The Historiography

Scholars have been debating the history of the Progressive Era for as long as the era has been defined as "Progressive." Even simply defining who Progressives were has proved a difficult task. Were Progressives liberals or conservatives? Populists or Mugwumps? Middle-Class Victorians? Corporate Liberals? Simply put, scholars have re-imagined the identity of Progressives many times throughout history.

In my work, I intend to attempt to add another layer to this already weighty discussion. However, I do not want to trace the roots of Progressivism to any political, social, or moral tradition. Nor do I seek to expose the racial or gender contradictions in the progressiveness of Progressives. Instead of looking at progressives as heroic men and women sweeping in reform and removing corruption and waste, I examine men stumbling into political reform. I seek to muddy the line between the corruption of the Gilded Age and the reform of the Progressive Era by exploring the development and outbreak of political scandal in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The pervasive bribery of the city's political leadership from a plan to increase the city's supply of clean water unraveled slowly, forcing the city, and its questionable leadership, to grapple with the meanings of corruption and reform, punishment and fairness.

Who were Progressives? A History

Academics began writing about Progressives essentially right away. The first wave of scholarship on the period as early as the 1920s was understandably sympathetic as many Progressive leaders were still alive and the authors had just recently lived through the period. This first conception of Progressives focused on Progressives, who evolved from Populists and anti-business issues. However, within a quarter century, historians had already revised the main identity of Progressives. Most notably, Richard Hofstadter's The Age of Reform does not trace his urban middle class Progressives to Populists, but rather to the Mugwumps of the Republican Party. Hofstadter attributed the era's reforms to increasing industrialization causing a "status revolution" among the middle and upper classes, prompting these Republicans to push for reform. Henry F. May also paints Progressives more conservatively, arguing they defended Victorian traditions. Though some, like C. Vann Woodward, who took a regional approach and focused on the South, continued to trace Progressive roots to Populists. In the late 1950s and 1960s, historians began to shift their focus from individuals to institutions like Samuel P. Hays and Robert H. Wiebe. A "New Left" interpretation, led by Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein, also emerged, branding Progressives "corporate liberals."

With the dawn of the 1970s, Peter Filene drastically altered the historiography of the Progressive Era. While early historians debated over who Progressives were and what their main goals were, historians had portrayed solidified Progressive Movements free of much internal conflict. Peter Filene, though, sought to bury the conception of the Progressive Movement as a single unified movement in his article, "An Obituary for 'The Progressive Movement.'" Filene identifies contradictions and inconsistencies between Progressives, undermining both the idea that Progressives were "Progressive" in every circumstance, as many were actually opposed to racial and gender equality, and a "Movement," since the goals of Progressives were often different if not opposed. Filene's assertion that "Progressivism lacked unanimity of purpose either on a programmatic or on a philosophical level," began a historiographical shift towards identifying and exploring the contradictions within the movements."

Scholars after Filene, followed his lead in undermining the solid "Progressive Movement," though did not bury the term because of its useful identification of the era. Scholars like Michael McGerr and Richard McCormick reexamined the politics of the Progressive Era analyzing many of the anti-democratic measures Progressives embraced. Other scholars focused on exploring the anti-progressive stances of Progressives on racial and gender issues, including Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization, which analyzed the use of a discourse of civilization during the Progressive Era to frame reform that privileged maleness and whiteness, and Michael McGerr's A Fierece Discontent, which casts Progressives as radical Victorians, though internally divided and racist, seeking to remake society. However, even as scholars re-framed Progressives in the context of race and gender, Progressives remained middle class men and women focused on reform. Robert D. Johnson's The Radical Middle Class and McGerr's A Fierece Discontent point to radical middle class reformers as the main actors of reform in the Progressive Era.


