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Hofstadter & Progressivism
The Progressive Era was one of change in the United States. It appeared during a time where individuals were fed up with the status quo and instead wanted drastic changes to occur in their world. Richard Hofstadter is best known for the role that he played during this era of reform. In his famous claim, Hofstadter speaks on the truth about Progressivism and offers an explanation as to how and why this occurred. He offered social, political, and financial explanations for a phenomenon that very few understood at the time. Hofstadter believed in liberal values that very few agreed with at the time. It was this precise belief that allowed him to become a pioneer during the Progressive Era and become a representative of economic mobility. However, despite his seemingly progressive beliefs, his main thought was that Progressivism was guided by the loss of status of numerous men who seemed to own the world at the time. These few men led the financial industry and their attempt to once again regain the status that made them seem invincible was diminishing.
Hofstadter's thesis has been analyzed numerous times by different philosophers and scholars, and few agree on a solid purpose. However a personal interpretation would indicate a support for these progressive changes. Hofstadter firmly believed, and stated in his thesis, that the proponents of the idea of progressivism were not the people or the regular citizens of the United States. The groups that supported these progressive values were actually the ones who were losing their financial and social status at the time. The late nineteenth century was one of drastic changes from a country and a world that depended heavily on agricultural means for economic support and survival. However, as this era came to a close, the industrial one was about to begin. Hofstadter mentions this change in his thesis by once again stating that the Progressives were made up of the individuals who did not want to see their status change. He states that it was not because of "economic deprivations" that the Progressives were even established, but because of the change that the turn of the nineteenth and early twentieth century offered. In his thesis he states that the people who led these Progressive changes were already very well-off and financially and economically stable, but they could just not stand the idea of their status being hindered. A loss of importance in their title meant that they would no longer have the great influence that they did in government or in political power. In all, the Progressives wanted people to follow their ideas and their movement, not because they were genuinely interested in the well-being of the American citizens, but because they did not want their social status to become less important and less influential than it was already becoming at the time.
The aforementioned formulation of Hofstadter's thesis has been debated for decades, with some fully agreeing with his perspective, while others question the meaning of the entire era. The formulation most agreed upon was in his thesis being a representation of the disdain felt by many individuals at the time. However, Hofstadter placed too much emphasis on the importance of too few people during that era. In an attempt at regaining political power, those who felt that they should be guiding the American government felt their power diminishing as more and more individuals were able to gain power as the agricultural age became one of the past and the industrial age was quickly approaching the future. These families that were known as coming from old and established money were quickly losing the influence that they had in the American government. New families in the cities, especially New York City, were becoming more important, crossing new frontiers, and were now the ones in political power whom had great influence over the financial state of the United States. Hofstadter's formulation and thesis was accurate in the sense that it did attempt to explain an occurrence that very few understood at the time. He did notice that the biggest reform was being led by these high-powered individuals and not by the people themselves. He was accurate in insinuating that if it were not for the concern of the economically influential families in the United States, the entire progressive movement would not have been as impacting. However, to think this way solely would be to limit one's perspective on the historical occurrences that led the country into a completely new era.
Hofstadter's thesis does not do full justice to the progressives. His thesis credits very few people as being the pioneers and the followers of this entire school of thought. A whole era was changed and beliefs that were once accepted as being facts were no longer straightforwardly acknowledged. Hofstadter failed to give credit to the American citizens who also wholeheartedly supported the Progressive movement. The Progressives were not just made up of rich individuals who were afraid of losing their financial means, their social status, or their political influence; this group also included Americans who had no idea what to expect as the world around them was completely changing. During the later years of the nineteenth century, the country was picking up the pieces left behind after the great Civil War. The American people were adapting to the social changes brought on by the release of the slaves and the shift in political beliefs. Economically, agricultural life was also undergoing complete transformation. For decades before the civil war, the agricultural business in the United States was completely dependent on the hard labor of slaves who were forced to tend to millions of acres of land. The products of these lands sustained the American economy throughout this entire time -- that is, up until the late nineteenth century when the importance on agriculture was replaced by the recent innovations of the industrial proponents. With the shift from a rural ambiance to an urban environment came a shift of social beliefs. As more and more people were getting together and forming their own ideas, progressivism was viewed as a movement that supported their need for change and reform. The rural small community now turned into a bigger urban community where Americans just did not know what to expect. The objectives of the progressives came from being lost in a country full of chaos at the time and not necessarily from the loss of social status in individuals who once ruled American politics. Progressivism provided some hope for order in American citizens who were finding it difficult to find a place for themselves in the evolving country.
The aforementioned alternative explanation for the evolution of the progressive movement was one that was fully supported by Robert Wiebe. His publications at the time were in direct contrast to the "status anxiety" that Hofstadter had written about and supported with his thesis (Brinkley, 1985). Wiebe did not support the idea that the Progressive Era was guided by a reaction of top social and financial figures to their diminishing power. He instead thought that the true meaning behind the Progressive movement was an attempt of the rising middle class to make themselves known. For much time already, only those who had the financial means to contribute to the American government were given a voice in matters that directly affected them. However, as the social change was clearly approaching, American citizens took the opportunity to showcase exactly what it was that they needed. The values that came along with this shift included the rise in power of women, which in itself marked the beginning of a new era. The people who realized that the old values and the old ways would no longer be sufficient to provide for their families quickly became supporters of…[continue]
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