Looking into the future we can contemplate a society . . . in which men shall work together for a common purpose, and in which the wholesale cooperation shall take place largely through government.
We have reason to believe that we shall yet see great national undertakings with the property of the nation, and managed by the nation, through agents who appreciate the glory of true public service, and feel that it is God’s work which they are doing, because church and state are as one.
—EARLY AMERICAN PROGRESSIVE RICHARD T. ELY, 1894
July 9, 1896
Moses ascended the mountaintop.
Mount Sinai was the podium rising above a sea of delegates. The two stone tablets decreed that the U.S. government’s monetary supply be backed with reserves of silver instead of gold, along with a zealous commitment to heal the wounds that America’s “one percent” had inflicted on everyone else. Greedy idolaters had worshipped capitalism’s golden calf for far too long.
That’s why God, in his infinite mercy and wisdom, had finally sent a prophet.
Thirty-six years old, his name was William Jennings Bryan.
The seething mass of humanity inside Chicago’s enormous, brand-new coliseum looked up at Bryan, the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States, whose imposing height, massive head, aquiline nose, and piercing brown eyes made him a striking figure. As Bryan held forth on the Democrats’ proposed national platform, they shouted and cheered, frantically waving red bandanas in a sign of solidarity with the global workers’ movement that had been sweeping Europe for decades.
For the first time at this convention the delegates saw a man of presidential timber on the stage above them.
And, for the first time in generations, they saw a savior.
The sweltering Chicago heat and the stench of thousands of sweating bodies inside the convention hall threatened to overcome him, but Bryan steadied himself for his moment atop Sinai. His knuckles turned white as he grabbed the sides of the lectern. He had never lacked for confidence, so now that thousands of eyes among the party faithful were upon him, now that reporters were furiously scribbling his every word in their notebooks, now that the moment he’d been waiting for all his life was upon him, William Jennings Bryan knew he would not falter.
Bryan had arrived in Chicago uncertain of his chances of becoming his party’s presidential nominee. But as his speech progressed he became convinced that victory was his. A new monetary policy based on the coinage of silver—“free silver”—had proven to be an even more enticing message than he’d expected. The new supply of money would relieve crippling debts for the farmers and other impoverished voters Bryan sought to mobilize.
As he neared the climax of his remarks he mustered every last ounce of energy he could and unleashed some of the most famous lines in American political rhetoric. “If they dare to come out in the open field,” he thundered, “and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses.”
Bryan paused, raised his hands above his head, and continued, “We shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them: you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns.”
He brought his hands down around his head, as if he were placing an imaginary crown on top. Then he stretched his arms out to his sides, palms toward the delegates, took a deep breath, and bellowed, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”
Moses had now morphed into Jesus, and the multitude assembled thought they were witnessing the Second Coming. Their shouts thundered through the coliseum, shaking its steel girders and echoing down city blocks in every direction. “Bedlam broke loose,” exclaimed a stunned Washington Post correspondent. “Delirium reigned supreme. In the spoken word of the orator thousands of great men had heard the unexpressed sentiments and hopes of their own inmost souls.”
With that speech, William Jennings Bryan—“The Great Commoner”—ignited the first progressive moment in American history. His speech transformed Thomas Jefferson’s and Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party—a party famously skeptical of the federal government—into a vehicle for massively expanding the state and making it responsible for redistributing wealth, breaking up businesses, assailing private property, and providing all manner of aid to the poor.
Bryan was America’s first prophet of progressivism, an ideology that would go on to redefine the Democratic Party for generations and ultimately destroy the experiment in limited government that had begun with the founding of the Republic.
But Bryan’s progressivism, while new to Americans and antithetical to the American system, was not a new movement at all. In fact, it originated from the very place the Founders had fled: the authoritarian-ruled nations of Europe.
GEORG HEGEL: THE BIRTH OF “PROGRESS”
Ninety years before William Jennings Bryan’s rapturous reception in Chicago, a German university professor cast his eyes on an emperor. Maybe it was because the commanding figure on horseback contrasted so starkly with his own bent and bookish posture, but the image impressed Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel more than anything he had ever seen.
It was October 1806, and Napoleon Bonaparte, the self-declared emperor of France, was on his way to battle outside Jena, where Professor Hegel taught. Napoleon’s forces slaughtered tens of thousands of Hegel’s Prussian countrymen, defeating their kingdom’s army once and for all. But his nation’s humiliation hardly lessened Hegel’s admiration for the French tyrant. If anything, it increased it.
