The Age of Reform

The Age of Reform



The Pequod Review:

Richard Hofstadter's The Age of Reform is another revisionist history, this time focused on the Populist and Progressive Eras (roughly 1890-1914). Hofstadter argues that the reformers acted less out of purely economic or democratic concerns, and instead were often reactionary in their attempt to preserve or recapture social status and cultural privileges. These included a nostalgia for an agrarian past, and no small amount of bigotry and racism: 

It is my thesis that men of this sort . . . were Progressives not because of economic deprivation but primarily because they were victims of an upheaval in status that took place in the United States during the closing decades of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century. Progressivism, in short, was to a very considerable extent led by men who suffered from the events of their time not through a shrinkage in their means but through the changed pattern in the distribution of deference and power.

Hofstadter’s evidence is more impressionistic than analytical, and the limited evidence he provides is often unrepresentative or cherry-picked. Nonetheless, he pieces together a somewhat persuasive thesis that is consistently engaging.