The Strange History of a Radical Idea
276 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: February 2023
- ISBN: 9780268106980
- Published: February 2020
- ISBN: 9780268106973
- Published: February 2020
- ISBN: 9780268106997
- ISI Conservative Book of the Year Finalist
At its core this book is intellectual history, tracing the work of progressive historians as they in turn wrote the history of progressivism.
In Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea, Bradley C. S. Watson presents an intellectual history of American progressivism as a philosophical-political phenomenon, focusing on how and with what consequences the academic discipline of history came to accept and propagate it. This book offers a meticulously detailed historiography and critique of the insularity and biases of academic culture. It shows how the first scholarly interpreters of progressivism were, in large measure, also its intellectual architects, and later interpreters were in deep sympathy with their premises and conclusions. Too many scholarly treatments of the progressive synthesis were products of it, or at least were insufficiently mindful of two central facts: the hostility of progressive theory to the Founders’ Constitution and the tension between progressive theory and the realm of the private, including even conscience itself. The constitutional and religious dimensions of progressive thought—and, in particular, the relationship between the two—remained hidden for much of the twentieth century. This pathbreaking volume reveals how and why this scholarly obfuscation occurred. The book will interest students and scholars of American political thought, the Progressive Era, and historiography, and it will be a useful reference work for anyone in history, law, and political science.
Foreword by Charles R. Kesler
1. The Revolt against the Constitution
2. The Real Presence of Christ
3. Gray in Gray: The Strange History of Progressive History in the 1940s and 1950s
4. Progressive Historiography in a Countercultural Age
5. Intellectual Consolidation and Counterattack: Conservatism and Revisionism from the 1980s to the Present
6. The Shades of History
“Progressivism is novel because neither is it in thrall to progressivism nor does it consider progressivism as inevitable and inevitably domesticated. Rather, the author is capable of criticizing progressivism at a fundamental level.” —Johnathan O’Neill, author of Originalism in American Law and Politics
“This is a singularly original contribution. I know of no such comprehensive review of the historiography of progressivism.” —Paul Moreno, author of Black Americans and Organized Labor
“Watson has crafted, not so much a historical genealogy of Progressivism, as its historiography. . . . Along the line of Watson’s march appear some of the brightest stars in the firmament of American historical writing (and political-history writing) in the 20th century: Richard Hofstadter, . . . Henry Steele Commager, Daniel Boorstin, C. Vann Woodward, David Potter, Louis Hartz, Arthur Link, Gabriel Kolko, Henry F. May, and Robert Wiebe.” —Claremont Review of Books
"The book is more than an extended review of the literature . . . ; it is an indictment. And it is hard not to agree with Watson’s assessment that these historians were guilty of obscuring as much as they illuminated about the Progressives." —Law and Liberty
"Bradley C. S. Watson’s new book Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea points scholars in new and productive directions regarding the political thought of the Progressive Era. Watson writes with vigor and verve, making the book of great appeal to anyone trying to take the true measure of the legacy of Progressive political thought in American history." —Public Discourse
"In this new offering from Watson, Progressivism is put under the microscope and examined during its 20th-century development. . . . The book proceeds chronologically through the 20th century to the current day, which gives readers a solid accounting of how Progressive ideas evolved and then merged with still later ideas." —Choice
"This book leaves the reader with a deep suspicion of several generations of progressive historians who wrote without being fully honest or fully aware of the tensions between progressivism and the American founders. Beyond that, [it] requires us to think about the challenges of progressive thought to the legitimacy of American institutions and to the American regime as a whole. By provoking these questions, Watson leads us to the deepest level of American politics which is nothing other than a continuous dialogue and critical engagement with the American Founders." —VoegelinView
As progressives mobilized intellectually and politically around the inadequacies and injustices of the founders’ Constitution and the modern economic order, they did so with a fervor for, and faith in, the social sciences, which they thought could remedy injustice. The intensity of their fervor and faith can be traced to the influence of religion.
At the dawn of the Progressive Era, American Christianity still buttressed the constitutional order by linking human fallenness to the need for political moderation, individual rights and responsibilities, and limited government, which in turn reflected what historian Johnathan O’Neill refers to as “the long-established view that maintenance of a political regime involves ideas and sensibilities associated most readily in the Western tradition with religion.” Scholars have also shown that this view of religion and morality, pointing to fidelity to a Constitution embodying immutable truths, informed the thinking and constitutional interpretations of pre-progressive Supreme Court justices. So for the progressives, regime change necessarily meant religious change, and vice versa. Christian progressives held that a new era had dawned, based on a new conception of religious obligation. A reconstituted worldly Christianity called for the expansion of the state in the name of moral and theological progress.
