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August 1975

Ekirch, “Progressivism in America”

Leonard Liggio reviews Ekirch’s hugely important book.

Arthur Ekirch has made some of the most important contributions to libertarian viewpoints in history through books such as The Decline of American Liberalism, The Civilian and the Military, and his anthology, Voices in Dissent: Individualist Thought in the United States. The Progressive era and its ideologies were very important not only in the growth of the American State, but also as a forerunner of New Deal concepts and institutions. It was natural then that Ekirch follow his Ideologies and Utopia: The Impact of the New Deal on American Thought with his new work,Progressivism in America.

A significant contribution here is Ekirch’s treatment of the rise of Urban Evangelism—the application of the social gospel and social justice to the new urban America which the immigrants of the New Immigration were creating. While this gospel had almost no influence on the New Immigration and the new urban America they created, it did have a big influence on the national legislation which was passed in the first several decades of the twentieth century. The role of the clergy and the development of a new clergy—social workers and public school teachers—were important in the development of Progressivism.

Progressivism ideologically was derived from the importation of European philosophies in place of the native American common sense of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian eras. On the one hand was the introduction of Cometeanism or positivism, on the other the strength of Hegelian thought in the later nineteenth century. Associated with this was the development of American graduate schools. In the post-Civil War period, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Chicago developed as a new institution in the Anglo-American educational world, the graduate school. Ordinary college education was placed in second place, and graduate education was seen as the means of training leaders in politics and in public administration—a new “science.” In England, a lot of this was associated with the Fabians. In America, most of the leaders of this movement had gone to Germany to attend graduate schools and returned with a new vision of a paternalistic socialism as practiced in Imperial Germany. A strong state was able to introduce social legislation without the political implications of a successful socialist movement. Bureaucrats, technocrats, and other graduates of graduate schools would run an efficient welfare state for general benefit. Leaders in the Progressive political movement who came out of this tradition included: Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Albert Beveridge, John Hay, and Woodrow Wilson.

These were the nationalist Progressives from the eastern US and Ivy League schools who wished to reorganize a society which they felt was corrupted by the rise of uneducated (but rich) enterprisers. Such businessmen needed to be put in their proper place beneath the educated, older families who held political power and high office as a trust for the whole people, et cetera. To overcome the businessmen who had thrived in the laissez-faire of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian variety, these men wanted to establish a Hamiltonian program that would place control in the hands of the older, established financial institutions, the Market Street and Wall Street banking houses. Thus, Teddy Roosevelt undertook the struggle against the Standard Oil Company, which was viewed as too strong and too independent by Wall Street. The issue that called Roosevelt back to politics to form the Progressive Party in 1912 was William Howard Taft’s antitrust suit against the great Morgan creation, United States Steel. The Progressive Party was financed and managed by George W. Perkins, a Morgan partner.

Behind all this important political economy, there was also a mass movement for reform and efficiency in local government, a movement with a populist background, which has also been called Progressivism. This populist Progressivism, whatever its faults, was not related to the state monopoly corporate system of the nationalist Progressives, although it has often been confused with it.

Albert Jay Nock, who had played an active role in this popular, rather than nationalist, Progressivism, saw that the Progressives had been faced with a contradiction that many who were committed to liberalism did not wish to see, and that those who were committed to statism tried to mask. Nock noted: “The reformers themselves apparently did not see that the State, as an arbiter of economic advantage, must necessarily be a potential instrument of economic exploitation.” An echo of that view is seen in the comment of the historian Albert Bushnell Hart: “No free people is more subject to the arbitrary will of the man in authority than the Americans.”

In several chapters dealing with imperialism and national security, Ekirch shows the development of statism through the fostering of a national-security mentality. Foreign affairs had become a major focus for the eastern, and especially New York, Republicans and Progressives who were involved in law and banking. With the passage of the income tax amendment and the formation of the Federal Reserve System, foreign affairs seemed to be the best arena for the development both of national unity and new mercantilist institutions. While strongly opposed by the populist Progressives, the American entry into World War I was hoped for and welcomed by the nationalist Progressives. For the nationalist Progressives, Wilson’s wartime administration became the model for the corporate state for which they struggled. Wilson’s attitudes and policies fitted perfectly their desires and plans. That World War I model became the basis for the final introduction of national Progressivism and its authority over Americans in the New Deal. Reviewed by Leonard Liggio/History/LR Price $4.95