The Age of Reform

The Age of Reform

The Age of Reform is a 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Richard Hofstadter. The book is an American history that traces events from the Populist Movement of the 1890s through the Progressive Era ending with the New Deal in the 1930s. "The Age of Reform" stands out from other historical material because Hofstadter's main purpose for writing is not to retell an extensive history of the three movements, but to analyze the common beliefs of the reform groups in our modern perspective, in order to elucidate many distortions, most notably between the New Deal and Progressivism.

Hofstadter organizes his book chronologically beginning with Populism. Here, Hofstadter introduces a key concept in understanding Populism: the agrarian myth. The author explains this as a representation of homage that Americans have paid to the subsistent, innocent, and yeoman farmer of old. The myth became a stereotype in later years since agriculture became more commercial, thus leading to over expansion. Populism's main cause for formation was the alleged loss of "free land."; Many Populist leaders believed that industry and government had a vendetta to destroy the agricultural business. This conspiracy rose from lack of education, a fault that also created anti-Semitism and nativism. The last chapter on Populism explains the agricultural prosperity after the Populist revolt because city migration lessened competition and farmers began to organize for the first time. Hofstadter highlights the foibles in the Populist revolt. The first was its sectional appeal rather than national. Secondly, its leaders were incompetent and there was a perennial lack of funds. However, the single most destructive weakness was the silver issue. By coalescing with the Democratic campaign of 1896 on silver, Populists committed suicide. Despite their dissolution, Populists were successful in that the criticism they released caused to passage of new laws years after their time.

The next major reform movement was Progressivism. The two groups of Populism and Progressivism shared many philosophies, yet the latter was widely accepted because it was not seen by the majority as an anarchical revolt. The causes for Progressivism were the status revolution in the post-Civil War era ("new money" supplanted the "old money" prestige), the alienation of professionals, and the introduction of the Mugwump. The urban scene during the Progressive era was examined by Hofstadter who concluded that the city provided little support for the movement. The reason was because immigrants cared not for reforms, but for democracy in general. From this Hofstadter provides evidence form numerous sources of the general nativism possessed by Progressives. As a corollary of the growing urban scene, newspapers bloomed leading to muckrakers. These Progressive journalists multiplied as new styles of magazines appeared. The last chapter focused on enemies of Progressives like trusts, unions, and political machines. Leaders expressed the need for entrepreneurship, individualism, and moral responsibility rather than organization.

"The Age of Reform's" final section stretches from Progressivism's end through the New Deal. Reformations have an interesting relationship with wars in that the aftermath of war is usually a time of conservatism. Such was the case after World War I with the death of Progressivism. The New Deal was a culmination of both Populism and Progressivism, however Hofstadter stresses that for the most part the New Deal was a "new departure" and despite its continual association with Progressivism, it was actually quite dissimilar. The reason why it was different is because the New Deal was born out of the Great Depression, not prosperity like the other two. Hofstadter expounds on the New Deal's characteristics; the New Deal was not concerned with democratizing the economy, but managing it to meet the problems of the people. The New Deal had no set plans of reform; it was a chaotic experiment. Old Progressive woes were ignored, party bosses were left alone, and the New Deal did not intervene with big business because the public wanted economic restoration, not regulation. A major disparity between Progressivism and the New Deal was that the latter was not based on Protestant morality and responsibility, but was more pragmatic. The latter reform movement did not use moral rhetoric to create changes, but physically acted.

Richard Hofstadter's "The Age of Reform" is a genuine evaluation of the reform associations from Bryan to F.D.R. Rather than just provide a copious number of details of each reform movement, Hofstadter instead analyzes the ideas of the average participant, not the legislative or political philosophies. By writing from this perspective, "The Age of Reform" proves to be an innovative historical work. In the introduction, Hofstadter states his point clearly: his purpose is to analyze the reformations in modern perspective and to define the distinctions between each of them. By the book's conclusion, Hofstadter has effectively done this. The clearest example of his efficacy is in the final chapter on the New Deal. The last section has an abundance of acute disparities between the New Deal and the closely related Populist and Progressive reforms. Despite the vast number of facts and outside sources, Hofstadter effectively organized the book both chronologically and topically. His method of order accommodates the reader in that each reform is divided into chapters that are then divided into specific sections. By dividing up the material into smaller portions, the main points are easily accessed.

"The Age of Reform" is a candid approach to the reforms from the period 1890-1941, showing little to no bias. The fact that it was published in 1955 has an effect on the facts of the reform organizations. As previously stated, one of Hofstadter's principal goals was to clear up the overly strong association between the New Deal and the other two reform parties. Had the work been published in the 1940s, the material would have been biased towards labeling the New Deal as a direct corollary of Progressivism. Hofstadter adequately avoided bias on either side.

Regardless, some of Hofstadter's arguments have since been proven to be mistaken by contemporary and later historians including Norman Pollack, C.Vann Woodward, Lawrence Goodwyn and Robert Wiebe. These historians point out several of Hofstadter's misconceptions of the Populists and the Progressives. Hofstadter's misunderstandings include the fact that the Populists were not simply incipient capitalists trying to reform but were instead forward looking radicals who sought a democratized industrial system and a transformation of social values in order to help the individual protect his humanity as his autonomy slipt away from him in a rapidly industrializing society. The Progressives, according to Robert Wiebe and others in the "modernization school" were made up not of status revolutionaries from the old guard or disaffected professionals, but were instead composed of a new class of educated professionals who came of age in the new interconnected modernizing world. These new professionals not only understood how to navigate the new bureaucracy through creating symbiotic relationships between government, education, and business but pressed through "reforms" that did away with the old "local" way of doing business by enacting civil service reforms replacing elected officials with appointed "experts".


*Brinkley, Alan. "Richard Hofstadter's The Age of Reform: A Reconsideration". Reviews in American History. Vol. 13, No. 3 (September 1985) pp. 462-480.

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