic system of governmentally underwritten codes that would ratify
the trustification of society. One of the first political setbacks suffered by the New Deal
arose from just this—for it had put the formation of its codes of fair practice so
completely in the hands of the big-business interests that both small businessmen and
organized labor were seriously resentful. Only five years from the date of its passage,
after the NRA had failed to produce a sustained recovery and had been declared
unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, did the administration turn off and take the
opposite tack with its call for an inquiry into corporate consolidation and business
power that led to the Temporary National Economic Committee’s memorable
investigation.1 Although at the time many observers thought that the old Progressive
trust-busting charade was about to be resumed, the New Deal never became committed
to a categorical “dissection” of the business order of the sort Wilson had talked of in
1912, nor to the “demonstration” prosecutions with which T. R. had both excited and
reassured the country. The New Deal was not trying to re-establish the competitive order
that Wilson had nostalgically invoked and that T. R. had sternly insisted was no longer
possible. Its approach, as it turned out, was severely managerial, and distinctly
subordinated to those economic considerations that would promote purchasing power
and hence recovery. It was, in short, a concerted effort to discipline the pricing policies
of businesses, not with the problem of size in mind, nor out of consideration for smaller
competitors, but with the purpose of eliminating that private power to tax which is the
prerogative of monopoly, and of leaving in the hands of consumers vital purchasing
History cannot quite repeat itself, if only because the participants in the second round
of any experience are aware of the outcome of the first. The anti-trust philosophers of
the closing years of the New Deal were quite aware that previous efforts to enforce the
Sherman Act had been ceremonial demonstrations rather than serious assaults upon big
business. Thurman Arnold, who was put in charge of the anti-trust program, was well
known for his belief that earlier interpretations of the Sherman Act had actually
concealed and encouraged business consolidation. In his account of the contemporary
function of anti-trust prosecution Arnold put his emphasis upon benefits for the
consumer and repudiated the earlier use of the Sherman Act: “Since the consumers’
interest was not emphasized, such enforcement efforts as existed were directed at the
punishment of offenses rather than the achievement of economic objectives. Indeed, in
very few antitrust prosecutions was any practical economic objective defined or argued
with respect to the distribution of any particular product. In this way the moral aspects
of the offense, and that will-o’-the-wisp, corporate intent, became more important
considerations than economic results. Antitrust enforcement, not being geared to the
idea of consumers’ interests, became a hunt for offenders instead of an effort to test the
validity of organized power by its performance in aiding or preventing the flow of
goods in commerce. The result was that although the economic ideal of a free
competitive market as the cornerstone of our economy was kept alive, no adequate
enforcement staff was ever provided to make that ideal a reality. Such, broadly
speaking, was the state of the Sherman Act from 1890 down to the great depression.”2
But if such a position as Thurman Arnold’s can be legitimately distinguished from the
Progressive type of antitrust, as I think it can, there are men today whose political
thinking was forged in the service of the New Deal who go beyond him in repudiating
anti-trust action as a mere attack upon size, and who take, on the whole, an acquiescent
attitude toward big business. A few years ago John Kenneth Galbraith made quite a stir
with his book American Capitalism, whose central thesis was that the process of business
consolidation creates within itself a “countervailing power”—that is, that it brings about
the organization not merely of strong sellers but of strong buyers as well, who distribute
through large sectors of the economy their ability to save through organization.3 In
Galbraith’s book, as in most recent literature in defense of bigness, it is not the effort at
disorganization but the effects of counter-organization, in labor, agriculture, and
government and within business itself, that are counted upon to minimize the evils of
consolidation. More recently David Lilienthal, another graduate of the New Deal
administrative agencies, has written a strong apologia for big business that followed
Galbraith in stressing the technologically progressive character of large-scale industry in
language that would have horrified Brandeis and Wilson.4 It is not clear whether the
attitudes of men like Galbraith and Lilienthal represent dominant liberal sentiment
today—though it may be pertinent to say that their books brought no outpouring of
protest from other liberal writers. The spectacle of liberals defending, with whatever
qualifications, bigness and concentration in industry suggests that that anti-monopoly
sentiment which was so long at the heart of Progressive thinking is no longer its central
theme. The generation for which Wilson and Brandeis spoke looked to economic life as a
field for the expression of character; modern liberals seem to think of it quite exclusively
as a field in which certain results are to be expected. It is this change in the moral stance
that seems most worthy of remark. A generation ago, and more, the average American
was taught to expect that a career in business would and should be in some sense a
testing and proving ground for character and manhood, and it was in these terms that
the competitive order was often made most appealing.5 Contrariwise, those who
criticized the economic order very commonly formed their appeals within the same mold
of moral suasion: the economic order failed to bring out or reward the desired qualities
of character, to reward virtue and penalize vice; it was a source of inequities and
injustices. During the last fifteen or twenty years, however, as Galbraith observes, “the
American radical has ceased to talk about inequality or exploitation under capitalism or
even its ‘inherent contradictions.’ He has stressed, instead, the unreliability of its
IV . The New Opportunism
The New Deal, and the thinking it engendered, represented the triumph of economic
emergency and human needs over inherited notions and inhibitions. It was conceived
and executed above all in the spirit of what Roosevelt called “bold, persistent
experimentation,” and what those more critical of the whole enterprise considered crass
opportunism. In discussing Progressivism I emphasized its traffic in moral absolutes, its
exalted moral tone. While something akin to this was by no means entirely absent from
the New Deal, the later movement showed a strong and candid awareness that what was
happening was not so much moral reformation as economic experimentation. Much of
this experimentation seemed to the conservative opponents of the New Deal as not only
dangerous but immoral.
