Why Understanding the Progressive Era Still Matters

Editor’s Note: Murray Rothbard’s new masterwork, The Progressive Era, is now available for purchase. Judge Napolitano’s preface below speaks to why the Progressive Era is so key to our understanding of modern America. This is the first of many selections from the book we will be offering at in the future. 

When I was in my junior and senior years at Princeton studying history in the early 1970s, I became fascinated with the Progressive Era. It attracted me at a time when America rejected as profoundly as it did under Lincoln and the Radical Republicans and even under FDR, the libertarian first principles of the American Revolution.

To pursue this interest, I volunteered to take a course in the Graduate School, a procedure permitted for a few undergraduates at the time. The course was an advanced look at Progressive intellectual thought taught by Woodrow Wilson’s biographer and hagiographer, Professor Arthur S. Link. The readings were all pro-Progressive as were all the other students in the class. We studied Professor Link’s works and the claptrap by his colleague William E. Leuchtenberg.

Time to buy old US gold coins

In my search for a rational understanding of the Era — and for ammunition to use in the classroom where I was regularly beaten up — I asked Professor Link if any academic had made the argument effectively that the Progressives were power-hungry charlatans in the guise of noble businessmen, selfless politicians, and honest academics. The Progressive Era Murray N Rothbard Best Price: $17.74 Buy New $11.33 (as of 07:25 UTC - Details)

He told me of a young fellow named Rothbard, of whose work he had only heard, but had not read. This advice sent me to Man, Economy, and State, which I devoured; and my ideological odyssey was off to the races.

Like many of Rothbard’s student admirers, I also devoured For a New Liberty, all four volumes of Conceived in Liberty, and The Mystery of Banking. As any student of human freedom in general or of the Austrian school specifically, knows, these must-reads are all a joy to read. And we also know that in those works and others, Rothbard established himself as the great interpreter of Ludwig von Mises.

While he was writing those books and lecturing nationally and producing many ground-breaking articles and essays on human freedom, he began to write discrete chapters of a book he would not live to publish on the Progressive Era.

One of his great young interpreters, Florida Southern College professor and Mises Fellow Patrick Newman, has picked up where our hero left off. Professor Newman is a brilliant interpreter of Rothbard. His assemblage of these heretofore unpublished chapters, and the vast notes he has added to them have produced a masterpiece that might actually have made Murray Rothbard blush.

Readers of The Progressive Era will carry away an overwhelming impression that history is “a comprehensive resurrection of the past.” Rothbard was never satisfied with the presentation of a general thesis or the sketch of a historical period, which is why readers will find detailed accounts of an enormous number of people. Only a historian of Rothbard’s immense intellectual energy and knowledge could have written what would become The Progressive Era.

Rothbard did not amass details merely to give readers a sense of the Progressive Era, from the 1880s to the 1920s. Rather, he uses these details to support a revolutionary new interpretation. Many people view the Progressives as reformers who fought against corruption and Man, Economy, and Stat... Murray N. Rothbard Best Price: $23.43 Buy New $29.95 (as of 08:10 UTC - Details) modernized our laws and institutions. Rothbard proves to the hilt that this common opinion is false.

The Progressives aimed to displace a 19th-century America that respected individual rights based on natural law. They claimed that natural law and a free economy were outmoded and unscientific ideas; and argued that through applying science to politics, they could replace a corrupt and stagnant old order with a State-ordered more prosperous and egalitarian one.

Rothbard dissents:

Briefly, the thesis is that the rapid upsurge of statism in this period was propelled by a coalition of two broad groups: (a) certain big business groups, anxious to replace a roughly laissez-faire economy by a new form of mercantilism, cartelized and controlled and subsidized by a strong government under their influence and control; and (b) newly burgeoning groups of intellectuals, technocrats, and professionals: economists, writers, engineers, planners, physicians, etc., anxious for power and lucrative employment at the hands of the State. Since America had been born in an antimonopoly tradition, it became important to put over the new system of cartelization as a “progressive” curbing of big business by a humanitarian government; intellectuals were relied on for this selling job. These two groups were inspired by Bismarck’s creation of a monopolized welfare-warfare state in Prussia and Germany.

