by Adam Quinn
The United States Progressive Era (c. 1890-1920) is popularly understood as an era of progressive reforms in response to the excesses and inequities of Gilded Age industrial capitalism. The period, marked by the Second Industrial Revolution, post-Reconstruction struggles for and against racial equality, mass migrations, and multiple major constitutional amendments, was crucial to the formation of modern America. In order to provide an entry point into the vast body of literature that helps us better understand this formative period, this essay offers a brief overview of books on the Progressive Era published from 2010 to 2017.
New Historical Actors
Recent books on the history of the Progressive Era have worked to locate new historical actors beyond the traditional focus largely on white, often male reformers, government officials, and industrialists. Classic scholarship certainly concerned itself with marginalized groups as well, but recent work has built upon previous literature in history as well as fields like gender, ethnic, and environmental studies to break new ground on how we understand the development of identity and culture in the period. Historians are highlighting the involvement of previously overlooked historical actors who shaped this period of social change–and weren’t always helped by its reforms.
In studying new historical actors, a major theme is questioning the nominal progressivism of the period’s reforms. Many of the policies of the era, rather than improving conditions for all, worked to marginalize certain groups of people and were crucial to the development of modern inequalities and identities. Douglas C. Baynton’s Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics, for example, makes a compelling argument for the role disability should play in the work of any historian by exploring how the US government came to exclude people based on disability as part of a broader project of immigration restriction surrounding physical, moral, and racial “defects.” Margot Canaday’s The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America explores how sexuality was regulated in immigration, the military, and welfare provision, from the nascent policing of sexuality in the Progressive Era to more explicit regulation in the post-WW2 era. While the period’s supposed progressivism could be characterized as being more fundamentally derived from economic and labor reforms, even that has been called into question. In his book Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890–1920, David Huyssen argues that many of the period’s reforms inadvertently led to cultural and material class divisions that remain a part of American society today. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas Leonard covers some of the same issues explored by Huyssen (and connects to the issues of eugenics raised by Baynton). While the other books listed above cover connected topics like eugenics, exclusion, and economic policy, Leonard’s work brings in another crucial element in Progressive Era inequality that is discussed by many more historians: race.
The history of race and racism figures prominently in recent literature on the Progressive Era. Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915 by K. Stephen Prince shows how white cultural production helped turn the South away from Reconstruction and toward Jim Crow, with the North being very complicit in this “reconstruction” of southern identity and racial politics. Northern racial identity was likewise transformed in this period, as discussed in Peter M. Rutkoff and William B. Scott’s Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations. Rutkoff and Scott explore the migration of African Americans from the South to the North following the Civil War, how this shaped their own identity, and the impact this had on mainstream American culture. Of course, while African Americans were making valuable contributions to urban culture in the North, they were also criminalized through the emergence and spread of the concept of black criminality. This articulation of black criminality through racist scientific and public discourse is discussed in Khalil Muhammad's distinguished work, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. While books like Muhammad’s help us better understand the creation and effects of Jim Crow, other recent works, like Jay Winston Driskell Jr.’s Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta's Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics, explore how Jim Crow was resisted by Atlanta’s black elite and black political consciousness shifted from respectability politics to a cross-class protest politics stressing solidarity and self-determination.
While most of the above books are concerned with how reformers influenced the development of categories of identity like disability, sexuality, class, and race in the period, some historians have also looked at groups that, while not particularly marginalized, have typically been overlooked as sources of historical change. David Suisman’s Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music focuses on musicians and music entrepreneurs who ushered in an era of commercialized music culture, changing the social landscape of America. In The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism, Matthew Bowman explores how American religion was fractured by the social issues faced in the Progressive Era, with liberal Evangelical reformers wanting to adapt Christianity to modern circumstances despite a conservative Protestant opposition. Beverly Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror discusses the early history of terrorism and counterterrorism in the United States, as the federal government grappled with the issue of anarchist political violence.
In seeking new subjects to analyze, historians have expanded their focus beyond people to include the environment. For example, Thomas G. Andrews’ Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War offers a compelling and timely argument that historians should consider humans and the environment as interconnected forces, with each shaping the other’s history. Andrews incorporates methodology from environmental history to better understand what gave rise to the 1914 Ludlow Massacre and coalfield wars in Colorado, analyzing the relationship between the natural world and capitalists, consumers, and coal-mining families. By focusing on the role played by the environment, Andrews offers a new perspective on archetypal Progressive Era subjects like industrial capitalism, unions, violence, and reform.
