The Progressive Era and the Family
[Originally from Joseph R. Peden and Fred R. Glahe, eds., The American Family and the State (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 1986).]
While the “Progressive Era” used to be narrowly designated as the period 1900–1914, historians now realize that the period is really much broader, stretching from the latter decades of the nineteenth century into the early 1920s. The broader period marks an era in which the entire American polity—from economics to urban planning to medicine to social work to the licensing of professions to the ideology of intellectuals—was transformed from a roughly laissez-faire system based on individual rights to one of state planning and control. In the sphere of public policy issues closely related to the life of the family, most of the change took place, or at least began, in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. In this paper we shall use the analytic insights of the “new political history” to examine the ways in which the so-called progressives sought to shape and control selected aspects of American family life.
ETHNORELIGIOUS CONFLICT AND THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
In the last two decades, the advent of the “new political history” has transformed our understanding of the political party system and the basis of political conflict in nineteenth century America. In contrast to the party systems of the twentieth century (the “fourth” party system, 1896–1932, of Republican supremacy; the “fifth” party system, 1932–? of Democratic supremacy), the nineteenth century political parties were not bland coalitions of interests with virtually the same amorphous ideology, with each party blurring what is left of its image during campaigns to appeal to the large independent center. In the nineteenth century, each party offered a fiercely contrasting ideology, and political parties performed the function of imposing a common ideology on diverse sectional and economic interests. During campaigns, the ideology and the partisanship became fiercer and even more clearly demarcated, since the object was not to appeal to independent moderates—there were virtually none—but to bring out the vote of one’s own partisans. Such partisanship and sharp alternatives marked the “second” American party system (Whig versus Democrat, approximately 1830 to the mid-1850s) and the “third” party system (closely fought Republican versus Democrat, mid-1850s to 1896).
Another important insight of the new political history is that the partisan passion devoted by rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans to national economic issues, stemmed from a similar passion devoted at the local and state level to what would now be called “social” issues. Furthermore, that political conflict, from the 1830s on, stemmed from a radical transformation that took place in American Protestantism as a result of the revival movement of the 1830s.
The new revival movement swept the Protestant churches, particularly in the North, like wildfire. In contrast to the old creedal Calvinist churches that stressed the importance of obeying God’s law as expressed in the church creed, the new “pietism” was very different. The pietist doctrine was essentially as follows: Specific creeds of various churches or sects do not matter. Neither does obedience to the rituals or liturgies of the particular church. What counts for salvation is only each individual being “born again”—a direct confrontation between the individual and God, a mystical and emotional conversion in which the individual achieves salvation. The rite of baptism, to the pietist, therefore becomes secondary; of primary importance is his or her personal moment of conversion.
But if the specific church or creed becomes submerged in a vague Christian interdenominationalism, then the individual Christian is left on his own to grapple with the problems of salvation. Pietism, as it swept American Protestantism in the 1830s, took two very different forms in North and South, with very different political implications. The Southerners, at least until the 1890s, became “salvationist pietists,” that is, they believed that the emotional experience of individual regeneration, of being born again, was enough to ensure salvation. Religion was a separate compartment of life, a vertical individual-God relation carrying no imperative to transform man-made culture and interhuman relations.
In contrast, the Northerners, particularly in the areas inhabited by “Yankees,” adopted a far different form of pietism, “evangelical pietism.” The evangelical pietists believed that man could achieve salvation by an act of free will. More particularly, they also believed that it was necessary to a person’s own salvation—and not just a good idea—to try his best to ensure the salvation of everyone else in society:
“To spread holiness,” to create that Christian commonwealth by bringing all men to Christ, was the divinely ordered duty of the “saved.” Their mandate was “to transform the world into the image of Christ.”1
Since each individual is alone to wrestle with problems of sin and salvation, without creed or ritual of the church to sustain him, the evangelical duty must therefore be to use the state, the social arm of the integrated Christian community, to stamp out temptation and occasions for sin. Only in this way could one perform one’s divinely mandated duty to maximize the salvation of others.2 And to the evangelical pietist, sin took on an extremely broad definition, placing the requirements for holiness far beyond that of other Christian groups. As one antipietist Christian put it, “They saw sin where God did not.” In particular, sin was any and all forms of contact with liquor, and doing anything except praying and going to church on Sunday. Any forms of gambling, dancing, theater, reading of novels—in short, secular enjoyment of any kind—were considered sinful.
The forms of sin that particularly agitated the evangelicals were those they held to interfere with the theological free will of individuals, making them unable to achieve salvation. Liquor was sinful because, they alleged, it crippled the free will of the imbibers. Another particular source of sin was Roman Catholicism, in which priests and bishops, arms of the Pope (whom they identified as the Antichrist), ruled the minds and therefore crippled the theological freedom of will of members of the church.
