A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era by Nichols, Christopher M.; Unger, Nancy C

By Nichols, Christopher M.; Unger, Nancy C

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Writing in a similar vein, influential Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter saw the period from 1890 to the 1940s as an age of reform, a response to the “period of industrial and continental expansion and political conservatism” that dated from the end of the Civil War to the 1890s (Hofstadter 1955, 3). Hofstadter notoriously eschewed archival research in favor of synthesis and social theory. Nevertheless, his 1955 book The Age of Reform influenced a generation of scholars, with historian Alan Brinkley calling it “the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth‐century America” (quoted in Brown 2006, 99).

Thus the precursors are quite self‐evident; muckrakers, agrarian reformers, the settlement‐house movement, the women’s movement and others. Indeed, as Edwards argued, “the breadth, complexity, and intensity of grassroots movements and ideas that arose before 1900 refutes the standard view that they were simply a prologue, and that the ‘real’ era of reform began after 1900” (Edwards 2009, 468). Thus, the debate over precursors, at least for Edwards, misses the point. What is more significant is that the Progressive Era reforms only make sense if one takes into account the entire post‐Civil War period.

Reinterpreting this era as one of contest over the nature of the government, and thus of American citizenship and even over America itself, reveals its larger themes. Examining struggles over suffrage also offers a way to include all voices in a new American narrative. The years from 1865 to the election of 1920 amounted to the creation of a new nation, a nation that had been reconstructed after the cataclysmic Civil War. The era during which that took place seems properly to be called Reconstruction.

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