Progressive arrogance.  Technocratic overreach.  Social engineering.  Racial tension.  Expanding executive powers.  Aggressive and endless waves of “experts.”  Economic disparity and unrest.  “Us” versus “them.”

All are characteristics of social and political life in recent years in the United States.  So much so that some pundits and observers apparently find the combination alarming and unique—even unprecedented—in American history.  But as Thomas C. Leonard demonstrates with refreshing clarity and devastating detail in Illiberal Reformers, they were also defining features of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, a 40-year-long era (1877-1917) that has been conveniently forgotten or carefully sanitized in the usual accounts found in public-school textbooks and popular memory.

Leonard’s book is notable on several counts.  First, Leonard is an academic, a professor of history at Princeton, who writes about history without any apparent ideological ax to grind.  His objective and jargon-free style has a real freshness, bolstered by his excellent use of primary sources.  His portrayal of the feverish growth of statism during the Progressive Era is comprehensive and often startling.  Illiberal Reformers challenges and informs the reader on several different fronts: Primarily focused on economic history, it seamlessly incorporates material ranging from the political to the cultural to the religious, all with a deft, sure touch.  Finally, the book challenges several standing accounts of a past era, and many contemporary assumptions about American political, economic, social, and moral issues as well.

Leonard systematically presents his essential theses, develops them, and supports them, before allowing the reader to make judgments and draw conclusions. Tellingly, he states in the Prologue that this book “tells the story of the progressive scholars and activists who led the Progressive Era crusade to dismantle laissez-faire, remaking American economic life with a newly created instrument of reform, the administrative state.”  He is not resorting to hyperbole when he notes that even if most people aren’t familiar with many of the principal actors in the story, it is a fact that “the progressives changed everything, permanently altering the course of America’s economy and its public life.”  While there are, of course, countless books about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, not enough serious books with a popular appeal have been written about an era that shaped and transformed modern America and, in many key ways, continues to influence how Americans perceive the presidency, politics in general, and the role of economic and social “experts.”

Most of the many positive reviews of this book have focused, understandably, on its economic aspect.  For example, Patrick Newman concludes, in the winter 2017 number of The Independent Review, that Illiberal Reformers

is a very important book that deserves to be read by every economist and academic, particularly those interested in American history, and especially those interested in the history of economic thought and the economics profession.

But this is also a work of cultural and social history, and as such a fitting companion to works such as Richard M. Gamble’s excellent The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic State.

One of most immediate and enduring effects of the Progressive Era, Leonard claims, was the rapid rise and acceptance (owing to a “revolution in American higher education”) of economics as a discipline and “an expert, scientific practice.”  Around this essential core developed a vast and self-perpetuating culture: “The progressives gave us the professor of social science, the scholar-activist, the social worker, the muckraking journalist, and the economic expert advising or serving in government.” Those professions are widely accepted today as being as American as apple pie, but that wasn’t the case before the 1880’s.  Having created, almost ex nihilo, economic scientism, the progressives moved on, in what Leonard calls “the second act,” to create a “powerful administrative state, guided by expert social scientists,” something many of them borrowed or adapted from the German model.  The “third act” was the reformation and remaking of American government, an objective Leonard argues was accomplished by March 1917, the end of Woodrow Wilson’s first presidential term.  The “fourth branch” of government had thus been established within a biblical generation—“an epoch-making change” in how the government related to the economy.  But it also “shifted political authority within the state,” Leonard observes,

moving power from the courts and political parties to the new independent agencies of the executive, and from judges and politicians to bureaucratic experts, who represented themselves as objective scientists . . . administrating progress for the good of all.

The “Progressive Paradox,” as Leonard calls it, was found in the boundless faith the reformers placed in administration, science, and efficiency—an arrogant and fideistic zeal that justified racism and eugenics.  Progressives, then as now, failed to allow for something that should have been obvious: the reality of human nature.  And not just the humanity of the poor, immigrants, minorities, and manual laborers, but also of the progressives themselves, whose “interests and biases” led to errors, misjudgments, and even outright evil.