Napoleon sought to build an empire, a vast, ambitious government of planners and administrators. He was, in Hegel’s view, an energetic man bringing progress—bloodstained progress, perhaps, but progress nonetheless—to a land that desperately needed it. He believed this was the kind of strong, forward-thinking leader Europe had been waiting for.
FEAR AND SELF-LOATHING
The boy lay trembling in his bed, the sheets around him damp with sweat. Near his head, a cool cloth meant to provide relief from the fever had long ago fallen away as he lay half-dreaming.
He woke with a start. The room was dimly lit, with the fingers of dawn creeping through the curtains. The house was quiet, eerily so. He wondered if he might still be dreaming. At his bedside sat a bedpan and an untouched cup of tea from the night before. Wearily, he tried to sit up, his body weak, fever still sapping his strength.
He willed himself up, sitting on the edge of his bed for a moment to steady himself. “Mother?” he said softly into the darkness of the hallway. No answer, just the silence. The boy stood, shaky on his feet. A chill ran through him as he gathered his bedclothes in fists at his sides. He took a few timid steps, his vision blurry in the pale light. Down the hall, he saw the doorway to his parents’ bedroom was open.
“Mother?” he tried again. Silence again rebuffed him. He slowly worked his way down the hall, occasionally reaching out to the wall for balance.
He reached the doorway and peered in. The window was open, curtains swayed slightly in a gentle breeze, but otherwise the room was silent. “Mother?” The query was louder this time, as the form of his parents still under blankets annoyed him. “Father?” No movement.
He stepped into the room and took a few steps toward the bed. Steadying himself for a moment, he shook the bedpost to wake them. He walked around the edge of the bed and reached up to touch his mother’s shoulder.
The coldness of her skin jolted him. He stepped back from the bed, his breath stuck in his throat. Fear washed over him, freezing him in place for a moment. Then he stepped forward and shook her roughly.
His cries were raspy but loud. He was desperate to wake her, even though he already knew she would never wake up. Fever had claimed her in the night, just as it had claimed so many others in their village and throughout Germany.
Fear turned to nausea and ran through him. He cried and ran around the bed to the other side, where his father lay just as silent. He reached out in terror, tears starting to blur his vision. He touched his father’s cheek, expecting the same coldness from the grayish skin. But as he touched him, his father stirred with a slight moan.
He was still alive.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, thirteen years old, sank his head into the blanket, relief overwhelming him. He and his father had both survived the fever—but barely. His relief soon gave way to anger, however. Why had God abandoned them? The priest had put a blessing on their house. Georg had prayed every single day, pleading with God to spare his family.
But God hadn’t listened. Or maybe he had listened but couldn’t do anything about it.
Either way, it didn’t matter. Georg decided then and there that no other family should have to go through that. If God couldn’t help, then he would.
The French Revolution that culminated in Napoleon’s reign differed wildly from the American Revolution that preceded it by a mere thirteen years. The colonists who challenged an empire were rebelling against the way things had been done for centuries. They were tossing out monarchs who claimed to have a “divine right,” a mandate from God to rule their citizens. Their movement championed the inalienable rights of the individual over the government. It defended the governed against their governors. Americans had created a government of elections and the rule of law: classical liberalism. The French preached democracy and liberty, but they birthed something else entirely: a reign of terror, culminating with an emperor who wielded near-total power.
How did these two revolutions meet such vastly different ends? Perhaps because, in the Americans’ case, the Framers of the Constitution were keen observers of human nature. As a result, they enacted checks against one man and one party amassing too much power, a careful balance of forces that trusted individuals more than it trusted the state and protected the people from too much centralized control. The architects of this new government possessed no illusions that they were creating a utopia ruled by perfect people—just the opposite, in fact. They believed man had fallen because he was naturally too self-interested and sinful.
Across the Atlantic, a growing movement of philosophers and academics had different ideas about the nature of man and what the future held, most notably the young university professor so entranced by the sight of Napoleon’s majesty: Hegel, the father of the progressive movement.
Hegel, whose own father was a senior government official working for one of Germany’s dukes, understood the importance of administrators from a very early age. As he worked on his PhD, Hegel found a new way of looking at history and mankind’s role in it by drawing on the writings of Jakob Böhme, a German Christian mystic, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French writer.