The high moral indignation of the critics of the New Deal sheds light on another facet
of the period—the relative reversal of the ideological roles of conservatives and
reformers. Naturally in all ideologies, conservative or radical, there is a dual appeal to
ultimate moral principles and to the practical necessities of institutional life. Classically,
however, it has been the strength of conservatives that their appeal to institutional
continuities, hard facts, and the limits of possibility is better founded; while it has
usually been the strength of reformers that they arouse moral sentiments, denounce
injustices, and rally the indignation of the community against intolerable abuses. Such
had been the alignment of arguments during the Progressive era. During the New Deal,
however, it was the reformers whose appeal to the urgent practical realities was most
impressive—to the farmers without markets, to the unemployed without bread or hope,
to those concerned ever the condition of the banks, the investment market, and the like.
It was the conservatives, on the other hand, who represented the greater moral
indignation and rallied behind themselves the inspirational literature of American life;
and this not merely because the conservatives were now the party of the opposition, but
because things were being done of such drastic novelty that they seemed to breach all
the inherited rules, not merely of practicality but of morality itself. Hence, if one wishes
to look for utopianism in the 1930’s, for an exalted faith in the intangibles of morals
and character, and for moral indignation of the kind that had once been chiefly the
prerogative of the reformers, one will find it far more readily in the editorials of the
great conservative newspapers than in the literature of the New Deal. If one seeks for
the latter-day equivalent of the first George Kennan, warning the people of San
Francisco that it would do them no good to have a prosperous town if in gaining it they
lost their souls, one will find it most readily in the 1930’s among those who opposed
federal relief for the unemployed because it would destroy their characters or who were
shocked by the devaluation of the dollar, not because they always had a clear
conception of its consequences, but above all because it smacked to them of dirtiness
and dishonesty. In the past it had been the conservatives who controlled the settlement
of the country, set up its great industrial and communications plant, and founded the
fabulous system of production and distribution upon which the country prided itself,
while the reformers pointed to the human costs, the sacrifice of principles, and drew
blueprints to show how the job could be better done. Now, however, it was the
reformers who fed the jobless or found them jobs, saved the banks, humanized industry,
built houses and schools and public buildings, rescued farmers from bankruptcy, and
restored hope—while the conservatives, expropriated at once from their customary
control of affairs and from their practical role, invoked sound principles, worried about
the Constitution, boggled over details, pleaded for better morals, and warned against
Lamentably, most of the conservative thinking of the New Deal era was hollow and
cliché-ridden. What seems most striking about the New Deal itself, however, was that all
its ferment of practical change produced a very slight literature of political criticism.
While the changes of the Progressive era had produced many significant books of
pamphleteering or thoughtful analyses of society—the writings of such men as Croly,
Lippmann, Weyl, Brooks Adams, Brandeis, the muckrakers, Socialist critics like W. J.
Ghent and William English Walling—the New Deal produced no comparable body of
political writing that would survive the day’s headlines. In part this was simply a matter
of time: the Progressive era lasted over a dozen years, and most of the significant
writing it engendered came during its later phases, particularly after 1910; whereas the
dynamic phase of the New Deal was concentrated in the six hectic years from 1933 to
1938. Perhaps still more important is the fact that the New Deal brought with it such a
rapid bureaucratic expansion and such a complex multitude of problems that it created
an immense market for the skills of reform-minded Americans from law, journalism,
politics, and the professoriat. The men who might otherwise have been busy analyzing
the meaning of events were caught up in the huge expanding bureaucracy and put to
work drafting laws that would pass the courts, lobbying with refractory Congressmen,
or relocating sharecroppers.
To this generalization there is one noteworthy exception: In his two books, The
Symbols of Government and The Folklore of Capitalism, Thurman Arnold wrote works of
great brilliance and wit and considerable permanent significance—better books, I
believe, than any of the political criticism of the Progressive era.7 But what do we find
in these works, the most advanced of the New Deal camp? We find a sharp and
sustained attack upon ideologies, rational principles, and moralism in politics. We find,
in short, the theoretical equivalent of F. D. R.’s opportunistic virtuosity in practical
politics—a theory that attacks theories. For Arnold’s books, which were of course
directed largely against the ritualistic thinking of the conservatives of the 1930’s, might
stand equally well as an attack upon that moralism which we found so insistent in the
thinking of Progressivism.
Arnold’s chief concern was with the disparities between the way society actually
works and the mythology through which the sound lawyers, economists, and moralists
attempt to understand it. His books are an explanation of the ritualistic and functionally
irrational character of most of the superficially rational principles by which society
lives. At the time his books were written, the necessity of coping with a breakdown in
the actual workings of the economy bad suddenly confronted men with the operational
uselessness of a great many accepted words and ideas. The language of politics,
economics, and law had itself become so uncertain that there was a new vogue of books
on semantics and of works attempting to break “the tyranny of words,” a literature of
which Arnold’s books were by far the most important The greater part of Arnold’s task
was to examine, and to satirize, the orthodox conservative thinking of the moment. This
is not our main concern, but what is of primary interest here is the extent to which
Arnold’s thinking departs from, and indeed on occasion attacks, earlier Progressivism.
The deviation of Arnold’s system of values from the classic values of American
Progressivism was clear from his very terminology. I noted, in discussing the Progressive
climate of opinion, the existence of a prevailing vocabulary of civic morals that
reflected the disinterested thinking and the selfless action that was expected of the good
citizen. The key words of Progressivism were terms like patriotism, citizen, democracy,
law, character, conscience, soul, morals, service, duty, shame, disgrace, sin, and selfishness—
terms redolent of the sturdy Protestant Anglo-Saxon moral and intellectual roots of the
Progressive uprising. A search for the key words of Arnold’s books yields: needs,
organization, humanitarian, results, technique, institution, realistic, discipline, morale, skill,
expert, habits, practical, leadership—a vocabulary revealing a very different constellation
of values arising from economic emergency and the imperatives of a bureaucracy.
