The American Pageant (12th Edition)

Chapter 29 – Page 665

Our Critique

664–65 “Social and economic problems were now too complex for the intentionally feeble Jeffersonian organs of government. Progressive theorists were insisting that society could no longer afford the luxury of limitless ‘let-alone’ (laissez-faire) policy.”

These two sentences do not display facts; they show the authors’ opinion. They think that the growing American society, with millions of people buying and selling every day, was now “too complex” for limited government. The assumption here is that the conduct of day-to-day business—buying, selling, and the setting of prices—would sometimes be better done by federal government officials and regulations than by the people themselves. But is government logically better able to cater to millions of diverse citizens, or just a few?

Bailey and Kennedy seem to think the presence of big corporations in society means more government is needed to control them. The authors used loaded words to criticize the Founders’ idea that limited government is the best government. They describe the so-called “feeble Jeffersonian organs of government.” What the Founders gave us in the Constitution was a strong dose of individual liberty, but the progressives want to give us a strong dose of government—bureaucrats will increasingly set prices, regulate the size of businesses, and raise taxes to support the new and larger federal bureaucracy.

The textbook also describes “the luxury of limitless ‘let-alone’ (laissez-faire) policy.” Yes, the Founders thought America would work best if people ran their own lives. The Founders believed that growing government greatly increased the chances of tyranny and greatly decreased individual liberty. They did not exactly advocate “let-alone” government or “feeble” government, but government performing its proper role. The Founders believed government was valuable for national defense, for coining money, and for enforcing law and order (courts), but not for making laws on what the size of corporations should be, what people should charge one another for products, or what employers should pay for wages. This chapter could be entitled, “Progressives vs. the American Founders,” or maybe “James Madison and George Washington vs. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.”

665 “Well before 1900, perceptive politicians and writers had begun to pinpoint targets for the progressive attack.”

Notice how Bailey and Kennedy use loaded language to persuade students that progressives are the good guys. The authors use the word “perceptive” to describe politicians and writers who “pinpoint targets for the progressive attack.”

665 “Jacob A. Riis, a reporter for the New York Sun, shocked middle-class Americans in 1890 with How the Other Half Lives. His account was a damning indictment of the dirt, disease, vice, and misery of the rat-gnawed human rookeries known as New York slums.”

Immigrants to America flooded New York City and other urban centers. Their lives were very difficult, and Jacob Riis innovated with flash photography to record the dingy rooms that often housed a dozen or more immigrants. Yes, the immigrants had tough lives in the slums. But if it was better in Europe, why did they come to America and stay? Why did they encourage their friends and family to come? “People,” as the saying goes, “vote with their feet.” Immigrants came and stayed because opportunities were greater in America; and the migration to America in the late 1800s and into the Progressive Era was one of the largest relocations of people in human history from one part of the world to another.

Some immigrants did not do well, but many others used their new freedom to find jobs, work hard, and improve their lives. Jacob Riis himself, in his autobiography, The Making of an American (1901), talks about his own life (growing up in a family of fifteen in Denmark), and how he came to America, eventually found work as a reporter, got married, and came to believe how America was a great land of opportunity for immigrants who had little in their native countries and found more in America. Bailey and Kennedy stress the “dirt, disease, vice, and misery” of American life, but ultimately Jacob Riis, the man they use to illustrate their point, illustrates the very opposite point with his own life and autobiography.

One final thought: Bailey and Kennedy would have students believe that the progressives were better able to diminish the so-called “dirt, disease, vice, and misery” of American life in the early 1900s than were entrepreneurs with their improved technology and science. Let’s think about this. Two of the biggest sources of “dirt” and “disease” in 1900 were (1) massive amounts of manure in the streets from horses and (2) impure water to drink. Entrepreneurs helped eliminate both problems. Henry Ford did the first when his automobiles replaced horses; drug and pharmaceutical companies helped with the second through water filtration. Economist Robert Higgs, in his book The Transformation of the American Economy, 1865–1914, describes the sharp decline of typhoid fever, smallpox, cholera, diphtheria, and yellow fever from 1865 to 1914.

In one striking example, Higgs compares the cities of Albany and Troy, New York, both of which took their drinking water from the Hudson River. Albany bought and installed a modern water filter in 1899, but Troy did not. In the next five years, Albany’s death rate from typhoid fever was slashed 75 percent and Troy’s death rate from typhoid fever was unchanged. Soon, Troy bought the latest water filter to save the lives of its citizens. Those kinds of changes, brought by investors, entrepreneurs, and savvy businessmen were a large part of what improved the quality of life for most Americans during the Progressive Era.