Böhme believed that the fall of Adam and Eve was a first necessary stage so that mankind could achieve self-awareness. Man was separated from God, but through evolution over centuries, he could eventually achieve perfect knowledge with science and education. Rousseau, on the other hand, coined a concept he dubbed the “general will” of the people as a whole. The will of the individual, he proclaimed, was far less important than that of the collective. It was the government’s responsibility to identify and carry out that collective will.
Hegel believed that the history of humankind was the story of man becoming more and more rational and “achieving consciousness.” To “perfect” humanity, all that was needed was a government that tamed the impulses of human nature for the greater good. This was Hegel’s revolutionary idea of progress.
Like many progressives who followed in his wake, Hegel also dabbled in race theory to explain why some societies seemed to “progress” better or faster than others. According to Hegel, it was “the German nations” who “were the first to attain the consciousness that man, as man, is free.” Inferior genes, he believed, were the only way to explain why other parts of the world remained economically backward.
Hegel concluded that the world now stood at one of the most advanced stages of human history and that experts and knowledgeable persons should rule with the most perfect government and unlimited authority over the individual. Through the state and its rulers, in Hegel’s “philosophy of history,” man essentially became God on earth. This was the foundational principle of what eventually became known as progressivism.
With his belief in scientific training, Hegel helped create the modern research university system. Modeling this on the Prussian style of education, he envisioned universities that churned out administrators trained in the science of governing men and women—an idea they called “social science.” Prussian education reforms extended down to young children as well, with the establishment of free, compulsory education by the state, starting with a mandatory “kindergarten” and national tests to track childhood learning. Hegel believed that this “scientific” approach to governance and progressive reforms would ultimately lead to a well-managed administrative state of experts.
If there was a good example of what an “unreformed” society looked like in Hegel’s estimation, it was the United States. He saw America in the 1820s and 1830s as a wild and open nation, a vast unsettled frontier land with a primitive government. There was nothing progressive about it. It was a land with too much individual liberty, too much protection for private property, and too many greedy, ambitious people trying to build their individual fortunes. America, Hegel thought, was in dire need of progressive reform.
Hegel became Germany’s most renowned academic, eventually attracting followers around the world, even in America. But one follower in particular was far more consequential than the others. This disciple was a fellow Prussian philosopher, a university student who was a generation younger but just as ambitious and intent on making his mark on the world by proving that mankind could establish a progressive utopia here on earth.
His name was Karl Marx.
MARX: NO COMPASSION, NO EXCUSES
Europe was on fire.
The previous year had brought turmoil and upheaval to the continent, punctuated by uprisings against its faltering ancient monarchies, particularly in Germany. That was why, in April 1848, Karl Marx and his comrade Friedrich Engels took the great risk of returning to their native land to publish the Neue Rheinische Zeitung—the “New Rheinish Newspaper”—in the city of Cologne.
The paper was going to be their contribution to this great struggle, their way of fanning the flames of change, not just in Germany but in France, Hungary, Poland, and Italy and across the continent. And in large measure, they were already succeeding. Across central Europe, the masses demanded reform and social justice. Finally, thought Marx, revolution was in the air—and in the streets.
Of course, the revolution was not as “pure” as Marx and Engels would have liked. The proletariat working class had not yet emerged as the driving force, but there was time yet. First, thrones and crowns had to go. Then, even if the selfish bourgeoisie took over from the kings, the working classes could, soon enough, be roused in turn to dislodge the new bourgeois oppressors—and Marx’s ideal society could be born.
Although riots and protests had broken out in most capital cities, the Cologne offices of the paper were eerily quiet. There were no shouts of celebration. The presses weren’t running. There was no frantic pounding of feet as copy boys with rolled-up sleeves darted to and fro carrying last-second edits. The proudly inflammatory NRZ proclaimed itself on its masthead to be “The Organ of Democracy,” but in May 1849, that organ had seemingly gone silent.
Standing over his desk, one fist turning slowly, grinding into the battered wood of its surface, Marx, the paper’s editor in chief, was seething. This was it. The reactionaries had him cornered—again. With anger boiling inside him, the newspaperman-revolutionary reread the note from the Royal Police:
The tendency of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung to provoke in its readers contempt for the present government, and incite them to violent revolutions and the setting up of a social republic has become stronger in its latest pieces. The right of hospitality, which he so disgracefully abused, is therefore to be withdrawn from its Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Karl Marx, and since he has not obtained permission to prolong his stay in these states he is ordered to leave them within 24 hours. If he should not comply with this demand, he is to be conveyed across the border.
