Lott: The Progressivist Legacy Continues

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In the past few weeks, the nation has been treated to the ridiculous and ugly spectacle of the fall of Trent Lott from power because of remarks made at the 100th birthday celebration of retiring U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond. While journalists, commentators, and political operatives have managed to create a crisis from a few words spoken at a party, most have failed to understand the larger issues that surround those few sentences praising Thurmond that brought Lott’s political career to an end.

For the most part, the issue that has brought the most commentary has been the u201Csegregation of the racesu201D plank in Thurmond’s Dixiecrat platform of his U.S. Presidential race in 1948. As Lew Rockwell and others have pointed out, the platform also contained many references to individual freedom and was not the racist screed that many have attributed to it. Perhaps most disturbing has been the declaration of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that nothing in the Dixiecrat platform deserves merit. Since much of the platform was a reaffirmation of the U.S. Constitution, one can conclude that either Powell has not read the platform or has read it and has decided — like so many other modern u201Cprogressivesu201D — that the Constitution and its ideals are pass in a modern society.

The legacy of the Dixiecrat campaign and the practices that brought condemnation from northern Democrats — and many Republicans — is not segregation or even racism, as the critics maintain. Rather, I believe that the larger evil heritage of Progressivism is at the center of this issue, both for North and South. In many ways, both sides were defending their brands of the Progressivist movement that swept the nation in the late 1800s and early 1900s and has left death, destruction, and the evisceration of the Constitution in its wake.

Despite the attempt by modern historians to rewrite the War Between the States as a crusade to free slaves, the war ultimately was about whether or not the United States would be identified by u201Careu201D or u201Cis.u201D The question of this nation being a centralized or decentralized republic was decided upon the bloody battlefields of Sharpsburg, Manassas and Gettysburg.

To put it another way, the war ultimately ushered in the Progressivist era, progressivists being people who had a religious-like belief in the power of the central government. Inherent in Progressivism, of course, is the belief in rule of force. To put it another way, progressivists believed in the miraculous power of coercion, believing that if government could utter enough threats, people could do anything, including turn natural law upside down.

Following the war, the first experiment in Progressivism was Reconstruction, in which troops from the U.S. Army occupied the former Confederate states under martial law. Reconstructionist governments pushed through legislation that created government school systems, raised taxes to ruinous levels, and generally tried to recreate the South into the northern image.

They could not do such things with the acquiescence of former Confederates and their supporters, so the Reconstruction governments filled the state legislatures with former slaves who gladly did the bidding of the Republican Party. [i] That there would be a backlash against blacks following the end of Reconstruction in 1877 is hardly surprising.

To take a modern example, suppose that a political party seized power in many of this country’s large cities that now are governed by black Americans and pushed out the blacks and filled the city councils with Koreans, who at present are a despised minority who own many inner-city small shops and groceries. The open hatred blacks have for Koreans was manifest during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which blacks looted and burned Korean-owned stores.

Further suppose that the political party that had supported the Koreans suddenly were to vacate the cities and leave the Koreans to face the blacks by themselves. It does not take a political genius to predict what would happen next. Furthermore, as we shall see, southern whites were armed with Progressivist doctrines that made this sad situation only worse.

That hypothetical situation was not hypothetical in the South following Reconstruction, and the former slaves soon had to face the wrath of whites without any federal protection. (As we shall see, southern whites did not react as badly as one might have expected.) Furthermore, the Progressivist movement that was taking place in the USA during that time also lent itself to its twin movement Populism. In fact, one can argue that while Progressivist u201Ctheoristsu201D themselves came from intellectual classes, Progressivist ideas never could have been implemented into law without the populist movement, which when stripped of all its ideological trimmings was nothing more than mob rule.

For all of the aura that modern historians and media pundits give to Progressivism, it was nothing more than an attempt to do an end run around the Constitutional limitations placed upon the central government. From the establishment of national commissions like the Interstate Commerce Commission to the Federal Trade Commission and the passage of antitrust laws and implementation of the national income tax, Progressivism increased the powers of the central government to the detriment of powers states had previously held.

Furthermore, Progressivism was complete with its own ideologies of American and white racial superiority, which led not only to imperialism abroad but also to various segregation and anti-race mixing laws at home. Clarence Carson writes:

It is not customary to discuss racial segregation in connection with Progressivism and the acquisition of an overseas empire. This is, however, the appropriate context for dealing with it. Not only was segregation imposed, in the main, during the last years of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th, but also it was a reflex of Populism-Progressivism, with their bent to reform, government intervention, popular government, and the imperial attitude. The same men who made demagogic attacks upon business in the South also made demagogic attacks upon the Blacks, for example. [ii]

To prove further this point, a recent article by Charles Paul Freund notes that the national government did not push through many of its most obnoxious racialist policies until the administration of who was then the most progressive U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson. Writes Freund:

