The Search for Order

[This summary was originally written for Dr. Robert Johnson’s Literature of American History, II taken in Spring 2011]

Summary of Robert H. Wiebe’s The Search for Order, 1877-1920

The Basics

+ This book is a classic political and social history – magisterial, highly readable, and prone to sweeping pronouncements /generalizations. The book contains no notes.
+ Fundamentally, the book is story of the breakdown of nineteenth century “island communities” and their replacement with a modern, organized society. Urban replaces agrarian and the central organizing experience of American life.
+The hero of the story is the emerging middle (or professional) class and their expression in politics, the progressive movement.
+This is the sort of history Charles Postel is writing against in The Populist Vision.

The “Dissented Society”

+Through the final decades of nineteenth century American society was made of “island communities” – relatively homogenous communities which replicated themselves over generations. Even when people moved they did not create ‘new’ communities but simple reproduced their previous home in a new place. i.e. New Englanders who moved from Massachusetts to Ohio replicated their New England community in Ohio.
+These “island communities” included urban spaces as well. Urban spaces were segregated between classes and ethnic groups – rich stayed among the rich, the poor among the poor, the Italians among the Italians, etc. etc. – with very little social interaction.
+ “Small town life” was the default setting for your typical American.
+ No class consciousness was developed among any social/economic strata. Old rich were divided against new rich; working class was divided along ethnic/occupational/racial lines.
+The last decades of nineteenth century saw the complete breakdown of this society. Massive and rapid urbanization, immigration, and technological innovation irrecoverably shattered traditional America. A community could be an island no more.
+ The center of American development moved from expansion of railways from coast to coast to satisfying the consumptive needs of the expanding urban centers.
+ The pace of change outpaced Americans – of every class – ability to cope with change. This led people – from the robber barons to agrarian leaders – to seek to address short term problems.  Leaders and thinkers did not take a long term view and was unable to find solutions to long term issues or root causes of problems affecting their communities.
+ Efforts at reform (temperance, immigration reform, even suffrage) in the late nineteenth century were reactionary attempts to restore a vision of American that was dead and gone.
+ The Populist movement was the ‘best’ and culmination of all of the late nineteenth century reform.
+ Tensions between reform and competing visions of economic life reached a peak in the first years of the 1890s. Politics was polarized and traditional forms of compromise/wheeling & dealing were breaking down.
+ The 1896 Presidential election (McKinley v. Bryan) was the unconsciously agreed upon final battle of between the forces contending to restore American society to its roots. McKinley’s victory broke the tension hanging over American politics and marked a victory for the business elite. Forces of reform scattered. This created the ideological/political space to fresh solutions to the problems facing newly modern America.
+ “Classical economics” was coming increasingly under practical and ideological challenge from thinkers and activists. However, these challengers continued to express their discontent in the language of and through the frame of classical economic thinking. Even the most radical thinkers (“romantic Marxists” and Social Gospelers) were unable to completely break from old ways of thinking.
+All of this set the stage for the rise of the new middle class and the progressives.

The New Middle Class & Progressivism

+ The new middle class which emerged between 1895 and 1905 was the first class to develop anything like class consciousness in modern America.
+ The new middle class emerged out of social and economic revolution within the professions (lawyers, doctors, teachers, social workers, et al.).
+ During the first half of the nineteenth century the professions had undergone“democratization” where educational bars were lowered or virtually eliminated – allowing almost anyone to enter a profession. Thus the quantity of professionals grew exponentially but with that increase there was a significant decline in quality of service and professional prestige. The late nineteenth century saw a rapid rising of the educational bar of entry to the professions. This increased the professional prestige and economic value of the professions. The most obvious example is the medical profession.
+The fundamental outlook of this new class was bureaucratic. The new middle/professional class “made ‘science practically synonymous with the ‘scientific method’.” The importance of following procedure was paramount.
+ Previously social and economic problems were thought of as single issues (i.e. the ‘Labor problem’ or the ‘Negro problem’). What was now stressed was the interlocking nature of social problems and conflicts.
+The ideological focus was no longer on the individual but on the collective.
+The ideological and economic interests of this new professional class found its political expression in the progressive movement.
+Progressives fundamentally altered traditional American ways of thinking about how government should work: “The good men were no longer moral exemplars, but leaders of broad power; minimum waste implied a smoothly functioning bureaucracy, not a handful of honest men on low salaries; a rational electorate presupposed the eventual inclusion of all citizens, instead of its restriction to one class; civil service promised increasing government service throughout the nation rather than its further withdrawal; direct democracy no longer replaced the government in Washington , but strengthened it; and the harmonious society, now usually composed of interacting groups instead of isolated individuals ,depending upon the government’s presence, not its absence.”
+Progressivism had a potentially democratic impulse (the masses setting the agenda through elections and tools of direct democracy with that agenda implemented by an educated bureaucracy) and authoritarian side (an educated bureaucracy imposed its win on the masses in the name of a scientific devised common good).