The authorities had struck once again. Marx was being forced to leave Cologne, just as he’d been ousted from Prussia, Paris, and Brussels. His revolutionary ideas had landed him in trouble everywhere he went. The pressure had only become more intense since he and Engels had published The Communist Manifesto two years earlier from the relative safety of London.
Marx, however, was a fighter. When he was a student, his philosophical scuffling with classmates was equaled only by (and often intertwined with) his drunken carousing. He’d even fought in a duel and been wounded above the eye by an arrogant Prussian blue blood. But the more important struggles at that time had been raging within his mind, and much of his sparring had been over the ideas of his favorite intellectual: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Marx plunged deeply into Hegel’s ideas while at university in Berlin. He’d even fallen in with a group of like-minded philosophers who called themselves the Young Hegelians. They debated the views and legacy of the recently deceased thinker, speculating how Hegel’s ideas about man’s increased consciousness would influence the course of history. Marx later rejected much of Hegelian philosophy, but one principle lodged itself firmly in young Marx’s mind and never left: the dialectic.
Hegel saw history as a constant clash of ideas, and Marx agreed. Ideas had to be tested by constantly pitting them against one another. Only through this grueling, perhaps even bloody, struggle could society advance. Survival of the fittest ideas—it was the only way. And survival usually required fighting.
The meek didn’t inherit the earth, Marx thought, they were swept from it.
From his newspaper office in Cologne, Marx knew that Hegel had been right: 1848’s round of revolutions was the very manifestation of this struggle of ideas, old feudalism against new socialism. Although he was forced to shutter his newspaper and leave the city, Marx wasn’t out of the fight. He had to make sure his ideas triumphed in the struggle to come.
He sat down at his desk, which was strewn with books, papers, pens, and inkwells. He cleared a space and began to sketch out the final edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. He decided not only to print the note from the Cologne police forcing him to leave town but to add a scathing commentary. He ended with an ominous threat that would ring through the decades: “We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror.”
The socialism Marx outlined in his Communist Manifesto was not identical to progressivism, but it shared ideological roots in Hegel and the idea that mankind would evolve—or “progress”—toward a more scientific and better-administered future where governments would drive and implement change. Not until the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 would the world see a truly socialist government, but Marx and Hegel fueled social movements around the world that demanded reform.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Hegel’s ideas found a powerful—and unlikely—adherent in Germany’s first chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck. “The Iron Chancellor,” through war and diplomacy, forged Germany’s patchwork of decentralized, independent states together into a single nation under Prussian control. Armed with administrators churned out by Hegel’s Prussian academy, Bismarck built the world’s first welfare state, a series of paternalistic government programs that sought to gain the support of the working class.
Although Bismarck fashioned himself a conservative fighting against radical firebrands like Marx, he thought the only way to defeat socialism was to adopt some of it. “My idea was to bribe the working class, or shall I say, to win them over, to regard the state as a social institution existing for their sake and interested in their welfare,” he confided to a fellow progressive. Bismarck’s government, with the blessing of Germany’s first kaiser, would become the most enlightened in the entire world.
Frederic Howe, an American evangelist of this German system, explained in 1915 how this worked. From the “cradle to the grave,” the German worker’s “education, his health, and his working efficiency are matters of constant concern” to the government. The individual would be taken care of in return for his unswerving loyalty to the state.
This was reform. This was progress.
And it was only the beginning.
SOCIALISM COMES TO AMERICA
Progressivism was not a natural fit for America. The idea that mankind was evolving to a higher consciousness, or a more moral, perfect state, seemed incompatible with the sinful view of man and the “hellfire and brimstone” sermons taught from pulpits across colonial America.
By and large, Americans venerated the Founders as wise students of human nature who’d been inspired by the classical Greek notion of permanent principles and truths. One of those ancient truths is that human beings have dark impulses. “There is a degree of depravity in mankind,” James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust.” No amount of Hegelian mumbo jumbo or advanced degrees from German universities could change that.
Early Americans were also deeply suspicious of federal power. They had resisted it at every turn, whether from London or from a newly formed federal government in Philadelphia (and later in Washington, D.C.). Skepticism of government and of politicians who promised big things ran deep in the national DNA. People firmly believed in self-reliance, local control, and a strong civil society where neighbors volunteered to help one another when things got bad. The federal government was a remote, abstract idea that never impinged on daily lives.
