why does the Progressive Era matter to me?

“Especially interested in the Progressive Era” is my favorite personality descriptor, right after “INFP”, “loved Eminem”, and “kinda conceded”. It rears its delightful head my essays (even the most irrelevant ones), in all my day-to-day-conversations, even when I browse the “history” sections of Barnes & Noble for some light reading.

I guess you could say the Progressive Era is a big deal in my life. And aside from all the aforementioned stuff, it serves a much more profound purpose in that it defines the way I see and interpret the rest of American history, i.e. “how might [insert event here] have borrowed from the Progressive Era? How might [insert person here] have positioned his or her philosophy against the predominant philosophies that emerged during the Progressive Era”?

I bet you’re thinking: why? Admittedly, I don’t really have any kind of personal connection to the Progressive Era, or really to America in general. Heck, neither of my parents were born here — my family dates all the way back to Middle Ages Poland, and there’s evidence that the Stroinskis were active international dignitaries that may have associated with Peter the Great but I won’t get into that here— and the only America I’ve known or had to care about activiely is the one from 1997 onward. So you might be wondering: Anna, what’s the big freakin’ deal?

Well, before I launch into a big thing, it’s necessarily that we flesh out the very common and basic assumptions made about the Progressive Era — assumptions you might have about it right here, right now.

The Progressive Era is marketed in high school history classes as an age of progress (hence: the name). You might wanna compare it to the Enlightenment — also known as the age of progress — but they’re not the same thing, and it’s definitely not the same kind of progress.

  • side note: I’ll be using enlightenment and The Enlightenment somewhat interchangeably for the rest of this piece, but know that “enlightenment” (Aufklärung in German, éclaircissementt in French) came before The Enlightenment, which I believe was first IDed as a distinct historical epoch in Hegels’ Philosophy of History, which didn’t come out until the 19th century (though I’m not entirely sure)


while the Enlightenment was an age of intellectual development— of natural science, of reason, of secularism, and of political philosophy grounded in natural rights — those developments were restricted to a limited few who could engage in debate, write and publish in journals, and had some semblance of what was going on around them (side note: before you hound me about my lukewarm Marxist critque of enlightenment, I’ll grant that enlightenment might very well extend to everyone and eveything including the day laborer and the woman in the abstract, but that was not the case practically in the 18th century: enlightenment was just not accessible to as many people as we and some of enlightenment’s own proponents — like Mr. Condorcet and Mr. Voltaire — might have wanted it to be).

The Progressive Era was different. It was an age of what I’m gonna call real-world development, development people of a significant amount of social strata felt, saw, could interact with, and experience. That’s not to mention that the run-of-the-mill progressive wanted to play a political role from the very beginning, whereas it took awhile for your generic enlightener to act in the name of enlightenment (see: the French Revolution). Even the philosophies that came out of the Progressive period were tangible. They called for the practical, for the real.

So why is the Progressive Era important to me?

Oh man,

Some of it has to do with novelity. I mean, it marked one of the grandest reinterpretation of government and its role since Lincoln’s expansion of the powers of the presidency in the 1860s. It saw labor’s efficacy blossom to levels never seen before, and the potency and impunity of businesses decline (some very radical people will tell me otherwise — that it wasn’t nearly as far reaching as it ought to have been — but more on that later). It saw for the first time scathing exposés and real investigative journalism, and (believe it not) effective strikes and union collective bargaining strategies. What’s more important about the Progressive Era, though, was that it wasn’t just about the goings-on in self-identified “progressive” circles. The era saw the rise of very radical political movements across the country, many of whom identified as socialists, communists, and anarchist; thats especially novel in American history at that point, and a serious research interest of mine (I’m writing my senior thesis on it!). And let’s not forget the notable progressive ladies, either: female charity workers like Jane Adams and Dorothea Dix made lasting contributions to ailing and impoverished neighborhoods, and the bombastic female political activists of the time (Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, Voltairine de Cleyre) sometimes attracted thousands of spectators to their speeches. In short, all very NEW very exciting developments.

