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Era Of Transition

March 2023
3min read

Any thoughtful student of American society in the first decade of the present century would have had abundant reason for bleak pessimism. An ominous stratification seemed to have set in, creating sharp class lines in a democracy which had always supposed itself classless. Enormous aggregations of capital had developed; the instruments of control seemed to have collapsed; there were tensions of every sort—between capital and labor, between farm and city, between the races, between native-born and immigrant. The contrast between ostentatious enjoyment of unlimited wealth at the top level and the utter misery of teeming millions at the bottom was shocking, and there seemed to be no way by which these fundamental disharmonies would ever be resolved. No observer could have been blamed if he had concluded that the country was heading straight for some kind of revolutionary upheaval.

And yet, somehow, nothing of the sort ever happened. Somehow, during the first decade or so of the new century, what looked like an unendurably ominous situation began to lose its cutting edge. The drift toward uncontrollable bigness came to a halt, the hardening class lines softened, social and economic stratification gave way to a new fluidity, and the class war that seemed to be developing so fast dissolved. The country may indeed still have huge problems arising from its prodigious development as an industrial, financial, political, and military power, but at least they are very different from the problems that looked so insoluble half a century ago. Some sort of corner had been turned, and one of the most fascinating and instructive exercises open to any student of our history is the attempt to find out why and how this happened.

The Era of Theodore Roosevelt, 1900–1912, by George E. Mowry. Harper and Brothers. 330 pp. $5.00.

An excellent approach to such a study is provided by George E. Mowry in his compact book, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt . Roosevelt, it should be emphasized, did not himself provide the turning point; many forces of extraordinary complexity were at work, and it would be foolish to suppose that any one man brought America through this particular time of trial; but he was there when it happened, the period was indeed the “Roosevelt era,” and he himself made a substantial contribution. Professor Mowry undertakes to show what that contribution was and how it came to be made.

There were, to begin with, the progressives—that remarkable, strangely assorted set of men who fought so hard and, in the long run, so effectively to enable the country to make the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. As Professor Mowry points out, they were an upper and a middle class group; most of them were tolerably well-heeled; some of them were actually men of substantial wealth. Most of them had been, like Roosevelt himself, solid conservatives to begin with. They were not “angry men,” made desperate by economic pressure; the reforms they put through were, as the author points out, “more the results of the heart and the head than of the stomach.” Furthermore, while these men had strong social consciences, they did not fully identify themselves with their constituents; the cult of the strong man, the gifted leader who can be the only true originator of progress, was dominant with most of them. They believed in progress, but they did not think that it would come automatically; thinking change inevitable, they considered that change would be for the better only if the nation exerted strength and energy to make it so.

Strength and energy Roosevelt had in abundance. A progressive friend once warned him that he must become either a great politician or a great moral teacher; he could not possibly be both. But Roosevelt insisted on being both, and the insistence occasionally led him into contradictions which baffled his admirers. A complete political realist—he could be bitterly critical of the “impractical reformers” who wanted him to attempt impossibilities—he must nevertheless justify the most realistic of his political actions on the highest ethical level, which now and then took a bit of doing. His deeds and his words often clashed, and he admitted frankly on one occasion that for a reformer in government, “political expediency draws the line.” And it was perhaps because of this inner conflict that he was so successful in his leadership of the progressive era.

As Professor Mowry puts it: “In some things he was a traditionalist and in others a reformer. Most of his beliefs and prejudices reflected the beliefs and prejudices of the middle register of Americans, and in that sense he was a progressive. But most of all he was a skillful broker of the possible, a broker between the past and the present, between the interest groups pushing the government one way and the other, between his own conscience and his opportunities.”

Essentially, then, Roosevelt—by any modern standard—was a true conservative. No “skillful broker of the possible” can ever be a real radical; and in the last analysis, it may be that it was precisely that sort of brokerage that was most deeply needed during the trying time when this democracy was trying to adjust itself to the twentieth century. Something essential was indeed conserved in those times. We grew through the transition period without a sharp break with the past or with our own tradition. The profound flexibility of American society was never better demonstrated, or more serviceable, than it was in that faraway era of the great progressives. Roosevelt did not create this flexibility, but he fully expressed it: a remarkable and a fascinating man, operating in a remarkable and fascinating time.

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