Title Reviewed:
Midwestern Progressive Politics: A Historical Study of Its Origins and Development, 1870–1950

Author Reviewed:
Russel B. Nye

Robert S. Maxwell


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 48, Issue 1, pp 95-97

Article Type:
Book Review

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Midwestern Progressive Politics: A Historical Study of Its Origins and Development, 1870–1950. By Russel B. Nye. (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1951, pp. 422. Bibliography, illustrations, and index. $4.50.)

In this survey of midwestern "radicalism" the author presents a synthesis of farmer protest movements from the days of the Grangers to the present. Nye's thesis is that Midwest Progressivism is a unique phenomenon that stretches unbroken "from 'Sockless Jerry' Simpson, Donnelly, Bryan, and 'old Bob' La Follette" and presumably to "young Bob" and Henry Wallace (p. 1). It is an "essentially common-sense, agrarian, frontier radicalism, a thoroughly indigenous compound of various elements in midwestern history." "There is nothing else quite like it in the world" (p. 2). This theme, though at times strained, is the central thread of the entire narrative.

The account contributes little new information and apparently is in no part based on original research or manuscript material. The bibliography and chapter references, however, list most of the standard monographs and texts dealing with the subject and include a wide variety of periodicals. Nye's style is forceful and pleasing and the story moves smoothly holding the interest of the reader. The first four chapters which deal with the period before 1900, in my opinion, are the best. There the author catches the spirit of what is a truly indigenous, agrarian movement of protest and reform which crusaded under various names and labels in the post-civil war decades. The more complex movements of the twentieth century are not so deftly handled.

Many readers will quarrel with both the author's general thesis and some of his specific facts. The combining of appeals to both agriculture and labor with intellectual leadership is the key to the success of the Progressives as opposed to the Populists but seemingly is only dimly seen by Nye. Much of the narrative in the chapter on "Progressivism at Flood Tide" revolves about Robert M. La Follette, Sr., but "fighting Bob's" history seems to be imperfectly understood. For example, the election of La Follette to the governorship in 1900 does not look like such a great victory over the bosses when the support of stalwart leaders such as McKinley-henchman Henry C. Payne, Congressman Joseph W. Babcock, manufacturer Emanuel Philipp, and multi-millionaire Isaac Stephenson is understood and evaluated (p. 214). In 1905, La Follette did not fill a vacancy in the United States Senate due to the death of Joseph V. Quarles, he simply defeated him for re-election. Quarles remained much alive until 1911 (p. 216). And it is inaccurate to say that "La Follette set up the State Board of Public Affairs" (p. 218). That Board represented one of the accomplishments of Francis E. McGovern.

In the chapter on "Betrayal and Survival, 1908–1920," Nye discusses both the "Bull-Moose-Progressive" effort of T. R. in 1912 and Woodrow Wilson's progressive "New Freedom" program but does not note that here is "Midwestern Progressivism" grown large. It had become national in scope. This same chapter ends on an unsatisfactory note as the author sloughs off the whole story of the decline and submergence of the Progressive movement during the first World War in less than one page. The last chapter is rather thin. It is a bit difficult to focus attention on the Midwest when the heritage of Progressivism had passed to Hyde Park and the New Dealers.

For the general reader, Midwestern Progressive Politics will provide an interesting and readable account of a continuing fundamental reform drive in American history. The historian will regret that Nye did not "dig deeper and broader" into the problem.

University of Kentucky

Robert S. Maxwell

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.