Rothbard constantly overturns accepted ideas as he argues for his interpretation. Most of us have heard of the furor early in the 20th century over conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry, set off by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Few people are aware, however, that Sinclair’s sensationalism was fiction, in direct contradiction to what contemporary inspections of the meat packing plants revealed. For a New Liberty: The... Murray Rothbard Best Price: $9.51 Buy New $10.50 (as of 02:10 UTC - Details)

Rothbard goes much further. He shows how, beginning in the 1880s, the large meat packing plants lobbied for greater regulation themselves.

Unfortunately for the myth, [about The Jungle’s influence] the drive for federal meat inspection actually began more than two decades earlier, and was launched mainly by the big meat packers themselves. The spur was the urge to penetrate the European market for meat, something which the large meat packers thought could be done if the government would certify the quality of meat, and thereby make American meat more highly rated abroad. Not coincidentally, as in all Colbertist mercantilist legislation over the centuries, a governmentally-coerced upgrading of quality would serve to cartelize: to lower production, restrict competition, and raise prices to the consumers.

Rothbard sees in postmillennial pietism a key to the entire Progressive Era. The postmillennials preached that Jesus would inaugurate His kingdom only after the world had been reformed, and they accordingly saw a religious mandate to institute the social reforms they favored.

Their influence was pervasive. For example, Rothbard draws an unexpected connection between their ideas and eugenics:

One way of correcting the increasingly pro-Catholic demographics … often promoted in the name of “science,” was eugenics, an increasingly popular doctrine of the progressive movement. Broadly, eugenics may be defined as encouraging the breeding of the “fit” and discouraging the breeding of the “unfit,” the criteria of “fitness” often coinciding with the cleavage between native, white Protestants and the foreign born or Catholics — or the white-black cleavage. In extreme cases, the unfit were to be coercively sterilized. Conceived in Liberty V... Murray N. Rothbard Best Price: $35.13 Buy New $29.95 (as of 08:10 UTC - Details)

Theodore Roosevelt was the quintessential Progressive, and Rothbard shows in convincing fashion how his analytic framework helps explain that bizarre and flamboyant figure. Roosevelt was allied with the banking interests of the House of Morgan. His “trust busting” activities were very selective. Only the trusts opposed to Morgan control were in Roosevelt’s crosshairs. He supported “good” trusts, i.e., ones allied with the Morgan interests. Besides his Morgan alliance, Roosevelt was dominated by a bellicosity of maniacal proportions. “All his life Theodore Roosevelt had thirsted for war — any war — and military glory.”

War and the Progressives were natural allies. War brought centralized control of the economy, and this allowed the Progressives to put their plans into effect. Rothbard writes:

The wartime collectivism also held forth a model to the nation’s liberal intellectuals; for here was seemingly a system that replaced laissez-faire not by the rigors and class hatreds of proletarian Marxism, but by a new strong State, planning and organizing the economy in harmony with all leading economic groups. It was, not coincidentally, to be a neomercantilism, a “mixed economy,” heavily staffed by these selfsame liberal intellectuals.

And finally, both big business and the liberals saw in the wartime model a way to organize and integrate the often unruly labor force as a junior partner in the corporatist system — a force to be disciplined by their own “responsible” leadership of the labor unions.

I have addressed only a few of the themes analyzed in this vast book. Readers have many insights in store for them, including the origin of the Federal Reserve System, Herbert Hoover’s activities as a Progressive, and the role of the Rockefellers in promoting Social Security. The Mystery of Banking Murray N. Rothbard Best Price: $2.23 Buy New $7.57 (as of 07:55 UTC - Details) Nor does Rothbard shy away from the constitutional implications in all this, planted by Roosevelt and nurtured by his personal enemy but ideological comrade Woodrow Wilson. Rothbard notes that, the War Between the States aside, the Madisonian model — the federal government may only lawfully do what the Constitution directly permits — prevailed in government from 1789 to the 1880s. After the Progressive Era, the Wilsonian model — the federal government may do whatever there is a political will to do except that which the Constitution expressly prohibits — continues to prevail up to the present day.

We owe the appearance of The Progressive Era to the masterful detective work and patient labor of the good and youthful Professor Newman. In his “Introduction,” he tells the dramatic tale of how Rothbard’s book was discovered and assembled; and he has planted many teasers for the Rothbardian gems to come.

Rothbard’s posthumous masterpiece is the definitive book on the Progressives. Only Murray Rothbard, with his unique scholarship, penetrating intelligence, prodigious work ethic, infectious love of life, and indefatigable devotion to liberty, could have written this book. It will soon be the must read study of this dreadful time in our past.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.