Title: The Search for Order, 1877-1920
Author: Robert H. Wiebe
Categories: Political, Social, Progressive Era, Reform, Bureaucracy
Place: United States
Time Period: 1877-1920
In the 1870s and 1880s, the United States was a nation of isolated island communities. People saw the world through the lens of personal relationships related to small-town values of Protestant work ethic and frugality. During the 1880s and early 1890s society became "distended" as larger forces began elbowing their way into people's lives. These included urbanization, immigration, industrialization, corporate finance, and monopolies. An initial (1) movement of reactionary reformers took the form of antimonopolists, Populists, temperance movements, club movements, the Knights of Labor. By the 1890s, a new middle class coalesces that doesn't have a kneejerk anxiety about these forces, but instead hopes to shape them for their own means. This middle class is marked by professionalization and occupational identifying (ex. with medicine and the American Medical Assocation). This middle class begins a second (2) wave of reform, this one centered on the establishment of a bureaucratic order, and really starts to take off around 1900 and during TR's administration. Oftentimes these were led by urban reformers in cities in the East and Midwest, and followed the lead of bureaucratic ordering in the world of business.
This first wave of middle-class reform was somewhat segmented between local reformers and national reformers, but by 1907 a second wave of Progressives really pushes local concerns to the national level, and these local reformers begin to see national solutions to their local problems (ex. federal regulation). Increasingly they push for federal power and centralization rather than Congressional control, and oftentimes resistance to Progressivism coalesced most strongly at the state level. In the last three chapters, Wiebe looks at how Progressivism manifested itself in the foreign sphere through the Spanish American War and WWI. The Spanish American War and early foreign relations in the century occurred with much less rational ordering than domestic policy, and was instead done on an ad-hoc and amateurish basis. The ease and effectiveness of mobilization during WWI demonstrated just how much Progressivism had "arrived" by 1917 and how much it had already ordered the world and prepped it for this kind of effort. The League of Nations epitomized the pinnacle of Progressive ideals for peace bringing about order and stability. Many historians have critiqued Wiebe for his teleology of modernity, rather than being an active process of creation. Others have criticized him for ignoring the role of violence during the period, particularly in lynchings and labor unrest.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Transition from distended society of island communities based on personal relationships in 1870s-1880s to large impersonal forces (industrialization, urbanization, immigration) by end of the century
- Anxiety over large-scale shifts engenders initial reactionary movement (antimonopolists, Knights of Labor, Populists)
- Knee-jerk reactionists replaced by more rational middle-class reformers at turn of the century that championed bureaucratic order
- Second wave of Progressives emphasizes national solutions to local problems (ex. federal regulation)
- Triumph of Progressivism by 1917 and World War I - wartime mobilization and League of Nations as pinnacle
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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