Another part of it has to do with classical pragmatism, a philosophy I personal ascribe to.

Pragmatism was posed as an answer to an ever-important question: how might we reconcile natural science and religion? Though William James (the known father of pragmatism) takes awhile (too long) to answer that, I’ll speed things up and tell you that hhe winds up concluding that truth is a flexible reality, not a fixed reality or metaphysical ideal. Particular ideas serve particular functions, and insofar as they keep serving those functions, they are true, valid, and right. Religion and science each serve functions; the former makes us feel good and connected to each other, the latter helps us do medicine, classify nature, conduct experiments. So there’s no tension, provided we maintain this flexible conception of truth.

Don’t confuse pragmatism with 19th and 20th century utilitarianism — they’re different. Pragmatism is far less morally rigid, and it seeks in ideas truth inherit to those ideas rather than face-value, tanigable benefit for the whole.

As someone who hates positivism — i.e. the idea of an objective truth — and thinks theres merit in culture, religion, and other, seemingly arbitrary things like that: I freakin’ love pragmatism.

However, though there were new, important, and philosophically powerful developments for the better during the Progressive Era, there are some seriously problematic, often overlooked aspects of it that get washed away because it’s supposed to be a very stand-up time period, an epoch of good feeling. And that’s the principle reason why the Progressive Era matters to me.

Because it’s a damn contradiction, everywhere you look.

For black Americans, for instance, the Progressive Era was a Regressive Era. Down South, intense anti-racial sentiment was materializing (to later be codified into Jim Crowe laws) and lynchings were the highest and most frequent they’d ever be. The KKK was an extremely large and powerful organization with tons and tons of members, many of which had succesfully infiltrated public office.

Even further, and perhaps the saddest thing of all, this racism seeped into the hearts and minds of self-proclaimed progressives themselves. Almost never were black Americans included in worker unions, and it was a huge scandal if someone so much as suggested a black man join. Then president Woodrow Wilson, a progressive, hosted a screening of Birth of a Nation, a notoriously racist film, at the White House, and clapped for it afterward. Progressive philosophy, distorted and unchecked, bred a very dangerous debate about eugenics and race building that was codified later on by the Supreme Court in a landmark desicion Buck v. Bell.

Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, the Progressive Era might prove problematic to radicals because it saved, adjusted, and refined capitalism — when it should’ve dismantled it. Where I stand on this is super weird. I do agree that more ought to have been done — I don’t like nor I agree with the system of capitalism as it now exists — but I think the Progressive Era sewed up the loosest, most destructive ends so to speak. I also think Karl Marx severely underestimated the extent to which capitalism could adapt and throw breadcrumbs at people, how long it could actually sustain itself (but, as I always say, that’s a expose worth writing, but not here and not now!)

  • another side note: if you’re interested in some really awesome, really potent Marxist critiques, read some Frankfurt School texts (ex: Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer) They’re Marxists, but they’ve conceded that Marx got some stuff wrong.

The Progressive era in a nutshell:

On one end of the spectrum, Woodrow Wilson wrote about self determination, about education, about over-arching values and man’s inevitable progress toward goodness. On the other hand, he was a vehement racist. On one end of the spectrum, Jane Addams is a feminist icon, a lioness who broke sex barriers down. On the other hand, she enforced traditional notions of republican motherhood that helped repress women. On one end of the spectrum, Ida Tarbell wrote the greatest, most comprehensive expose probably ever on Standard Oil. On the other hand, she wasn’t allowed into upper-society, New York parties because she was a woman. On one end of the spectrum, the radical behavior in the 1910s was widespread among run of the hill Americans. On the other hand, it never came to fruition, the policies and ideas of the movement coopted by the lukewarm, capitalist friendly left AND right. That’s a kind of compartmentalization and convulsion that’s specially indicative of the period that gets remembered as an American jubilee decade.

And that’s why the Progressive so important to me. Not because it’s particularly good. Not because its particularly bad. But because it’s particularly confusing, and I like a challenge.

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