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  • Progressivism and Philanthropy
  • Lenore T. Ealy (bio) and Steven D. Ealy (bio)

Toward the end of the nineteenth century America faced unfamiliar circumstances that seemed to make its traditional social institutions obsolete and threatened the hope for social stability. Steady immigration swelled the ranks and diversity of the urban poor, and headlong industrialization radically changed the ways in which people worked and lived. The growing complexity of social and economic affairs contributed to a widespread belief that a new social and political order must be created.

The response of many social critics and scholars, today known broadly as "Progressives," was to forge an approach to social and institutional change rooted in evolutionary philosophy, enamored with scientific objectivism, and often infused with German ideological statism. Traditional Anglo-American common sense and the rule of common law were increasingly suspect as the new "social sciences" emerged with hopes of rationalizing social control.

In the decades that followed, most American institutions were organized or re-organized according to the Progressive prescription. The flow of social responsibility was away from more primary, local, and voluntary institutions to those more centralized, professionalized, and tax-supported. This transformation was financed in part by the fledgling philanthropic foundations of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Sage and others who subscribed to some version of the new corporate liberalism. The hierarchical, corporate organization of business entities created a work force with middle-class means and proletarian status, and many of the society's major responsibilities were newly assumed by remote national organizations or assigned to some level of government. By mid-century, in the wake of the New Deal, America's institutions and practices of mutual aid were widely displaced by specialized professionals. Those in need of assistance became clients or "cases."

Today, at the turn of another century, new circumstances are rendering the Progressive prescriptions largely obsolete. American society is outgrowing the institutions the Progressives designed for it. The practical virtue and utility of classical liberal principles have triumphed over the ideologies of socialism and statism. Government administration has been shown to suffer from and to reinforce significant knowledge problems. The electronic revolution has suggested and enabled a more horizontal corporate organization in which more and more working people are self-managed. In short, the centralizing thrust of the 20th century seems to be giving way to a decentralizing tendency in the 21st.

The purpose of this paper is to foster better understanding of the origins and rationale of the Progressive "old order" and of its continuing impact on American philanthropy. Drawing upon dozens of readings from Progressive-era journals and popular magazines, we seek to uncover the intellectual foundations of Progressivism and to identify its strengths and vulnerabilities.

Part of our exploration is also intended to understand how we might best articulate a new rationale for philanthropic enterprises that are today working to return social responsibility to local communities and to support the emergence of new forms of mutual aid and voluntary action. A more robust understanding of the promise of decentralized voluntary action is needed to facilitate the reclamation of responsibility from the outdated, bureaucratic institutions born in the Progressive era. Philanthropists who are today glimpsing the opening of new paths for human action and who wish to encourage the present transformations must understand the challenges in proceeding. A better understanding of the "old order" as well as the entrenchment of contemporary institutions in Progressive assumptions can help promote more effective action in the present. Only when we understand the old assumptions and their compelling hold on the present can we begin fruitfully to challenge these assumptions with a new vision for the future.

I. What's Wrong With Charity?

A hallmark of the Progressive movement was its effort to reform politics and government administration, to reclaim them from the corrupt patronage system of the party bosses and to apply new, more professional means to accomplishing the ends of government. In the name of reform the Progressives viewed the legitimate ends of the national government as more expansive and substantive than in previous eras.

Ever present in the minds of many reformers was the fear of popular revolution, and "the labor question" was of central importance. In the years...