Progressives As Radical

While historians after Peter Filene's "Obituary for the Progressive Movement," which sought to end the use of the term "Progressive Movement" because of its imprecise labeling of many diverse movements, have exposed many of the inconsistencies, contradictions, and divisions within Progressive movements, for the most part, scholars have not radically altered the conception of Progressives as primarily reformers. Historians have humanized Progressives, grounding reformers in their time and place, helping to explain the racial, gender, and anti-democratic stances many reformers supported. However, the conception of heroic reformers remains; historians have simply added a heroic flaw. Charles and Mary Beard found Progressives to be part of the "spirit of reform." Richard Hofstadter framed his entire narrative around the The Age of Reform setting the period's reforms apart from the rest of American history. Even after Peter Filene attempted to deconstruct the Progressive Movement, scholars did not abandon the heroic rhetoric. In fact, I would argue it has become more intense. Robert D. Johnson's sympathetic view of "radical" middle class Progressives in Portland, Oregon, painting them as passionately democratic. Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent argues radical middle class Victorians fought to remake society into a middle class utopia, a flawed but valiant goal that McGerr claims has affected modern politics. McGerr argues "the epic of reform" during the Progressive Era as made "the less-than-epic politics" of the nation one hundred years later. This focus on reformers as the vehicle for the Progressive Era reforms leads to a focus on great men and women of the period like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jane Addams, and Gifford Pinchot. Even Gabriel Kolko who argues reformers were not the main actors driving reform, frames the Progressive reformers somewhat heroically. Though the reformers were unsuccessful, Kolko laments "what might have been," and still places the reform on a group of conscious leaders, though they came from the business community.

Though certainly all the leaders and supporters of reform are important for understanding the Progressive Era, I find this picture too neat. The corruption and conflict of the Gilded Age did not simply stop and switch to reform during the Progressive Era. Not all reforms were intentional or carefully planned. The most famous example is the role of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in passing the Pure Food and Drug Act, though Sinclair was more concerned with labor and class issues. I explore another example of an unplanned Progressivism, how the leaders of Grand Rapids worked through issues of corruption and reform in city government. In the wake of a political scandal that enveloped a majority of the city's politicians, heroic reformers did not lead the efforts to find and prosecute corrupt politicians. Rather, other politicians, some themselves of questionable innocence, dealt with meanings of corruption.


Urban Politics

Although many scholars of the Progressive Era touch on municipal politics, including Richard Hofstadter, who attributed the success of urban machines to their introduction of immigrants to the American political culture, Progressive crusades against corruption has its own large historiography that has perhaps better dealt with the complexities of reform and corruption. Though early work, like that of journalist Lincoln Steffens, depicted reform directly opposed to urban political corruption, later scholars have refined and blurred the morality of machine politics. Still near the height of machine politics in many cities, the 1930s saw an emergence of scholarship on urban bosses, but these works focused more on similarities rather than differences. John Thomas Salter's Boss Rule: Portraits in City Politics and George Reynolds' Machine Politics in New Orleans, 1897-1926 argued the regional variances of urban machines were less than the commonalities. Likewise, Harold Zink's City Bosses in the United States explores the roots of various urban bosses, tracing their rise to power to the bosses' connections to immigrant communities.

While earlier academics examined the commonalities of urban politics,later urban historians, from the 1960s through the 1980s, more deeply explored the complexities of local urban political systems bringing out the benefits of machine politics. These scholars sought to move beyond the moral judgments of "bad" political machines and analyze the systems themselves. In Bosses, Machines, and Urban Voters, Examining case studies of bosses from New York's Boss Tweed to Chicago's Richard Daley, John Allswang looks to complicate and revise the depiction of exploitative bosses, hoping to "neutralize" the terms "boss" and "machine" and suggesting that "everyone 'sells' his or her vote" in the end. Jon Teaford also looks for a more "serious appreciation of the municipal structure" in his The Unheralded Triumph. Like Allswang, Zane Miller's Boss Cox's Cincinnati employs a case study to re-envision the urban political machine. Miller spatializes Cincinnati's urban politics, tracing the evolution of Boss Cox's political machine to neighborhood rather than ethnic politics. Similar to Miller, other historians utilize detailed case studies to examine urban politics, like Lyle Dorsett's study of Kansas City, The Pendergast Machine, and Allswang's study of Chicago, A House for All Peoples.

In the last twenty years, the trend toward detailed case studies has continued and many scholars have began to move past using a typical metropolis, focusing on the urban politics of smaller cities. Some historians still utilize urban bosses as the main vehicle of analysis. For example, James Bolin examines Lexington, Kentucky through the state's "best example" of a "true" political boss, William Klair. Very recently, James J. Connolly has also examined machine politics and Progressivism, though he takes a broader view than Bolin. Other scholars have explored urban politics beyond the political boss in small cities. Many, like Richard Davies's analysis of the decline of Camden, Ohio in Main Street Blues, deal with the de-industrialization of the Midwest, although others take broader views. For example, Alicia Barber studies the evolution of Reno, Nevada's less than upright reputation in Reno's Big Gamble and Sharon Wood's analysis of Davenport, Iowa's gender and labor relations in The Freedom of the Streets.


