Chapter I

“The Rise of Progressive Mentality”

Query: who made the world, Charles?
Charles: God made the world in 4004 B.C.;
but in 1901 it was reorganized by James J. Hill,
J. Pierpont Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller.

—Life (1)

The forty years between the end of Reconstruction and the finish of World War I were a period of significant transformation in the United States. The American way of life, which many would have formerly believed inalterable, yielded to the cultural change prompted by westward settlement. With the rise of industrialism, the populace began to move from the farm to the city. This migration fostered a concurrent shift in political and economic power from agrarian to urban America. The United States, in short, was undergoing a redefinition of its basic goals and values, and such a change — the growing pains of a nation — inevitably ignited discontent. Populism was the first significant expression of protest in this period and formulated much of the progressive ideology which later followed.

The farmers who composed the populist movement were angered because they witnessed the economic power they once held slipping out of their hands and into the grip of prosperous city dwellers. In the face of crop failures, declining prices, and diminished sources of credit, the farmers demanded reforms that would place them in parity with the burgeoning economic power of industry. They demanded the unlimited circulation of silver currency, direct election of United States senators, and revenue tariffs only. Above all, the populists called for governmental ownership of the railroads, for they realized that control of this mode of transportation was essential to their well-being. The westward expansion of the railroad enabled the ways of the industrial East to invade and disrupt the division of labor in the rural United States:

The farmer suddenly discovered that he was implicated, to an extent undreamed of in the days of true isolation, with banks, with railroads, and with the manufacturers who went into politics in the interest of controlling prices through discriminatory tariffs and favorable monopolies. (2)

The farmer, in the midst of the transportation revolution, felt betrayed. When the tracks were first laid, he envisioned the railroad as the path to prosperity. The train would propel his goods to a larger market and feed the ever-increasing post-war populace, thereby causing crop prices to skyrocket. Under the limitations imposed by federal tariff barriers, however, the market for the increasing amount of agricultural products sharply narrowed, and food prices subsequently declined. Yet the industries of the East “had only to compete in a local market behind high tariff walls,” (3) and the agrarian man bought his clothing, farm implements, and other manufactured necessities at steadily rising prices while his own financial resources continued to shrink.

To the farmer, the railroad was a blessing turned into a curse. It was the link with the growing industries of the East, and symbolized an increasing tension among the “heirs of the self-reliant tradition of agrarian America, [who] were suddenly finding themselves at the mercy of distant corporation executives.” (4) Put simply, this tension resulted largely from the seemingly incompatible nature of democracy and centralized industry. The Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian republic influenced the farmer, consciously or unconsciously, to believe that democracy had its roots in the rich soil of the farm; the concept of individual rights, as guaranteed in the Constitution, seemed tailored to an agrarian lifestyle. The large corporation, in the farmer’s mind, became wealthy at the expense of the individual, and the populist movement looked to the government and demanded justice. They sought, in short, to protect the common man from the abuses they labeled undemocratic.

The Populists espoused the agrarian myth in the face of burgeoning urbanization and industrial consolidation. This myth can be defined as the popular notion Americans have of the “innocence of their origins,” exemplified by the image of the farmer as an uncorrupted champion of democracy. (5) In eighteenth century America the agrarian myth enjoyed a wide following among the intellectual elite, and by the dawn of the nineteenth century, it evolved into an almost “sacred” belief among the masses. (6)There existed, in the collective American mentality,

the general idea that the fate of democracy [was] somehow or other bound up with the fate of the agricultural community whence it emerged and that both [were] sinking in an industrialized, collectivistic wave…. (7)

The source of this “wave” was, of course, the city. From 1860 until 1910, the population of rural America doubled, but the urban population increased sevenfold. (8) The rise in the number of city dwellers helped satisfy the demand for labor needed to place America in the forefront of world industry. In 1880, Great Britain, once the world’s industrial capital, lagged behind the United States in the production of steel and iron products, and by 1899, American coal production exceeded that of England. (9) In the decade following 1890, American manufacturing increased at least 75 per cent, while the aggregate national wealth doubled. (10)