Americans had also never been as class-conscious as their European ancestors. The idea that bankers and moneyed interests were manipulating and exploiting them just didn’t add up. They raised families. They went to church. They tilled the soil with their plows, mined the coal from deep within the earth, worked on the factory floor, or ran a general store in town. And if they happened to falter or fail, a frontier rich in opportunity let them start again.
But that frontier was changing by the late nineteenth century. Some argued that it had even been closed altogether. Americans had spread west to the Pacific Coast of California. The Industrial Revolution was changing cities. If all of this was changing, many thought, so, too, must America’s politics, along with its very identity.
In the three decades following the Civil War, a nation of mostly wilderness and backwaters had been transformed into an economic superpower. Railroad tracks crisscrossed the vast American continent. Booming industrial centers with billowing smokestacks sprang up in nearly every state. By 1883, commerce had grown at such a clip that a national standardized time system replaced hundreds of local clock conventions.
Between 1865 and 1900, the American economy quadrupled. And in this tumult, a rebellion against the American idea was brewing in the academy—a rebellion that would soon spread to the churches.
THE INFECTION OF CHURCH AND STATE
Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876 as a new kind of research university. Johns Hopkins prided itself on being the first American institution to replicate the Prussian academic tradition of Heidelberg, Freiberg, Göttingen, and Berlin. It was animated by Hegel’s view of progress and the need for a powerful administrative state guided by disinterested, expert social scientists.
German immigrants had come to America by the millions during the fifty years since Hegel’s death, carrying with them ideas about progress and efficiency. Some even brought the more radical contentions of Marx’s socialism and the notion that government could be an organizing mechanism for social, economic, and moral reform. American graduate students had also gone to Germany to study in its legendary universities, bringing back the Hegelian appreciation for expertise and the idea that properly trained experts could be social engineers of the future.
This new generation of German-trained academics also brought back a disdain for “English” economics and natural law, the classically liberal thinking of philosophers such as John Locke and Adam Smith that had influenced the American Founders. The tradition of natural rights and the Anglo-American belief in the dignity of the individual were being replaced by a new kind of thinking that prioritized society as a whole.
The most prominent of the first American progressives was Richard T. Ely, a professor of economics who came to Johns Hopkins in 1881, two years after receiving his doctorate at Heidelberg. Ely, who once wrote that “God works through the State in carrying out his purposes more universally than through any other institution,” helped found the American Economic Association, which is dedicated to social science and social justice (and which still holds an annual lecture named for him).
Ely had grown up on a ninety-acre farm in upstate New York, where he worked with his father raising crops through young adulthood. He loved the sense of community in his small agrarian village, of working to trade milk for tools and cheese for grain in the local market. His mother was a member of a local women’s club that took donations of wool and made clothing for orphans in nearby cities and towns.
When he went off to college at Columbia in Manhattan, he felt alienated in the big city and missed the community he had loved. He wrote to his family that New Yorkers seemed to lack the principal Christian virtue he had found so comforting in his small farming community: charity. It seemed to him that this virtue was absent from big-city morals, which were focused on personal achievement and wealth seeking, all of which Ely viewed as “sinful.”
While in college, and later in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, he blended his study of economics with the study of “Christian morals.” In order to help man reach a new level of happiness, he determined that the cold science and hard numbers of economics must be blended with the Christian principles of charity and giving. The goal was to “end the suffering and loneliness that so often impacts the lives” of our fellow human beings.
To succeed, all that was needed was organizing resources to ensure that there were enough for everyone. In his small township, that had seemingly occurred out of the goodness of the hearts of his family, friends, and neighbors. But in cities, more powerful organizing forces were clearly needed. Ely’s overt mission was to “save mankind from himself.”
In an 1894 text on socialism, Ely wrote:
Looking into the future we can contemplate a society . . . in which men shall work together for a common purpose, and in which the wholesale cooperation shall take place largely through government. . . . We have reason to believe that we shall yet see great national undertakings with the property of the nation, and managed by the nation, through agents who appreciate the glory of true public service, and feel that it is God’s work which they are doing, because church and state are as one. . . . We may anticipate an approximation of state and society as men improve and we may hope that men outside of government will freely and voluntarily act with trained officers and experts in the service of the government for the advancement of common interests.
“The property of the nation” is the thesis at the very heart of the progressive movement: nothing belongs to the individual; it’s all owned by the state. The arbitrary powers of government can seize and do what they see fit with our property as long as government deems it good, right, and just for the broader society.
