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Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917

Author(s):Sanders, Elizabeth
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (April 2000)

Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American

State, 1877-1917. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999. x + 532 pp.

$16.00 (paper), ISBN: 0-226-73477-3; $48.00 (cloth), 0-226-73476-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of


Since the publication in 1963 of Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of

Conservatism, scholars have been highly suspicious of American

progressivism. Working from a ‘corporate liberalism’ perspective, Kolko,

James Weinstein, Martin Sklar, James Livingston, and others have interpreted

Progressive Era reforms, such as railroad regulation,

anti-trust, the Federal Reserve system, and workers’ compensation, as products

of nefarious capitalist campaigns. In this story, the new, giant corporations

used ‘reform’ programs to control markets, reduce competition,

and replace worker militancy with complacency. This puts studies of the early

American welfare state in sharp contrast with comparable studies for Canada

and Europe. There, a social democratic coalition linking militant labor with

agrarian radicals is credited with pushing state programs regulating labor and

product markets over the objections of capitalists.

Such grass-roots radical

groups disappear from corporate liberal studies of the American Progressive

Era, replaced by ingenious and scheming corporate capitalists. Early

welfare-state programs in Canada and Europe, are signs of the growth in power

of a nascent working class. In

the United States, by contrast, they are viewed as signs of the emergence of a

modern ruling capitalist class.

It may be that the welfare state began to look more attractive to American

scholars after it began to be dismantled. Or perhaps its undoing in

an era of weak unions and triumphant corporate capitalism encouraged scholars

to reexamine labor and capital’s role in the creation of the welfare state.

Discounting the impact of corporate capitalists, Theda Skocpol, for example,

uses state-centered and

maternalist models to attribute early welfare-state initiatives in the United

States to a coalition uniting women’s groups with professional reformers.

Others have applied society-centered and social-democratic models to the United


including political scientist Richard Valelly, and labor historians Julie

Greene and Richard Schneirov. They have shown the extent of political action by

Progressive Era labor and radical farmers, and the impact of their militancy on

both the national and local politics


Enter Elizabeth Sanders. Rejecting corporate liberalism, she argues that

Progressive-era reforms were championed by a reform coalition uniting organized

labor, middle-class reformers, and radical farmers. More, Sanders rejects both

the state-centered approach associated with Skocpol and labor historians’

social-democratic approach to argue that the real driving force behind the

early welfare state in the United States came from the country side, from

politically mobilized farmers in the South and West.

Dismissing progressive intellectuals as too isolated and organized labor as

too weak and disorganized, Sanders argues “that agrarian movements constituted

the most important political force driving the development of the American

national state in the first half century before World War I. And by shaping

the form of early regulatory legislation and establishing the centrality of the

farmer-labor alliance to progressive reform and the Democratic Party,

the agrarian influence was felt for years thereafter”

(p. 1).

Sanders supports this strong statement by examining roll-call votes in Congress

on several major Progressive-Era laws. Using county-level data on manufacturing

value added per capita in 1919, she divides the United States into three

regional blocks. These include a “core” of highly industrialized localities,

mostly in the Northeast, a “periphery” in the South and West,

and “diverse” localities mostly in the Midwest and along the border of the

other two. Examining votes on such measures as extending ICC jurisdiction,

the Clayton Act, the Underwood Tariff, the income tax, the Federal Reserve Act,

and vocational training, she shows how congressmen from the periphery,

favored an ‘agrarian statist agenda’ of state regulation and intervention meant


redistribute wealth and power towards farmers, wage laborers, and residents of

the periphery. Their agenda was enacted when senators and representatives from

the periphery joined with allies from diverse localities, generally progressive

Republican insurgents, and a few core Democrats closely allied with labor

unions. By contrast, this reform agenda was vigorously opposed by core

Republicans associated with major corporations and industrial and financial

capital. In this way, Sanders argues, the alliance

of farmers and organized labor in the American Progressive Era resembled the

farmer-labor alliances behind social democratic reforms and the early welfare

state in Scandinavia and elsewhere described in the works of Gosta

Esping-Andersen, Leo Loubere and

Seymour Martin Lipset.

Sanders’s work is a major contribution to our understanding of politics in the

Progressive Era. By restoring ‘farmer’ to the ‘farmer-labor’ coalition,

she moves scholarship back to an earlier appreciation of the role of agrarians

in American radicalism, providing background, for example, to the role agrarian

radicals like Iowa’s Henry Wallace and Minnesota’s Floyd Olson played in

building the New Deal coalition of the 1930s. Showing how,

even before the New Deal, Democrats united

northern labor with peripheral agrarians to advance economic reforms, she

broadens our understanding of the role of the Democratic Party in American

politics. United by more than racism, the Democrats were a party of reform

committed to advancing an agrarian statist agenda.

Thus Sanders provides new insight into the regional and industrial sources of

political parties’ economic programs. But the parties themselves are a weak

link in her argument. Slavery, the Civil War, and segregation made regions

almost synonymous with political party in the United States. In the

Progressive Era, almost all southern congressmen were Democrats, but

Republicans controlled most congressional seats from the Northeast.

Sanders’s regional division between ‘core’ and ‘periphery,’ therefore,

confounds party and region, separating ‘core’ Republicans and ‘peripheral’

Democrats. Sanders supports her argument with two-way tables showing support

for various progressive reforms by representatives or senators by region. But

she rarely distinguishes between voting by party in each region and never

performs the statistical tests needed to determine the relative importance of

party and region in congressional voting. But it is clear in her tables that

there is a strong partisan component to congressional voting. In the final

vote on the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909, for example,

80% of representatives from the core supported passage compared with only 33%

of those from the periphery (p. 225). However, the vote was even more partisan

than it was regional: 98% of Democrats opposed the tariff bill against 99% of

Republicans. Did peripheral representatives oppose the bill because they were

from the periphery or because they were Democrats? The same question can be

asked for other partisan measures. The Federal Reserve Act, for example, was

supported by 100% of Senate Democrats against 90% of Republicans (p. 252). A

measure in 1910 forbidding the use of Justice Department funds to prosecute

unions under the antitrust laws was supported by 98

% of House Democrats but was opposed by 74% of Republicans (p. 343).

Sanders chooses to emphasize the strong regional alignment in all of these

votes; she may as well have seen them as partisan votes driven by the

imperatives of political coalition building in an era of strong parties.

In addition, there may also be problems in Sanders’s regional classification by

manufacturing output per capita in 1919. Are all manufacturing regions the

same? Is it appropriate to place declining New England textile counties in the

same category as Pennsylvania steel towns and Washington State canning

communities? And is it appropriate to put Southern cotton regions dominated by

racism and sharecropping in the same peripheral category as western mining

communities, Minnesota dairy towns,

and wheat farmers on the Great Plains? Sanders could do a finer breakdown and

then provide statistical tests for using a higher level of aggregation.

This would be a great deal of work; but that may explain why God made graduate



Elizabeth Sanders is well aware of the partisanship and regional subtleties

behind the progressive era legislation she discusses. Beyond the statistical

analysis, she shows a firm understanding of the qualitative literature, the

congressional debates and the maneuvering among the leadership of Congress and

the Executive Branch. Roots of Reform is a work of the highest

scholarship, providing an insightful account of the origins of the American

welfare state. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her findings, Sanders’s

work marks a new beginning in the study of twentieth-century American politics.

Gerald Friedman is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of

Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of State-Making and Labor


: France and the United States, 1876-1914 (Cornell University Press, 1999)

as well as numerous articles on the history of organized labor in the United

States and Europe.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII