By: Arthur E. DeMatteo
Attempting to synthesize the events, agents, and accomplishments of the years spanning the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries into a neat package labeled “The Progressive Era” can prove frustrating for the modern historian. Reformers of the period were a diffuse and diverse group, often more noteworthy for their disunity and incongruities than for coherence to any set of standards; they included pacifists, municipal ownership advocates, feminists, Single Taxers, civil rights crusaders, efficiency experts, and countless others. This lack of commonality led Peter Filene to assert, in a seminal article published over thirty years ago, that progressivism was merely an artificial creation of historians, and that the dynamics of this period were the result of “agents and forces more complex than a progressive movement.”[1. Peter G. Filene, “An Obituary for the ‘Progressive Movement’,” American Quarterly 22 (Spring 1970), 20-34.]
In an essay of later vintage, historian Daniel Rodgers acknowledged the difficulty of defining progressivism, while offering a useful counter-thesis to Filene. Rodgers suggested that Progressive Era reformers shared at least one of three “idea clusters,” or “shared languages of discontent.”[2. Daniel T. Rodgers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982), 113-32.] The first of these languages, antimonopolism, was traceable to the Jacksonian era, and had once been the exclusive domain of “outsiders,” such as farmers and Populists; by the turn of the twentieth century, however, the crusade against inequitable taxation and abusive business practices had gained acceptance among “respectable” segments of American society. The second language, that of “social bonds,” was more specific to the Progressive Era, and encompassed an attack on a “set of formal fictions,” including notions of racial, sexual, or ethnic inferiority; it sought to create a “consciously contrived harmony” among societal groups. The third language of discontent was that of “social efficiency,” and could be applied to a broad range of reformers, from those seeking to rationalize and streamline municipal government to engineers designing modern manufacturing plants.
Like so many reformers of his era, Antoine Bidermann duPont, friend and confidant of Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson, was a complex person who defies easy categorization. Continue reading