Ely rejected the socialist dictum of shared, collective property ownership. His family farm wasn’t collectively owned, so depriving families of land ownership was a bridge too far. He did, however, believe that the production of that property, the goods and crops, could be proportionally shared with those less fortunate. A balanced, hunger-free society was within reach.
And thus, charity by force was born.
Like Hegel and other progressives seeking the “perfect” society, Ely also held an unsavory view of minorities, especially African-Americans. He complained that “the negro race, while endowed with a splendid physique and with great power for work, is neither progressive nor inclined to submit to regularity of toil, such as an industrial civilization demands.” He campaigned to bar immigrants into the United States who were judged by elites to be “hereditary inferiors.”
From the movement’s earliest days, some progressives wavered between fully embracing socialism and keeping their distance. But for most, the two ideologies routinely intermingled—and for good reason: they shared a common ideological root. The marriage of progressivism and socialism was born of convenience as much as it was about shared goals. Progressives embraced the socialist movement because socialist theory enabled the use of government to further their reform agenda. Socialists embraced progressivism because it carried with it seemingly uncontroversial and popular causes such as protecting children, improving food quality and health standards, improving living standards, and protecting workers.
Ely believed that Marx’s socialist theology and themes of class warfare—things he had studied in Germany—would be too alien and radical for Americans if unleashed to be absorbed all at once. Instead, he preferred “a socialism of spirit that would replace laissez-faire from within men’s hearts.” Americans had grown too selfish, Ely maintained. His job was to instill a sense of communal goals and to do so through training a new generation of social scientists. He believed that these disinterested, nonpartisan, scientific, and civic-minded people could regulate and manage the world’s fastest-growing economy and compensate for those being left behind. This was the administrative state. Everything could be improved, as the prominent social reformer Jane Addams said.
Over time, Ely trained hundreds of social scientists in progressivism and his views about the “perfectibility” of society and man, but two of his disciples stood out: Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey.
When they first became attracted to Ely’s ideas, Dewey was teaching high school and Wilson was working as a lawyer. Later, as students together at Johns Hopkins, where Ely was a professor, the two men even squared off against each other in a debate over a rather telling topic: “Whether the U.S. government ought to pay to educate the Negro.” Dewey argued in favor, Wilson against.
THE GRUESOME SCIENCE
If mankind could be perfected over time, one of the best ways to do so, the theory went, would be by weeding out defective and less desirable genes from the pool. It had been a fantasy for millennia, dating back to at least as early as when Socrates speculated that humans could be bred like livestock, with only the best being allowed to reproduce. The rest of us could be sterilized, aborted, prevented from marrying or mixing with people of other races, or forced to use birth control to guarantee that our genetic material wasn’t passed on to pollute future generations.
Modern eugenics—its name derived from the Greek for “well born”—sprang up in the mid-nineteenth century among progressive thinkers and scientists. It was coined by a British scientist and a cousin of Charles Darwin named Francis Galston, who mused, “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!”
Darwin took his cousin’s theories on natural selection and not only applied them to humans but also argued that humans could manipulate this selection process themselves to create a kind of superrace.
Progressives like Ely would champion forced sterilization and social science to examine differences among races. A “Race Betterment Foundation” for the promotion of eugenics was launched, as was American Breeders Magazine. An International Eugenics Congress in London began under the leadership of Major Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son, with “undesirables” being the target of its campaign to perfect the human species. The Anglo-Saxon race was considered the epitome of humanity.
One of the leading eugenic theorists was Madison Grant, an avid conservationist who also had some interesting ideas about how to “conserve” the Nordic race. In his book, The Passing of the Great Race, Grant proposed a plan that included the outright elimination of “the least desirable, let us say, ten percent of the community,” which he described as “unemployed and unemployable human residuum” and a “great mass of crime, poverty, alcoholism, and feeble-mindedness.” After that, he called for “restricting the perpetuation”—sterilization—“of the then remaining least valuable types” among those that remained. “By this method,” Grant argued, “mankind might ultimately become sufficiently intelligent to deliberately choose the most vital and intellectual strains to carry on the race.”
Two men in particular were greatly affected by Grant’s writing. One was a friend from conservationist circles, a man named Teddy Roosevelt, who praised Grant for writing “a capital book; in purpose, in vision, in grasp of the facts of our people most need to realize . . . and all Americans should be sincerely grateful to you for writing it.”
