The Frustrated Liberals


The liberal reformers, in short, never understood what was going on. Mr. Sproat sums it up: … the Gilded Age was a period of exciting social change. It laid down a revolutionary challenge to responsible men, a challenge to harness the industrial giant and make it work for the benefit of all, rather than for the comfort of a privileged few. For all his intellectual endowment, the liberal reformer closed his mind to the challenge. He fancied himself a realist, but he never grasped the realities of the Industrial Revolution. … He turned away from his age not only because it refused his advice, but also because it insisted that he live in it.

It was living in the new age that was tough. The liberals kept looking back fondly to a simpler era, because they wanted something they could understand. The evils of the spoils system, of big-city bossism, and of the mad scramble for riches they could understand, because these things fitted their special frame of reference; the gigantic issues posed by human freedom and the age of industrial combinations were things that affected other men. The reformers ignored them, and, as Mr. Sproat says, “in the end, they were reduced to playing the role of querulous aristocrats in a nation that had long since become infatuated with democracy.”