This reconstitution accounted for the zeal of many progressives, confident as they were not only of the direction of history but of their own rectitude. As Christian progressives directed their minds to what they saw as the new problems confronting America, they exhibited various degrees of millenarianism, which accounted for the power of their thought and its ability to capture the hearts and minds of a growing cadre of true believers. Throughout the Progressive Era, religious language was common at political gatherings at the local, state, and national levels, including even national conventions. But the fervor of Christian progressivism was unlike that of prior American religious awakenings. Instead of concentrating on individual moral failings and the especial need for individual reformation, Christian progressives concentrated their gaze almost exclusively on matters of social and economic justice. By the first decades of the twentieth century, both Protestant social gospelers and Catholic reformers were vigorously attempting to shift the center of gravity of mainline Christianity toward applying what they claimed to be true Christian ethics in the here and now. It was clear that they understood their project to be both radical and political, and a very sharp break from the Christianity of their fathers. They “prided themselves on having freed Christianity from the shackles of the past—asceticism, dogmatism, and ceremonialism—and on having transformed it into a message befitting the future—brotherly love in a truly democratic society.” For these progressives, Christian churches placed too great an emphasis on the salvation of souls and the life of the world to come. The real presence of Christ came to take on whole new meaning.
Historians of progressivism have occasionally observed this phenomenon but have been divided on its origins and significance. Some have noted that, along with more purely economic notions like “antimonopolism” and “efficiency,” the language of “social bonds” ran through most strains of progressivism and was juxtaposed against homo economicus, and especially the notion of man as the autonomous wielder of property rights. This was the language “most tightly attached to the churches and the university lecture halls. Its roots stretched toward Germany and, still more importantly, toward the social gospel. When progressives talked of society and solidarity the rhetoric they drew upon was, above all, the rhetoric of socialized Protestantism.” Richard Hofstadter goes so far as to trace the roots of progressivism to Protestant guilt and the need to atone:
In evangelical Protestantism the individual is expected to bear
almost the full burden of the conversion and salvation of his
soul. What his church provides him with, so far as this goal is
concerned, is an instrument of exhortation. In Catholicism,
by contrast, as in some other churches, the mediating role
of the Church itself is of far greater importance and the
responsibility of the individual is not keyed up to quite the
same pitch. A working mechanism for the disposal and
psychic mastery of guilt is available to Roman Catholics
in the form of confession and penance. If this difference
is translated into political terms, the moral animus of
Progressivism can be better understood.
But such psychological and theological reductionism cannot adequately account for what Protestant progressives claimed was the essentially social and political nature of the Christian enterprise, or for the strains of progressivism that animated leading Catholic thinkers—including, for example, Fr. John Ryan. In A Living Wage, Ryan, like his Protestant counterparts, sought human solidarity and heavenly justice through economic policy.8 And in this quest, he sought to turn Catholicism—as the social gospel movement had turned Protestantism—against the American system of constitutionally limited government, private property, and capitalism, in the search for a more rational scientific state that would support nothing less than the Kingdom of God on earth.
The roots of the modern administrative state thus run deep in the soil of Christian progressivism. But one might go further and argue that religious reformers drew on notions of moral duty running from Aristotle through the medieval Catholic intellectual tradition, albeit often infused with an antiprudential Kantian moralism. And as a practical matter, Protestant progressives allied with both Catholics and Jews, whose understandings of law and morality antedated modernity. While rejecting the natural rights tradition of the American founders, religious progressives—unlike their secular confreres—at least formally asserted versions of a natural moral order, and even natural rights, which purported to be timeless. They were not willing to reduce “nature” merely to physical or biological laws.
In short, one needs to take religion more seriously than many historians have been prepared to do. The centrality of serious and wide-ranging religious sentiment to progressive ideology should not be underestimated. Christian progressives joined forces with economists like Richard T. Ely and political scientists like Woodrow Wilson against what they claimed were the new economic and social realities that had been fully unleashed by the modern industrial age. They generally glossed over, and sometimes deliberately understated, the fundamentally anticonstitutional character of their arguments and the reforms to which they pointed. Secular and Christian progressive thinkers together pressed for an expansion of state power, and especially national state power, at the expense of constitutional limits. And in the case of the theologians, it was also at the expense of the sacred, even as the essential revelations and rituals of Christianity were of vital importance to them. Theirs was a natural law that did not limit government in principle but rather vouchsafed its protean expansion as it simultaneously reduced Christian faith to a set of economic and political demands.
From a contemporary perspective, it seems ironic that social Christianity of both the Protestant and Catholic varieties helped lay the foundations for the modern administrative state, as nowadays religious faith is frequently associated with political conservatism and opposition to progressive goals. But it was not always so. And to the extent that a secularized millenarianism is evident in the rhetoric of contemporary liberalism, it can trace its origins to the rather insistent piety of the early progressive religious thinkers.