Half a world away, Grant’s ideas also inspired a young German. He was a veteran of the World War I and a failed artist whose own radical ideas on race were starting to take shape while he was in prison in the 1920s. He called Grant’s work his “Bible”—and very soon the world would come to know Adolf Hitler’s name.
Dewey went on to become a career academic and progressive educational reformer, arguing that only a far larger governmental apparatus could cure the social ills of the twentieth century. He argued that freedom was not “something that individuals have as a ready-made possession”; it was “something to be achieved.” In this view, freedom was not a gift from God or nature; it was a product of human making, a gift from the state. He emphasized state influence on early-childhood education in order to spread the progressive doctrine to children as early as possible, no matter what views they were exposed to at home.
Progressive academics such as Dewey and Wilson, who eventually left the legal profession to teach (first at Cornell and Bryn Mawr and then at Princeton), had an ally in American Protestantism. Most social scientists such as Ely and Wilson were devout Christians themselves and open about their desire as Christian missionaries to build a kingdom of heaven on earth. This was the “social gospel,” a vision of Hegel’s and Ely’s progressivism that sought economic and social improvement by applying Christian ethics. Clergymen made up nearly half of the American Economic Association’s charter members. Preachers from pulpits across America railed against capitalism as selfish. The solution was a new kind of Christian socialism that encouraged more labor unions and cooperative economics.
The “social gospel” organizers mobilized millions on behalf of their cause for reform. One of the first mass organizations was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1873. Its goal was to create a “sober and pure world” by encouraging abstinence, sexual purity, and devotion to Christian doctrine (as the organization’s members defined it). Other groups also sprouted up—such as the YMCA and the Industrial Workers of the World—which marched, petitioned, and organized on behalf of progressive, and sometimes outright radical, reform.
By now, progressivism had captured the allegiance of a new generation of academics in campuses across America, along with thousands of pastors now evangelizing their flocks regarding the importance of social reform.
What progressivism needed next was a national leader to bring it all together and sell it to the masses.
BRYAN AND THE PROGRESSIVE PRAIRIE FIRE
Until 1896, progressivism in America had been confined to churches and campuses. But with one stirring speech, William Jennings Bryan changed all that.
Though a relative newcomer to the political scene, Bryan had a keen sense of how the winds were blowing in American politics. He positioned himself as a new kind of Democrat, the leader of a prairie insurgency against the Eastern elites. He thundered that Washington needed to “suppress” the business trusts and give debt relief by coining silver. He also supported the first peacetime income tax passed by Congress, although it was subsequently declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
At that time, there was just one federal social-welfare program: the Pension Office, which dispensed funds to Civil War veterans. Government was almost exclusively a state and local affair. Bryan had little in common with the bespectacled social scientists of Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin, but he was a devout believer in the social gospel that had captured Christianity in the late nineteenth century.
Bryan’s populist campaign came as the Democratic Party warred against itself, torn between Eastern business interests supporting the Democrat incumbent Grover Cleveland’s hands-off approach to the economy and the Southern farmers and Western mining interests hit hardest by the calamitous Panic of 1893. The haves, said the progressives and the populists, had given themselves everything, and therefore they thrived even when the economy was in a depression. Now the have-nots were going to exact their revenge—and as the next president of the United States, William Jennings Bryan would be the one to do it.
Bryan was a true believer, an idealist of the most innocent kind. He knew that this new populism could propel him to the presidency, but he also believed in it deeply. So did millions of others who raged at the “robber barons,” such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan. Bryan was channeling the mistrust and confusion generated by the rapid pace of change during the Industrial Revolution. Bryan and his followers wanted the federal government to step in and level the playing field for the working masses. Grover Cleveland represented the old Democratic Party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, skeptical of federal power. But now, aligned against Cleveland and the “robber barons,” was a new party, one that had been bubbling up in local and state elections for a few years but had little presence nationally: the “People’s Party” or “Populists.”
Dubbed “hayseeds” and “anarchists” by their opponents and derided for their wispy beards and unkempt appearances, they embodied the first progressive movement in America. Through twenty-first-century lenses, nothing seems very radical about the demands of the People’s Party. They called for massive public-works projects to reduce unemployment. They demanded federal relief for poverty-stricken farmers, particularly cotton farmers in the South and wheat farmers in the West. They wanted strict limits on and disclosure requirements of political campaign contributions, the registration of lobbyists, and the recording and publication of congressional committee proceedings. They urged states to adopt measures for “direct democracy,” including recall elections, referendums where citizens could decide on a law by popular vote, and initiatives where citizens could even propose a law by petition and popular vote. They wanted social initiatives, such as a national health service including all existing government medical agencies, social insurance, limited injunctions in strikes, a minimum-wage law for women, an eight-hour workday, a federal securities commission, an inheritance tax, and a constitutional amendment to allow a federal income tax.
