Progressive History 101 (Minus All that Uncomfortable Racism, Sexism, and Support for Eugenics)


Shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, I wrote an article criticizing many of his left-leaning supporters for labeling themselves as progressives, arguing that "what the current vogue for the term progressive fails to acknowledge is that the original progressives embraced the worst abuses of state power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."

In response, I received a number of angry emails stating that today's progressives had nothing to do with the sins of the first progressives, and that to conflate the two was intellectually dishonest and just plain mean. Perhaps some of my correspondents will now direct their outrage to the left-wing Center for American Progress, which just released a new monograph entitled "The Progressive Intellectual Tradition in America." This paper argues that today's progressives are the direct inheritors of an unbroken progressive tradition, one that brought glorious benefits to all Americans by doing away with the evils of limited government. Here's a sample paragraph:

Progressives sought above all to give real meaning to the promise of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution—"We the people" working together to build a more perfect union, promote the general welfare, and expand prosperity to all citizens. Drawing on the American nationalist tradition of Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, progressives posited that stronger government action was necessary to advance the common good, regulate business interests, promote national economic growth, protect workers and families displaced by modern capitalism, and promote true economic and social opportunity for all people.

As far as history lessons go, this is laughably biased and incomplete. For starters, the original progressives most certainly did not "promote true economic and social opportunity for all people." In the Jim Crow South, as historian David Southern has documented, disfranchisement, segregation, race baiting, and lynching all "went hand-in-hand with the most advanced forms of southern progressivism." Economist John R. Commons, a leading progressive academic and close adviser to high-profile progressive politicians—including "Fighting" Bob Lafollette, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson—authored a 1907 book entitled Races and Immigrants in America, where he called African Americans "indolent and fickle" and endorsed protectionist labor laws since "competition has no respect for the superior races."

There's also the matter of sexism. Exhibit A is future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' famous "Brandeis Brief," submitted to the Supreme Court in the case of Muller v. Oregon (1908). At issue was a state law limiting the working hours of female laundry employees. In his brief, Brandeis collected a parade of statistics, arguments, and journalistic accounts, all "proving" that women required special protection from the state. In fact, Brandeis argued, since women were responsible for bearing future generations, their bodies were in some sense collective property. "The overwork of future mothers," he wrote, "directly attacks the welfare of the nation." The Supreme Court agreed, declaring that, "As healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race." Feminist legal scholars have long criticized Brandeis for introducing that bit of sexist paternalism into the law, though you wouldn't learn anything about it by reading this monograph.

Finally, "The Progressive Intellectual Tradition in America" is totally silent about the progressives' widespread support for the theory and practice of eugenics. As Princeton University economist Tim Leonard has chronicled, "eugenic thought deeply influenced the Progressive Era transformation of the state's relationship to the American economy." Despite the fact that this monograph favorably cites progressive hero Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes for his famous dissent in the economic liberty case Lochner v. New York (1905), the authors make no mention of Holmes' notorious majority decision in Buck v. Bell, where Holmes and his colleagues (including Louis Brandeis) upheld the forced sterilization of those who "sap the strength of the State."

In sum, the Center for American Progress has produced a fairy tale version of history, one that highlights what the authors see as the accomplishments of progressivism while totally ignoring anything that might detract from their lopsided narrative. Anyone interested in actually learning about the origins and history of the progressive movement should look elsewhere.