Some Progressive Era scholarship, meanwhile, has taken new approaches to understanding what might be considered more traditional historical actors, their place in society, and their role in making history. For example, historians of emotions and political communication focus on figures like politicians and other leaders to explore the development of American political culture, public discourse, and communications more broadly. Jeremy C. Young’s The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 explores how Progressive Era social movements changed American political culture, with participants in a wide variety of movements forging emotional connections with charismatic leaders. Young’s work uses letters and testimonials to show the perspective of followers in these social movements as a new culture of leadership developed, characterized by emotional availability in contrast to the more emotionally distant leadership styles of the nineteenth century. Young’s work builds on other recent publications on emotion and political communication, such as Brenton Malin’s Feeling Mediated: A History of Media Technology and Emotion in America and David Greenberg’s Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, which don’t focus as exclusively on the Progressive Era, but do include it as a particularly transformative time for the topic. This body of work flips “Great People” history on its head, focusing on the perspectives of followers and the dynamic, ever-changing relationship between followers and leaders, allowing us to better understand modern American politics.
As separate as some of these subjects may appear on the surface, one can certainly draw many connections between them, and many of these areas of research will certainly inform one another in the future. Studies of religion intersect not only with social conservative discourses on subjects like sexuality and Americanism, but also with progressive discourses on subjects like poverty, reform, and race. The idea of “defectives” as explored in Baynton’s work also relates to the counterterrorism explored in Gage’s work: as social scientists framed radicals as biologically and mentally flawed (and therefore intrinsically dangerous), antiradical immigration restrictions became a matter of excluding unwanted types of people rather than excluding people for their political beliefs. In addition to explaining how people were inspired to political action, as explored in Young’s work, the study of emotions can also help us understand the fear that was central to the period’s racism, immigrant exclusion, and repression of groups viewed as inferior or threatening. Ultimately, these explorations of new historical actors and new topics within the Progressive Era paint a dynamic picture of the period, with different groups in different regions affecting and being affected by these transformative times. This picture becomes even more multifaceted when we look beyond (and at) the borders of the United States.
The Global Progressive Era
Although the Progressive Era describes an era of US history in particular, scholars have looked beyond national boundaries to better understand the period. Hallmarks of the Progressive Era include mass immigration (and sweeping immigration restriction reforms), a new era of international diplomacy and law, and, of course, a world war, so it is no surprise that many historians feel limited by national narratives. Earlier works, such as Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age by Daniel T. Rodgers, have pointed to how the emblematic progressive reforms of the period were built through interconnected efforts across nations to address the effects of industrial capitalism. Recent works on diplomatic history, transnational social movements, international discourses on racism, and immigration reveal the Progressive Era United States as a participant in a number of global communities and discourses involving a wide range of issues.
In Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality, authors Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds argue that subjects like immigration restriction, race and whiteness, and imperialism are best understood through a transnational lens. Their narrative of interconnected projects of white supremacy across the United States, Australia, and South Africa highlights how many histories of these subjects, by being self-contained national stories, fail to elaborate on interconnected, international processes of racial formation.
Kornel Chang’s Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands, expands the scope of borderlands history to allow for a more multinational, rather than binational, perspective, incorporating the US-Canada border (while most other American borderlands histories have focused on the US-Mexico border) and its interactions with the Pacific world. In looking at the transnational connections between the Pacific Northwest and Asia along with issues like Chinese exclusion, Chang highlights the contradictory but simultaneous formation of both globalization and nationalism. Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age by Christopher McKnight Nichols explores a similar tension, examining the concurrent development of isolationist and internationalist ideas and policies throughout the Progressive Era. Nichols’s approach is, in a sense, both broader and more intimate in scope, utilizing the letters of various thinkers, reformers, and politicians who grappled with the United States’ place in the global community.
Of course, if we are to understand the Progressive Era as one that was shaped largely by international projects, then diplomatic history becomes central to our understanding of the period. For example, Nicole Phelps’s U.S.-Habsburg Relations from 1815 to the Paris Peace Conference: Sovereignty Transformed shows how the United States became integrated into an international diplomatic system and used its newfound influence in international relations to encourage nation-states to redefine themselves around racial categories.
There are many explanations for the history of the Progressive Era in the United States being so markedly international, from technological developments in communications and transportation to social and cultural changes. A major impetus for American history becoming so global during the Progressive Era, which binds many of these disparate explanations together, was the emergence of global capitalism. The Progressive Era was so deeply marked by the rapid development of global capitalism that Benedict Anderson, the political scientist best known for his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, characterized the period as the “Age of Globalization.” Anderson’s work on the subject does not focus, however, on how governments and businesses adapted to the global economy of the turn of the century. Instead, his book The Age of Globalization: Anarchists and the Anticolonial Imagination focuses on the transnational immigrant networks which opposed industrial capitalism and imperialism. He argues that globalization, almost paradoxically, helped spark nationalist movements by moving people and ideas across borders, including anarchists and anarchism.
