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Progressivism, Race, and the Training Wheels of Freedom

by Tiffany Jones Miller
A study in paternalistic government

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 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.

The Historical school’s approach to economics, Ely emphasizes, cannot be understood apart from the primacy it gives to ethics: “To the demands of ethics, it is felt, should the entire economic life be made subservient.” The cornerstone of the progressives’ system of “social ethics” was the “ethical ideal.” The “ethical ideal which animates the new political economy,” Ely explains, “is the most perfect development of all human faculties in each individual, which can be attained,” including “all the higher faculties — faculties of love, of knowledge, of aesthetic perception, and the like.” Individuals actualize this ideal by developing their capacity to reason in its different aspects — e.g. its “mechanical” or industrial applications, the elaboration of the sciences, and ultimately metaphysical and moral insight — to appreciate beauty, and, finally, to love, the development of which capacity would culminate in a voluntary embrace of the “law of service,” of the obligation, that is, to promote the fullest possible ethical development of every other human being. Importantly, then, the “ethical ideal” grounds not only the fundamental right of the individual to achieve his fullest possible development, but also the moral obligation to promote the fullest possible growth of everyone else. “Self-development for the sake of others,” Ely declares, “is the aim of social ethics.”

The progressives’ embrace of the “ethical ideal” profoundly redefined the content of individual freedom as Frederick Douglass and the founders understood it. “‘When we speak of freedom as something to be highly prized,’” Ely writes, quoting the British neo-Hegelian T. H. Green, we “‘do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion.’” “True liberty” does not consist in “negative” freedom, in, that is, the legal freedom to make decisions about one’s own life without suffering interference from others. Rather, “true liberty” is “positive” in character because it “means the expression of positive powers of the individual” to “‘make the most and best of [himself]’” — to develop, that is, all his faculties fully and to employ them in “service” to others.

This shift from a “negative” to a “positive” conception of freedom, which runs throughout the progressives’ writings, goes hand in hand with a particular understanding of history. Although the right and potential to become free in the “positive” sense inheres in human nature, Ely explains, the actualization of these latent faculties requires “a long and arduous constructive process.” This process is history or “social evolution” rightly understood. According to the progressives, history, for all its “ebb and flow,” is a process of “development” ordered toward the increasing actualization of a common nature or “destiny” — freedom in the “positive” sense. History thus entails a common path of development in which each subsequent stage represents a fuller flowering of humanity’s innate faculties. “‘When we measure the progress of a society by the growth in freedom,’” Ely notes, “‘we measure it by the increasing development and exercise on the whole of those powers of contributing to the social good with which we believe the members of the society to be endowed.’” The progressives believed in “progress,” in short, because they believed that history, as a process of moral growth, has an upward trajectory.

The progressive redefinition of freedom transformed the object of government. For the founders, the purpose of government follows from the premise of human equality, from the idea, that is, that all men at all times and in all places are by nature equal. Because “all men are created equal,” as the Declaration of Independence has it, they are free by nature to rule themselves, or, what is the same thing, to exercise “certain unalienable rights,” among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Government, in turn, to be legitimate, must be “instituted” through “consent” for the purpose of “secur[ing] these rights.” For the progressives, by comparison, as human psychology evolves, so too does the purpose of government. In an advanced stage of development, a stage marked by a race’s growing consciousness of the “ethical ideal” — and hence the full scope of its moral obligation to others — “improvement” becomes the watchword of public policy. In the reformers’ view, America was awaking to this wider obligation.

Two very important consequences, in terms of the character of public policy, flow from this change.

First, it reverses the relationship between the individual and his government. For the founders, the individual — not the government — has the primary right to decide how he ought to live. Individuals then “institute” government to aid them in living in this self-governing manner. In order to put its citizens in the enjoyment of their freedom or natural rights, government must restrict their decision-making in some measure, with a view both to punishing those who would infringe upon the rights of others and to regulating the innocent exercise of freedom as necessary to ensure society’s preservation. But the founders also well understood that the reach of the public — the reach of the law — must be limited if individuals are to have room to make decisions about their own lives. Private decision-making was thus to be the rule, and public restraints the exception.

For the progressives, in contrast, government’s obligation to promote the fullest possible growth of all trumps whatever right anyone might think he has to make decisions for himself — to exercise, that is, freedom in the founders’ sense. Indeed, apart from the right to become free in the “positive” sense, the progressives repeatedly deny not only that individuals possess “so-called innate or ‘natural rights,’” as progressive political scientist W. W. Willoughby puts it, but also that the power of government is thus limited in principle. In considering the “attributes of the State,” Willoughby pointedly remarks, “that which first impresses one . . . is its possession of omnipotent rulership over all matters that arise between itself and the individuals of which it is composed.” To affirm the “omnipotent rulership” of the state is to affirm that government, not the individual, has the primary right to decide how the individual ought to act in every aspect of his or her life. It is to affirm, in other words, that all of the decisions previously reserved to individual control by virtue of the founders’ natural-rights doctrine are now subject to public control in whatever measure government, as the agent of moral progress, deems necessary. “There is no limit to the right of the State,” Ely declares, “save its ability to do good.”

