"The Greatest Social Science Laboratory in the World"
This is a book about a small group of men and women, who, captivated by the possibilities of a science of the social, built an expansive network of reform organizations in Progressive-Era New York City, and by their efforts changed a city, and beyond it, a generation, and, to a considerable extent, a nation as well. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New York City, the nation's leading metropolis, fed by streams of thought from Europe and America, became a hub—a vibrant, innovative center—of social science ideas and organization, an incubator for social science and progressive reform. Social science scholar-activists headed reform associations, bureaus, committees, and leagues; founded settlement houses; took on the challenge of scientific racism; launched urban and industrial surveys along with class uplift projects, child labor advocacy efforts, and good-government municipal commissions; battled for legislative change at local, state, and federal levels; and, in a flurry of activism helped found a political party—the Progressive Party of 1912—to advance their reform views.
Most, though not all, of the men and women in these pages held advanced degrees in the social sciences, but all were passionate in their research and political advocacy. Nor did they always agree. Moderates favored middle-way reform, radicals fundamental (often socialistic) restructuring. Yet moderate and radical alike often worked in concert, through common organizations they had cooperated to build. The reform coalition in which they played a pivotal part—a coalition that included labor leaders, social gospellers, middle class reformers, and women's reform organizations—captured the name political progressive for itself, and they and their allies meant by it a brand of politics that sought an expanded use of government.
The government social science scholar-activists sought was activist government, one that, through its laws, would shield the weak from exploitation by the strong, regulate the nation's new industrial economy, and advance racial equality. They saw the governed and the governors, guided or led by social scientists like themselves, as forging solutions to the issues of the day. They shared the view that the state need not restrict its agency to mere laissez faire rule-setting to ensure competitive markets, as conservative social scientists did, but that government might properly become a powerful regulatory force and a public-service provider for the American people. The men and women of the social science network were not the primary holders of power, none financial barons, or generals, or industrial giants, or elected officials, but through their research and public advocacy they shaped the decisions and actions of the powerful and not-so-powerful. High-brow and middle-brow intellects (intellectuals and intelligentsia), they were, in a common parlance, public intellectuals, civically engaged. Initially activists and advocates working inside the private centers of power in universities, settlement houses, and private agencies, over time they increasingly moved into policy-making positions of public power employed for humanitarian ends, even seeking to affect elections.
Modern American social science began with the opening of the nation's first social science graduate programs in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. In those first graduate schools of New York City, Chicago, Cambridge, and elsewhere, scholars with competing visions of the public weal and the ideal social order fought over high-stakes issues that they helped frame. Outside the academy, they sometimes found themselves at odds with others—politicians, capitalists, labor leaders, and directors of private foundations among them. But with established institutions unwilling to take up controversial political or social issues, they launched associations, bureaus, and settlement houses of reform and contributed to the making or remaking of others, including universities and modern philanthropic foundations. Within a generation, social science, especially politically progressive social science, was a thriving force in policy making and in the shaping of culture in the city and the nation. Social scientists, like the priestly, ministerial, and rabbinical class before them, used their beliefs as instruments for scholarship and action, as well as for their own social, cultural, and political empowerment.
Science occupied a central place in the culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but in the celebration of science was an undercurrent of uncertainty about just what science is. Science does not ground belief in an embrace of ages old traditions or wish-fulfillments, but is skeptical and grounded in observation and evidence. In New York there was an uncommon excitement about the possibilities of a social science, a social science by which thoughtful men and women might master their world. The Columbia sociologist Franklin Giddings wrote: "We need men not afraid to work; who will get busy with the adding machine and logarithms, and give us exact studies, such as we get from the psychological laboratories, not to speak of the biological and physical laboratories. Sociology can be made an exact quantitative science." Henry Rawie, an independent political economist, said: "If political economy is ever to discover its laws, it must find them in the relation the facts sustain to their cause, and it will find that such laws must be laws of force identical with the laws now made clear in the physical world." Rawie continued: "There is one royal road in science, and only one, the road leading from cause to effect." As the social economist Edward Thomas Devine wrote in 1896: "The future of economic science in American universities is bright with promise of scholarly and useful work." "The attitude of the university world and of the public toward what is after all a new science, is all that could be desired." Envisioning themselves as scientists of human affairs, social scientists established social and economic "laboratories," practiced quantitative statistical analyses, and offered prescriptions for change.
"The city is the natural laboratory of Social Science," declared an 1894 "Report on a Department of Social Science at Columbia College." The 1918 founders of the New School for Social Research—the political scientist and historian Charles Beard a principal figure among them—in their Proposal for An Independent School of Social Science for Men and Women, heralded New York City as, "the greatest social science laboratory in the world."