The Progressive Era

+ Progressivism had two common political expressions: “business progressivism” & “state progressivism”.
+Business progressivism tied itself to sympathetic business interest that funded private reform efforts (often in health care). This form of progressivism often had dynamic reformers who could marshal contributors and bring the attention of the press. However, reform was always contingent on keeping the donors happy.
+State progressivism attempted to leverage the power of the state in the service of progressive reform. Progressive bureaucrats manned new government agencies producing statistics and reports. The most powerful tool of state progressivism was the independent commission which could set policy on its own. Was often limited by local – city and state – concerns and often worked against national policymakers.
+This period saw large scale Congressional reform. Congressmen began to become specialized in particular policy issues and they brought progressive bureaucrats into government to provide needed expertise. This allowed some bureaucrats to have large power over specific arenas. However, large scale progressive reformers, critics, and philosophers were kept out of government. Fundamentally, policy making remained in control of the politicians.
+Progressivism didn’t fully enter the national stage until the (Teddy) Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt wasn’t a “true” progressive, but he championed specific reform efforts to further his own power and prestige. Roosevelt was “an imperious master as well as an invaluable ally.” As long as a reform benefited him politically, Roosevelt was willing to back it. Most importantly, under the Roosevelt administration, the executive branch first began to seize the initiative in government from the legislative branch.
+Taft ran on Roosevelt’s successes (an important precedent). Taft proved too cautious for many progressives, for he believed in conserving existing reforms and pursuing new change gradually. Viewed in the context of his predecessor in office, Taft was a failure.
+The Wilson administration was the first fully progressive administration but during Wilson’s two terms reform measures were often compromises and the issues taken up were things left undone by the Taft administration. The little “new” reforms were put on the table. The first large scale and somewhat systematic progressive reforms were taken up during the Wilson administration – the Federal Reserve, progressive taxation, the first child labor law, etc. Most importantly, initiative in government was now completely the realm of the executive branch. There was no returning to Congress as the dominate branch.
+Progressivism made an imperialistic and aggressive foreign policy possible. Before the coming of progressivism the apparatus of American foreign policy was weak – the army, navy, and Foreign Service were undermanned and incompetent. Beginning with Roosevelt but especially with the Wilson administration and the First World War a true foreign policy bureaucracy took shape allowing American to fully take up its great power status.
+At no point during the “Progressive Era” did progressives completely in control of any government – especially the national government. Progressive reform was always

To 1920

+By 1920 progressivism was spent as a political force. Despite the failure of many progressive reforms, the success of some had left a strong “feeling of fulfillment” among many reformers.
+Many progressive reforms reacted in honor as new groups – such as labor unions – began a
+The First World showed how transformed American had become by progressivism, despite the movement’s limitations. American society was more organized, bureaucratic, and ‘scientific’ than ever before.
+The leaders how emerged after 1920 – especially Hebert Hoover – would be the children of this new social, economic, and social context.

What’s Missing From This Story

+Women and the suffrage movement
+Native Americans
+A full accounting of the labor history of this period
+Religion – Catholic, Protestant, and beyond


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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