Second, when freedom is redefined in “positive” terms, it is divorced not only from the content of rights in the founders’ sense, but also from the idea that men, as men, possess the same or equal rights — apart, again, from the fundamental right to become free in the “positive” sense. Although the progressives were confident that humanity was treading a common path of development, they also believed that different races and classes were advancing at profoundly different rates. In view of this situation, treating the different races equally would only frustrate the advance of the most primitive ones. “For a long time in this country,” Ely writes,

we were inclined to regard men as substantially equal, and to suppose that all could live under the same economic and political institutions. It now becomes plain that this is a theory which works disaster, and is, indeed, cruel to those who are in the lower stages, resulting in their exploitation and degradation.

Just how thoroughly government would need to subordinate any particular race (or class) would depend, in part, upon how primitive its stage of development was perceived to be. For the progressives, in short, treating the races unequally was not only not unjust, but was, in fact, a very hallmark of the government’s commitment to moral progress.

The progressive redefinition of freedom inspired a humanitarian but frankly “colonial” foreign policy. Leading progressive politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Beveridge, and Henry Cabot Lodge, promoted such a policy in the wake of the Spanish–American War. In a speech delivered in the Senate in 1900, for example, Beveridge — the keynote speaker at the Progressive-party convention of 1912 — argued that American withdrawal from the Philippines would amount to an abdication of “our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.” America was obliged to promote the development of the Filipinos, Beveridge argued, but its obligation to do so was in no way dependent upon their consent:

Self-government is a method of liberty — the highest, simplest, best — but it is acquired only after centuries of study and struggle and experiment and instruction and all the elements of the progress of man. Self-government is no base and common thing to be bestowed on the merely audacious. It is the degree which crowns the graduate of liberty, not the name of liberty’s infant class, who have not yet mastered the alphabet of freedom. Savage blood, Oriental blood, Malay blood, Spanish example — are these the elements of self-government?

The progressives’ treatment of blacks domestically mirrors their treatment of the Filipinos. On one hand, the progressives widely regarded the 15th Amendment — which barred the federal and state governments from denying the right to vote on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” — as an egregious error. Progressive economist John R. Commons, Ely’s student and colleague who personally trained many leading New Deal figures, complained that, following the Civil War, the “Negro” race,

after many thousand years of savagery and two centuries of slavery, was suddenly let loose into the liberty of citizenship and the electoral suffrage. The world never before had seen such a triumph of dogmatism and partisanship. It was dogmatism, because a theory of abstract equality and inalienable rights of man took the place of education and the slow evolution of moral character.

It is foolish, Commons insists, to confer rights upon men as men: “The suffrage must be earned, not merely conferred.” In his view the legal right to vote should not be extended to blacks until they acquired sufficient “intelligence, self-control, and capacity for cooperation,” which fitness could best be determined by “an honest educational test,” that is, a literacy test.

On the other hand, the progressives insisted that blacks be ruled with a view to preparing them for such participation. “The great lesson already learned,” Commons urges, “is that we must ‘begin over again’ the preparation of the negro for citizenship. This time the work will begin at the bottom by educating the negro for the ballot, instead of beginning at the top by giving him the ballot before he knows what it should do for him.” The progressives accordingly advocated a host of educational reforms, including segregation. In defending segregation, Edgar Gardner Murphy, a prominent southern progressive, always stressed the dual assumptions of the policy: “There is a distinct assumption of the negro’s inferiority,” he acknowledges. “But there is also a distinct assumption of the negro’s improvability. It is upon the basis of this double assumption that the South finds its obligation.” Blacks, when segregated, would not only be better protected from white violence, but would also be thrown back upon their own resources to provide for themselves. “The very process which may have seemed to some like a policy of oppression,” he declares, “has in fact resulted in a process of development.”

Some reformers advocated even more despotic forms of segregation. “The problem,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman explains in the American Journal of Sociology, “is this:”

Given: in the same country, Race A, progressed in social evolution, say, to Status 10; and Race B, progressed in social evolution, say, to Status 4. . . . Given: that Race B, in its present condition, does not develop fast enough to suit Race A. Question: How can Race A best and most quickly promote the development of Race B?

Gilman’s solution was that all blacks beneath “a certain grade of citizenship,” those who were not “decent, self-supporting, [and] progressive,” “should be taken hold of by the state.” The government should compel them to live and work in labor camps until they proved they were able to make better decisions. The blacks living in these camps would be forced to labor productively for themselves, and their children would be educated in a progressive manner. Whereas Frederick Douglass had denounced such proposals as effective reenslavement of blacks, Gilman insists they “[are] not enslavement”:

It is no dishonor but an honorable employment from the first, and the rapid means of advancement. . . . All should belong to it — all, that is, below the grade of efficiency which needs no care. For the children — this is the vital base of the matter — a system of education, the best we have, should guarantee the fullest development possible to each; from the carefully appointed nursery and kindergarten up to the trade school fitting the boy or girl for life; or, if special capacity be shown, for higher education.

For the progressives, government, as the agent of moral progress, is not only not obliged to secure to individuals the legal right to make decisions about their own lives, but is obliged to condition all such rights upon consideration of whether private decision-making conduces to their own and others’ fullest possible development. From this point of view, even severe restrictions upon a group’s ability to govern their own affairs, and participate in the selection of their rulers, would not injure their freedom but advance it. Such restrictions would be, in effect, training wheels for freedom, instructional aids to be cast off when — and if — in the judgment of the advanced races, the “primitive” race had matured sufficiently.

Since the reformers’ approach to the governance of the more “primitive” races differs only in degree, not in kind, from their approach to the governance of Americans generally, it is instructive, for it casts in sharp relief how utterly paternalistic their conception of government is.

– Tiffany Jones Miller is an associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas.

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