New York City was the national capital of finance, industry, shipping and trade, publishing, the arts, and immigration, a magnet that drew to it much of the best and most avant-garde in art and literature, and also a magnet for reform. With a population of 3,437,202 in 1900, by 1910 New York's population of 4,766,883 was more than twice that of Chicago's population, the nation's second-ranked city, three times as large as third-ranked Philadelphia, and six to nine times as large as St. Louis, Boston, Baltimore, and Cleveland, all cities that would contribute to Progressive-Era American social science. But it was in New York City that the majority of the nation's principal organizations of reform on the most decisive and divisive issues in an industrializing economy were headquartered in the great era of social reform: the nation's leading organization to help the impoverished unemployed poor, the Charity Organization Society; America's first social settlement houses, University Settlement and College Settlement; the three premier organizations for legislation for workers' rights and social insurance, the National Consumers' League, the National Child Labor Committee, and the American Association for Labor Legislation; the most active group of inquiry into corrupt practices of government, the Bureau of Municipal Research; the new national organizations for civil rights for American blacks, the NAACP and the National Urban League. Social science scholar-activists were central in creating and leading each of these organizations. In the National Consumers' League, the Bureau of Municipal Research, and the American Association for Labor Legislation, they played the principal roles.
At the academic center of New York's dynamic social science activist network was Columbia University, the fifth oldest institution of higher education in the U.S., by 1910 the largest university in the country, and by the autumn of 1914, so the New York Times reported, the largest university in the world. Columbia's School of Political Science, founded in 1880 as the city's first social science graduate program, was one of the earliest, biggest, and most influential social science graduate programs in the U.S., and in the four decades from 1880 to 1920 social science programs opened also at New York University, the College of the City of New York, the New York School of Philanthropy, the Rand School for Social Science, and the New School for Social Research. The academy was a central redoubt for professional social scientists, a training ground for the next generation of social scientists, and a battlefield for contested ideas (the academy set limits on dissent, beyond which social scientists would venture at their peril).
The network of remarkable individuals were drawn to New York from across the country, many from the Midwest, a number from New England, a few from Europe. Among the leaders were Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, after studying sociology and economics in graduate school at Radcliffe, the University of Berlin, and Columbia University (she became an adjunct lecturer in Barnard College's department of sociology), she founded and led the Greenwich House social settlement; Florence Kelley, who, after helping found a social science club as an undergraduate at Cornell and undertaking graduate study at the University of Zurich and a law degree from Northwestern University, served as general secretary of the National Consumers' League; Frances Perkins, who studied economics and sociology in graduate programs at the University of Pennsylvania and at Columbia University (she taught sociology for a short time at Adelphi College on Long Island), was executive secretary of the New York Consumers' League, later first woman head of the U.S. Department of Labor; Edward T. Devine, Columbia professor of social economy and executive secretary of the New York Charity Organization Society; Samuel McCune Lindsay, Columbia sociologist and professor of social legislation, head of the National Child Labor Committee and the New York School of Philanthropy, secretary of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, and an important figure in the American Association for Labor Legislation. The Columbia economist Henry Rogers Seager, John B. Andrews (economics Ph.D., University of Wisconsin), Irene Osgood Andrews (graduate studies in political economy, University of Wisconsin), Crystal Eastman (masters degree in sociology, Columbia University; law degree, NYU), and Isaac M. Rubinow (economics Ph.D., Columbia; medical degree, NYU) were leading figures in the American Association for Labor Legislation. Columbia professors of political science Frank J. Goodnow and Charles Beard, and the directors of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, NYU economist Frederick Cleveland, William Allen (political science Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania), and Henry Bruère (educated at University of Chicago and Harvard Law), challenged the municipal corruption of Tammany Hall. Black intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois (history Ph.D., Harvard University) and George Edmund Haynes (masters in sociology, Yale; social economy Ph.D., Columbia) and white social scientists Franz Boas (anthropology), Edwin R.A. Seligman (economics), Francis A. Kellor (sociology), Henry Moskowitz (graduate study in economics at Columbia; doctorate, Erlangen, Germany), and Mary White Ovington (economic studies at the Harvard Annex) championed the fight for civil rights and against bigotry. At a time in American history when less than three percent of eighteen to twenty-four-year olds went to college or university (in 1909-1910 fewer than nine percent of seventeen-year-olds were high school graduates) the men and women of the New York social science scholar-activist network were members of a comparatively small, elite, educated, American intellectual class.
These were men and women of remarkable range and diversity of background. Florence Kelley, the forceful and energetic general secretary of the National Consumers' League and a socialist, brought her father's penchant for politics and for action—he had been a radical Republican during the Civil War. Edwin R.A. Seligman, the patrician Columbia economist, was born and bred in New York City in one of the richest families in America but his father, a self-made millionaire, was a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria. W.E.B. Du Bois, the dazzling social scientist and social critic, the founding editor of the NAACP's periodical The Crisis, was an orphan from small-town western Massachusetts born into a family of free African Americans, his father, a barber and laborer abandoned the family before he was two, and his mother, a domestic worker, died when he was sixteen. Frances Kellor, who took up leadership posts in the cause of poor black women and became a leading light of the 1912 Progressive party, came from an impoverished childhood in small-town Michigan to Cornell Law School and to the University of Chicago's graduate program in sociology. The anthropologist Franz Boas, who demolished the illogic of racism, was an immigrant to America from Germany. Charles Beard, the famed Columbia political scientist and historian, had grown up in rural Indiana. The social economist George Edmund Haynes, a founder of the National Urban League and Columbia's first African-American Ph.D., was the son of a laborer and a domestic worker from southern Arkansas. Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, founder and head of Greenwich House settlement, came from a middle class intellectual New England home. Frances Perkins, who worked for Florence Kelley's National Consumers' League and later became Secretary of Labor in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, the first woman to serve in a Cabinet in American history, was born into a middle class family in Boston.
