In a previous post, I suggested some qualifying exam questions in U.S. History. This is the first in a series of posts in which I attempt the death-defying feat of outlining potential answers to those questions.
Thesis: Confident optimism, rather than reactionary fear, characterized the Progressive Era.
I. Anxiety the dominant interpretation, post-Progressive historians like the Beards.
A. Hofstadter the fear monger (The Age of Reform)
i. Progressives as half-way between Populism and New Deal. Populists had been afraid of bigness, corporations (esp. RR), cities, and Jews (association with banks). Progressives jettisoned the anti-urban element, but kept the xenophobia (vs. influx of new immigrants), anti-corporations, and anti-bigness (which led to corruption). Hence legislation that sought to attack those perceived problems.
ii. Progressives were status-anxious, coming from the old blood of gentry, established professionals and merthants, and others seeking to maintain power in face of immigrants and up-starts.
B. In his footsteps, moderated fear-mongers who fleshed this out some more
i. Immigration. America in contact with rest of world, and having to deal with it (Jacobson)
ii. Status and professional. Clergy, lawyers, and teachers dealing with increasingly integrated and big world, seek confirmation of authority through licensing and professional organizations (Haskell)
iii. Fears of revolution. TR best example of the potential fear of revolution (Rauchway). Note labor unrest during 1870s/1880s and its aftermath.
iv. Synthesis of anxiety: Wiebe and his new middle class seeking Island Communities that were lost to flood of immigrants, racial problems (increasing black presence with over 1/2 million migrating north, as well as interaction with rest of the world), foreign policy
II. Idealism and Confidence
A. Explanations of moderated anxiety also draw attention to confidence to solve these problems
i. Wiebe as good explanation: not just losing Island Communities, but seeking to replicate those communal dynamics in new world. Through bureaucratization and limited use of state power, problems could be resolved.
ii. Examples: Pure Food and Drug Act; Hepburn Act; Clayton Act; Meat Inspection Act; Roosevelt’s nobel-prize winning involvement in Russo-Japanese War; later: Immigrant Literacy test; Federal Reserve System to manage growing economy
B. More than that: confidence in ability to improve–to Progress
i. Best example: land conservation policies. Reclamation Act; Pinchot and TR’s national forest management under Agriculture, rather than Interior. Preaching Hays’s “gospel of efficiency.” Yes, anxiety was a part of it (we’re losing our natural resources), but there’s a definite vision, a new and confident vision, for how the land will be used.
ii. Other examples: Public ownership (esp. water works, gas works, street cars) imported from Europe (see Daniel Rodgers). Public participation (the Oregon system of recall, initiative, and referendum (Johnston). Founding of The New Republic. Later: Income tax and women’s suffrage.
C. Confident plans rather than anxious reaction
i. Limits to that confidence and those plans, as we see in WWI, when Progressives back down for fear of the Right and for lack of plan (Brinkley).
ii. Historians have too often fallen into trap of focusing too much on that later period, rather than how idealist and hopeful were the plans of the Progressives.