Although primarily concerned with the conservatives of the present, Arnold paid his
respects to the reformers of the past often enough to render a New Dealer’s portrait of
earlier Progressivism. He saw the reformers of the past as having occupied themselves
with verbal and moral battles that left the great working organizations of society
largely untouched. “Wherever the reformers are successful—whenever they see their
direct primaries, their antitrust laws, or whatever else they base their hopes on, in
actual operation —the great temporal institutions adapt themselves, leaving the older
reformers disillusioned, like Lincoln Steffens, and a newer set carrying on the banner.”8
Respectable people with humanitarian values, Arnold thought, had characteristically
made the mistake of ignoring the fact that “it is not logic but organizations which rule
an organized society”; therefore they selected logical principles, rather than
organizations, as the objects of their loyalties. Most liberal reform movements attempt
to make institutions practice what they preach, in situations where, if this injunction
were followed, the functions of the institutions could not be performed.9 Where the
Progressives had been troubled about the development of institutions and organizations,
Arnold’s argument often appeared to be an apotheosis of them.
At one point or another, Arnold had critical observations to make on most of the
staple ideas of Progressive thinking. The Folklore of Capitalism opened with a satire on
“the thinking man,” to whom most of the discourse of rational politics was directed; and
the thinking man was hardly more than a caricatured version of the good citizen who
was taken as the central figure in most Progressive thinking. While Progressive
publicists had devoted much of their time to preachments against what they called
“lawlessness,” one of the central themes of Arnold’s books was an analysis of law and
legal thinking showing that law and respectability were so defined that a good many of
the real and necessary functions of society had to go on outside the legal framework.1
Similarly anti-Progressive was his attack on the anti-trust laws—a source of some
amusement when he was later put in charge of the enforcement of these laws. But
Arnold did not deny that the laws, as they had been interpreted by reformers, had had
some use. Their chief use, as he saw it, had been that they permitted the organization of
industry to go on while offering comfort to those who were made unhappy by the
process. They had, then, a practical significance, but a far different one from that which
the reformers had tried to give them. The reformers, however, had had no real strategy
with which to oppose the great trusts: “The reason why these attacks [against industrial
organizations] always ended with a ceremony of atonement, but few practical results,
lay in the fact that there were no new organizations growing up to take over the
functions of those under attack. The opposition was never able to build up its own
commissary and its service of supply. It was well supplied with orators and economists,
but it lacked practical organizers. A great cooperative movement in America might have
changed the power of the industrial empire. Preaching against it, however, simply
resulted in counterpreaching. And the reason for this was that the reformers themselves
were caught in the same creeds which supported the institutions they were trying to
reform. Obsessed with a moral attitude toward society, they thought in Utopias. They
were interested in systems of government. Philosophy was for them more important
than opportunism and so they achieved in the end philosophy rather than
Arnold professed more admiration for the tycoons who had organized American
industry and against whom the Progressives had grown indignant than he did for the
reformers themselves. He spoke with much indulgence of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and
Ford, and compared John L. Lewis with such men as examples of skillful organizers who
had had to sidestep recognized scruples. “Actual observation of human
society … indicates that great constructive achievements in human organization have
been accomplished by unscrupulous men who violated most of the principles which we
cherish.”3 The leaders of industrial organization ignored legal, humanitarian, and
economic principles. “They built on their mistakes, their action was opportunistic, they
experimented with human material and with little regard for social justice. Yet they
raised the level of productive capacity beyond the dreams of their fathers.”4
Not surprisingly Arnold also had a good word for the politicians, who, for all their
lack of social values and for all the imperfections in their aims and vision, are “the only
persons who understand the techniques of government.” One would prefer a
government in the hands of disinterested men, to be sure, but such men are so devoted
to and satisfied with the development of good principles that they fail to develop skills,
and hence fail to constitute “a competent governing class.” Hence society is too often
left with a choice between demagogues and psychopaths on one side, or, on the other,
“kindly but uneducated Irishmen whose human sympathies give them an instinctive
understanding of what people like.”5 Several pages of The Folklore of Capitalism were
given to a defense of the political machines for the common sense with which they
attack the task of government and for the humanitarian spirit in which their work is
Taken by itself, Arnold’s work, with its skepticism about the right-thinking citizen, its
rejection of fixed moral principles and disinterested rationality in politics, its pragmatic
temper, its worship of accomplishment, its apotheosis of organization and institutional
discipline, and its defense of the political machines, may exaggerate the extent of the
difference between the New Deal and pre-war Progressivism, but it does point sharply to
the character of that difference.7
To emphasize, as I have done, the pragmatic and “hard” side of the New Deal is not to
forget that it had its “soft” side. Not all its spokesmen shared Arnold’s need to pose as
hard-boiled.8 No movement of such scope and power could exist without having its
ideals and its ideologies, even its sentimentalities. The New Deal had its literature of
inspiration and indignation, its idealistic fervor, its heroes and villains. The difference I
hope to establish is that its indignation was directed far more against callousness and
waste, far less against corruption or monopoly, than the indignation of the Progressives,
and that its inspiration was much more informed by engineering, administration, and
economics, considerably less by morals and uplift. For the New Deal not only brought
with it a heartening rediscovery of the humane instincts of the country; it also revived
the old American interest in practical achievement, in doing things with the physical
world, in the ideal that had inspired the great tycoons and industry-builders of the
Gilded Age but that afterwards had commonly been dismissed by sensitive men as the
sphere only of philistines and money-grubbers.