They wrote letters of encouragement and support to one another; and served as trustees, presidents, vice presidents, and committee members in each other's associations, bureaus, committees, and leagues. When George Edmund Haynes, as a graduate student at Columbia, in 1910 set out to found the National Urban League—initially called the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes—he drew support from the social science network in New York. The sociologist Frances Kellor agreed to merge the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, which she had founded, into the new Urban League, and Haynes tapped Edwin R.A. Seligman, one of his Columbia professors, to become the organization's first president. Haynes was also a member of the American Association for Labor Legislation, a supporter of the New York School of Philanthropy, a writer for Edward T. Devine's and Paul U. Kellogg's The Survey, and, as Professor of Social Science at Fisk University, an important figure in the histories of American social science, African-American educational history, and social work.
Symbolic of, and hub of the social science reform network in Manhattan, was the United Charities Building at 105 East 22nd Street at Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South), a seven-story Renaissance Revival structure that Kathryn Kish Sklar calls "the single most important center of reform activity during the Progressive Era." The wide round arch of its main entrance led to a large ground-floor assembly hall, locus of many public forums. Upper floors housed many of the city's reform organizations, the offices of the New York Charities Organization Society, the National Consumers' League, the National Child Labor Committee, the Association for Improving Conditions Among the Poor, the editorial offices of the applied social science and reform magazine Charities (later The Survey), and offices for some of the Russell Sage Foundation's staff, among others. The New York School of Philanthropy conducted its first classes in the Charities Building. Early meetings of the American Association for Labor Legislation were held there; so was the two-day conference in 1909, which led to the formation of the NAACP. A dialogue among leaders of organizations with offices in the Charities Building—particularly conversations between Florence Kelley and Edward T. Devine—led to President Theodore Roosevelt's call for the 1909 White House conference on children that led, in turn, in 1912, to establishment of the U.S. Children's Bureau.
Frances Perkins, later a leading figure, as Secretary of Labor, in the creation of the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, said of the Charities Building: "You could hardly fail to become acquainted. Somebody introduced you to somebody in the elevator, said who you were, and so you became acquainted with the AICP people—the Association for Improving Conditions Among the Poor—the COS people—Charity Organization people—and the tenement house reform group. You knew everybody else that was operating. It was a small and sort of integrated professional world as there weren't so many of them. Mutual help and fairness prevailed and I remember it to this day."
After a Charity Organization Society subscription drive in 1890, the first five stories of the Charities Building (two more were added later) were erected. John Stewart Kennedy, a banker and businessman, paid the entire cost of the site and the building. One of New York's great but forgotten philanthropists, Kennedy was an anti-Tammany good-government reform Democrat, a Scottish Presbyterian who devoted himself to good works. He served as vice president of the New York Charity Organization Society, member of the boards of the Presbyterian Hospital for the New York poor and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, benefactor of the New York Public Library (a bust of Kennedy is ensconced in a niche in the library's grand entrance), and Columbia trustee from 1903 to his death in 1909. He gave $500,000 to build Columbia's Hamilton Hall , and left a bequest of $2.5 million, Columbia's largest gift to that time.
Social scientists met at a number of cultural crossroads in Manhattan—, not only at the United Charities Building, but also on Columbia University's campus, in the offices of the Bureau of Municipal Research near City Hall, at the socialist Rand School for Social Science (a brownstone at 112 East 19th Street), and at the city's principal settlement houses, including Greenwich House (two blocks west of Washington Square Park), and at the University, College, and Henry Street settlements on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where women—forbidden full-time academic posts in the universities—created a kind of real-life campus of their own.
A cultural crossroads, organized in 1903, though for men only, was the New York X Club at which social scientists and others met to eat and talk—"The New York X," Charles Beard called it, a dinner discussion club for "a group of men interested in social questions." Its name had been appropriated from a famous scientific dining club in Victorian London whose members included the Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (close friend of Charles Darwin), the physicist John Tyndall, and the botanist Thomas Henry Huxley. Some members of the London X Club were political conservatives, but those in "the New York X" were on the liberal-left. In inviting one young scholar to a club meeting, W.J. Ghent, the club's founder, a socialist and author of a number of books of social analysis, wrote: "Everything is informal—dress, speech and manners. It is a round-table sort of thing." Meetings were held every few weeks, sometimes at Maria's, an Italian restaurant at 133 West 41st Street, sometimes farther downtown at the Aldine Club at 111 Fifth Avenue. Notified of meetings by casual post cards, members dined equally informally, "sparingly and expeditiously," said Morris Hillquit the nation's leading socialist lawyer and X Club member. They listened to speakers on "politics, science, religion, literature, and art," most often a club member, but occasionally an outsider (one in 1906 was the author H.G. Wells, of the British Fabian Society). "Each member, in the order seated around a long table, would make his contribution to the discussion." "Nobody was excused," Hillquit wrote, "Nobody wanted to be excused." The club "had no program and no object except to unite a group of chosen spirits for periodical talk-fests."