One of the catalysts of America’s industrial growth was the creation of the limited liability corporation, a body legally authorized to act as an individual although composed of one or more persons united for the purpose of carrying on business activity. In the era from 1880 until 1910 the number of business partnerships steadily declined as these corporations merged, soon followed by the trust, which enabled corporations to unite for the purposes of increasing efficiency. The populist believed these new concepts in business organization helped greedy individuals develop industries that reduced competition and exploited the abundant natural resources of a growing world power. (11) This corporate evolution, aided by the rise of large-scale bank financing, had a significant effect upon the regions beyond the boundaries of the city. The populist was convinced the large corporation sought to suppress competition in an attempt to boost profits; this, he believed, enabled a few wealthy industrialists, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, to use trusts to create monopolies and firmly grip the reins of national economic power. (12)

The Populists witnessed this rapid industrial growth, denounced it, and asked the government to seize the economic reins which, they felt, unfairly rested in the hands of a privileged few. The farmers who clamored for reform did not wish to abolish democracy or large-scale industry; they merely wanted a more equitable distribution of the wealth and benefits such enterprises consistently reaped. Historian David Mark Chalmers notes the farmer believed

the fault was not in the corporate form itself but rather the use to which it was being put. The moral development of the nation failed to keep pace with an enormous material expansion. The profit motive…had been enthroned in America. (13)

While this throne belonged to the city, the populists, influenced by the agrarian myth, came to believe they were “the innocent victims of a conspiracy hatched in the distance. The notion of an innocent and victimized populace colors…the whole history of the populistic mind.” (14) These strong antiurban feelings caused the farmer to recall longingly the innocent, pastoral days before the industrial giants hatched their “plots” against the “common man.” The agrarian myth became an avenue of psychological escape for the rural American, and as the power of big business swelled, he clung tenaciously to his idealized past and struggled to regain it by demanding that his government institute economic reform.

The passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890 was viewed by many populists as an answer to their dilemma, but in the following decade this legislation proved ineffective because it generally was not enforced. The middle-class city dweller, meanwhile, believed populist protests were a threat to national stability, and viewed these clamorings for reform with disdain. By the turn of the century, however, rapid industrial consolidation began to draw the attention of the formerly complacent middle class. The growth of big business served to warn the professional and small merchant that he, “like the farmer before him, no longer had the power to expand, or even to retain, his economic interest.” (15) The middle class responded to this perceived economic threat by espousing “progressivism,” which owes much of its ideology to the populist movement.

For purposes of this thesis, progressivism is defined as the “vague and not altogether cohesive” movement emanating from the middle class; it called for the reform of American culture by demanding governmental protection of societal interests from the abusive power of consolidated wealth. (16) Progressives held the common belief that society was corrupted by the political machine and the large corporation, and that they, as true citizens and champions of democracy, must actively induce its reform. Americans, the progressive knew, had always believed society was constantly improving and progressing, but now they sought to accelerate the momentum. They battled poverty, graft, and unfair inhibition of business competition, “evils hat an earlier generation had accepted as the results of an overpopulated, capitalistic, or immoral society from which there seemed no appeal until a distant judgment day.” (17)

Before a detailed analysis of progressivism is undertaken, it is useful to compare it with populism to uncover vital similarities and differences between each movement. Both the populists and progressives were angered enough to incite significant reform movements, and both, to a certain extent, looked back to America’s infancy for inspiration and solace. Beyond these common characteristics, however, populism and progressivism diverge.

