Progressivism in Oklahoma Politics, 1900-1913: A Reinterpretation by Kenny L. Brown (AOIHNSB)

Posted: March 20, 2020 in Book Review, Books

Note: This is the fourth in a series I’m doing on the book “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” edited by Davis D. Joyce. You can see them all under the Oklahoma history tag.

In this Chapter of “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” Dr. Kenny Brown, Director of Graduate Studies Program
U.S. History and Southwestern Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma, argues for a new interpretation of progressive politics in Oklahoma leading up to and just following statehood.

Brown begins with an overview of progressivism in the broader United States in that era, and how difficult it is to put a thumb on just what the term means. Clearly, it entailed an opposition to trusts and monopolies, and a desire to use regulation to prevent both. Beyond that, though, things get complicated. The term was applied to completely disparate groups of people in different regions with different values and goals.

American historians have interpreted “progressivism” as a unified movement, a diverse movement, a collection of varied yet still similar movements, an impulse, an impulse with many “strains,” a spirit of the age, a reform ethos, a reform wave, or some other type of elusive and ill-defined entity. According to various interpretations, “progressives” were liberal, conservative, working-class, middle-class, upper-class, rural, urban, forward-looking, backward-looking, Christian, scientific, Middle Western, found in every part of the country yet different in each section, proconsumer, probusiness, or proefficiency.

Brown uses this confusion over national progressivism as a backdrop to explain the various factions of what came to be called progressivism in the lead up to the writing and ratification of the Oklahoma constitution. He claims that Oklahoma historians have the same confusion about progressivism, largely because they take the generalizations of the politicians they are writing about at face value. He points to a number of histories of Oklahoma and early Oklahoma politics, some specifically on progressivism, and finds all wanting for useful definitions of the term.

It occurs to me that much of this kind of confusion still exists today, in both parties. For example, it is clear to everyone both in and out of the Republican Party that there is no unified definition of conservatism in the United States, especially right now. There are a number of factions, all claiming to be conservative, but with completely different goals and worldviews. Are conservatives poor white men, rich bankers and Wall Street brokers, Rand and Ron Paul libertarians, neo-conservative hawks, evangelicals, probusiness, anti-immigration, pro-military, anti-interventionist, Birchers or Buckleyites? There are people who call themselves conservative that fit under each of these labels, but it would be impossible to associate with all of them at once.

Brown frames progressivism in early pre-statehood Oklahoma in the context of the business environment in the United States following the depression of the 1890s. Corporations had sought stability through mergers and elimination of competition. As a relatively small number of large corporations began to emerge from this trend, a concern developed about the influence these companies might have in politics. As a result, interest groups formed based on the corporate model, that explicitly advocated for the interests of their constituents. This is the period when you really got the establishment of unions, interest groups like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association.

Oklahoma was not immune to this trend. At the turn of the century, four large companies consolidated the Oklahoma railroads. At the same time, a large coal mining company was formed in the state. Based on these corporate models, trade associations began forming before statehood. There were Oklahoma Territory Medical and Dental Associations. Social organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union formed as well. By 1905, there were eighty clubs listed in the Oklahoma and Indian Territory Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The federation accomplished much of its impressive agenda: establishment of public libraries, formation of public kindergartens, and creation of parks, gardens, and other city beautification projects. As statehood approached, the federation advocated provisions in the constitution to ensure a humane juvenile justice system and to restrict child labor.

These clubs played a major role in setting up Oklahoma as a dry state when it came time to write the constitution.One woman stands out as a major force in early Oklahoma politics, Kate Barnard. Unlike most of the female advocates in the state, Barnard was single and without wealth. Barnard came of age in a poor neighborhood in south Oklahoma City. I guess south Oklahoma City has always been the poor part of the area. She will be the focus of the next essay in this series.

Barnard was an early labor advocate, particularly on the issue of child labor. This set her up in opposition later to some of the other progressive elements in the state, particularly farmers who wanted to be able to use children. Originally, Barnard was able to form a coalition between labor and the farm bloc over vague anti-corporate interests, but those broke down once she moved on child labor. When she started advocating on behalf of Indians who were being unfairly treated in the new government, she earned enemies from both sides of the aisle.

The issue of Indian lands demonstrated a major inconsistency in the logic used to attack large business interests. Critics accused corporate leaders of callously abusing farmers, workers, consumers, and other hapless common people. But many Oklahoma farmers, workers, and consumers unhesitatingly defrauded untutored Indians. Homegrown politicians seldom noted this hypocrisy, but a Chicago journalist observed, “In Wall Street they go after ‘theirs’ with the ticker and the seduction of stock certificates. In Oklahoma they seek the same thing with the abstract of the title men and the virgin soil. In Wall Street they shear the lambs and in Oklahoma they just take it away from the unsophisticated Indians.”

Over time, as the state tried to develop economically, anti-corporatism began to fall apart. Politicians would still pay lip service to it, the focus in the legislature moved to, segregation, morality legislation and “blue laws”.I’ve massively oversimplified the detailed and nuanced analysis Brown gives in this essay. I’ll end with his last paragraph, which sums up the chapter well.

The vague and trendy terminology of anticorporatism at first unified voters and acted as a catalyst to effect many reforms that seldom lived up to expectations. In Oklahoma these changes came rapidly. After the initial surge in 1907 and 1908, conflicts quickly emerged, and the difficulty of making tough decisions became more apparent. As this happened, successful politicians turned to more conventional ethnocultural issues, such as prohibition and Jim Crow laws, or they pleased constituents by log-rolling to locate state institutions in their home districts. These trends should be understood, and the inconsistencies and complexities of the politicians and interest groups should be recognized. Telling the story of the era, with its rich variety and contradictions, is far more productive and insightful than trying to generalize using the inadequate concept of “progressivism.”

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  1. […] religiously oppressive politics. Mind you, all of this was going on less than a decade after the strong progressivism in early Oklahoma I’ve already written […]

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