Of the no more than forty members, social scientists, lawyers, journalists, publishers, and writers, no list appears to have survived, but, among its social science members, were three from Columbia University, Charles Beard, Edward Devine, and the sociologist Franklin Giddings; the economist John B. Andrews, executive secretary of the American Association for Labor Legislation; and the political scientist William H. Allen and Henry Bruère, directors of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research. Among the club's "literary members" were journalists Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, and Charles Edward Russell, muckrakers all; Norman Hapgood, editor of Collier's Weekly; Hamilton Holt, managing editor of the Independent: A Weekly Magazine; the radical novelist Jack London, and the journalist William English Walling. In 1909 and 1910 Baker, Walling, Russell, and Steffens were among those who signed the "Call" that led to the founding of the NAACP. In his autobiography, Hillquit called some X Club members "just Socialists," and included among them W.J. Ghent, the club's founder; Robert W. Bruère, brother of Henry Bruère; Edmond Kelly, a sometime-lecturer at Columbia and a civic reformer; Algernon Lee, founder—along with Beard, Ghent, and Hillquit—of the Rand School of Social Science; William Noyes, a chemist; and the wealthy reformer J.G. Phelps-Stokes. The New York X Club's one-hundredth meeting was held in 1911; in 1917, with members split bitterly over America's entry into the First World War, "a sort of personal hostility...caused people to shun one another," and the club broke apart, though it was revived, for a time, in the mid-1920s.
Women and blacks were leaders in the progressive social science network in New York, but they had to make their way past obstacles. Cultural views on women's proper, submissive, place, and on acceptable subordinate roles for African Americans kept them from positions of leadership throughout much of the rest of America, but in New York City as social scientists they had opportunities available, though even here there were sharp limits on opportunity. Female social scientists were virtually shut out of full-time faculty appointments and other male precincts on campuses in New York as elsewhere, altogether from the X Club, and in some instances, even relegated to the sidelines in organizations they themselves had created or helped create. Excluded also from leadership posts in the nation's corporate boardrooms, pulpits, and offices of government, women social scientists found a path to power in social-science-grounded issue-oriented groups of their own making. In the "voluntary group action," as Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch called it, of organizations like the National Consumers' League, the settlement houses, the NAACP, as well as at the New York School of Philanthropy and elsewhere, women circumvented traditional male leadership. Women in academe held positions of power in the "seven sisters colleges" in New York (Barnard and Vassar), Pennsylvania (Bryn Mawr), Massachusetts (Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley, and Mt. Holyoke), and sometimes through domestic economics or hygiene programs, at research universities like the University of Chicago and Berkeley. Many had studied in the same graduate programs in the U.S. and in Europe as men, but instead of receiving full-time appointments they were exploited in part-time or adjunct posts in colleges and universities with low pay and little or no job security. (Between 1870 and 1900 women attending U.S. colleges and universities increased from a fifth to a third of all college students. By 1909-1910, of the less than 3 percent of eighteen to twenty-four-year olds enrolled in institutions of higher education 141,000 were women and 215,000 were men—but with 28,762 degrees conferred upon men, 8,437 upon women.)
Florence Kelley, who retained control of the National Consumers' League, made the League a stronghold for women. Women led at the College Settlement and at Greenwich House and at the Henry Street settlement. Mary White Ovington was a pivotal figure in the formation of the NAACP. Yet to give the impression that women worked apart from men, even in these organizations, would be misleading. Kelley's Consumers' League, a redoubt for women leaders, Pauline and Josephine Goldmark, and Frances Perkins among them, enlisted men as well—in 1915 the League's list of vice presidents included not only Mary E. Woolley, president of Mount Holyoke, but social scientists Samuel McCune Lindsay and Edwin R.A. Seligman of Columbia, Jeremiah W. Jenks of New York University, Henry Carter Adams of the University of Michigan, Frank W. Taussig of Harvard, Richard T. Ely of the University of Wisconsin, and Arthur T. Hadley of Yale.
Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch founded and ran Greenwich House settlement, and served on the executive board of her friend Florence Kelley's Consumers' League, but her settlement, too, was a place of leadership by men as well as women. Seligman was president of her settlement for several years. The philosopher John Dewey chaired its committee on education. Greenwich House's Committee on Social Studies included among its Progressive-Era members Seligman, and the anthropologist Franz Boas, the social economist Edward T. Devine, the political economist Henry Rogers Seager, the sociologist Franklin Giddings, and the economic historian Vladimir Simkhovitch (Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch's husband)—all members of Columbia University's faculty.
