National Review / Digital
Progressivism, Race, and the Training Wheels of Freedom
A study in paternalistic government

Two kinds of reformers — Richard T. Ely and Frederick Douglass (Wisconsin Historical Society; National Archives)


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.

November 14, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 21

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Anthony Daniels reviews After America: Get Ready for Armageddon, by Mark Steyn.
  • Steven F. Hayward reviews Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, by Joseph A. McCartin.
  • David Pryce-Jones reviews Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
  • Stephen Smith reviews Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Way.
  • Richard Brookhiser turns the page.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .