Dark Side of Progressivism Exposed: From Eugenics to ‘Race Science’

Darker forces, however, were also at work during this period. Scientific racism, for instance, exercised significant influence on the educated classes. In his “Descent of Man” (1871), Charles Darwin even prophesied that “the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Nor did all nineteenth-century elites hold benign views of the workings of human freedom. Keep in mind, many of these individuals were not reactionaries concerned with preserving outmoded premodern hierarchies. Some of them belonged to the world’s largest democracy.

Leonard’s book details the rise of American social reformers who, under the direct and indirect influence of ideas that thrived in late nineteenth-century German universities, came to regard extensive state intervention as the means to solve social and economic problems. This was accompanied by deep skepticism about the seemingly chaotic workings of free markets and the bottom-up American associational approach to social ills. As Leonard demonstrates, ministers of religion such as Washington Gladden, lawyers such as Felix Frankfurter, efficiency experts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, economists such as Richard T. Ely, and politicians such as Woodrow Wilson believed they simply knew better. They also yearned for a chance to prove it.

Leonard’s particular focus is on the economic progressives. He underscores this group’s roots in liberal Protestantism and the associated social gospel movement that “pursued economic and social improvement through a scientifically informed mission of social redemption.”