The New York Research Council, too, was a point of intersection for both men and women of the social science network. Only three of the Council's thirteen members were not social scientists—John Mitchell (a labor leader), Felix Adler (founder of the Society for Ethical Culture), and Gaylord S. White (headworker of the Union Settlement); the other ten were among the brightest stars in the city's constellation of social science reform: Kelley, Kellor, Simkhovitch, Devine, John M. Glenn (executive director of the Russell Sage Foundation), Paul U. Kellogg (editor of The Survey), James B. Reynolds (previously headworker at the University Settlement), Seager, Seligman (the Council's chairman), and Lillian D. Wald (headworker at the Henry Street settlement). The Council sponsored publication of the 1911 Civic Bibliography for Greater New York, a "practical handbook" of civic reform, compiled by graduates of the New York School of Philanthropy and Columbia's School of Political Science, and published by The Russell Sage Foundation (itself founded in 1907 for social reform through social science research), and edited for the Council by Reynolds.
So, too, a few African Americans—W.E.B. Du Bois and George Edmund Haynes principal among them (Eugene Kinckle Jones, who worked with Haynes and held a master's degree in sociology from Cornell, was another)—overcame racial exclusion by their graduate study in universities, and found in the social sciences in New York City a freedom from traditionalist strictures, and a way to disseminate their new visions of race and society. In social science's focus on the authority of science, those who fought racism may have assumed that they had found an avenue for advancement, but traditional views on race, grounded in claims of the inferiority of blacks, and in claims that the bible authorized slavery, tainted social science as well. To put old prejudices to rout through science and social science would prove to be a massive and difficult undertaking. These male African American social scientists, like women, had to win space from those who sought to keep it from them—including many white male social scientists. African-Americans found support in the New York network, as when, in an October 1905 issue of Edward T. Devine's Charities, articles of social science research and advocacy on race appeared by Boas, Du Bois, Kellor, Ovington, and others. At the same time, the professional chances for African Americans were sharply limited even in this community of opportunity. Du Bois and Haynes, both with doctorates, could find no academic appointments in Progressive-Era New York City, only in the nation's historically black universities. Still, the social sciences proved to be a groundwork, if one bitterly contested, for great achievement and advance for women and blacks.
This story of social science is largely the story of the borough of Manhattan, for, even after the 1898 four-borough expansion of the city to include the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, Manhattan remained the densest and busiest and most renowned and electric part of the city—by 1910 2,331,000 people lived there. New York City, famous for remaking itself with every generation, was constantly in flux. There was, as H.G. Wells wrote in 1906, "a blindly furious energy of growth."
At the turn of the twentieth century the United States was the richest nation in the world, and New York had evolved from its early seventeenth century beginnings as a Dutch harbor-colony into an international center of finance, commerce, manufacture, and culture, competing on the world stage with London, Paris, and Berlin. But, even as late as the 1870s, the area around Central Park, now at the heart of Manhattan, was populated with wooden huts clustered "between blocks of imposing houses." (The Park was completed in 1876.) The city's first mass transportation—steam-powered locomotives suspended above city streets (the "elevated" or "el") on lattices of iron and steel pushed up Ninth, Sixth, Third, and then, Second Avenue. The massive suspension Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, the majestic Statue of Liberty, arrived from Paris, was installed in 1886; the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park went up in 1889 in celebration of the centenary of George Washington's New York presidential inauguration; Carnegie Hall opened in 1893. With new elevator technology, the city began to rise vertically as well; the 21-story steel-framed Flatiron Building of 1902 was eclipsed eleven years later by the 60-story Woolworth Building. Within several years of the 1882 opening of Edison's electrical generating station on Pearl Street, portions of the gas-lit city were bright with incandescent light. The first subway line opened in 1904 as automobiles vied for space on the streets with horse drawn buggies and carts.
The City was ripe for the intervention of social science reformers. The Vanderbilts had transformed Fifth Avenue with French Renaissance architecture, and millionaires from the nation's railroad and steel industries—Henry Clay Frick, Henry Phipps, and Andrew Carnegie among them—had built palatial mansions along the Avenue, but, at the same time, multitudes elsewhere lived in squalor. The Lower East Side, by 1910 the most crowded neighborhood on earth, housed tens of thousands in ill-lighted, overcrowded tenements, many without running water, flush toilets, or electricity. New York City the world's largest port, was the point of entry for most of the nation's eighteen million immigrants in the quarter century before the First World War. New York City's 30,000 manufacturers employed over 600,000 employees, and ranked first in the nation's industrial output. By 1910, 87 percent of the 4,767,000 people in Greater New York were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and many of them were desperately poor.
New York had no blanket-coverage local, state, or federal welfare programs, no systematized workmen's compensation, no workfare or welfare support for poor families with dependent children, no social security for the elderly or handicapped, no food stamps, only private charity and some municipal sponsored free coal for heat. (Federal veterans' pensions did supply aid for that fraction of the population who had served the Union army in the Civil War, but most of the city did not qualify.) In the long tradition of private (most often religious) or county-sponsored relief (reminiscent of eighteenth-century English poor law practice), places of confinement, such as prisons, orphanages, asylums, and almshouses sheltered those in need and in distress.
But at the center of social scientists' reach toward leadership was an unresolved ambiguity in the meaning of social science itself, and of social science's relationship with democracy. Was social science to be herald of a reinvigorated democracy or an instrument of technocracy, or both? In this question lay a dual vision and an unresolved tension, the paradox of democratic-elitism. What was the proper role of leadership for social science in a democracy. Were science and social science elitist enterprises of a privileged, educated community sharing a specialized and esoteric language? Were scientists qualified as experts to advise and lead where nonscientists can not? Did science know best? Ought scientists be ceded a compelling authority in political policy decision-making, and be permitted to wield a technocratic social control in the form of an autocracy? Or, alternatively, if science signifies an experimental method accessible to all, one that promotes undogmatic, open-ended, rational inquiry in which hypotheses and propositions can be evaluated by any observer who has access to the evidence, then science might prove to be a great democratizing force. Education need not belong only to the few.
This unresolved tension between science as elitist enterprise and science as democratizing force was a formative and unresolved paradox in the greatest social science laboratory. For, science was understood both as a great leveling and equalizing force, and, at the same time, as an elitist occupation of the learned, an ambivalence reflected in the role of social scientists—were they to be intellectual paternalists wielding power, or champions of democracy helping to wrest power from barons of wealth who were turning the country into an oligarchy. Indeed, Progressive Era social scientists' many references to the city as laboratory captures this unresolved tension and the ambiguity in social scientists' assumptions about progress, democracy, and science. In conceiving the city as social laboratory, social scientists offered their fellow citizens the view that the society in which they all lived, having been humanly made need not be viewed as fixed and immutable, but might be humanly remade; laboratories are places of experiment, and the densely populated city was a perfect place for research, tests, and trials. Viewing themselves as living in a great laboratory, citizens' imaginative and experimental energies might awaken to the possibilities of a democratic remaking of the social order, and by their efforts fulfill the promise of American democracy. Yet, the view of the city as laboratory for social experimentation might also mean that turn-of-the-twentieth century activist intellectuals in the social sciences in New York might not only observe and analyze their city, but also diagnose, prescribe, and perhaps even seek to control the currents of its social, economic, and political future. Social scientists were, paradoxically, a part of the society they sought to understand and improve—they were self-interested actors in the social laboratory of the city and might undo the very civic expectations they had raised and subvert the democratic aspirations of the public they believed they were serving. Their democratic aspirations conflicted with the contrary guiding principle of scientific expertise.
As Edmund S. Morgan has argued, the notion that the people are sovereign—the notion that "the people" direct policies of government through direct expressions of their voice and will—is the modern fiction that makes our Constitutional republic work. Leadership remains central in American culture and politics, and American politics, locally and nationally, is a dialectical dance (and sometimes a fierce fight) between leadership elites, hemmed in, to be sure, by popular expressions of approval or discontent. The scholar-activists of New York frequently acted for the common people, but as their surrogate not chosen by them, and in accordance with their own beliefs about what was best for the common people. Bothered by the fear that their own expertise might be neglected by ill-educated voters, social scientists insisted that the people—or at least that their elected representatives—must be educated. In this sense, the men and women of this community carried the scientific-secular, educated, and enlightened torch of the American intellectual elite, bearers of the flame of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Some social scientists set out boldly to control the social policy agenda on one or another issue, holding fast to the view that they were not unlike medical doctors, alone qualified to prescribe cures, which though bitter, would result in a more healthy body politic.
The paradox of democratic-elitism was expressed by James McKeen Cattell, the Columbia psychologist: "Political democracy does not mean government by the uninformed, but by those best able to serve the people. Representative and expert government is necessary." Edwin Seligman, in his moments of greatest worry about democracy, pointed out, as in his address to the freshman class at Columbia University's matriculation ceremony in 1916 that, "the university spirit is jeopardized by democracy, no less than by autocracy. For democracy levels down as well as up, and is proverbially intolerant of the expert." Yet he was generally sanguine about democracy, holding in 1913 that "enrollment of the services of trained experts [was needed] to carry out social reforms," though precisely which social reforms to undertake were to be determined through electoral politics. Paul Kellogg, editor of The Survey, sought to resolve the paradox of democratic-elitism by melding scientific expertise and democracy through the persuasive force of education, when he told a gathering of scholars at the April 18, 1912 meeting of the Academy of Political Science that the best hope was "to bring the knowledge and inventions of scientists and experts home to the common imagination, and to gain for their proposals the dynamic backing of a convinced democracy." By expanding the social space in which social science scholar-activists had opportunity to convince their fellow citizens, they opened a venue for the exchange of ideas on both sides; social scientists' public efforts to bring their ideas home to the imaginations of their fellow citizens meant, practically, a commitment to deliberative democracy—a democratic form in which people do not reflexively and unreflectively to vote their prejudices, but, through discussion and debate that opens possibilities for discovery of new facts and new perspectives, allows for persuasion on both sides—even if imperfectly and within limitations that some find restrictive, others liberating.
Even John Dewey, at Columbia from 1904, the great philosopher of American democracy who shared the causes of the reform-Left throughout his life, reflected this unresolved conflict between democracy and an elite. In Dewey's view, "Because the public is so behind the scientific times, it must be brought up," that is, educated. But social problems, Dewey wrote in 1908, "are essentially scientific problems, questions for expert intelligence conjoined with wide sympathy," and modern conditions, "necessitate the selection of public servants of scientifically equipped powers." The modern age was characterized by an "almost religious faith in the need of progress and in the possibility of making it the ruling principle of human affairs." "The idea of progress...explicitly connot[es] change toward a more desirable state of affairs, something higher, better, more perfect." "Since progress is not automatic but requires trained intelligence and forceful character, progressive societies depend for their very existence upon educational resources. Moreover, the conditions that are favorable to progress are also favorable to the release of energy from the restrictions of customs and convention." In such a release of energy, Dewey said, "conditions that had previously been regarded as inevitable accompaniments of the human lot, political despotism, subjection of masses to intellectual authority, sickness and poverty were regarded as due to man's ignorance and lack of freedom, and as sure to pass away with the growth of science, and with economic and political freedom." Dewey traced the "clearness and force" of modern science to its roots in Francis Bacon's seventeenth century philosophy, and to the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Bacon, Dewey wrote, had "asserted both the need and the possibility of progress, to be brought about through a scientific knowledge of natural conditions and taking effect in inventions directed toward ameliorating the lot of man"; Enlightenment thinkers had emphasized that in the application of science to everyday life, humans achieved "deliberate control of the means of reaching ends." With the rise of secular modern science, Dewey observed, the social stasis of the medieval world gave way to the dynamic, transformative progress of the modern. Science for Dewey was a problem-solving tool, useful to identify and solve problems that emerged from lived experience. In his view four stages of such problem solving were to be accomplished in democratic forums in which the public would join with those of expert intelligence to puzzle-out solutions to commonly agreed upon problems. Dewey's four stages: defining the problem—including constraints on the solution—, brainstorming solutions, choosing a solution, and implementing it. It was a savvy solution to the paradox of democratic-elitism in social science, and one destined to have a wide influence.
Yet the undertaking was often fraught with risk and failure. In their work with both the working class and the out-of-work destitute poor—in the settlement houses and elsewhere—, social science-trained scholar-activists shepherded those who were willing, even eager for education and for a chance to take control of their lives. But sometimes, as they set out to promote a reform agenda, they encountered opposition from among those they sought to help, who, exhausted by a twelve-hour-day (or longer) work schedule or for other reasons had little zest or energy for efforts at social change and for being educated on how to live what their patrons saw as a better life.
The scholar-activists of the New York network of social scientists were heirs to the rise of modern science and Enlightenment, and makers of a continuing American Enlightenment. These public intellectuals declined to appeal to the church as an instrument of change as earlier generations had done, and appealed, instead, to the authority of science. Grounding their views on evidence and argument, they relied on the continuing possibility of new evidence and new arguments for the social reconstruction of the modern world. Yet, many had grown up in deeply religious households. James Bronson Reynolds, headworker at the University Settlement, for example, was the son of a minister from a small town in upstate New York. The father of sociologist Franklin Giddings was a Congregational minister. Henry Moskowitz's father, an emigre from Rumania to Manhattan's Lower East Side, though not formally ordained as a rabbi, headed a Jewish congregation there. Religion was also a central part in the youths and, in varying degrees, in the adult lives of Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, Josephine Shaw Lowell, Mary White Ovington, George Edmund Haynes, and Samuel McCune Lindsay. Edwin R.A. Seligman was raised in the New York Ethical Culture Society, a society that expressed religious conscience in moral deeds but emphasized reason rather than an Almighty or scripture as the source of conscience.
For these men and women moral or religious fervor served as an ethical guide and as an impetus to civic action. They turned to the social sciences for authority and method, though with a fervor and commitment religious in character. (That parents of some of these young social scientists were clergy is not surprising; in an age of rising science, ministers, priests and rabbis had to share the high cultural stage with physical and social scientists.)