It was Inauguration Day, and in the judgment of one later historian, "the atmosphere in the nation’s capital bore ominous signs for Negroes." Washington rang with happy Rebel Yells, while bands all over town played ‘Dixie.’ Indeed, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who swore in the newly elected Southern president, was himself a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, "an unidentified associate of the new Chief Executive warned that since the South ran the nation, Negroes should expect to be treated as a servile race." Somebody had even sent the new president a possum, an act supposedly "consonant with Southern tradition." [iii]

He further writes:

Wilson’s historical reputation is that of a far-sighted progressive. That role has been assigned to him by historians based on his battle for the League of Nations, and the opposition he faced from isolationist Republicans. Indeed, the adjective "Wilsonian," still in use, implies a positive if idealistic vision for the extension of justice and democratic values throughout the world. Domestically, however, Wilson was a racist retrograde, one who attempted to engineer the diminution of both justice and democracy for American blacks — who were enjoying little of either to begin with. [iv]

The typical picture of Progressivism as painted by leftists today is one of wise and benevolent intellectuals using the apparatus of the state to impose u201Csolutionsu201D to u201Cprotectu201D Americans from the ravages of capitalism and to spread American concepts of fairness and justice to the masses. Indeed, the results of Progressivism are almost opposite of what we are told.

For example, it seems to be believed by most media pundits and the political classes that Progressivism managed to blunt the more murderous instincts of southern whites against blacks. Yet, before Progressivism truly took a foothold in national and state politics, we have these descriptions of life in the South:

An Englishman traveling through the South in 1879 reported that in the use of transportation facilities u201Cthe humblest black rides with the proudest white on terms of perfect equality….u201D A Southerner reported from South Carolina that u201CThe Negroes are freely admitted to the theatre in Colombia and to other exhibitions, lectures, etc…In Columbia they are also served at the bars, soda water fountains, and ice cream saloons, but not generally elsewhere.u201D A black man from the North who traveled through the states of the Confederacy in the 1880s observed that without regard to race on the railroads, u201Ca first class ticket is good in a first class coach,u201D that u201CNegroes dine with whites in a railroad saloon,u201D and that he could u201Cgo into saloons and get refreshments even as in New York.u201D In government buildings and political activities, Blacks were generally accorded equal treatment in the 1870s and 1880s. [v]

This is not to say that the South — or the rest of the country, for that matter — was a picture of racial harmony, but the more egregious practices of segregation came following the establishment of the Populist-Progressive policies. Furthermore, as these policies began to wreak havoc in the economy — and especially during the terrible Panic of 1893, when unemployment rose nationally to about 25 percent — it logically follows that friction between whites and blacks would grow.

In looking at the history of Populism and Progressivism, ultimately one comes to the terrible practices of mob lynching that came to characterize this era. While many whites also found themselves hung from trees during that time, for the most part it was white mobs lynching blacks, death often being a relief as many victims were tortured and mutilated, all to the delight of the crowds. (Popular postcards sent at that time showed people in a crowd with a black man or two hanging dead in the background.)

I do not believe there is anything one can say to sanitize such practices. They were terrible and unjust and those who participated were fully responsible for their actions. However, I also believe that without the background strains of Populism-Progressivism, in which mob rule was glorified, the dark picture of justice in this country during this time would not have existed, and certainly not on the enormous scale that occurred during the Progressive Era.

The sad irony is that many in the Progressive camps who were angered by segregation and lynching decided that the u201Csolutionu201D lay in even greater doses of Progressivism, Populism, and national centralization, and in further trashing of the Constitution. For example, because the Dixiecrats were against passage of a federal anti-lynching law proposed in 1948, it is automatically assumed that all of them favored the practice of lynching.

While I have no doubts that some (and perhaps many) supporters of Thurmond in 1948 had no problem with lynching, many other Dixiecrat supporters — including Murray Rothbard — had no stomach for such actions. However, those folks also clearly understood that centralization of government power would create more havoc and more violence.

Indeed, the last wave of violence of southern whites against blacks came during the u201CCivil Rights Erau201D in which Washington attempted to impose at gunpoint its own anti-segregation policies. Although much of the popular focus of that era is centered upon the activities of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his followers, King and others would have made no headway without the federal government — and federal troops.

I often wonder what would have happened had the South been permitted to secede in the 1860s or had there been no Progressive Era. Since that is not the case, we will never know. However, we must be willing to set the record straight: Progressivism and Populism did not make this nation a wealthier, healthier, and more tolerant place. In the wake of these movements, we have seen racial strife, economic calamity, endless warfare, and the growth of the federal Leviathan. This is not a pretty legacy, and certainly is not the legacy that is claimed by Progressive historians, journalists, and the political classes. Yet, it is the legacy that exists, like it or not.

Notes

  1. Thomas DiLorenzo has outlined the Reconstructionist programs in his best seller, The Real Lincoln.
  2. Carson, Clarence. A Basic History of the United States, Volume 4, p. 140.
  3. Freund, Charles Paul, u201CDixiecrats Triumphant,u201D Reason Online, December 18, 2002.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Carson, 141—142.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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