Eventually, the political initiatives of the People’s Party also included women’s suffrage, direct election of senators, primary elections for state and federal nominations, the recall of judges, and new rights for labor unions. As I said, not very radical. But most of all, the People’s Party wanted silver.
The gold standard—the idea that American paper currency was backed by actual stockpiles of gold—had been in place since what some called the Crime of ’73, the 1873 Fourth Coinage Act that demonetized silver. People’s Party adherents saw gold as the money of “exploitation” and “oppression” by the Eastern financial establishment. The “free coinage of silver” would inflate the currency, decreasing its value and aiding those who had fallen destitute and in debt in the Panic of 1893. Wealth would be more equitably distributed from the wealthy Eastern elites to the struggling lower classes—not to mention to the special interests such as the silver-mine owners who stood to profit handsomely.
In Chicago’s marbled Palmer House hotel, the silver lobbyists had plotted for days in advance of 1896’s Democratic National Convention. They had found a sympathetic ear in Bryan, who promised to voice their concerns when he addressed the delegates. The silver-mine owners of Nevada and California were particularly keen to have the federal government suddenly purchasing vast reserves of silver, which would increase the price of the metal and boost their already hefty fortunes. As the “boy orator from the Platte,” referring to his home state of Nebraska, he had been ostentatious in refusing any money from the big trusts and lobbyists. His honesty became legendary. He fashioned himself a man of the people.
Yet Bryan and his key supporters in the Democratic Party were intimately connected with their own big-business trusts, which represented the real one percent of America at the time. Prominent among them were Senator James Jones of Arkansas, the head of the Democratic National Committee, and Richard Croker, the boss of New York City’s Tammany Hall Democratic machine. Croker had become ensnared in a major corruption probe, which revealed how he and his wife had profited to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars for protecting a monopoly on the ice trade, a booming business on the eastern seaboard. There was also John D. Clarke, a lawyer and lobbyist for the silver-mining interests, who were making millions from their mines in Nevada and California and stood to make millions more if only the U.S. government allowed its currency to be backed by silver as well as gold.
Not all of these interests shared the progressives’ entire worldview, but they were all certainly ready to back “free silver.” They understood that federal power brought with it the opportunity to make millions of dollars. If they pushed for Bryan, then he and his progressive allies could pick winners and losers. The winners would be anyone with a stake in silver.
With the influence of these moneyed interests, the election of 1896 fused together a populist progressive platform that radically redefined the Democratic Party. From the days of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to the end of the Grover Cleveland administration, Democrats had believed in a small government. No more.
Bryan would go on to lose the 1896 election to Republican William McKinley, but he would boost the fortunes of his backers who successfully lobbied his fellow politicians at the local, state, and federal level. More important, Bryan would leave an indelible imprint on the Democratic Party. The new party of Jefferson and Jackson embarked on a far more radical course, one that would have an impact on the United States for generations to come and forever change how Americans viewed their rights, responsibilities, and relationships with government.
How Progressives Exploit Our Fears for Power and Control
How Progressives Exploit Our Fears for Power and Control
Politics is no longer about pointing to a shining city on the hill; it’s about promising you a shiny new car for your driveway. The candidate who tells the people what they want to hear is usually the one who wins—no matter the truth.
Politicians may be sleazy and spineless, but they’re not stupid. They see that the way to win is by first telling people everything that is wrong with the world, and then painting a Utopian vision that they’ll create right here on earth, one where no one is ever sick or hungry, jobless, or homeless. All we have to do is surrender our freedom and someone else’s wallet and they’ll make it happen.
And so they continue to lie, and we continue to believe them, and they keep winning elections. The only way to break the cycle is to understand why Americans fall for the deception over and over again. Progressives from both parties exploit us by first pointing out the things we should be afraid of, and then offering us “solutions” to these fears—solutions that always require us to give up our freedoms.
In his signature no-holds-barred way, Beck destroys the false promises of Progressivism and asks us: Why do we accept the lies?
- Threshold Editions |
- 352 pages |
- ISBN 9781476798882 |
- August 2017