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Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era



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When Professor Benjamin Parke De Witt of New York University sat down to write the first history of the progressive movement in 1915, he promised “to give form and definiteness to a movement which is, in the minds of many, confused and chaotic.” Apparently it was a fool's errand, because confusion and chaos continued to plague historians of early twentieth-century reform long after Professor De Witt laid his pen to rest. The maddening variety of reform and reformers in the early twentieth century has perpetually confounded historians' efforts to identify what, if anything, the progressives had in common. Back in the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter charitably allowed that progressives were “of two minds on many issues,” whereas Arthur Link argued that “the progressive movement never really existed” because it pursued so many “contradictory objectives.” In the 1960s, Robert Wiebe concluded that the progressives, if they constituted a movement at all, showed “little regard for consistency.” In the 1970s, Peter Filene wrote an “obituary” for progressivism by reasserting Link's claim that the movement had “never existed” because it was so divided and diffuse. In the 1980s, Daniel Rodgers tried to recast the “ideologically fluid” progressive movement as a pastiche of vaguely related rhetorical styles. By the 1990s, so many competing characterizations of progressivism had emerged that Alan Dawley wondered if “they merely cancel each other out.” In 2002, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore declared emphatically that “historians cannot agree” on progressivism. In 2010, Walter Nugent admitted that “the movement's core theme has been hard to pin down” because progressivism had “many concerns” and “included a wide range of persons and groups.”


Copyright © 2011 Cambridge University Press. The full article appears in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progessive Era. DOI: 10.2307/3117144

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