Evangelical pietism particularly appealed to, and therefore took root among, the “Yankees,” i.e., that cultural group that originated in (especially rural) New England and emigrated widely to populate northern and western New York, northern Ohio, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois. The Yankees were natural “cultural imperialists,” people who were wont to impose their values and morality on other groups; as such, they took quite naturally to imposing their form of pietism through whatever means were available, including the use of the coercive power of the state.
In contrast to evangelical pietists were, in addition to small groups of old-fashioned Calvinists, two great Christian groups, the Catholics and the Lutherans (or at least, the high-church variety of Lutheran), who were “liturgicals” (or “ritualists”) rather than pietists. The liturgicals saw the road to salvation in joining the particular church, obeying its rituals, and making use of its sacraments; the individual was not alone with only his emotions and the state to protect him. There was no particular need, then, for the state to take on the functions of the church. Furthermore, the liturgicals had a much more relaxed and rational view of what sin really was; for instance, excessive drinking might be sinful, but liquor per se surely was not.
The evangelical pietists, from the 1830s on, were the northern Protestants of British descent, as well as the Lutherans from Scandinavia and a minority of pietist German synods; the liturgicals were the Roman Catholics and the high-church Lutherans, largely German.
Very rapidly, the political parties reflected a virtually one-to-one correlation of this ethnoreligious division: the Whig, and later the Republican, party consisting chiefly of the pietists, and the Democratic party encompassing almost all the liturgicals. And for almost a century, on a state and local level, the Whig/Republican pietists tried desperately and determinedly to stamp out liquor and all Sunday activities except church (of course, drinking liquor on Sunday was a heinous double sin). As to the Catholic church, the pietists tried to restrict or abolish immigration, since people coming from Germany and Ireland, liturgicals, were outnumbering people from Britain and Scandinavia. Failing that and despairing of doing anything about adult Catholics poisoned by agents of the Vatican, the evangelical pietists decided to concentrate on saving Catholic and Lutheran youth by trying to eliminate the parochial schools, through which both religious groups transmitted their precious religious and social values to the young. The object, as many pietists put it, was to “Christianize the Catholics,” to force Catholic and Lutheran children into public schools, which could then be used as an instrument of pietist Protestantization. Since the Yankees had early taken to the idea of imposing communal civic virtue and obedience through the public schools, they were particularly receptive to this new reason for aggrandizing public education.
To all of these continuing aggressions by what they termed “those fanatics,” the liturgicals fought back with equal fervor. Particularly bewildered were the Germans who, Lutheran and Catholic alike, were accustomed to the entire family happily attending beer gardens together on Sundays after church and who now found the “fanatic” pietists trying desperately to outlaw this pleasurable and seemingly innocent activity. The pietist Protestant attacks on private and parochial schools fatally threatened the preservation and maintenance of the liturgicals’ cultural and religious values; and since large numbers of the Catholics and Lutherans were immigrants, parochial schools also served to maintain group affinities in a new and often hostile world—especially the world of Anglo-Saxon pietism. In the case of the Germans, it also meant, for several decades, preserving parochial teaching in the beloved German language, as against fierce pressures for Anglicization.
In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, as Catholic immigration grew and the Democratic party moved slowly but surely toward a majority status, the Republican, and—more broadly—pietist pressures became more intense. The purpose of the public school, to the pietists, was “to unify and make homogeneous the society.” There was no twentieth century concern for separating religion and the public school system. To the contrary, in most northern jurisdictions only pietist-Protestant church members were allowed to be teachers in the public schools. Daily reading of the Protestant Bible, daily Protestant prayers and Protestant hymns were common in the public schools, and school textbooks were rife with anti-Catholic propaganda. Thus, New York City school textbooks spoke broadly of “the deceitful Catholics,” and pounded into their children, Catholic and Protestant alike, the message that “Catholics are necessarily, morally, intellectually, infallibly, a stupid race.”3
Teachers delivered homilies on the evils of Popery, and also on deeply felt pietist theological values: the wickedness of alcohol (the “demon rum”) and the importance of keeping the Sabbath. In the 1880s and 1890s, zealous pietists began working ardently for antialcohol instruction as a required part of the public-school curriculum; by 1901, every state in the Union required instruction in temperance.