At the core of the New Deal, then, was not a philosophy (F. D. R. could identify
himself philosophically only as a Christian and a democrat), but an attitude, suitable for
practical politicians, administrators, and technicians, but uncongenial to the moralism
that the Progressives had for the most part shared with their opponents. At some
distance from the center of the New Deal, but vital to its public support, were other
types of feeling. In some quarters there was a revival of populistic sentiment and the old
popular demonology, which F. D. R. and men like Harold Ickes occasionally played up
to, chiefly in campaign years, and which Harry Truman later reflected in his baiting of
Wall Street. Along with this came another New Deal phenomenon, a kind of pervasive
tenderness for the underdog, for the Okies, the sharecroppers, the characters in John
Steinbeck’s novels, the subjects who posed for the FSA photographers, for what were
called, until a revulsion set in, “the little people.” With this there came, too, a kind of
folkish nationalism, quickened no doubt by federal patronage of letters and the arts, but
inspired at bottom by a real rediscovery of hope in America and its people and
institutions. For after the concentration camps, the Nuremberg Laws, Guernica, and
(though not everyone saw this so readily) the Moscow trials, everything in America
seemed fresh and hopeful, Main Street seemed innocent beyond all expectation, and in
time Babbitt became almost lovable. Where Progressivism had capitalized on a growing
sense of the ugliness under the successful surface of American life, the New Deal
flourished on a sense of the human warmth and the technological potentialities that
could be found under the surface of its inequities and its post-depression poverty. On the
far fringe there was also a small number of real ideologues, aroused not only by the
battle over domestic reform but by the rise of world fascism. Although many of them
were fellow travelers and Communists, we stand in serious danger of misunderstanding
the character of the New Deal if we overemphasize the influence of this fringe either
upon the New Deal core or upon the American people at large. It has now become both
fashionable and, for some, convenient to exaggerate the impact of the extreme left upon
the thinking of the country in the 1930’s. No doubt it will always be possible to do so,
for Marxism had a strong if ephemeral impact upon many intellectuals; but the amateur
Marxism of the period had only a marginal effect upon the thought and action of either
the administrative core of the New Deal or the great masses of Americans.9 For the
people at large—that is, for those who needed it most—the strength of the New Deal
was based above all upon its ability to get results.
The New Deal developed from the beginning under the shadow of totalitarianism, left
and right. F. D. R. and Hitler took office within a few months of each other, and from
that time down to the last phases of the New Deal reforms not a year went by without
some premonition of the ultimate horror to come. In the earliest days of the Roosevelt
administration a great many of its critics, influenced by such models of catastrophe as
they could find abroad, saw in it the beginnings of fascism or Communism. Critics from
the left thought, for instance, that the NRA was a clear imitation of Mussolini’s
corporate state. And—though this is now all but forgotten—critics from the right at first
thought they saw fascist tendencies in the “violations” of fundamental liberties with
which they regularly charged the architects of the New Deal. Only later did they find it
more congenial to accuse the New Deal of fostering Communism.
To a sober mind all of this rings false today, for it is easier to see now that Roosevelt
and his supporters were attempting to deal with the problems of the American economy
within the distinctive framework of American political methods—that in a certain sense
they were trying to continue to repudiate the European world of ideology. Between the
London Economic Conference and Roosevelt’s “quarantine” speech of 1937, the New
Deal, for all its tariff-reduction agreements, was essentially isolationist. What it could
not escape was the reality of what even some of the Republican leaders later began to
characterize as “one world.” After 1939 that reality was the dominant force in American
life. The beginning of the war meant that Americans, with terrible finality, had been at
last torn from that habitual security in which their domestic life was merely interrupted
by crises in the foreign world, and thrust into a situation in which their domestic life is
largely determined by the demands of foreign policy and national defense. With this
change came the final involvement of the nation in all the realities it had sought to
avoid, for now it was not only mechanized and urbanized and bureaucratized but
internationalized as well. Much of America still longs for—indeed, expects again to see
—a return of the older individualism and the older isolation, and grows frantic when it
finds that even our conservative leaders are unable to restore such conditions. In truth
we may well sympathize with the Populists and with those who have shared their need
to believe that somewhere in the American past there was a golden age whose life was
far better than our own. But actually to live in that world, actually to enjoy its cherished
promise and its imagined innocence, is no longer within our power.
1 For an excellent assessment of the merits and defects of missionary diplomacy, see Arthur S. Link: Woodrow Wilson and
the Progressive Era (New York, 1954). chapters iv, v. In the following account I have benefited from the detailed analysis of
the rhetoric of our foreign policy in Robert Endicott Osgood: Ideals and Self-interest in America’s Foreign Relations
(Chicago, 1953). See also George F. Kennan: American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 (Chicago, 1951), chapter iv.
2 William E. Leuchtenburg: “Progressivism and Imperialism: the Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy,
1898-1916,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. XXXIX (December 1952), p. 496. Leuchtenburg points out that the
Progressives felt that their idealism and anti-materialism in domestic policies were not contradicted but in fact
complemented by their militancy in foreign policy and their strong faith in the mission of America.
3 Although T. R. prided himself on his “realism,” I do not think the case was much different with him. He too was a
moralist, except that where Wilson invoked pacifistic moral considerations, T. R. was constantly crying for the hairychested
Darwinian virtues, attacking “cowardice,” “ease and soft living,” “the pleasures of material well-being,” and the
like, and dealing with international relations in terms of the “timidity” of a man whose wife has been slapped and who will
not fight, and similar juvenile comparisons. “The just war,” he once wrote, “is a war for the integrity of high ideals. The
only safe motto for the individual citizen of a democracy fit to play a great part in the world is service-service by work and
help in peace, service through the high gallantry of entire indifference to life, if war comes on the land.” Osgood, op. cit.,
p. 140. Osgood concludes (ibid., p. 143) that “for more than two years before the United States entered the war Roosevelt’s
appeals to the American people were couched in terms of saving civilization and the national honor rather than the United
States itself.… His influence … was not, after 1914, directed toward arousing a realistic appraisal of the imperatives of
4 This is not to say that the conception of a German invasion of the United States played no part in pre-intervention
discussions of the subject. Fantasies about such an invasion were common in the press. (Osgood, ibid., pp. 132-3.) In its
issues from May 1915 to February 1916, McClure’s ran two series of articles about an imaginary German invasion of the
United States in 1921, under the titles “The Conquest of America,” and “Saving the Nation.” In the end, after the
assassination of the President, Theodore Roosevelt, Herman Ridder the German-American, William Jennings Bryan, and
Charles Edward Russell the Socialist, all join hands to lead the American people in a spiritual awakening. Much of the
discussion of preparedness in this period was in the Rooseveltian vein. Cf. Porter Emerson Browne, “We’ll Dally ‘round the
Flag, Boys!” McClure’s, Vol. XLIX (October 1916), p. 81: “Here we are, the richest nation in the world, and the most supine
and the fattest, both in body and in head. Wallowing in physical luxury, we have become spiritually so loose, so lax and so
lazy that we have almost lost the capacity to act.”
