Atlantic Crossings

Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age by Daniel Rodgers

            In his tome Atlantic Crossings, Daniel Rodgers seeks to reconceptualize our understanding of America’s famous and often-studied “Progressive Era” by arguing that Progressive reform wasn’t particularly American. The reformers of the early decades of the twentieth century – from Jane Addams to Franklin Roosevelt – were working as part of international reform movement in the Atlantic world. Rodgers’ pushes his argument further than that insight, however, and suggests that Progressive ideas weren’t particularly American but, rather, had their origins in Europe. This “transatlantic progressive connection,” to Rodgers, argues against American “exceptionalism” for in the world of “social politics” Americans were often behind the times, perhaps even backwards.

In Atlantic Crossings, Rodgers hones in on the world of ideas in this “transatlantic progressive connection” and traces how political ideas traversed back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. Rodgers takes a broad left-liberal approach to defining that always-slippery group historians call “progressives.” Progressives, to Rodgers, range from reform socialists on one edge to welfare capitalists on the other – only communists are, truly, left out in the cold. What unites progressives in this account is a commitment to ideas that seek “to limit the social costs of aggressive, market capitalism.”[1] Indeed, “social politics’ key arena was where individual conscience came up hard against the cruelties, miseries, injustices, and inefficiencies of modern life.”[2] Rodgers, also, addresses an admirably broad swath of reform efforts – from workers’ insurance, to urban planning, to farmers’ cooperatives.

Atlantic Crossings has a relatively stable structure that flows through the nearly all of the text. The beginning of a chapter addresses the European origins (largely German and British) and circumstances of a set of reform ideas, say urban planning, while the second half the chapter addresses the American implications of the European importation of these ideas. Virtually every progressive reform movement had a limited impact on American politics, economics, and society. On the western side of the “transatlantic progressive connection” reform was always incomplete. To return to our urban planning example, of multitude of ideas in reshaping urban space only zoning had most thoroughgoing success in the United States. Nothing emerged out of the “transatlantic progressive connection” unchanged and unmodified but, Rodgers stresses, all of those movements and ideas had their “geneses” in that intellectual network.

Rodgers’ narrative has three distinct phases. The first, from the last decades of nineteenth century to the First World War the formative period of progressivism. Here progressive reformers first began to bring over the ideas generated by the intellectual and social ferment of Europe to America.  The “transatlantic progressive connection” was particularly German in this phase, with reformers and intellectuals (such as Richard Ely) educated in the great German universities returning with their heads full of critiques of laissez faire economics. Reformers had limited success in this phase and constantly faced backlash and the reforms they were able to implement were distorted in their new American context – perhaps beyond recognition. For example, Ely faced discrimination in the academy for his views (and had to rework them to stay employed) and public housing became tied to poor relief and not to uplift of the working class (as in Europe).

The second phase of Atlantic Crossings’ narrative covers the period of the First World War and its aftermath. World War I and the mobilization’s “war collectivism” saw progressives get their first real taste of power and success. Progressives were brought into the new government agencies and reforms gained more traction than anytime earlier years of the twentieth century. As intoxicating as this newfound entrance into the center of power could be, progressives overreached. They had too much faith in how much “reconstruction” the American people would stand in the war’s aftermath. As Rodgers puts it, “Progressives inspired by the war’s collectivist experiments wrongly presumed that the extraordinary policy learning of 1917 and 1918 would be permanent.”[3] This overreach led to a backlash – in the form of the Red Scare – and a return of the progressives to the policy wilderness. The war, obviously, also marked the end of the German phase of progressivism’s internationalism.

The final phase of Rodger’s narrative is the New Deal years and the Second World War. Progressives spent the interwar years far from the halls of power, in Rodger’s narrative, but the crisis of the Great Depression ushered them back in. Their years in the political and policy wilderness had built up a “logjam” of policy innovations that rushed forth onto the agenda upon the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This “logjam,” to Rodgers, explains the contradictory and multifaceted nature of the New Deal. Over a generation of ideas and policies had built up and during the 1930s and with the New Deal“[t]he American tortoise became a hare.”[4] The New Deal is, to Rodgers, a cumulation of the Progressive Era and “transatlantic progressive connection” but it is also marks that connection’s end. With World War 2, Americans saw that Europe had destroyed itself and the United States swung to its rescue. On top of the world – politically, intellectually, and economically – at the end of the war, the “phoenix of exceptionalism” was on the rise. The generation of reformers and liberals after the war “no longer marched toward the future with an eye cocked on their western European competitors.”[5] America had a lot to teach the world but the world had little to teach it.

The story Daniel Rodgers tells in Atlantic Crossings is a heroic one. This is not the tome to turn to see the darker side of progressivism – reformers support of segregation, prohibition, or eugenics. Indeed, it is not the place to turn to learn much about the role of women or African-Americans in progressivism or the progressive world of ideas. Many individual women (such as Jane Addams and Francis Perkins) and a few African-Americans (mainly W.E.B Dubois) are discussed for their individual actions but the overall place of these groups in the “transatlantic progressive connection” remains largely untouched by Rodgers. The formation of the NAACP gets a single mention and the suffrage and temperance movements even less.

In the end, Rodgers’ book is somewhat persuasive but also a ponderous and over-argued doorstopper. It is impossible to walk away from Atlantic Crossings unconvinced that there was an important international element to progressive reform. But is that international element the primary explanatory force behind progressivism? I remain unconvinced. It seems that after reading chapter after chapter of Euro-American progressive exchange, that too much was changed in the political and intellectual process of importation for the international element of progressivism to have much explanatory power. If every progressive reform was fundamentally altered in the American context, should the “transatlantic progressive connection” be ranked high in our list of causal elements? Perhaps not. While it is difficult, I believe, to argue that American progressivism was “exceptional” – particularly with its many shortcomings – it certainly was peculiar and deeply American; just as German progressivism was peculiar and deeply German, as was French progressivism, Danish progressivism, and British progressivism.

TIE-IN: Rodger’s assessment of Progressivism and the New Deal lines up well with Alan Brinkley’s End of Reform – in that the New Deal marked the end of something, a loss of the reforming edge. Although Michael McGerr is more negative towards progressivism as a whole, he lines up well with Rodger’s assessment that the First World War was a turning point.

[1] Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 2.

[2] Ibid, 31.

[3] Ibid, 316.

[4] Ibid, 412.

[5] Ibid, 503.


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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