The early progressives

I am reading a serious work of history on the early American progressive movement at present. Something that is abundantly clear is that the notion I've seen circulating recently on the Internet, that these progressives were not intimately tied to eugenics movement, is simply propaganda. Eugenics flowed naturally from and fit neatly into the rest of the progressives' views: Imperialism, racism, anti-individualism, and top-down planning by elite experts. These were truly creepy people, and they make it totally understandable why those who oppose them felt the need to forward a doctrine like methodological individualism when faced with opponents for whom the lives of millions of individuals meant nothing, so long as "society" advanced. (Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that the only thing wrong with war was that it killed the wrong people.)

UPDATE: I have now attended the lecture that went with our reading, by Tim Leonard of Princeton, who has devoted ten years of work to studying the progressive movement of (roughly) 1880-1920. Leonard is not even anti-progressive (his presentation was called "Progressivism: The Light and Dark Sides"), and he has strongly reinforced the understanding I got from his paper. Some quotes -- I was jotting these down as he went, so I do not claim I have him word for word, but I have never distorted his meaning:

"It is hard to find a progressive who wasn't a scientific racists." (He listed John Dewey, Jane Addams, and Edwin Seligman as exceptional "egalitarian progressives.")

John R. Commons was quoted as claiming that allowing inferior races to work was selecting for the unfit.

Theodore Roosevelt claimed that "race suicide" (of white Anglo-Saxons) was the "greatest problem of civilization."

Henry Seager said that American workers needed protection from "defectives."

Woodrow Wilson signed a bill permitting coercive sterilization into law as governor of New Jersey.

The 1924 immigration reform was designed by progressives to keep out inferior races. ("Race" at the time would have been applied to what we call ethnic groups such as Slavs, Jews, and Italians.)

The conquest of the Phillipines was unproblematic because Filipinos were not capable of giving consent to being governed.

The progressives generally considered the Bill of Rights an archaic impediment to their plans.

Our British guest Malcolm Rutherford commented during the Q&A that British progressives were probably even more fascinated by eugenics than were their American counterparts. (By the way, Rutherford, another expert on the era, sat through Leonard's whole talk, and did not object to a single factual claim Leonard made.)

Part of my motive in writing this post is this one. Note well: when I first read Williams' post many months ago, my thought was, "Hmm, that's interesting: I've seen some of the claims Williams is disputing; I wonder who is right?" Not being an expert, I didn't take a side.

But having met two experts now, I am pretty damned sure Williams' is wrong on at least two of his claims: progressives certainly were, in general, racists, and, in general, technocratic scientific wonks. Other of his claims are clearly correct: For instance, the progressives obviously were not Marxists. Marxists are far better than these people! And they clearly were not anti-American: they were strongly nationalist.

One final query: What sort of juvenile idiot feels the need to answer charges that his intellectual movement is "lame," and does so by comparing lists of celebrities with other movements? (Ah, it is fun to let loose and write like Marx from time to time!)

20 comments:

  1. What's the book? Does it cover a few thought leaders that were speculating on that sort of thing?

    Progressivism was awfully broad. I think this sort of case depends on how narrowly or broadly we're approaching it. Populism (which I'm better read on than Progressivism) had this tendency before Progressivism - the thought leaders of populism were practically communists in a lot of ways but a lot of the people associated with populism were not. It was a big reason why the coalition fell apart and just sort of bled into the other parties (just as Progressivism did).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Daniel, see my (lengthy) update.

      Delete
    2. I don't see that title of the book in your lengthy update.

      Delete
    3. Gee, Jon, let me Google "Tim Leonard" for you

      Delete
    4. Oh, and I never said "book," Daniel did. I was reading a paper by Leonard.

      Delete
  2. I am not disputing the basic truth of the post that a lot of the early progressives were supporters of eugenics, but presumably William Jennings Bryan was a notable exception here. He opposed eugenics and was anti-imperialist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Post coming up on classifications: they aren't right or wrong, but helpful or not. In any case, Leonard very explicitly *contrasted* the progressives with populists like Bryan: the progressives were largely anti-democratic, pro-elite, against small farmers, against small business, thought little of the wisdom of the common man, etc. In the Scopes trial Bryan was going after a progresive-written biology book that, besides evolution, strongly advocated eugenics.

      Delete
  3. The question arises whether this was specific to progressives or general for the times.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's not quite clear to me that Teddy's comments were properly advocating eugenics. I can't find the in-context quote, but it seems he is saying that the destruction of the white race would be uniquely calamitous for civilization. He doesn't seem to be calling for a greater proportion of white genes or improving any genetic stock, just about the consequences of destroying this particular thing God has wrought. Right or wrong, that doesn't sound like eugenics.

    I think at some point the polarity will reverse and progressives will come back to a sophisticated form of eugenics. We already see traces of it in the advocacy of aborting Down syndrome babies, selecting various fetal characteristics and test-tube mothers choosing Nobel laureates to fertilize their eggs. The pressure will first come from the elites and eventually most people will fall in line.

    Or so goes my theory.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Teddy's comments were properly advocating eugenics."

      No, I don't think they were.

      Delete
  5. You took my quote out of context and reversed the meaning. While it sounds now like you're agreeing with me, I am making an educated guess that you are not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What? You don't think Roosevelt's comments were promoting eugenics, and I don't either. At least that is what I think is going on.

      Delete
    2. Ok. I was just confused by the way I was quoted.

      Delete
  6. It's just a result of trying to cut and paste on my little phone screen.

    ReplyDelete
  7. My grandfather, a renowned scientist born in the late 19th century, was unfortunately a supporter of eugenics. In his textbook, "Life Sciences", he gave the example of a village in Italy in which a family of people so mentally challenged they couldn't support themselves, was given welfare by their caring neighbors, only to breed uncontrollably and create an untenable situation which eventually collapsed.

    I know, I know: he should have called for other remedies than overbearing government to decide who propagates and who doesn't. If he hadn't died when I was only a lad of nine, I'd probably have ended up debating him on the subject.

    I will say that, as far as I know, he was neither racist nor imperialist, just misguided. Still, I don't minimize the damage that sincere but misguided people can cause.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is not your grandfather who puzzles me, so much as your mother and father: What an odd name they gave you, 0e390f92-3b6d-11e0-8fd8-000f20980440!

      Delete
    2. Har! I have no idea where THAT came from. I signed in with my AIM identity, which bears no resemblance to that bizarre sequence. Then it seemed to eat my post, twice (apologies if you had to purge a duplicate).

      Delete
  8. What percentage of the white Anglo Saxon American populous wasn't explicitly racist in that day and age? 1, maybe 2 percent? I think even that may be generous...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, Frederick...

      Well, racism and progressivism were certainly both WASP phenomena! And the progressives generally went further than merely thinking, "Italians: yuck!" They wanted to cleanse the gene pool of such pollutants.

      Delete
  9. "These were truly creepy people"
    Yup. And you should look askance at those who lionize them.
    My own guess is that the lionizers came overwhelmingly from one political faction in America.

    ReplyDelete