5 Daniel J. Boorstin has pointed out that while Americans had previously hoped on occasion to encourage the growth of
representative institutions abroad, as in the period after the revolutions of 1848, it was not until the time of Wilson that
there was in this country any serious expectation that this could be done, much less that Americans could be considered to
have any responsibility to see to it. The prevailing notion had been, rather, that American institutions were distinctive and
that Europe was incapable of adopting them. It was Wilson who first urged Americans to be “citizens of the world” and
insisted that their principles were “not the principles of a province or of a single continent … [but] the principles of a
liberated mankind.” “L’Europe vue par l’Amérique du Nord,” in Pierre Renouvin et al., eds.: L’Europe du XIXe et du XXe
siècles: problèmes et interprétations historiques (Milan, 1955).
6 And quite literally too. Cf. Bryan as late as 1923: “Our Nation will be saloonless for evermore and will lead the world in
the great crusade which will drive intoxicating liquor from the globe.” “Prohibition,” Outlook, Vol. CXXXIII (February 7,
1923), p. 265.
7 The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson (New York, 1925-7), Vol. V, p. 22.
8 Ibid., p. 33.
9 Ibid., Vol. VI, p. 52. It is worth noting, by way of contrast, that F. D. R. suggested that the second World War be
designated simply the War for Survival.
1 Cf. Boorstin, op. cit., passim.
2 Note La Follette’s objection to Wilson’s argument that it was impossible for democratic America to remain friendly with
Prussian autocracy: “But the President proposes alliance with Great Britain which … is a hereditary monarchy … with
a … House of Lords, with a hereditary landed system, with a limited … suffrage for one class.” Congressional Record, 65th
Congress, 1st Sess., p. 228.
3 Literary Digest, Vol. LXVI (August 21, 1920), p. 35.
An analysis of La Follette’s vote suggests two considerations of primary importance: first, its sharp sectional character, and
second, the extent to which it drew upon elements not distinctly or consistently Progressive.
La Follette carried only his own state, Wisconsin. While he ran well in a number of industrial counties, he carried only
one county east of the Mississippi River, that in southern Illinois. He ran second to Coolidge in eleven states, almost all of
them in the spring wheat, ranching, mining, or lumbering country of the North Central states and the Northwest:
Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California. Six of these
had been carried by Bryan in 1896.
While in most states where he ran second La Follette seems to have cut chiefly into Republican support, on the West
Coast he got much support from dissident Democrats who had hoped for a liberal nominee and were disappointed with
Davis. See Kenneth C. MacKay: The Progressive Movement of 1924 (New York, 1947), p. 223. Roy Peel and Thomas
Donnelly point out that most of the La Follette counties went for Hoover in 1928: “Smith carried only 43 of the 409 La
Follette counties. The Progressives of 1924 were only Republicans in disguise.” The 1928 Campaign: an Analysis (New
York, 1931), p. 122.
Ia terms of class, La Follette seems to have appealed chiefly to farmers suffering from agricultural depression and to the
railroad workers, who had been victimized by an extremely sweeping injunction obtained by Harding’s Attorney General,
Harry Daugherty, in a major strike in 1922. MacKay, op. cit., pp. 27-33.
A very large portion of the La Follette vote appears to have been an anti-war, anti-British, pro-German vote, chiefly
among Germans but in some part among Irish-Americans. MacKay (op. cit., pp. 216-17) doubts that this was very
significant, but for reasons which seem insubstantial. Samuel Lubell, in a closer study of voting patterns, points to La
Follette’s strength in isolationist German-American counties that had not been Progressive-Bull Moose in 1912 and in
counties that turned strongly against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, after foreign relations became an important issue.
Lubell concludes: “The 4,800,000 votes which La Follette got in 1924 were often described loosely as the irreducible
minimum of liberal strength in America. Much of that vote, representing approval of La Follette’s opposition to war with
Germany, actually had nothing to do with liberalism.” The Future of American Politics (New York, 1952), p. 140.
5 See the condemnation by A Washington Correspondent: “The Progressives of the Senate,” American Mercury, Vol. XVI
(April 1929), pp. 385-93, in which the Progressives, excepting George W. Norris and Thomas Walsh, are denounced for
their lack of militancy and competence and for their underlying party regularity. Senator Peter Norbeck, who was often in
the Progressive camp, wrote confidentially to a friend: “The American Mercury article is making quite a sensation around
here because much of it is true.” Reinhard Luthin: “Smith Wildman Brookhart of Iowa: Insurgent Agrarian Politician,”
Agricultural History, Vol. XXV (October 1951), p. 194.
6 What is in fact most striking is the reaction of the respectable press, which at first thought that the men who exposed
the scandal were beneath contempt. The New York Times called them “assassins of character,” the New York Tribune “the
Montana scandal-mongers”; others accused them of “pure malice and twittering hysteria.” Frederick Lewis Allen: Only
Yesterday (New York, 1931), pp. 154-5. But in the Progressive era men had grown fat and famous exposing iniquities not
one tenth as significant as Teapot Dome.
