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 — changed 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 prices, farming incomes plummeted, living conditions in places 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 the 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 of war had already begun to spread. Anti-German sentiment had already ruptured the social fabric. Public information had transformed 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 17 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.” Just a month before America declared war, in March, 1917, ‘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, 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 Rev. S. Parkes Cadman’s congregation at the Fourth Unitarian Church in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on June 15. “The unity which is productive of unlimited results,” he argued, “is first a unity of mankind which recognizes that all are sheltered beneath the overshadowing glory of the All-Glorious, that all are servants of one God; 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.”