A Progressive Movement
Much of a historian’s job is to read what their colleagues have written on their subject of interest at the moment. Often, they then go on to write their own opinions on the subject, thereby influencing the historians of the future. The famed historian and teacher Richard Hofstadter wrote The Age of Reform in 1955 about the late 19th century and early 20th century movement of Progressivism. In turn, other historians that include Paula Baker, Richard McCormick, and Peter Filene have written their opinion on what the movement we call Progressivism really was, and what its real significance is, or even if it really existed as a movement in its own right.
Richard Hofstadter’s book The Age of Reform was written in 1955 and influenced future historians in their studies on the progressive movement. Hofstadter argues that the progressive movement was due to the loss of status of the professional and gentry classes to the “new money,” for example, the Vanderbilts. “Progressivism resulted from attempts by the old urban middle class, whose status was threatened by the plutocrats above them and the workers and immigrants below, to restore their social position and to cure the injustices in American society” (Hofstadter 135-66). Hofstadter also attempted to explain the progressive movement by delving into the populist movement of the 1800s, which occurred mostly in rural areas where the farmer was beginning to lose status and money. He traces the origin of progressivism to the loss of status, or as he calls it, a “status revolution.”
Peter Filene’s paper, “An Obituary for the Progressive Movement,” contains a thesis very different from the other three works that address Progressivism. He argues that Progressivism as a movement never truly existed. He acknowledges the fierce debate that has existed among historians like Hofstadter, Baker, and McCormick for much of the 20th century about Progressivism’s meaning and results, however, he is adamant that it did not exist as a movement as it is commonly defined (Filene 20). Filene defines a movement as a “collectivity acting with some continuity to promote or resist a change in the society…one can then analyze its internal characteristics along four dimensions: program, the values which underlie this program, membership and supporters” (20-21). Filene finds the program of a social movement the most important part, for without a program the movement will be unable to sustain itself. His most convincing point is that on so many issues, the Progressives, supposedly a defined and cohesive movement, had numerous splits within their group. For example, “The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 created, according to Arthur Link, a conflict between ‘uncompromising’ and ‘middle-of-the-road’ progressives.” The most convincing example concerns women’s suffrage, “a cause that has generally been attributed to the progressive movement.” However, as Filene points out, progressive...