7 For the symposium, see “Where Are the Pre-War Radicals?” The Survey, Vol. LV (February 1, 1926), pp. 536-66.
8 This common tendency to forget how much dissent the country had been able to generate during prosperity was, of
course, quickened by the depression and New Deal experience. Possibly the reformers felt that the prosperity of the 1920’s
was better distributed than that of the Progressive era, though the surface evidence seems to contradict this notion. Two
differences between the two eras of prosperity do stand out: the prosperity of the twenties was characterized by a high
degree of price stability, and hence there was no class in the urban population that found itself engaged in the race against
inflation that I noted in chapter iv; second, the prosperity of the twenties was marked by the broad diffusion among the
public of new consumers’ goods that greatly eased life and made it more entertaining—automobiles, radios, telephones,
refrigerators, movies, electrified kitchen gadgetry.
9 It is perhaps significant that such an early test of Prohibition as the Webb-Kenyon law of 1913 tended to be supported by
the Progressives in the Senate and that most of its opponents were conservatives.
1 Peter Odegard: Pressure Politics (New York, 1928), p. 176; cf. Charles Merz: The Dry Decade (Garden City, 1931), chapters
i, ii.
2 See McClure’s, Vol. XXXII (December 1908), pp. 154-61; ibid. (January 1909), pp. 301-12; Vol. XXXIII (August 1909),
pp. 426-30; Vol. XXXIV (February 1910), pp. 448-51.
3 George Kibbe Turner: “Beer and the City Liquor Problem,” McClure’s, Vol. XXXIII (September 1909), p. 543. For the
importance of the saloon, which was a central institution for urban politics, see Peter Odegard, op. cit., chapter ii, which
also gives an excellent account of the drys’ conception of the saloon. It is unfortunate that no one has written a full-dress
history of the old-time saloon as an institution, though there are interesting reminiscences on the subject by George Ade
and Brand Whitlock.
4 “In almost every case, I am firmly convinced, the drink problem is fundamentally a problem in moral education; and until
parents fully appreciate this, and endeavor, in the upbringing of their children, really to establish self-control and selfdenial
as guiding principles of conduct, we must expect to be called on to extend helping hands to the unhappy victims of
drink.” H. Addington Bruce: “Why Do Men Drink?” McClure’s, Vol. XLII (April 1914), p. 132; italics added. Here, one may
see, is another arena for the exercise of that “absolute self-mastery” to which Woodrow Wilson exhorted the American
5 Cleveland Moffett: “Saving the Nation,” McClure’s, Vol XLVI (December 1915), pp. 20 ff.
6 Like Frances E. Willard, for instance, and Upton Sinclair, who as late as 1931 wrote a book against liquor, The Wet Parade
(Pasadena, 1931). A political leader like Bryan linked the defense of Prohibition to the defense of popular rule. See his
“Prohibition,” Outlook, Vol, CXXXIII (February 7, 1923), p. 263.
7 This process has been analyzed and documented by Paul Carter: The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel … 1920-40,
unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1954, chapter iii, “Prohibition, Left and Right.”
8 “You think the influential men belong here?” asked an observer in Indiana City. “Then look at their shoes when they
march in parade. The sheet doesn’t cover the shoes.” Frederick Lewis Allen: Only Yesterday (New York, 1931), p. 67.
9 In understanding the Klan, John M. Mecklin’s The Ku Klux Klan (New York, 1924) is helpful.
1 Hiram Wesley Evans: “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism,” North American Review, Vol. CCXIII (March-April-May 1926),
pp. 33-63.
2 There were, it should be recalled, four “Kloranic Orders,” of which the two most dignified were “Knights of the Great
Forrest (The Order of American Chivalry)” and “Knights of the Midnight Mystery (Superior Order of Knighthood and
Spiritual Philosophies).” Stanley Frost: The Challenge of the Klan (Indianapolis, 1924), pp. 298-9.
3 Ibid., pp. 7-8.
4 In the popular vote, though not in the electoral college, Cox was beaten by Harding even more decisively than Landon
was beaten by Roosevelt in 1936, for Landon had 36.4 per cent of the total vote.
5 In 1924. John W. Davis, the Democratic candidate, received only 28.8 per cent of the total vote, Coolidge 54.1 per cent, La
Follette 16.6 per cent.
6 Peel and Donnelly: The 1928 Campaign, p. 79. It is true, of course, that Smith attempted more to appeal to those groups
which were disaffected by their failure to share in the general prosperity, and that Hoover emphasized the Republican
claims to the authorship of prosperity.
7 Cf. the remark of Walter Lippmann: “Quite apart even from the severe opposition of the prohibitionists, the objection to
Tammany, the sectional objections to New York, there is an opposition to Smith which is as authentic and, it seems to me,
as poignant as his support. It is inspired by the feeling that the clamorous life of the city should not be acknowledged as
the American ideal.” Men of Destiny (New York, 1927), p. 8.
8 Lubell, op. cit., pp. 34-5. Lubell’s analysis of the ethnic-religious factor in American politics is extremely revealing.
9 Naturally there was also some continuity in personnel, for F. D. R. himself was only one of a considerable number of
American leaders who had been young Progressives before the war and were supporters of the major reforms of the
thirties. However, one could draw up an equally formidable list—chiefly Republican insurgents of the Bull Moose era, but
also many Democrats—who had supported Progressive measures and later became heated critics of the New Deal.
1 Here I find myself in agreement with the view expressed by Samuel Lubell (op. cit., p. 3): “The distinctive feature of the
political revolution which Franklin D. Roosevelt began and Truman inherited lies not in its resemblance to the political
wars of Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson, but in its abrupt break with the continuity of the past.”
2 The closest thing to an earlier model for the first efforts of the New Deal was not the economic legislation of
Progressivism but the efforts of the Wilson administration to organize the economy for the first World War. Hugh Johnson
in the NRA and George Peek in the AAA were in many ways recapitulating the experience they had had in the War
Industries Board under Bernard Baruch.
