A Faith Misplaced

Progressive arrogance.  Technocratic overreach.  Social engineering.  Racial tension.  Expanding executive powers.  Aggressive and endless waves of “experts.”  Economic disparity and unrest.  “Us” versus “them.”

All are characteristics of social and political life in recent years in the United States.  So much so that some pundits and observers apparently find the combination alarming and unique—even unprecedented—in American history.  But as Thomas C. Leonard demonstrates with refreshing clarity and devastating detail in Illiberal Reformers, they were also defining features of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, a 40-year-long era (1877-1917) that has been conveniently forgotten or carefully sanitized in the usual accounts found in public-school textbooks and popular memory.

Leonard’s book is notable on several counts.  First, Leonard is an academic, a professor of history at Princeton, who writes about history without any apparent ideological ax to grind.  His objective and jargon-free style has a real freshness, bolstered by his excellent use of primary sources.  His portrayal of the feverish growth of statism during the Progressive Era is comprehensive and often startling.  Illiberal Reformers challenges and informs the reader on several...

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