Populists were essentially an “overwhelmingly rural and provincial” group, and tended to embrace monolithically the same political and reformative leanings; they easily named a common enemy and attacked it accordingly. (18) Progressives were predominantly members of the urban middle class, who sparked a national movement often less unified but ideologically more complex. Because they were middle-class reformers in a more prosperous era than that of the populists, they were “less rancorous,” and more divided among themselves concerning what course of action to seek. (19) Because the progressives were generally city dwellers, their intimacy with the urban problems of labor, municipal reform and welfare made them more sympathetic to the dilemmas of their fellow urbanites. While the progressive disliked the aggregate wealth and power of the large corporation, he believed the corporate form of business organization, if properly administered, was a beneficent economic force. The progressive disliked corrupt urban political machinery. He knew, however, he had allowed it to form, and sought to assuage his resultant guilt by restoring an unsullied, equitable government. Unlike the populists, the progressive ranks were occupied by many educated professionals, whose skills better enabled them to organize and administer attempts at reform — when they could agree to battle a specific enemy. (20)

The progressive movement was colored by moral optimism, Protestant in orientation. It was therefore heavily influenced by the Social Gospel, a concurrent, primarily Protestant, non-denominational religious movement advocating an application of Christian principles to society. Though the person who believed in the Social Gospel did not espouse the orthodox version of Protestantism, he maintained strong ties with the religious mores of his middle-class fore-fathers. This older, moralistic influence was given a new twist by those who preached the Social Gospel; these reformers “felt that most of the churches had lost their social message and were seeking to make the people content with the world as it was,” rather than encouraging them to help create a better one. (21) The preacher of the Social Gospel believed the Protestant church was too often a puppet of wealth and power, an apologist for laissez-faire gone awry. He viewed excessive wealth as a hindrance to morality, as an evil which only increased the “un-Christian disparities” between the industrialist and the working class. (22) In the place of “rampant materialism” he called for economic reforms to permit equitable competition in the marketplace, and sought “‘Christian capitalism’ dominated by moral considerations instead of laissez-faire, in which prices would be ‘just,’ wages ‘fair,’ and competition ‘ethical.'” (23)

From 1895 through the 1920’s the middle class gradually co-opted the goals of the Social Gospel. These goals “increasingly dominated the most articulate sections of American protestantism” (24) and enabled the preacher to become the “honorary chairman” of the progressive movement. (25) Because most progressives were Protestants, they welcomed the ministers of the Social Gospel not as strategic leaders, but as bestowers of moral sanction, capable of spreading “the distinctive aura of righteousness about the cause.” (26) Henry F. May, in his study Protestant Churches and Industrial America, explains the crucial link between the Social Gospel and progressivism:

Undoubtedly the ability to justify social change in terms of Christian doctrine [had] given American progressivism authority, power and a link with tradition. These gifts were particularly valuable during the difficult first adjustment of the American liberal tradition to the age of giant industry. (27)

Yet, while the Social Gospel gave progressivism a sense of “righteousness” and “power,” it also contributed significant weaknesses in the form of facile optimism and simplistic ideology. As a movement, the Social Gospel imbued the progressive mentality with an unquestioning confidence in the American future and a simplistic attitude toward the problems facing society. While these traits initially enabled the progressive movement to appeal to a wide following among middle-class Protestants, their very shallowness failed to “provide the great mass of Christians with the spiritual sustenance they demanded.” (28) In brief, the optimism and simplistic ideology of the Social Gospel imbued the progressive with “the faults of a social dreamer” whose perception of reality was distorted by the rosy tint of his spectacles. (29)

The simplistic outlook of progressivism is exemplified by the vague terminology and unrealistic goals of the movement. A prominent Midwestern preacher called for the cultivation of more “large-hearted men” to offset the growing power of labor and industry. (30) “Solidarity,” political philosopher Herbert Croly claimed, “must be restored.” (31) The problem lay in the vagueness of these word; while they appealed to a wide audience because they were inherently simplistic, they also provided no lucid advice to those who wanted to aid the progressive cause. These exhortations demonstrate how seldom “any major political tendency dealing with the problem of big business in modern society ever [tried] to go beyond the level of high generalization.” (32) Richard Hofstadter confirmed this trait when he stated that “the limitation of the reform tradition was that it wandered over the border between reality and impossibility.” (33) Thus, the progressive wanted to reinstate “absolute popular democracy” and “completely honest” business competition. He wanted to abolish prostitution and instituted prohibition, and throw a monkey wrench in the gears of the political machine, thereby restoring flawless governmental honesty. Though “the people who attach[ed] themselves to these several absolutisms [were] not always the same people,” they nevertheless created an atmosphere of incurable optimism in which these simplistic conceptions of societal evils seemed easily conquerable. (34)