3 See Frank Freidel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: the Ordeal (Boston, 1954), and his forthcoming volume on F. D. R.’s
4 Characteristically, also, Hoover accepted what might be called the nativist view of the Great Depression: it came from
abroad; it was the product, not of any deficiencies in the American economy, but of repercussions of the unsound
institutions of Europe.
5 As the counsel for the National Association of Manufacturers put it: “Regulation has passed from the negative stage of
merely preventing unlawful and improper conduct, to the positive stage of directing and controlling the character and form
of business activity. The concept that the function of government was to prevent exploitation by virtue of superior power
has been replaced by the concept that it is the duty of government to provide security against all the major hazards of life
—against unemployment, accident, illness, old age, and death.” Thomas P. Jenkin: Reactions of Major Groups to Positive
Government in the United States (Berkeley, 1945), pp. 300-1.
6 J. M. Keynes: “The United States and the Keynes Plan,” New Republic, Vol. CIII (July 29, 1940), p. 158.
7 Of course to speak of democracy in purely domestic terms is to underestimate the world-wide significance of the New
Deal. At a time when democracy was everywhere in retreat, the New Deal gave to the world an example of a free nation
coping with the problems of its economy in a democratic and humane way.
8 Indeed, in his message calling for reorganization Roosevelt declared that his proposal would make unnecessary any
fundamental changes in the powers of the courts or in the Constitution, “changes which involve consequences so farreaching
as to cause uncertainty as to the wisdom of such a course.” It remained for the leading senatorial opponent of the
bill, Senator Burton K. Wheeler, to advocate an amendment to the Constitution permitting Congress to override judicial
vetoes of its acts. Charles A. and Mary R. Beard: America in Mid-passage (New York, 1939), Vol. I, p. 355.
9 Presumably it will always be debated whether the new harmony between Congress and the Supreme Court that
developed even while the Court fight was going on can be attributed to Roosevelt’s Court reform bill. Merlo Pusey in his
Charles Evans Hughes (Vol. II, pp. 766 ff.) argues that the change in the Court’s decisions was not a political response to the
legislative struggle. He points out, among other things, that the New Deal legislation that came before the Court after the
NRA and AAA decisions was better drafted. It is beyond doubt, however, that the resignation of Van Devanter was
precipitated by the Court fight. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 761. The fact that advocates of both sides can go on arguing about who
won the fight is the best evidence that the issue was satisfactorily settled. It aroused so much feeling that an unambiguous
victory for either side would have been unfortunate.
1 There had been in the meantime, however, the assault upon the holding companies embodied in the so-called “death
sentence” of 1935.
2 Thurman Arnold: The Bottlenecks of Business (New York, 1940), p. 263.
3 This is a rather simplified statement of the thesis of Galbraith’s American Capitalism (Boston, 1952). Students of the
history of antitrust ideologies will be particularly interested in Galbraith’s strictures on the TNEC Report (pp. 59-60).
4 Galbraith argues that “the competition of the competitive model … almost completely precludes technical development”
and that indeed “there must be some element of monopoly in an industry if it is to be progressive.” Ibid., pp. 91, 93, and
chapter vii, passim. Cf. David Lilienthal: Big Business: a New Era (New York, 1953), chapter vi. For another such friendly
treatment by a former New Dealer, see Adolph A. Berle: The Twentieth Century Capitalist Revolution (New York, 1954).
5 See, for instance, the touching letter quoted by Lilienthal (op. cit., p. 198), from a university graduate of the twenties:
“We were dismayed at the vista of mediocre aspiration and of compartmentalized lives. The course of a big business career
was predictable and fore-closed. It was also, as the personnel department pointed out, secure. The appeal of graduated
salary raises and retirement on a pension was held out as the big lure. But in my high school days the appeal had been to
ambition, a good deal was said about achievement and independence.”
6 Galbraith, op. cit., p. 70.
7 Thurman W. Arnold: The Symbols of Government (New Haven, 1935), The Folklore of Capitalism (New Haven, 1937). By
1941 the first of these works had gone through five printings; the second, fourteen.
8 The Symbols of Government, p. 124.
9 The Folklore of Capitalism, pp. 375, 384.
1 Cf. The Symbols of Government, p. 34: “It is part of the function of ‘Law’ to give recognition to ideals representing the
exact opposite of established conduct … the function of law is not so much to guide society as to comfort it. Belief in
fundamental principles of law does not necessarily lead to an orderly society. Such a belief is as often at the back of revolt
or disorder.”
2 The Folklore of Capitalism, p. 220.
3 The Symbols of Government, p. 5.
4 Ibid., p. 125.
5 Ibid., pp. 21-2.
6 The Folklore of Capitalism, pp. 367-72; cf. pp. 43, 114-15; cf. The Symbols of Government, pp. 239-40.
7 There are many points at which Arnold yields to the need to seem hard-boiled and at which (rather like F. D. R. himself)
he becomes flippant over serious questions. While such lapses have a good deal of symptomatic importance, I do not wish
to appear to portray his writing as an attack upon political morality as such: it was not an effort to destroy political
morality, but to satirize a particular code of morality that he considered obsolescent and obstructive, and to substitute for
it a new one, the precise outlines of which were obviously vague. In my judgment, Arnold did not even successfully pose,
much less answer, the very real and important questions that were suggested by his books concerning the relations
between morals and politics, or between reason and politics. For a searching criticism see the essay by Sidney Hook in his
Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy (New York, 1950), pp. 41-51 and the ensuing exchange between Hook and Arnold,
pp. 51-61, which to my mind succeeds only in underscoring Arnold’s philosophical difficulties. The great value of Arnold’s
books lies not in the little they have to say about political ethics, but in their descriptive, satirical, and analytical approach
to the political thinking of his time, and in their statement of the working mood of a great many New Dealers.
