The Racist Roots of UW Progressives

A lot gets left off the revisionist history

Some readers will know that Wisconsin was so identified with the progressive reform movement of the early 20th century that American progressivism used the “Wisconsin Idea” as a prototype. Other readers will know that the progressives permanently altered the course of America’s economy and its public life. What readers may not know is that the progressives, in Wisconsin as elsewhere, were not that progressive.

Progressives passed many pro-democratic reforms. Amending the U.S. Constitution in 1920 to give women the vote and in 1913 to require direct election of U.S. senators are celebrated examples. But woman suffrage happened only after African-Americans in the Jim Crow South were effectively disenfranchised.

Many progressives simply ignored the plight of African-Americans, but others justified the brutal re-establishment of white supremacy. Princeton University professor Woodrow Wilson told his Atlantic Monthly readers that the freed slaves and their descendants were unprepared for freedom.

African-Americans were “unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self control, never sobered by the discipline of self support, never established in any habit of prudence … insolent and aggressive, sick of work, (and) covetous of pleasure,” Wilson wrote in 1901. Jim Crow was needed, Wilson said, because without it, African-Americans “were a danger to themselves as well as to those whom they had once served.” When President Wilson arrived in Washington, his administration resegregated the federal government, hounding from office large numbers of black federal employees.

Economist Richard T. Ely, who came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1892, approved. “Negroes are for the most part grownup children, and should be treated as such,” he declared.

Ely’s protégé, UW labor historian and economist John R. Commons, who came to personify the Wisconsin Idea, was more militant. Black suffrage, Commons said, was not an expansion of democracy but a corruption of it.

Apparently forgetting the valor of the black soldiers who served in the Civil War, Commons wrote in 1907, “by the cataclysm of a war in which it took no part, this race, after many thousand years of savagery, was suddenly let loose into the liberty of citizenship, and the electoral suffrage.”

UW sociologist Edward A. Ross, another Ely protégé who became a leading public intellectual of American progressivism, was not to be outdone when it came to contempt for his imagined inferiors. Black suffrage, he said in 1912, was the taproot of American political corruption. “One man, one vote,” Ross wrote, “does not make Sambo equal to Socrates.”

UW President Charles Van Hise said Americans must abandon their individualism for the good of the race. Individuals were only stewards of their heredity — holding genetic resources, like land resources, in trust for future generations.

He demanded that the “defective classes” surrender control of their genetic resources, writing in 1910, “Human defectives should no longer be allowed to propagate the race.” Whether by involuntary sterilization or segregation in asylums, hospitals and institutions, the methods of conserving human heredity, Van Hise warned, must be thoroughgoing.

Inspired by the slogan “sterilization or racial disaster,” Wisconsin passed its forcible sterilization law that same year. When Charles McCarthy queried Ross on the merits of it, Ross replied: “I am entirely in favor of it.” When the appalling death toll of the First World War quickened eugenic fears, Ross, voicing a sentiment held by many, bemoaned the “immeasurable calamity that has befallen the white race.”

Such attitudes formed the underpinning of a key progressive policy. The progressives feared that if firms were permitted to hire whomever they chose to, the work would necessarily go the lowest bidder, an argument that first was racialized when applied to Chinese immigrants, who were stigmatized as Coolies. As Ross put it in the 1930s, the Coolie “cannot outdo the American,” but “he can underlive him.”

Commons later would extend the indictment to all Asians. Ultimately, the disabled, Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe and women all were accused of undercutting the American (read: Anglo-Saxon) workingman.

The original progressives were deeply ambivalent about the poor. This is, I think, the great contradiction at the heart of Progressive Era reform. Progressives felt genuine compassion for “the people,” which is to say, those groups they judged worthy of American citizenship and employment. The deserving poor were offered the helping hand of state uplift.

Yet progressives simultaneously scorned the millions of ordinary people who happened to be disabled, or of an “inferior” race, or female. The so-called undeserving poor were offered the closed hand of state exclusion and restraint.

Thomas C. Leonard is an economist and historian at Princeton University. This article is adapted from his book, “Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era.” Read the full version of this article at

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