Other significant aspects of progressivism merit study, including the moralistic, middle-class consciousness which imbued the movement. The progressive’s perceived mission “was first that most basic urge of all nature, to preserve himself, and secondly to refashion the world after his own image.” (35) Influenced by the Social Gospel, the progressive believed he was morally superior to those above and below him on the ladder of economic and social prosperity. (36) Indeed, the word “moral” consistently emerges in progressive literature and must be clarified to understand the middle-class perspective. “Moral” is a term not invested with any one set of behavioral standards; what is “moral” depends on the beliefs of the person defining the term, usually expressed within the context of what actions he or she considers “right” or “wrong.” The progressive used phrases having a judgmental tone, and felt he did not created class consciousness, but was socially differentiated because he was more upright than those who surrounded him. He spoke of belonging to a class of “good men” who made up the “better element” and the “moral crowd.” He looked to the Bible to find his interpretation of what was moral and immoral. He read the Good Book and paraphrased: “Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the great; in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” Put simply, the progressive viewed himself as a “kind-hearted” man crusading for biblical conception of justice. (37)

Labeling the consolidation of economic wealth “unjust,” the progressive felt threatened by the rise of the trusts. The period between January, 1898 and January, 1904 marked the birth of 75 per cent of American trusts, whose capital increased seven-fold. The McKinley and Roosevelt administrations witnessed the organization of industrial giants such as the Standard Oil Company and Consolidated Tobacco. (38) The trusts, in the words of Alfred Kazin, were “dragon’s teeth sowed in American individualism, that now came up to haunt the national imagination and that provoked a national effort toward reform.” (39) The urban middle class, in face of the growing number of trusts, began to feel threatened as large consolidations put many small merchants and manufacturers out of business. The Standard Oil Company, for instance, was rapidly destroying oil producers who insisted on remaining independent of business aggregation in the fledgling petroleum industry. The middle class slowly realized the growth of the trusts was subverting economic individualism. They, as a class, saw big businessmen viewing industry as

America’s god in the 1890’s….Efficiency was good…but efficiency demanded that competition be controlled or, if possible, eliminated….Business efficiency was replacing public responsibility. (40)

While the middle class warily kept watch on the plutocracy hovering above, they also felt threatened by the masses gathering below. From 1900 until 1917, thirteen million immigrants entered the United States, the majority arriving from eastern Europe. (41) Since the immigrants of this era typically came “from a peasant environment with strong feudal survivals,” they were not accustomed to having a voice in government. (42) Thus, they were easily exploited by the boss politician, who took advantage of the immigrants’ condition and won their loyalty as well as their votes by giving them jobs and granting them small favors. (43)

The middle class, however, was not the only group feeling threatened by immigration. The influx of eastern Europeans greatly increased the size of the work force, and the newcomers’ willingness to work for low wages was viewed as a danger to the financial position of “Yankee” laborers and the established immigrant workers from western and northern Europe. Many joined fledgling labor unions in response to this perceived economic threat. Organizations like the American Federation of Labor appeared and began to demand better wages and working conditions from the industrial giants who employed them. (44) As tension between big business and labor unions increased,

the average middle-class citizen felt the pinch in his pocketbook. 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. (45)

While the clash between the industrial giants and organized labor continued, the middle-class American perceived the well-bribed machine politician bowing to the interests of the trusts, and feared the union laborer would induce anarchy if his demands were not met. Disenchanted with a government allowing such tensions to exist, the middle-class citizen recalled, like his populist predecessor, rested in the hands of the individual. (46) He, too, began to call for social, economic, and political reform, and progressivism was born.