Anderson is far from alone in his transnational study of anarchists in the period. Jennifer Guglielmo’s Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945 explores how Italian women, a woefully understudied group in the history of American radicalism, shaped working-class communities and labor organizing. Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America focuses on how these anti-state immigrants resisted both Old World nationalisms and American assimilation, articulating radical views on citizenship, nationality, solidarity, and diversity that even contemporary readers may find groundbreaking. Most recently, by involving Canada in this transnational story and analyzing the interwar period and how anarchists endured and adapted to state repression, Travis Tomchuk’s Transnational Radicals: Italian Anarchists in Canada and the U.S., 1915-1940 has expanded the scope of this blooming body of literature on Italian radicalism in the New World. Other noteworthy recent books on immigrant anarchism in the United States include Marcella Bencivenni’s Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940 and Paul and Karen Avrich’s Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. The history of anarchism is one case where both trends – studying new historical actors and studying a global Progressive Era – are central to the literature.
International sport is another area where new historical actors are being studied in a global context. Sport and the American Occupation of the Philippines: Bats, Balls, and Bayonets by Gerald Gems shows how Americans used sport as part of their imperial project to deflect rivalry and discontent and instill certain value systems. International sports were not just an imperial project, but a contested arena wherein athletes of color gained a sense of agency and had the opportunity to challenge the white supremacist claim to physical or biological superiority. Theresa Runstedtler’s Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line discusses how one such athlete, African American boxer Jack Johnson, resisted the global color line. Many previous historical works have used Jack Johnson as a case study for understanding race and gender in the United States, as public reactions to his fights against white boxers often had much to reveal about contemporary discourses on masculinity and racial dominance. Runstedtler shows how, even when boxing outside of the United States, Johnson’s triumph over white men in the boxing ring and his affairs with white women in the bedroom stirred crises surrounding prevailing notions of white supremacy, social Darwinism, and body politics. This made visible, and sometimes called into question, central but often unspoken tenets of white supremacy. While sport might seem innocuous as a historical subject on the surface, Gems shows how sport was illustrative of the development of soft power in empire, and Runstedtler shows how sport exposes broad, transnational understandings of race and the body.
Another example of such intersection between new historical actors and transnational or global history is found in scholarship on humanitarian aid. Much of the above work focuses on how the United States’ place in the global community was constructed through diplomacy, military actions, and more informal, transnational networks of people and ideas. Humanitarianism is also central to foreign relations, and modern American foreign aid practices can be traced back to the Progressive Era. Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation's Humanitarian Awakening by Julia Irwin explores the subject of humanitarian aid by analyzing the history of the American Red Cross from its founding in 1881 to the aftermath of World War II. Irwin argues that the American Red Cross was crucial to the development of American foreign policy as it became both a progressive force for relief and an integral part of statecraft, international relations, and war.
As shown, recent scholarship on the Progressive Era is tremendously varied, covering topics as diverse as race, sport, emotions, and the environment. Taken together, recent books on the Progressive Era reveal a time when interconnected developments in society, policy, and culture were in flux, leading to pivotal changes in the United States and the world. This multifaceted period gave birth to so much of what defines modern America, warranting such wide-ranging scholarship and, consequently, providing many potential points of entry for those looking to learn more.
Anderson, Benedict. The Age of Globalization: Anarchists and the Anti-Colonial Imagination. New York: Verso, 2013.
Andrews, Thomas G. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Avrich, Karen, and Paul Avrich. Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Cambrdige, MA: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2012.
Baynton, Douglas C. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2016.
Bencivenni, Marcella. Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940. New York: NYU Press, 2014.
Bowman, Matthew. The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Canaday, Margot. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Chang, Kornel. Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.
Driskell, Jay Winston Jr. Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.
Gabaccia, Donna R. Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Gage, Beverly. The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Gems, Gerald R. Sport and the American Occupation of the Philippines: Bats, Balls, and Bayonets. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016.
Greenberg, David. Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
Guglielmo, Jennifer. Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Huyssen, David. Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Irwin, Julia F. Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Lake, Marilyn, and Henry Reynolds. Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Leonard, Thomas C. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Malin, Brenton J. Feeling Mediated: A History of Media Technology and Emotion in America. New York: NYU Press, 2014.
Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Nichols, Christopher McKnight. Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Phelps, Nicole M. U.S.-Habsburg Relations from 1815 to the Paris Peace Conference: Sovereignty Transformed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Prince, K. Stephen. Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
Rosenberg, Emily S., ed. A World Connecting, 1870-1945. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.
Runstedtler, Theresa. Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.
Rutkoff, Peter M., and William B. Scott. Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.
Suisman, David. Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Tomchuk, Travis. Transnational Radicals: Italian Anarchists in Canada and the U.S., 1915-1940. Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 2015.
Young, Jeremy C. The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Zimmer, Kenyon. Immigrants against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.