Since most Catholic children went to public rather than parochial schools, the Catholic authorities were understandably anxious to purge the schools of Protestant requirements and ceremonies, and of anti-Catholic textbooks. To the pietists, these attempts to de-Protestantize the public schools were intolerable “Romish aggression.” The whole point of the public schools was moral and religious homogenization, and here the Catholics were disrupting the attempt to make American society holy—to produce, through the public school and the Protestant gospel, “a morally and politically homogeneous people.” As Kleppner writes:
When they [the pietists] spoke of “moral education,” they had in mind principles of morality shared in common by the adherents of gospel religion, for in the public school all children, even those whose parents were enslaved by “Lutheran formalism or Romish supersitition,” would be exposed to the Bible. That alone was cause for righteous optimism, for they believed the Bible to be “the agent in converting the soul,” “the volume that makes human beings men.”4
In this way, “America [would] be Saved Through the Children.”5
The pietists were therefore incensed that the Catholics were attempting to block the salvation of America’s children—and eventually of America itself—all at the orders of a “foreign potentate.” Thus, the New Jersey Methodist Conference of 1870 lashed out with their deepest feelings against this Romish obstructionism:
Resolved, That we greatly deprecate the effort which is being made by “Haters of Light,” and especially by an arrogant priesthood, to exclude the Bible from the Public Schools of our land; and that we will do all in our power to defeat the well-defined and wicked design of this “Mother of Harlots.”6
Throughout the nineteenth century, “nativist” attacks on “foreigners” and the foreign-born were really attacks on liturgical immigrants. Immigrants from Britain or Scandinavia, pietists all, were “good Americans” as soon as they got off the boat. It was the diverse culture of the other immigrants that had to be homogenized and molded into that of pietist America. Thus, the New England Methodist Conference of 1889 declared:
We are a nation of remnants, ravellings from the Old World. . . . The public school is one of the remedial agencies which work in our society to diminish this . . . and to hasten the compacting of these heterogeneous materials into a solid nature.7
Or, as a leading citizen of Boston declared, “the only way to elevate the foreign population was to make Protestants of their children.”8
Since the cities of the North, in the late nineteenth century, were becoming increasingly filled with Catholic immigrants, pietist attacks on sinful cities and on immigrants both became aspects of the anti-liturgical struggle for a homogeneous Anglo-Saxon pietist culture. The Irish were particular butts of pietist scorn; a New York City textbook bitterly warned that continued immigration could make America “the common sewer of Ireland,” filled with drunken and depraved Irishmen.9
The growing influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century seemed to pose even greater problems for the pietist progressives, but they did not shrink from the task. As Elwood P. Cubberley of Stanford University, the nation’s outstanding progressive historian of education, declared, southern and eastern Europeans have served to dilute tremendously our national stock, and to corrupt our civil life. . . . Everywhere these people tend to settle in groups or settlements, and to set up here their national manners, customs, and observances. Our task is to break up these groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race and to implant in their children. . . the Anglo-Saxon conception of rightousness, law and order, and popular government. . . . 10
PROGRESSIVES, PUBLIC EDUCATION, AND THE FAMILY: THE CASE OF SAN FRANCISCO
The molding of children was of course the key to homogenization and the key in general to the progressive vision of tight social control over the individual via the instrument of the state. The eminent University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross, a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt and the veritable epitome of a progressive social scientist, summed it up thus: The role of the public official, and in particular of the public school teacher, is “to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneadingboard.”11
The view of Ross and the other progressives was that the state must take up the task of control and inculcation of moral values once performed by parents and church. The conflict between middle and upper-class urban progressive Anglo-Saxon Protestants and largely working-class Catholics was sharply delineated in the battle over control of the San Francisco public school system during the second decade of the twentieth century. The highly popular Alfred Roncovieri, a French-Italian Catholic, was the elected school superintendent from 1906 on. Roncovieri was a traditionalist who believed that the function of schools was to teach the basics, and that teaching children about sex and morality should be the function of home and church. Hence, when the drive for sex hygiene courses in the public schools got under way, Roncovieri consulted with mothers’ clubs and, in consequence, kept the program out of the schools.
By 1908, upper-class progressives launched a decade-long movement to oust Roncovieri and transform the nature of the San Francisco public school system. Instead of an elected superintendent responding to a school board elected by districts, the progressives wanted an all-powerful school superintendent, appointed by a rubber-stamp board that in turn would be appointed by the mayor. In other words, in the name of “taking the schools out of politics,” they hoped to aggrandize the educational bureaucracy and maintain its power virtually unchecked by any popular or democratic control. The purpose was threefold: to push through the progressive program of social control, to impose upper-class control over a working-class population, and to impose pietist Protestant control over Catholic ethnics. 12
The ethnoreligious struggle over the public schools in San Francisco was nothing new; it had been going on tumultuously since the middle of the nineteenth century.13 In the last half of the nineteenth century, San Francisco was split into two parts. Ruling the city was a power elite of native-born old Americans, hailing from New England, including lawyers, businessmen, and pietist Protestant ministers. These comprised successively the Whig, Know-Nothing, Populist, and Republican parties in the city. On the other hand were the foreign-born, largely Catholic immigrants from Europe, Irish, Germans, French, and Italians, who comprised the Democratic party.
The Protestants early tried to use the public schools as a homogenizing and controlling force. The great theoretician and founder of the public school system in San Francisco, John Swett, “the Horace Mann of California,” was a lifelong Republican and a Yankee who had taught school in New Hampshire before moving West. Moreover, the Board of Education was originally an all-New England show; consisting of emigrants from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. The mayor of San Francisco was a former mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, and every administrator and teacher in the public schools was a transplanted New Englander. The first superintendent of schools was not exactly a New Englander, but close: Thomas J. Nevins, a Yankee Whig lawyer from New York and an agent of the American Bible Society. And the first free public school in San Francisco was instituted in
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