This urban, middle-class fervor, created largely from a melding of the strengths and weaknesses of populism and the Social Gospel, needed a mode of expression which could help to alleviate the tension generated during the struggle between middle-class values and burgeoning industrial consolidation. The mass-circulation magazine emerged as the medium to suit these needs. It was an avenue by which the beliefs of the progressive mentality could be expressed on a nationwide scale. Journalist William Allen White ably voiced the progressive attitude soon reflected in many national magazines:

Slowly as the new century came into its first decade, I saw the Great Light. Around me in that day scores of young leaders in American politics and public affairs were seeing what I saw, feeling what I felt. Probably they too were converted Pharisees with the zeal of the new faith upon them. All over the land in a score of states and more, young men in both parties were taking leadership by attacking things as they were in that day–notably… plutocracy and the political machinery that kept it moving. And literature was rising…. Magazines were…uncovering cesspools in cities and the states, denouncing the centralization of power in the United States Senate which assembled through the dominance in the states of the great commodity industries– railroads, copper, oil, textiles and the like. (47)

Imbued with progressive spirit, reform journalism began.


1 Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines 1880-1905, 5 vols. (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1957), 4:208. Back to text

2 John Chamberlain, Farewell to Reform; the Rise, Life, and Decay of the Progressive Mind in America. (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958), p. 3. Hereafter cited as Chamberlain, Farewell to Reform. Back to text

3 Chamberlain, Farewell to Reform, p. 3. Back to text

4 Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America. (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1949), p. 91. Hereafter cited as May, Protestant Churches. Back to text

5 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform; From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), p. 24. Hereafter cited as Hofstadter, Age of Reform. Back to text

6 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 28. Back to text

7 A. Whitney Griswold, Farming and Democracy. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948), p. 4. Back to text

8 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 174. Back to text

9 Everett Rich, William Allen White, the Man from Emporia. (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1941), p. 139. Hereafter cited as Rich, William Allen White. Back to text

10 George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt; 1900-1912. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), p. 4. Hereafter cited as Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt. Back to text

11 Rich, William Allen White, pp. 138-139. Back to text

12 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, pp. 8-9. Back to text

13 David Mark Chalmers, The Social and Political Ideas of the Muckrakers. (New York: The Citadel Press, 1964), p. 107. Hereafter cited as Chalmers, Social and Political Ideas. Back to text

14 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 35. Back to text

15 Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds. (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942), pp. 95-96. Hereafter cited as Kazin, Native Grounds. Back to text

16 Hofstadter, Age of Reform,, p. 5. In this thesis, the terms “progressive” and “progressivism” are not intended to define the “Bull Moose” party. For this study, the progressive era will be defined temporarily as the period from 1900-1912. Back to text

17 Carl Resek, The Progressives. (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), p. xii. Back to text

18 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, pp. 131-134. Back to text

19 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, pp. 131-134. Back to text

20 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, pp. 131-134. Back to text

21 Chalmers, Social and Political Ideas, p. 109. Back to text

22 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, pp. 28-29. Back to text

23 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, pp. 28-29. Back to text

24 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 150. Back to text

25 Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), pp. 207-208. Hereafter cited as Wiebe, Search for Order. Back to text

26 Wiebe, Search for Order, pp. 207-208. Back to text

27 May, Protestant Churches, p. 231. Back to text

28 May, Protestant Churches, p. 234. Back to text

29 May, Protestant Churches, pp. 232-233. Back to text

30 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 104. Back to text

31 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 104. Back to text

32 Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism; A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916. (London: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), pp. 279-280. Back to text

33 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, pp. 17-18. Back to text

34 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, pp. 16-17. Back to text

35 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 104. Back to text

36 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 105. Back to text

37 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 104. Back to text

38 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 169. Back to text

39 Kazin, Native Grounds, pp. 94-95. Back to text

40 Russell M. Horton, Lincoln Steffens. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974), p. 45. Hereafter cited as Horton, Lincoln Steffens. Back to text

41 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 13. Back to text

42 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 182. Back to text

43 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 182. Back to text

44 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 182. Back to text

45 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, p. 170. Back to text

46 Mowry, Era of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 90. Back to text

47 William Allen White, The Autobiography of William Allen White. Back to text