Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us)

Brian Sholis


Current economic and social conditions—growing income disparity, battles over immigration, corporate titans’ sway over political affairs—have led many contemporary critics to point out correspondences between the United States of the past two decades and the nation of the late nineteenth century’s Gilded Age. For optimists pursuing a similar analogy, the recent election of a community organizer as president, his push for health-care reform, and this summer’s minimum-wage hike recall the Progressive response to Gilded Age industrial capitalism. Cecelia Tichi trenchantly summarizes such comparisons at the beginning and end of Civic Passions. In between, her brisk profiles of seven lesser-known reformers offer more detailed continuities, reminding readers that the legacies of century-old struggles are woven deeply into the fabric of life today.

The Progressive Era, historically speaking, was short-lived. Unionization, railroad regulation, antitrust legislation, settlement houses, and other reform movements gained traction during the 1880s and ’90s but were largely superseded by President Wilson’s decision to intervene in World War I. Yet during this brief period, muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell and civic-minded activists, often in partnership with politicians like Wisconsin governor (and later US senator) Bob La Follette, advocated for the rights of children, workers, and the disabled, demanded safety regulations for the workplace and the food supply, and indicted race- and gender-based discrimination, ushering in legislative and judicial victories. Dr. Alice Hamilton’s “shoe-leather epidemiology” led to the amelioration of dangerous conditions in factories, while Florence Kelley agitated for eight-hour workdays on behalf of industrial workers. Labor economist and professor John R. Commons advised La Follette and fostered a generation of forward-thinking students, including New Deal Social Security architect Edwin Witte. Julia Lathrop worked on behalf of children and the disabled and was appointed head of the Department of Commerce’s Children’s Bureau in 1912, while Louis D. Brandeis, before his Supreme Court appointment in 1916, worked pro bono on lawsuits filed against perfidious gas, railway, and insurance companies. Ida B. Wells-Barnett campaigned against lynching and mob violence, and Walter Rauschenbusch preached the Social Gospel, encouraging Christians to work for social as well as individual salvation.

Tichi’s writing is always clear, and she invests Civic Passions with narrative brio. Each chapter opens with a dramatic account of the circumstances leading to a pivotal moment in a reformer’s career, then backs up to fill in salient details before explaining the subject’s triumph. This repetition—and the thickets of rhetorical questions throughout the book—can be wearying, but the structure highlights connections between visionaries, such as the influence on Kelley, Hamilton, and Lathrop of Jane Addams’s Hull House, and on Rauschenbusch and Commons of Henry George’s 1879 book Progress and Poverty. Despite their varied professions and the disparate causes they promoted, Tichi’s seven figures were united by a distinct set of tactics: a dedication to empirical research, a disinterested rhetoric, the use of mass media to sway public opinion, and, above all, an unyielding tenacity. Though there are as many contrasts as similarities between the Progressive Era and our own time, these qualities are the “lessons” Tichi hopes today’s progressives, to whom she dedicates this book, will take to heart.

louise.knight

November 23, 2009
10:16 am

It is refreshing to see Tichi's focus on the early progressives' strategies. Those in the left, or democratic, wing of this extremely broad movement were particularly skilled in finding news ways to educate public opinion. Perhaps one of the most effective methods, although not discussed in Tichi's book, was one the National Child Labor Committee used to arouse public anger about child labor. It hired the photographer Lewis Hine to take photographs of children working in factories for an exhibit that the NCLC then sent around the country (these photographs remain famous to this day). The images shocked many, and, if the Supreme Court had not declared the several anti-child labor laws Congress passed unconstitutional, the nation would have ended child labor by 1920 instead of 1938.

Louise W. Knight
author of Jane Addams: Spirit in Action (W. W. Norton, forthcoming, September, 2010)

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