Of particular interest in this respect are three factors, not directly economic in nature, that lay behind and beneath the rise of progressivism: Darwinism, then-dominant German philosophy (Hegelianism), and liberal Protestantism.  Progressives’ “scientific” claims of the  “inferiority” of certain races and persons (the disabled or mentally handicapped, for example), Leonard notes,

were deeply informed by elaborate scientific discourses of heredity.  Darwinism, eugenics, and race science recast spiritual or moral failure as biological inferiority and offered scientific legitimacy to established American hierarchies of race, gender, class, and intellect.

It would be difficult, he adds further on, “to overestimate the importance of Darwinian thinking to American economic reform in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.”

The progressives considered biology to be destiny, and eugenics and economics were the remedies.  In the chapter entitled “Darwinism in Economic Reform,” Leonard carefully and helpfully distinguishes between different—and often competing—forms of Darwinian thought.  So, for instance, while some eugenicists used Darwin to advance their policies, certain political theorists used natural selection to defend limited government.  “It is a tribute to the influence of Darwinism,” Leonard wryly observes, “that Darwin inspired exegetes of nearly every ideology: capitalist and socialist, individualist and collectivist.”  But progressives widely agreed that regulation was necessary for “better heredity” and that scientific and state experts were vital to the proper management of immigration, marriage, and reproduction.  A commitment to eugenics was considered  a badge of honor among the scientifically enlightened, economically informed, and socially engaged.

Directly related to eugenics was the belief among many progressives that society is “an evolved organism, an idea many of them had first encountered as graduate students in Germany.”  Here we find a heady if not always coherent mixture of Darwinism, Hegelianism, and the Social Gospel.  The state, reformed Darwinists argued, “was literally an organism,” a view that worked well with the progressive form of Christianity that was intent on establishing the kingdom of God on earth through earthly means.  “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth,” Hegel had asserted in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, first published in 1837, and this sort of thinking was in the air during the second half of the 19th century.  The living, divine nature of the state was widely accepted; Woodrow Wilson, running for president in 1912, spoke of the government as “a living thing,” an idea that “falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life.  It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.”

The shadow of Germany loomed over progressive thinking.  John Burgess (1844-1931), who taught at Columbia for decades and is still considered the most influential political scientist of his time, stated that, while Britain is America’s motherland, Germany “is the motherland of our motherland.”  John Dewey, in an Hegelian reference made in 1915, lauded Germany for her educational and administrative efficiency.  John G. West, in Darwin Day in America, writes succinctly,

The roots of the liberal idea of social and political evolution were supplied not by Darwin but by Hegel and the political science of the German administrative state.  But Darwin was honored for showing that the truths preached by the political philosophers had been substantiated by biology.  This faith in the necessity of social evolution underlay the Progressive movement in America.

Lastly, Leonard highlights the role of Christians who spurned Scriptural tradition for technocracy:

More often than not, progressives were the children of Protestant ministers or missionaries, fired with an evangelical urge to redeem America. . . . The progressives’ urge to reform America sprang from an evangelical compulsion to set the world to rights, and they unabashedly described their purposes as a Christian mission to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

Having abandoned the Gospel of Christ, the mission-minded progeny of various Protestant leaders embarked on a new mission and with a pseudodivine commission: to apply the “gospel” of science to the poor lost souls in need of order, cleanliness, and regulation.

These avid proponents of “Applied Christianity” were not atheists, but their Christianity was not orthodox, just as their understanding of humanity was neither biblically grounded nor philosophically sound.  That is why G.K. Chesterton remarked, in What’s Wrong With the World (1910), that “now all our sociology and eugenics and the rest of it are not so much materialist as confusedly Calvinist . . . ”  Traditional Christianity upheld the reality of Original Sin—“the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” quipped Chesterton in Orthodoxy—and the need for supernatural salvation, whereas the progressives believed in biology, eugenics, and state-operated liberation by administration.  “Our so-called liberal and progressive educators who denied the reality of guilt,” wrote Fulton Sheen in 1941, “did not, as they promised, relieve man from the shackles of ‘medieval morality,’ but they did relieve the person of his responsibility and therefore of his freedom.”  One can argue, based on Leonard’s welcome work, that while progressives often abused political power and misused economic policies, their deepest errors were theological and anthropological.


[Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, by Thomas C. Leonard (Princeton University Press) 265 pp., $35.00]