Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Progressivism - Not Much Help

Woodrow Wilson was the icon for the Progressive movement which peaked sometime between 1900 and 1920. Historians describe the movement in a variety of ways, but it centers around the notion that the government can trim individual civil liberties in order to implement programs which it has chosen.

Obviously, the interpretive question on which various views emerge is how the government can choose, should choose, or does choose which programs are so important that they justify damaging personal freedoms. Some historians use the word ‘statism’ to characterize Progressivism.

Among the casualties of the Progressive era were women and African-Americans.

Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University prior to being elected, in November 1912, president of the United States. At Princeton, he worked explicitly to reduce the number of Black students applying to the university, and reduce the number being admitted.

While Wilson was at the university, Theodore Roosevelt was president. Roosevelt had appointed several African-Americans to federal offices. Wilson made public and well-documented comments, referring to Roosevelt’s appointees by means of vile and racist epithets.

As president, Wilson made no effort to hide his racism. He segregated federal employees who had been desegregated and integrated after the Civil War - specifically, e.g., in the Post Office.

Progressives hoped to get credit for giving the vote to women, because the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in August 1920, during Wilson’s presidency and during the Progressive era.

During the 1912 campaign, Wilson had opposed women’s suffrage, while Roosevelt supported women’s right to vote. After winning the election, Wilson’s opposition to the women’s vote softened. Eventually, after women publicly picketed in front of the White House, Wilson made statements supporting the women’s vote, but his support was lukewarm and unenthusiastic - one senses that it arose from political necessity, not personal conviction.

More to the point, the Nineteenth Amendment changed little. By the time the amendment was ratified, women were already voting in 41 of 48 states - and had been doing so for a number of years.

The Nineteenth Amendment was more symbolic than effective, but it gave the Progressives a chance to claim that they were doing something for women. In fact, however, Wilson was not the only Progressive to oppose women’s suffrage.

Many who opposed the Progressive movement were active supporters of women’s suffrage, like Henry Browne Blackwell.

In the United States, women enjoyed full legal suffrage in Wyoming starting in 1869, in Idaho and Utah from 1896, and in Colorado starting in 1893. Shortly after the new century began, full suffrage existed for women in Oregon, Washington, Montana, California, Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, New York, Michigan, and South Dakota - all long before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Not only had all of that taken place without the Nineteenth Amendment, but most of the remaining states were in the process of introducing women’s suffrage. For example, in Texas and Arkansas, women were already voting in primary elections since 1917 - three years prior to the constitutional amendment.

In Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Maine, and Vermont, women were voting in presidential elections before the federal amendment was ratified.

The majority of women in the United States had voting rights prior to August 1920. Only seven states denied women’s suffrage, and had the Nineteenth Amendment not been ratified, the inevitable change would have happened in some other way.

The Nineteenth Amendment is, then, an empty symbol - but one which served the purposes of Progressive propaganda.

While hoping to get some credit for expanding the civil liberties of women, the essential principle of Progressivism is that the government has the right to cut personal freedom as it sees fit.

Scholar William Voegeli frames the Progressive idea this way: “The Progressives of a century ago” including Woodrow Wilson, and even including some who worked a few decades after what has traditionally been marked as the end of the Progressive era,

worked to transform a republic where the government had limited duties and powers into a nation where there were no grievances the government could or should refrain from addressing, and where no means of responding to those grievances lie outside the scope of the government’s legitimate authority.

Instead of limiting the government’s power over the individual, the Progressives limited the individual’s liberties so that the government could manage society.

What were the results of such managing? The record shows that African-Americans and women paid the price for the Progressive desire to have the government engineer various aspects of society. Yet the Progressives wanted, at the same time, to be praised for helping women get the vote.