Roots of a Revolutionary Ideology

A review of Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020) by Bradley C.S. Watson

At the height of the Progressive Movement in 1914, William P. Merrill published a poem he called “The Day of the People Is Dawning.” The liberal Presbyterian minister and ally of Andrew Carnegie’s world peace movement bid farewell to the age of kings, lords, and unrighteous Mammon. In the epoch now appearing, the old order crumbled to extinction in history’s divine progression. In the third stanza, Merrill revealed what his “Day of the People” would entail:

The strength of the State we’ll lavish on more

Than making of wealth and making of war;

We are learning at last, though the lesson comes late,

That the making of man is the task of the State.

All that remained in the final stanza was to reveal that this was a day of prophetic fulfillment; Jehovah’s millennial reign has commenced.

This is the kind of social-gospel exuberance that prompts my students to ask, “Is he serious?” They can’t imagine these words as anything but satire. But Merrill was in deadly earnest. This fusion of a radicalized millennial Christianity and modern statism is precisely what Brad Watson emphasizes in his account of the “strange history of a radical idea.” He is right to insist that Progressivism relied on the twin achievements of a reconfigured Christianity and a resurgent statism much in the spirit of Reverend Merrill.

The Progressive History of Progressivism

As Charles Kesler points out in his foreword, by “strange history” Watson means the way in which the historiography of the Progressive Movement in America has been dominated by fellow-travelers of Progressivism. From at least the 1940s (and perhaps from the age of reform itself), the story has been told by historians sympathetic with the Progressives’ assault on constitutionalism, limited government, individual liberty, and free-market economics. Such historians depicted the changes in first principles not as a radical assault on American ideals, but rather as an authentic elaboration of the genuinely American liberal tradition as defended by mid-century “consensus” historians. These historians might argue among themselves about just who the Progressives were, where they came from, what inspired them, and even whether there ever was anything coherent enough a hundred years ago to call by the convenient label “Progressivism,” but rarely did they question the presupposition that the United States needed to be fundamentally transformed in the wake of the social, political, and economic upheaval of the late 19th century.

Watson has done his homework and slogged through decades of historiography, from Charles Beard and V. L. Parrington to Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and beyond. The book is more than an extended review of the literature, however; it is an indictment. And it is hard not to agree with Watson’s assessment that these historians were guilty of obscuring as much as they illuminated about the Progressives. As an epigraph, Watson quotes Hofstadter’s own 1955 affirmation of faith in “the tradition of Progressive reform . . . the tradition of most intellectuals in America.” As doubts about Progressivism and the New Deal emerged in the 1950s, the task of liberal intellectuals, he wrote, was “conservative” in the sense of “holding to what we have gained and learned” by not “dismantling the social achievements of the past twenty years.” For Hofstadter, this was nothing less than a moral imperative incumbent upon historians.

As a political theorist, and more particularly as a Straussian political theorist, Watson draws attention to what these historians have ignored about the Progressive Movement, namely its mobilization of a radicalized Christianity (as promulgated by Richard Ely, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Father John Ryan) and its aggressive deconstruction of the Founders’ regime of natural rights constitutionalism. For decades, establishment historians failed to grapple with how radically the social gospel—in both Protestant and Catholic iterations—reconfigured historic Christianity into an earthbound agenda for social transformation that redefined sin, salvation, and the life to come in terms that committed the faith to a crusade for Statism. And at the same time they ignored the degree to which Progressives unraveled a constitutional order committed to natural rights as read definitively through the eyes of Abraham Lincoln.

The Straussian narrative—more specifically the Claremont narrative which Watson reflects—is a story of creation, fall, and redemption. The Founders of the United States created a natural rights regime built on the Declaration of Independence as enshrined in the Constitution of 1787; that founding was nearly toppled by the slave states and secession; and Lincoln through military and rhetorical power rescued the authentic meaning of the Founding and hoped to secure its future. That new birth of freedom was threatened by a second fall at the hands of the Progressives. In Watson’s telling, it was not until the recent counter-revolution of political theorists, in particular the Claremont Straussians, that Progressivism was unmasked as the diabolical threat it really was and remains.

A Closer Look and a Deeper Critique

Watson properly indicts the dominant school of Progressive historiography, but it is also necessary to fill in some missing pieces of this story. Critically, Watson overlooks the important attack on Progressivism and the New Deal mounted by the so-called “New Conservatives” of the 1950s. They did battle with Progressivism long before the emergence of Straussian critiques. They challenged the dominant liberalism of academia and the press, indeed the very idea that America’s most authentic tradition was liberal. They labored to recover a genealogy of American conservatism. Liberals noticed, took offense, were incredulous that anything so absurd could be suggested, and mobilized in print to refute these challenges to the liberal consensus. The liberal-conservative debate in the 1950s and 60s was extensive and touched on every point Watson finds lacking in the histories of Progressivism. Though staunchly anti-Communist, these conservatives feared the consequences of the growth in national power deemed necessary to confront the Soviets and Chinese and tried to defend a non-ideological foreign policy in the midst of what was emerging as a global ideological conflict that might require decades to win.

Broadening the scope of what counts as a history of Progressivism might unearth academics in the 20th century who did indeed tackle the critical questions of constitutional order. There is a large literature on the fate of federalism during the era of reform and are also histories of individual Progressive amendments, especially prohibition and the income tax, that, given their subject matter, addressed changes to the Founders’ regime. Nevertheless, it is also true that before Christopher Hoebeke’s 1995 The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amendment, scholars had not produced a standalone history of the constitutional innovation wrought by the direct election of Senators.

Furthermore, the Claremont take on Progressivism needs to reach deeper into the American past. Progressivism did not simply emerge out of nothing after the Civil War. The reinvention of evangelical Protestantism began much earlier, as did the effort to replace federalism with a robust centralized nationalism. Straussians emphasize the impact of German idealism on the development of American Progressivism. And rightly so. But German idealism, beginning with Kant, was imported to the United States as early as the 1820s. It provoked spirited debate in theological journals and in the high-toned popular press.

While the Germans were read in the North, South, and West, the most important and radical appropriators of German philosophy and statism were intellectuals in New England, especially among the abolitionists. Transcendentalists and other reformers, such as Theodore Parker, Frederic Henry Hedge, and F. B. Sanborn brought German philosophy and theology to America with the intention of remaking the church, politics, and society. Julia Ward Howe, author of the Civil War’s most celebrated battle anthem, was steeped in the works of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling. If we add the French Positivist Auguste Comte into the mix, the story of the origins of Progressivism emerges even more clearly as an antebellum phenomenon with far-reaching antecedents and implications. Given how much weight the Claremont school places on German idealism and Hegel in particular, understanding and explaining the adoption of these ideas would seem to be indispensable to their task.

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About Richard M. Gamble

Richard M. Gamble is Associate Professor of History and Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair in History and Political Science at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He also directs Hillsdale's honors program. His teaching has been recognized with the Emily Daugherty Award for Teaching Excellence and twice with the Curtis A. Seichter Endowed History Award. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative and serves on the editorial board of Humanitas, a publication of the National Humanities Institute. His essays and reviews have appeared in The American Conservative, Humanitas, The Journal of Southern History, Historically Speaking, The Intercollegiate Review, Modern Age, The University Bookman, The Independent Review, and other publications. More from Richard M. Gamble

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