239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

November 30, 1912
New York, NY
Storify Feature

The Collapse of the Progressives: 1917-1920

ACCORDING TO MOST scholars, the Progressive Era began in a flurry of public energy in or around 1890. After the Civil War a new social phenomenon — industrialization — transformed the fabric of American life. Huge corporations swallowed competitors and concentrated wealth in the hands of a few men, such as those named Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. Where the money flowed the politicians followed, extending the financial control the railroads and the banks had accumulated into the national corridors of power. Unregulated railroads raised their rates, farming incomes plummeted, living conditions in cities like New York deteriorated as rural Americans and European immigrants flocked to squalid factory jobs in swelling urban centers.


Between 1890 and 1920, millions of Americans, calling themselves “progressives,” campaigned against child labor, for more representative government, against corporate control of the economy, for worker’s rights and women’s suffrage. “Progressivism,” historians Arthur Link and Richard McCormick wrote in their seminal 1983 book of the same title, “was the only reform movement ever experienced by the whole American nation.”

The Americans ‘Abdu’l-Bahá met in 1912 lived on the cresting heights of a decades-long wave of optimism generated by faith in the ability of new sciences — statistics, economics, sociology, and psychology prominent among them — to solve the injustices of the industrial age. The watershed election of that year incarnated a wide-ranging national debate about the future of America’s economic, social, and political structure. Within four years the major planks of the progressive movement had been enacted by Congress and the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson.

But then the unexpected happened.

On April 1, 1917, the day before he was to stand in front of Congress and ask for a declaration of war against Germany, President Wilson unburdened his heart to the editor of the New York Tribune. “Once lead this people into war,” he lamented, “and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street.”

Although Wilson worried about open conflict, the truth was that rifts engendered by the war had already begun to spread. Anti-German sentiment had already ruptured the social fabric. Public information had metamorphosed into government propaganda. “Preparedness” had diverted reform energies into mobilizing the nation for armed struggle.

In 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had argued repeatedly that traditional social and political methods would prove insufficient to the challenges of unity that the modern age would soon present. “The bonds which hold together the body politic are not sufficient,” he said on October 7 in Oakland, “for how often it happens that people of the same nation wage civil war amongst themselves.” “Another means of seeming unity,” he told a group in Chicago on September 16, “is the bond of political association, where governments and rulers have been allied for reasons of intercourse and mutual protection, but which agreement and union afterward became subject to change and violent hatred even to the extreme of war and bloodshed.” In early March, 1917, just a month before America declared war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reiterated his point. Political institutions, he wrote, are “the matter and not the substance, accidental and not eternal — temporary and not everlasting. With the appearance of great revolutions and upheavals, all these collective centers are swept away.”

In the upheaval of the Great War, the political unity that the progressives had tried to forge melted down. Idealists were alienated by the government’s suppression of civil liberties. The isolationists were outraged by Wilson involving America in Europe’s squabbles. The labor unions did not take kindly to the coercion of coal miners, failures to regulate railroads, and the government’s ambivalent attitude toward the strikes in 1919 and 1920. And a new generation of intellectuals and opinion makers, such as Walter Lippman, repudiated the optimistic bent of the earlier reformers. “In retrospect,” Link and McCormick wrote, “it is clear that progressives always had been too diverse to remain united in a cohesive national political organization.”

The failure of the Progressive Era, therefore, was fundamentally a failure of unity. “So long as progressive groups fought one another more fiercely than they fought their natural opposition,” Link and McCormick concluded, “such agreement was impossible. . . .”

“What is real unity?” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had asked a Unitarian congregation in Brooklyn on June 16th. “The unity which is productive of unlimited results,” he argued, “is first a unity of mankind…. For they all breathe the same atmosphere, all inhabit the same earth, all are sheltered beneath the same heaven, all receive effulgence from the same sun, all are under the protection of one God.”


  • Karridine

    So many GOOD MOTIVES and high intentions evident in the Progressive Movement and Progressives themselves, but as an Amerindian Baha’i told me decades ago, “First the unity! First the unity of the people!”

    Without unity, he reminded me, all sorts of warfare, deceptions and injustices are possible for ourselves and others… “…for all breathe the same atmosphere, live upon the same earth, move
    beneath the same heavens, receive effulgence from the same sun and are
    under the protection of one God.”

    This demands a certain humility of us, calls to our yearning for goodness and sings to the ‘angels of our better natures…’

  • janet cundall

    “all breathe the same atmosphere, live upon the same earth, move beneath the same heavens, receive effulgence from the same sun …” Planting trees and restoring streams are popular activities of junior youth empowerment service. these actions help our shared earth, air, water and religions agree on doing something about the environment, eg Alliance of Religions and Conservation
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every junior youth group adopted a local stream to clean it and plant its banks to restore proper functioning condition?