I should perhaps add that my own comments in this area are not intended to be more than descriptive, for there are
large questions of political ethics that I too have not attempted to answer. In contrasting the pragmatic and opportunistic
tone of the New Deal with the insistent moralism of the Progressives, it has not been my purpose to suggest an invidious
comparison that would, at every point, favor the New Deal. Neither is it my purpose to imply that the political morals of
the New Dealers were inferior to those of their opponents. My essential interest is in the fact that the emergency that gave
rise to the New Deal also gave rise to a transvaluation of values, and that the kind of moralism that I have identified with
the dominant patterns of thought among the Progressives was inherited not so much by their successors among the New
Dealers, who tended to repudiate them, as by the foes of the New Deal.
8 I have been referred to David Lilienthal’s TVA: Democracy on the March (New York, 1944) as an illustration of the
idealism and inspirational force of the New Deal, and as a work more representative of its spirit than the writings of
Thurman Arnold. Lilienthal’s book is indeed more unabashedly humanitarian, more inspirational, more concerned with
maintaining democracy in the face of technical and administrative change, more given to idealization of the people. It also
shows, however, a dedication to certain values, readily discernible in Arnold, that would have been of marginal importance
to all but a few of the Progressives. Like Arnold, Lilienthal is pleading the cause of organization, engineering, management,
and the attitudes that go with them, as opposed to what he calls the “fog” of conventional ideologies. He appeals to
administrative experience, technology, science, and expertise, finds that efficient devices of management “give a lift to the
human spirit,” and asserts that “there is almost nothing, however fantastic that (given competent organization) a team of
engineers, scientists, and administrators cannot do today.” (Pocket Book ed., New York, 1945, pp. ix, x, 3, 4, 8, 9, 79, 115.)
In the light of this philosophy it is easier to see that Lilienthal’s more recent defense of big business does not represent a
conversion to a new philosophy but simply an ability to find in private organization many of the same virtues that as TVA
administrator he found in public enterprise.
9 Granville Hicks, in his Where We Came Out (New York, 1954), chapter iv, makes a sober effort to show how limited was
the Communist influence even in those circles which were its special province. A complementary error to the now
fashionable exaggeration of the Communist influence is to exaggerate its ties to the New Deal. Of course Communists
played an active part in the spurt of labor organization until the experienced labor leaders expelled them, and in time
Communists also succeeded in infiltrating the bureaucracy, with what shocking results we now know. But it was the
depression that began to put American Communism on its feet and the New Deal that helped to kill it. The Communists, as
consistent ideologues, were always contemptuous of the New Deal. At first they saw fascism in it, and when they gave up
this line of criticism during the Popular Front period, they remained contemptuous of its frank experimentalism, its lack
of direction, its unsystematic character, and of course its compromises.
My first efforts to set down my ideas on these subjects were elicited by an invitation
from the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation. I am obliged to Professor Jerome Kerwin,
Director of the Walgreen lectures, and to a number of his colleagues at the University of
Chicago for making the occasion of the original lectures a pleasant one. My first six
chapters are revised and expanded versions of those lectures. A somewhat different
version was delivered as the Commonwealth Fund Lectures at University College,
London, in January and February 1955.
For this volume and other work in progress the Behavioral Sciences Division of the
Ford Foundation placed at my disposal a generous grant that has enabled me to
examine many more facets of the history of Populism and Progressivism than I could
otherwise have considered and to complete the work much sooner than I could otherwise
have done.
Thanks are due above all to my wife, Beatrice Kevitt Hofstadter, who has developed
the art of the editor and the textual critic into a major gift for asking the right questions.
Her advice has been indispensable. Peter Gay gave hours beyond number to a searching
criticism of the manuscript and to exploring its argument with me; his generosity with
his time was equaled only by his genial severity with my lapses. Fritz Stern, after
reading the manuscript, went through the galleys meticulously, to my inestimable
For advice in revision I am deeply obliged to many friends. William Leuchtenburg,
Seymour M. Lipset, Walter P. Metzger, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, and Kenneth M.
Stampp went through the manuscript and provided me, section by section and chapter
by chapter, with voluminous and detailed criticisms and suggestions that caused me to
make many serious modifications, to eliminate some misstatements and overstatements,
and to add several observations that brought out more satisfactorily than my own draft
some of the implications of its ideas—after which I was still in possession of a fund of
unused comments and questions whose pursuit might yield another book. The
manuscript was similarly read with care, in whole or in large part, by Daniel Aaron,
Stanley Elkins, Frank Freidel, Henry Graff, Alfred A. Knopf, Henry F. May, William
Miller, Henry Nash Smith, Harold Strauss, Harold Syrett, David B. Truman, and C. Vann
Woodward, all of whom made valuable comments that led to important changes. Lee
Benson and Eric Lampard gave me much needed advice on Populism and the history of
American agriculture, and gave me cause to hope that some specialists in this field
might be more indulgent than I at first had any reason to expect with the rather broad
generalizations I have made about the refractory details of economic history. The
research assistants who successively served this inquiry, Paul Carter, Gurston Goldin,
Eric McKitrick, and James Shenton, gave to it an informed, imaginative, and
affectionate attention that went beyond the call of their assignments. I am indebted in
particular to conversations with Mr. McKitrick for some of the formulations in chapter
v, to Mr. Shenton for some of those in chapter vi.
Richard Hofstadter, who died in October 1970, was DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia
University. He received his B.A. from the University of Buffalo and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia
University. He taught at the University of Maryland from 1942 until 1946, when he joined the History
Department at Columbia. He also served as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge
University in 1958-9. The first of his books on American History was Social Darwinism in American Thought,
published in 1944, followed by The American Political Tradition, in 1948. The Age of Reform (1955) won the
Pulitzer Prize in history, and Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) received the Pulitzer Prize in general
nonfiction, the Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa, and the Sidney Hillman Prize Award. Mr. Hofstadter’s other
books include The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965), The Progressive Historians (1968), The Idea of a Party
System (1969), and America at 1750 (1971). He also edited, with Michael Wallace, American Violence: A
Documentary History (1970).


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