Grand Rapids as a Small City

I continue the more recent trend in the study of urban politics examining smaller cities. However, the story of the Grand Rapids does not replicate the urban political experience of big cities like New York, Chicago, New Orleans, or Kansas City, or even Lexington, Kentucky, where machine politics and bosses dominated. The city's water scandal is not the story of the exposed corruption of an urban boss, but rather extensive corruption without a systematic political machine. The political landscape of Grand Rapids was rather bipartisan, or at least each party was strong enough to resist the development of a true political machine during this period. Although there were reform movements in the city, these movements were not strong enough to play a significant role in the exposing or reforming the corruption uncovered in the city's largest scandal. In Grand Rapids, the line between Progressive and corrupt politician was even less clear than in an urban machine as political leaders could and did engage in "Progressive" reforms while maintaining questionable ties or even participating in outright corrupt practices. I explore this apparent contradiction by seeking to understand what the corruption and reform meant in Grand Rapids through the outbreak of the city's water scandal.

Though perhaps on the larger side, Grand Rapids qualifies as a small city, occupying a secondary economic role, fitting between regional metropolises Detroit and Chicago. In carving out an economic niche, the city, like many small cities, chose intensive specialization, leading to the emergence of the city as a leader in furniture. In place of an urban boss, the business leaders, many furniture producers, led the "Furniture City." Grand Rapids did not have one or two dominant families, like nearby Battle Creek, Michigan's Kellogg and Post families or Muncie, Indiana's Ball family. This absence of an utterly dominant family allowed for a more diverse political environment as leading citizens occupied both parties, often creating the appearance of a spirited political atmosphere. While there was more political competition than many cities in the period, Grand Rapids was still dominated by its business and professional classes.

As Timothy Mahoney has pointed out in his article “The Small City in American History,” the small city has been mostly lost in urban history as the Metropolis has garnered a disproportionate amount of scholarship. Creating a dichotomy of narratives between large impersonal city and small community-oriented town, urban history would benefit from increased examination of small cities, of which Grand Rapids is certainly one. A small, but growing sub-field of urban history, the study of small cities has a produced many valuable works of scholarship. Perhaps the most famous early work on a small city was Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown studies based on Muncie, Indiana. Though the Lynds sought to provide Muncie anonymity and increase their studies' applicability by referring to Muncie as Middletown, most academics examining small cities choose small cities for their defining characteristics, usually some form of intense economic specialization. The focus on economically important small cities is prevalent throughout the sub-field. Some of the first works, like Samuel Crowther's John H. Patterson, Pioneer in Industrial Welfare and Charlotte Conover's The Story of Dayton, focused on Dayton, Ohio. Similarly, during and after World War II historians continued examining economically important cities, notably some focused on the automobile manufacturing industry such as Hugh Allen's studies of Akron, Ohio, The House of Goodyear, A Story of Rubber and Modern Business, The House of Goodyear, Fifty Years of Men and Industry, and Rubber's Home Town, The Real-Life Story of Akron and Alfred Lief's Harvey Firestone, Free Man of Enterprise, but including others like Horace Powell's study of Battle Creek, Michigan's Kellogg company in The Original Has This Signature: W. K. Kellogg. The focus on economic centers has continued, with works like Wayne Broehl Jr.'s John Deere's Company and Thomas Dublin's Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860. Even though economically important cities tend to attract scholarly attention there are certainly works addressing other issues such as race, including Brian Butler's An Undergrowth of Folly: Public Order, Race Anxiety, and the 1903 Evansville, Indiana Race Riot and Thomas Cox's Black in Topeka, 1865-1915: A Social History.

This small but vibrant sub-field of urban history shows small cities are a valuable tool for understanding the urban experience of millions of Americans. Using another small city, Grand Rapids, Michigan, I explore the urban political environment and the implications of that environment on the city's meanings of corruption and Progressivism. The corruption of the metropolis and valiant reformers is an easy, and misleading, story. However, corruption in a small city, a city without one dominant political figure, but many complicit politicians, suggests Americans experienced a more complicated urban political environment and process of reform.