Presentism 60 Years Later

The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R. Richard Hofstadter, 1955

I referred to this book the other day, so I thought I ought to say something more about it. Introducing his subject in 1955, Richard Hofstadter said “Our conception of Populism and Progressivism has...been intimately bound up with the new Deal experience” (4).  While admitting a progressive movement would have been impossible “without the impetus given by certain social grievances,” Hofstadter preferred to separate out a cultural spirit of  progressivism, which he said was “not nearly so much the movement of any social class,” as “a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation.” (5)  Why?  Because by distinguishing a generalized, apolitical spirit of improvement called progressivism, he could cut its ties with the Populist political movement that preceded it.  And the Populist Party, in Hofstadter’s judgment, was at best anachronistic and backward-looking, and at worst a haven for racist, xenophobic kooks.

But this separation leads to a paradox Hofstadter recognized as “One of the more ironic problems confronting reformers...that the very activities they pursued in attempting to defend or restore the individualistic values they admired brought them closer to the techniques of organization they feared” (7).  Hofstadter tried to separate the Populist and Progressive movements, because he “found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good deal that was comic” in populism, and he wanted to purge those elements from progressivism (11).  Populism leads, he said, to “the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time,” and he wanted progressivism to lead somewhere purer, nobler, and more useful in the present day (15).

The problem is, Hofstadter’s definitions and the bundles of ideas he called liberalism and conservatism were presentist (in 1955), and his concerns were very much those of his own day. Attempting to shoe-horn the past so you can draw a lineage from progressivism to the 1950s Democratic platform while claiming the crazy, racist populists begat the Republicans seems a bit problematic. Did nobody notice at the time? This book was big. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

“The United States,” Hofstadter famously began Chapter One, “was born in the country and has moved to the city” (23).  It’s a mistake, then, to project contemporary, urban ideas back onto the radical farmers of the Gilded Age.  The “continued coexistence of reformism and reaction” and the contradiction of “liberal totalitarianism” might look substantially different, if viewed from a 19th century, rural point of view (20).  And on some level, Hofstadter was clearly aware of this. He reminded his readers that “in origin the agrarian myth was not a popular but a literary idea, a preoccupation of the upper classes” (25).  Hofstadter concluded too readily, I think, that farmers embraced the Jeffersonian agrarian myth -- which he admitted was a political device, “the basis of a strategy of continental development” (29).  That this led to a political rhetoric of “producers,” and later of “an innocent and victimized populace” does not prove that this was the way most rural people really thought of themselves and their world (35).  I think Hofstadter lost sight of the “most characteristic thinking” of the “ordinary culture” he said he wanted to find (6).

There are lots of great details in the book, that I’d like to learn more about.  I didn’t know that “In 1914, Canadian officials estimated that 925,000 Americans had moved...to the lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan” (53).  Didn’t know that Ignatius Donnelly’s book
Caesar’s Column was one of the most widely read books of the 1890s (67).  These are both interesting facts, and I think they both complicate Hofstadter’s claim that because of the agrarian myth, the “utopia of the Populists was in the past,” and country people really wanted to “restore the conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the commercialization of agriculture” (62).  At the very least, I think we might be able to separate those two phrases and examine whether farmers were really objecting in total to either of them--or just to their excesses.

I think the interpretation hangs on which conditions farmers wanted to reverse.  When Hofstadter called attention to Populists' use of the Jacksonian slogan “Equal Rights for All, Special Privileges for None,” I think he hit the nail on the head and simultaneously undermined his argument.  Maybe the core of the issue is an even earlier misinterpretation by John Hicks, who had characterized populism as “the last phase of a long and...losing struggle...to save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America” (quoting
The Populist Revolt p. 237, 94). What if the populists weren’t objecting so much to the changes that were happening in modernizing America (as Postel suggests), but to who benefited from change and how power was being misused to achieve those changes.

Not all farmers wanted the same things

Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917
Elizabeth Sanders, 1999

Elizabeth Sanders argues that “agrarian movements constituted the most important political force driving the development of the American national state in the half century before World War I” (1). But she also says they didn't really get what they wanted.  This story has not been well told, she says, because of a “strong urban labor bias” among social historians, and because Marxist-derived social theory perceives the “industrial working class” as the only “significant constituency” opposing the state and its ruling “hegemonic capitalist class” (2). Sanders says “the dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians’ drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism” (3-4). In 1910, “fewer than 9 percent of nonagricultural workers were members of trade unions,” so the agrarians were well-placed to drive their reform message into the mainstream (5). And they did just that, she says: “the Democratic Party of the post-1896 period was an overwhelmingly agrarian vehicle that carried the legacy of populism” (4). So why didn't farmers get what they had wanted?

Sanders argument is based on a very specific definition of agrarianism, that I think holds a lot of explanatory power. “The term ‘agrarian,’” she says, “is used here to reference those agricultural regions...that were devoted to one or two cash crops produced for national and international (as opposed to local) markets” (28). Sanders distinguishes these “peripheral” agrarians from the more prosperous, diversified farmers of perishable and “truck” products for local markets. It's interesting that the diversified farms, the ones that basically disappeared, are considered in this context as the strong, central farms, and the monoculturists we normally think of as the source of Populist criticism of railroads and flour monopolists was the shaky, "peripheral" group. Maybe they
did get what they wanted, at least in terms of moving to the center of the debate.

The more diversified “hinterland” farmers were dependent on their local urban markets, and their political behavior reflected this identification. In contrast, “periphery agrarians were more bound to the fate of a single crop (whose price was set in a world market), more distant from crop marketing, storage, and distribution centers; more likely to be dependent on a single rail line and monopolistic or oligopolistic purchasers,” in short, the powerless producers of undifferentiated staples we normally think of, when we read accounts of the farm movement.

