Intolerance and Intervention


The Reconstruction of American Political Ideology, 1865–1917, by Frank Tariello, Jr., Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1982, 200 pp., $20.00

Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889–1920, by Robert M. Crunden, New York: Basic Books, 1982, 307 pp., $17.95

The Progressive Era is now receiving deserved attention as a major watershed in American history. Murray Rothbard has been researching the period to show the continuity of the concepts and ideas that led to America's Great Depression and New Deal. Similarly, Butler Shaffer has completed his manuscript, In Restraint of Trade, which shows the progressive ideas in the business community that anticipated the New Deal philosophy.

Historians Frank Tariello and Robert Crunden have provided important new contributions to understanding the ideas that led up to the Progressive Era. In The Reconstruction of American Political Ideology, Tariello describes progressivism as the breaking down of the distinction between society and government. Progressive intellectuals, hostile to the "individualism developed by the theorists of revolutionary republicanism," were "unambiguous in [their] affirmation that society was bound by no inherent limitations in its control over the individual."

Tariello argues that progressive thought gained popularity among intellectuals because individualist intellectuals failed to clarify and expand the arguments for liberty. The individualists believed their arguments so conclusive that they did not seek to develop their case further or to ensure that they would be succeeded by equally effective spokesmen. Many individualists became executives of insurance companies or corporate lawyers, where their impact on political thought was minimal compared to that of progressive intellectuals.

The intellectual core of the individualist philosophy was the natural-rights standard of government action, which establishes a total separation between society and government. Thus, for example, in arguing against "the use of the taxing power to correct inequalities of wealth," Jefferson, notes Tariello, referred to "the first principle of society, 'the guarantee to everyone of a free exercise of industry and the fruits acquired by it.'"

The radical individualist tradition of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian periods was cut short by the minority Republican seizure of power during the Civil War. By eschewing pure laissez faire in economic affairs, the post–Civil War advocates of the limited state actually abetted the victory of collectivism. Tariello believes that individualism was destroyed more "by intellectual default on the part of its proponents than by actual refutation."

Basically, democratic liberalism was beset by three main defects. First, it never came to grips with the problem of harmonizing the right to property with the existence of tax-supported service activities and restrictions on free trade, however minimal they may have been. This shortcoming opened supporters of free government to the charge that they were inconsistent and could not, therefore, oppose on grounds of principle projects that were patently designed to transfer property by law. [Second]…the "public interest" was used repeatedly, but its meaning was never particularized. Gradually, for many liberals, it came to connote a standard superior to individual rights, thereby relegating them to an ancillary status. Lastly, democratic liberalism was not defended on proper, theoretically rigorous grounds.…Moreover, for various reasons, a comprehensive ethical code, which was desperately required, was not formulated.

While there was no lack of proponents of collectivism, the major undermining of individualism was achieved by the pragmatic rejection of absolutes by Charles Peirce and William James, opening the way for John Dewey's attack on individualism. And the individualists criticized collectivist empiricism with empiricist criticisms rather than with theoretical arguments.

While Tariello examined the intellectual environment leading up to progressive thought, Robert Crunden has provided a detailed analysis of the intellectual development of key idea-makers in the Progressive Era. Examining 100 progressives and emphasizing the work of 21, Crunden found that they identified with Protestant values associated with Lincoln and the Republican Party rather than with the high-church or liturgical values of laissez faire and the Democratic Party. To fulfill the demands of conscience, they sought moral careers in the new professions of social work, journalism, law, academia, and government bureaucracy. Many had experienced "conversion" in evangelical colleges that later may have "contributed to a little-noticed pattern of nervous breakdowns that reappears in the lives of a number of progressives…Charles Evans Hughes and Woodrow Wilson are two notable examples."

New graduate schools conceived according to the German training model formed an important center of progressive nurture. Associated with the graduate schools were faculties trained in German universities, generally by professors of the German "historical school," whose practitioners rejected Anglo-American laissez faire. The American Historical Association (1884) and American Economic Association (1885) were established to foster the new ideas.

The AEA platform declared the state to be "an educational and ethical agency whose positive aid is an indispensable condition of human progress." "Church, state, and science," according to Crunden's description, should be united "in a progressive development of economic conditions" that would lead to "corresponding changes of Policy." Finally, the platform declared the "doctrine of laissez faire is unsafe in politics and unsound in morals."

Although the progressive academics made important contributions in economics, sociology, and literature, their greatest impact on intellectuals and more broadly on the public was through their works in history and political science. Rejecting Europe and the Europeanized East Coast, the progressive historians looked to the frontier and the West as the sources of American institutions and values.

Crunden devotes special attention to social worker Jane Addams, composer Charles Ives, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Perhaps more important, however, are his chapters "The Muckrakers and the Pure Food and Drug Act" and "A Presbyterian Foreign Policy." Crunden notes that progressives, and especially Woodrow Wilson, viewed foreigners as immigrants to be assimilated to native (probably Southern) rural values. William Howard Taft had pursued a policy of nonintervention; Wilson reversed that on the grounds that Taft's was an amoral policy while his would be filled with morality. "In World War I, a similar sense of drift led to American intervention based on moral issues that could be sustained in reality. The progressives' lack of understanding or sympathy for the cultures and aspirations of other peoples led to the mishandling of relations with Germany and with all countries at the Versailles Conference."

Crunden concludes: "Often tolerant at home, progressives left a legacy of intolerance abroad;…they assumed the virtues of American ideals and political procedures and insisted that nations accept American leadership; they treated all people as possible immigrants rather than as responsible adults holding different views; they intervened, wherever feasible, whenever local peoples strayed too far from American wishes."

The only caution I would add is that Crunden too easily prettifies progressive domestic policies. They were intolerant and interventionist at home, and this led them to intolerance and intervention abroad.

Leonard Liggio is president of the Institute for Humane Studies in Menlo Park, California.