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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 393-398

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Peasants, Pitchforks, and the (Found) Promise of Progressivism

Robert D. Johnston

Elizabeth Sanders. Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. x + 532 pp. Notes and index. $48.00 (cloth); $16.00 (cloth).

Political scientist Elizabeth Sanders has written a historian's masterpiece. Through an exploration of radical agrarianism in an age when it had supposedly disappeared, Roots of Reform connects the politics of the high and the low in a way more effective than any historian has ever done. We can now finally understand how the activism of dirt farmers influenced the very specific policies of Congress. State and society are at last reunited, after an aggressive campaign by past-minded political scientists to push the former to prominence. Single-handedly, or perhaps one should say horny-handedly, Sanders has forever recast our vision of Progressivism.

Sanders's book is empirically rich, theoretically ambitious, and historiographically contentious. Drawn from the closest reading of the Congressional Record in ages, Sanders has explored the nuts-and-bolts of dozens of famous and not-so-famous congressional proposals. She has reconstructed in painstaking detail the legislative history of these bills and their multitude of amendments, as well as the voting records of their key supporters and opponents.

All this work is in the service of a clear thesis, and an even clearer set of heroes. Farmers are democracy's noblemen in Roots of Reform, and besides their racism they can do almost no wrong. By advocating full public control over the basic economic institutions of the day, rural folk "constructed the most original and searching critique of industrial capitalism that American history has yet experienced and a political movement that mounted the broadest challenge to the foundations of the new economic system" (p. 29). If this sounds like an unreconstructed Lawrence Goodwyn, read on. For Sanders's farmers were not simply doomed democrats fated to confront the system and fade away. Rather, they survived to fight many more battles in the two decades after 1896, in the process serving as the chief architects of the modern American state. [End Page 393]

Yet not just any kind of farmer was involved in The Long Agrarian Moment. The primary advocates of economic equality and the regulatory state before 1917 were those on the margins of the American economy. Indeed, where Sanders most closely adheres to her own discipline is in the construction of a tripartite scheme for classifying economic areas within the United States. Following on the work of Richard Bensel, Sanders designates congressional districts as falling within "core," "periphery," and "diverse" areas based upon their relationship to manufacturing and finance capital, as well as their dependence on exports. 1

Sanders is no Marxist, but she is a staunch materialist. In Roots of Reform the most significant political struggles of the era flow out of the basic conflicts between debtors and creditors, between producers and shippers, embodied in her political-economic regions. Through their numerical strength and high level of political organization, farmers on the southern and western periphery were able to script the agendas, if not fully stage the outcomes, for most of the great dramas of Progressivism.

Because these farmers could not accomplish their goals alone, Sanders recognizes that explaining the political outcomes of their crusades requires close attention to the alliances sought by the agrarians. She argues that farmers on the periphery could not turn for aid to their seemingly natural allies, their brethren in more developed parts of the country. Southern cotton farmers and Plains wheat farmers were utterly dependent on the export market and thus, in supporting low tariff policies, flocked to the Democratic party. Yet truck, dairy, and poultry farmers in the Northeast, and even to a good extent the corn and hog producers of Iowa, grew food for nearby cities whose economic base was the manufacturing encouraged by the high tariffs of the Republicans. Unfortunately, this explanation of the failure of farmers to unify politically is not the...


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