For me, the really interesting element of the story might be this wedge Sanders opens between these different types of farmers, as well as between different types of cities. Centers that served rich agricultural areas (Minneapolis, Spokane, even Chicago) displayed different political patterns than eastern cities whose economies relied less on agriculture.  “Because of these differences in city functions, the urban-rural distinction
per se has limited explanatory power in American politics” (16). And farmers operating in the corn belt, responsible for “the greatest concentration of corn and meat production in the world,” clearly lived different lives and as a result had different political motivations from the diversified farmers. (17)  The fact that the South, “by virtue of its size and the intensity of its grievances...almost inevitably led the periphery voting bloc in Congress,” may be a clue to a relatively unexplored division between farmers (27). Rather than thinking of rural people as sharing a common agenda, maybe we should be looking for the differences of opinion and political priorities that caused some of their major organizations to adopt an apolitical stance.

Sanders suggests that political constituencies might be grouped like economic “trading areas,” citing Bensel’s
Sectionalism and American Political Development, and his use of Rand McNally trade area maps.  This seems like it might be a promising way to look at some of the issues I’m finding in my research, which covers a group of farmers and rural businessmen who seem to be left out of the traditional story of agrarian radicalism. She concludes that agrarian-labor coalitions failed because they were “rent by class, ethnic, and regional political economy differences that diminished their capacity for economic and political mobilization and--particularly in the case of southern racial segregation--their moral authority” (412). But most interesting, Sanders suggests that although the periphery agrarians naturally advocated national government action to right the wrongs of the production/distribution/finance system, they did not support the Progressive-style discretionary bureaucracy they ultimately got. They believed “Policy-making should not be the province of ‘experts’ socially and geographically far removed” from their constituents; it should be “local, decentralized, ad-hoc” (388-9). So the question (and the story waiting to be told) is, wanting what they wanted, how is it they got what they got?

That Pessimism Which is Really Optimism

The Populist Vision Charles Postel, 2007

Charles Postel won the Bancroft Prize for this book about “how Americans responded to the traumas of technological innovation, expansion of corporate power, and commercial and cultural globalization in the 1880s and 1890s.” (vii) Populists, Postel says, were “influenced by modernity and sought to make America modern.” (vii)  Throughout the book, Postel shows rural people embracing change, and especially technological change that made their work and lives easier and more rewarding.  This view, he says, challenges the dominant strain of thought (especially Hofstadter), that sees rural people and especially populists as cranky victims of change, who looked back nostalgically to an earlier age when the rest of the world shared their agrarian “producer” philosophy.  A key example is the populist approach to railroads. Postel never suggests this new technology didn’t radically improve life in the countryside. The issue was, how should these new technological enterprises be organized, and for whose benefit?

This is a refreshing change, and it reframes the issue in a way that's relevant today. Postel gives regular people a lot of credit for intelligence, political awareness, and active involvement in the key issues of their day. He begins his introduction with a description of how a voluntary association of florists (a coop) “embraced the new technology” of the telegraph, which had “annihilated time and space” (3). They standardized their businesses and products to allow the customer to order uniform products that could be delivered across town or across continents. All by themselves, these scattered florists became FTD. Populists "believed in the transforming power of science and technology,” Postel says. “They believed in economies of scale...they believed in the logic of modernity” (4). Just as important, he shows that they understood these issues perhaps better than we do now. “Populism was known as ‘a reading party’ and a ‘writing and talking party’ ” (4). It is as important to understand what the Populists “were for” as what they were against, says Postel. If they were pessimistic (as Turner and Hofstadter claimed), then Postel says it was with
Hamlin Garland’s “kind of pessimism which is really optimism...that is to say, people who believe the imperfect and unjust can be improved upon” (my italics, 11).


Postel also explores the connection between Populists and labor activists. Although the standard story is that they could never get together because farmers were proprietor/employers and wage workers were not, Postel finds many examples of cooperation, especially among rural workers. “Farmers were often part-time coal miners, and coal miners often farmed to supplement their diet and income” (19). This approach shows a greater sensitivity to conditions on the ground than many other historians who stick to the categories. But Postel is also quick to point out problems with the populist vision, such as when it veered toward racism and advocated majoritarian, government/industrial organization on a scale that would later (elsewhere) be called fascist.

If farmers had any antipathy toward universities, Postel says, it was only because rather than catering to rural needs, the schools “seemed to lavish resources on future lawyers, doctors, ministers, and other professionals” (47). So once again, their objection is not to change itself, but to who benefits from the change. Many farmers took their educations into their own hands. It was the “great equalizer in commerce, technology, and social standing,” so they “built lecture circuits across some thirty states, and a network of approximately one thousand weekly newspapers” (49).

I have to pause here a moment. This is jumping out at me right now, as I think about preparing to be a college-level teacher. To a great extent, the early 20th century rise of professionalism and universities in America killed off this 19th century type of local self-education. But today, the web opens a possibility for people to take control of their own educations again. I think I need to spend some quality time thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and for whom?

Postel's book is also full of interesting people and things to research someday: Charles Macune, Luna Kellie, Marion Cannon, the National Cordage and the National Union Company (did the 1893 National Cordage bankruptcy precipitate the stock market crash?), the Gulf and Interstate Railway Company (north-south transcontinental), William Peffer, 2nd class postage and RFD, Anna Fader Haskell, who sounds like a 19th century female version of Tyler Durden, and doesn’t even have her own wiki page! Marion Todd (1893,
Railways of Europe and America), Daniel Weaver, a Chartist who tried to organize coal miners in the 1860s, and of course Darrow v. Bryan at the Skopes Monkey Trial (1925), and Eugene V. Debs.