The Age of Reform – Richard Hofstadter

The Age of Reform – Richard Hofstadter

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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
aIDed 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 aIDress of
Franklin D. Roosevelt than Roosevelt himself was on March 4, 1933, from the first
inaugural aIDress 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 miIDle-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 miIDlebrow 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 miIDle-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 aID—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 aID 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.

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