John Adams, then U.S. minister to Great Britain, in what the etymologists of the Oxford English Dictionary record as one of the earliest uses of the term "social science," wrote in 1785: "The social science will never be much improved, until the people unanimously know and consider themselves as the fountain of power." Adams was using social science as a near synonym for "politics." By the nineteenth century, social science was taking on a different meaning. The French intellectual Auguste Comte coined the term "sociology" in 1838—by it he said he sought "to replace all imperfect and provisional systems resting on the primitive basis of theology"—and the term "social science" sometimes appeared as a synonym for sociology. But toward the end of the nineteenth century, "social science" came most often to signal a broad project by which, in some degree, the secrets of human behavior and social interaction were to be unlocked in separate yet interrelated rational disciplines. Psychologists analyzed the vast complexities of brain and behavior; economists mapped production, distribution, and exchange of commodities and services; anthropologists studied and compare cultures; political scientists probed relations between individuals, classes, and states; historians reconstructed the human past; sociologists forged rational knowledge of individual parts of society and of the social whole grounded in empirical observation. But humans are richly complex animals and the lines demarking one social science discipline from another are not sharp; any social science discipline that ignores the others does so at its peril, and successful economists, of necessity, drew on psychology, political science, sociology, and history in constructing their theories and insights.
Joining this community of scholars meant joining a research community dedicated to the careful collection of information about one or another aspect of the human condition. Belief in proportion to the evidence, and the meticulous, arduous, trustworthy collection of that evidence were important keys to membership in the social science community of scholars. Equally important was the fitting of the collected evidence into something akin to a theory, if not a full-fledged, worked-out conceptual scheme that explained a group of collected information. Unlike the physical sciences of physics, chemistry or biology, the "data" or phenomena of the social sciences usually did not fit into general or abstract principles undisputable in their meaning with predictive qualities, able to be replicated. (If the word theory sometimes connotes an intellectual exercise not meant to have a practical purpose, in the social science scholar-activists' sense of the word, theory was linked to practice.)
The young men and women of the social science network in New York came of age, intellectually and politically, at a time of sharp change in America. Slavery had ended, and the industrial revolution had taken off. The concept of a fixed natural social order, a providential great chain of being, under assault from the eighteenth century Enlightenment, was, by the late nineteenth century, giving way before notions of experiment, change, evolution, and progress, fueled by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and the new industrial market economy. Change was everywhere, and the ethos of the age was captured by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch in 1902, in the Political Science Quarterly: "The order of the day is not an eternal order, but that what is can actually be otherwise." It was to a mapping of the visions of just what that "otherwise" might be that Simkhovitch and other social science-trained scholar-activists gave their lives in work.
The social order of the day was now being interpreted, by some at least, as no longer stable and fixed, and longstanding social relations—on issues of gender, race, labor, and the like were or might be, in the light of modern science, open to a reinterpretation and remaking. Darwinian evolutionary theory, combined with the rapid evident changes in the industrializing market economy, signaled the possibilities. Besides, science and technology had fueled social and economic change through their insight and invention.
It was an age of scientific revolution, a time when the authority of, and reverence for, science grew with the legacy of its achievement. The physical sciences were yielding a vast bounty, and no one could deny that science and technology were revolutionizing human understanding and transforming everyday life. From Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), and his Descent of Man (1871), Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of x rays (1895), J.J. Thomson's discovery of the electron (1897), Max Planck's quantum theory of matter (1900), Albert Einstein's theory of relativity (1905), H.K. Onnes' 1911 discovery of superconductivity, and Ernest Rutherford's ground breaking theory of the atom in that same year. Inventions were transforming everyday life, not only Tesla's alternating-current motor, Bell's telephone, Marconi's radio, but the Wright brothers' first airplane of 1903, Lee De Forest's triode vacuum tube of 1906, and Henry Ford's Model T of 1908. Advances in medicine were no less impressive. Marie and Pierre Curie's work with radioactivity and radium opened new vistas of biomedical diagnosis and cure. Between 1897 and 1910 human blood groups were classified, the whooping cough bacillus isolated, viruses identified, diagnostic tests for diphtheria, syphilis, and tuberculosis developed, a typhoid vaccine discovered; aspirin went on sale.
In such a world, where fixed notions about the natural world and the labors of everyday life were rapidly giving way to entirely new visions and procedures, it seemed to some natural that old notions of a fixed social order in which everything had its place, and in which a successful life was one that fulfilled a set place in a hierarchy of fixed powers, would give way to new possibilities. Those who believed that much in the social order was worth conserving held the view that the established rules of the competitive market economy and established social relations simply needed enforcing. Those at the opposite end of the spectrum held that the social sciences, in their measuring, counting, analyzing, and conceiving, provided a groundwork for a radical transformation in economy and society. In between were others, neither conservative nor radical, convinced that the social sciences might be used instrumentally and incrementally to reform the worst social and economic excesses through social initiatives and regulatory controls of government.
The terms "intelligentsia" and "intellectuels," coined in the nineteenth century in Russia and France, initially denoted those dedicated to a life of thought, but not thinking alone. It implied a stance of opposition to institutions built on force, power, doctrine—aristocracy, army, church. New York City's social scientists, a part of what W.E.B. Du Bois called the "thinking classes," included conservatives, even reactionaries, but most were reform-minded and saw themselves as warriors against the entrenched and aggressive power of the wealth-elite, including the trustees and administrators of the academy itself.