Reimagining Progressivism: New Approaches to an Evolving Movement

AHA Session 90
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2
Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University

Session Abstract

The historiography of the early-twentieth-century American progressive movement is one forged in disagreement.  In the six decades since the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s 1954 classic The Age of Reform, uncertainty over the nature of progressivism has been the only constant in a continually-evolving literature.  Were the progressives advocates of an ordered society or supporters of radical change?  Were they socially and racially progressive in the modern sense, or did they endorse segregation and inequality?  Were their dominant values upper-class, middle-class, or lower-class?  Was their foreign policy militarist, internationalist, or pacifist?  Generations of historians have sought to prove each of these claims, but consensus remains elusive. In 1970, Peter Filene declared that the very concept of a “progressive movement” was misleading and should be abandoned, but Filene’s suggestion has only spurred subsequent scholars to redouble their investigative efforts.

This panel brings together four historians whose work expands the debate over progressivism in new and innovative directions.  Jay Driskell argues that the political dynamics of late nineteenth century urbanization contained within it the seeds of both Jim Crow and interracial democracy; he identifies in 1880s Jacksonville, Florida both a bona fide, if brief, interracial progressive coalition and a sharp contest between white and black progressives over the future of the city.  Jeremy C. Young uses insights from religious history and the history of emotions to analyze progressivism’s primary political vehicle, the 1912 Progressive Party, as a charismatic movement.  Drawing on her research into 1910s and 1920s film censorship, Jennifer Fronc suggests that progressivism played a key role in the rise of the coercive state and the twentieth-century conservative movement.  Michael Kazin, whose seminal writings on turn-of-the-century political movements have helped to define the historiography of this period, will chair the panel and provide a concluding comment.

In keeping with the theme of this year’s conference, the panel participants themselves differ with one another, as well as with previous historians of progressivism, in their interpretations of the progressive period.  Fronc seeks to replace the “Progressive Era” label itself with a new designation of “Constructive Era” in order to suggest the period’s role in the formation of the modern state.  For Young, progressivism was more a political style than an ideology; his paper argues that rhetorical strategies and emotional bonds largely defined the progressive movement and determined the success or failure of its policy goals.  Driskell complicates traditional interpretations of progressivism by suggesting that progressives’ willingness to work across racial lines differed according to time, place, and circumstance.

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