Progressivism, Race, and the Training Wheels of Freedom
From the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of NR


In 1865, amid the final throes of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass worried that the prospect of fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence, by finally securing to blacks “the most perfect civil and political equality,” would founder on the allure of policies that in crucial respects restricted their natural rights — e.g., the rights to acquire property and vote. Such policies, though intended to “prepare them to better handle freedom,” would “practically enslave . . . the Negro, and make . . . the [Emancipation] Proclamation of 1863 a mockery and delusion. What is freedom? It is the right to choose one’s own employment. Certainly it means that, if it means anything; and when any[one] undertakes to decide for any man when he shall work, where he shall work, at what he shall work, and for what he shall work, he or they practically reduce him to slavery.” The right to vote was even more important, because it was the main means for blacks to protect all their other natural rights. “Without this,” Douglass stressed, the black man “is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right.” 

Douglass’s concern was prophetic. Although the United States took significant steps toward “the most perfect civil and political equality” for blacks by adding the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, these gains were short-lived. Beginning in 1890, a wave of disfranchisement swept through Dixie, as every southern state enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, and other restrictions making it virtually impossible for black men to vote. The impact of these restrictions, historian C. Vann Woodward suggests, is well indicated by Louisiana’s experience: In 1896 there were 130,334 blacks registered to vote; by 1904, there were only 1,342. The disfranchisement of blacks was accompanied, he continues, by “the mushroom growth of discriminatory and segregation laws,” intrusively dictating a thoroughgoing separation of the races in transportation, the workplace, hospitals, mental and penal institutions, recreational facilities, voluntary associations, etc. Two states even forbade the members of fraternal societies to address fellow members of another race as “brother.”

At first glance, this might seem odd. Just when post-Reconstruction America appeared poised to fulfill the promise of the Declaration by bringing the law into fuller accord with the equal, natural rights of man, the law became sharply more racial in character, actually rolling back recent gains and adding a host of new restrictions. Scholars frequently attribute this about-face to a resurgence of southern prejudice. The interesting fact that “the high tide of progressive reform coincided with some of the darkest moments of segregation, discrimination, and racial violence,” as historian Axel Schafer puts it, would seem to have been just that — mere coincidence. A classic instance, apparently, of correlation without causation. 

But this was no coincidence. “In the South,” Woodward observes, “the typical progressive reformer rode to power . . . on a disfranchising or white-supremacy movement.” The very same reformers who championed minimum wages, maximum hours, social insurance, and other labor reforms not only generally opposed extending the suffrage to blacks, but also promoted a “policy of segregation” for blacks and various “degenerates,” including the feeble-minded, epileptics, and “unemployables.” And they did so not in spite of the principles animating their economic reforms, but precisely because of them. The progressives’ support for disfranchisement and segregation, in other words, was but one practical expression of their philosophically inspired drive to revolutionize the moral basis of American government — to redefine the very meaning of human freedom and the rights to which individuals are, as a consequence, entitled. 

In seeking to understand the moral framework of progressivism, it is helpful to retrace the movement’s origins. The vital core of the turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive Movement was a group of social scientists, many of whom had studied in German universities in the post–Civil War era. Among their most energetic reformers were a group of economists who had studied with members of the German Historical School of economics, a school whose approach was, as historian Daniel M. Fox observes, “deeply influenced by Hegelian concepts of the historical process.” Richard T. Ely was arguably the most influential member of this group. Ely played a leading role in the founding of the reform-minded American Economic Association, as well as its spin-off, the American Association for Labor Legislation — an organization that became, in historian Daniel Rodgers’s estimate, “the most active and important social insurance lobby in the United States.” Few progressives, moreover, did as much as Ely to pioneer reform-fertilizing research in city planning, labor legislation, conservation, and agricultural economics, or trained as many students who went on to implement reforms in these areas during the Progressive Era and the New Deal.