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The House that Progress Built

By: Johnathan O’Neill
June 19, 2017

he center of the Progressive social scene during the Taft and Wilson administrations was the “House of Truth,” as its denizens called it. The grand name described a modest structure, an inconspicuous townhouse on 19th Street in Washington, DC. At various times it was home to Walter Lippmann, founder of The New Republic; Robert G. Valentine, Taft’s commissioner of Indian Affairs; Mount Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum; future Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, and a regular haunt of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Brad Snyder, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, chronicles the house’s days as a Progressive incubator in The House of Truth: A Washington Political Salon and the Foundations of American Liberalism. Following their lives, careers, and friendships through the New Deal’s early years, House of Truth is a political and professional biography of these Progressive giants.

Through his careful reconstruction of the residents’ reactions to Roosevelt’s 1912 “Bull Moose” campaign, Louis D. Brandeis’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Justice Holmes’s notable dissenting opinions, and the sweeping administrative reforms that extended the federal government’s regulatory authority over businesses and the economy, Snyder’s research and attention to detail abounds. Frankfurter and Lippmann’s personality conflicts sit alongside dinner menus, gossip, descriptions of Harvard law school’s internal politics, and Holmes’s filial relationship with his law clerks. These minutiae are engrossing, and occasionally offer insights about larger issues. They're occasionally quite funny. Holmes, for example, “yelled with joy,” at the sight of several former law clerks when surprised by an 80th birthday party. As champagne began to flow from a “case or two” procured before prohibition, he noted that “the Eighteenth Amendment forbids manufacture, transportation and importation [of alcohol]. It does not forbid possession or use.”

Snyder’s prodigious archival research makes House of Truth an enjoyable yarn. But the surfeit of detail mars the book, which tells too much about the trees and too little about the forest. The reader is immersed in disconnected intrigues, vignettes, micro-biographies, and minutely described situations whose overall significance is often unclear. The judgments about the modern liberal-progressive project on offer are unreflective, unoriginal endorsements of the subjects’ perspectives. Snyder uncritically accepts the Progressive consensus that the proper response to modern problems was bureaucratically enforced government regulation and redistribution, made possible by a judiciary deferential to legislative experiments.

Several controversial Progressive-era policies are now broadly accepted: minimum wages and maximum hours, legal recognition of unions, workers’ compensation, and federal judicial oversight of state criminal procedure, to name a few. But by echoing the Progressive attack on the Lochner-era, pre-New Deal Supreme Court, Snyder ignores the decades of scholarship that have thoroughly discredited it. He might have avoided this problem by eschewing the thrill of unearthing so many archival gems, and instead gaining a critical scholarly perspective on the book’s subjects. Fortunately, Snyder’s narrative is so detailed that one can encounter fundamental questions despite House of Truth’s superficial analysis.

The Progressives’ supreme conviction that Progress equals ever greater government and ever more rights shines through the vignettes and gossip. Progress required sacrifices that caused the Progressives few qualms, such as extinguishing locally based party systems and wartime limits on free speech, or discarding independent judicial review. Snyder’s account of Frankfurter and Lippmann’s escalating exchanges as the latter became more conservative reveal this certitude. When Lippman questioned a Brandeis-Holmes dissent in a Supreme Court decision denying citizenship to a pacifist, Frankfurter berated him, insisting that Lippman’s reticence could only be caused by his failure to grasp the dissent’s arguments. In response, Lippmann rejected Frankfurter’s “assumption that a failure to agree immediately and whole-heartedly with Holmes, Brandeis and Cardozo was a weird and strange procedure.” Even more tellingly, he protested Frankfurter’s occasional “unconscious dogmatism which gives me a sense of being rushed and pushed, not unlike that of being physically jostled.” Lippmann later recalled that during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, he found it impossible to be independently minded while simultaneously maintaining his friendship with Frankfurter: “If you gave him a chance, you’d get such a deluge of letters, and the passion would be so heavy, and the intimation was always that if you didn’t agree with him there was some moral turpitude about it. I found it boring and I just cut it off.”

Snyder makes clear, probably clearer than he intends, the Progressives’ contradiction in confidently espousing public morality while denying the existence of permanent truths. Little troubled by the tension between their desire for political justice and their anti-foundationalist pragmatism, these Progressives named their home the “House of Truth” self-mockingly, perhaps even more than they knew. While Holmes could never be accused of defending truth as such, his young admirers found it in “empirical data and analysis by social scientists and nonpartisan government experts.” After encountering this data and analysis, everyone would agree about what the nonpartisan government expert should do. Taken together, the data, analysis, agreement, and action was Progress, and with it came a shared conception of justice that was never quite squared with anti-foundationalist pragmatism. This problem was easily bridged in practice, if not in theory. Frankfurter, for example, rejected John W. Davis as the Democratic nominee for President in 1924 because he was “insufficiently progressive,” meaning he had the wrong “attitude on the comprehensive issue of redistribution of social and economic power.” By “progressive” Frankfurter meant “active dissatisfaction with the present social and economic government of the nation, and the necessity and hope for a drastically more humane, more just, and more beautiful ordering of the lives of men, women, and children.”

In the Progressive era as in any other, men advocated that public power be used for specific purposes based on a conception of justice, beauty, or truth. By associating their politics with the inevitability of “progress,” Progressives achieved a great victory, freed from the burden of mounting a philosophical defense of their understanding of justice. That self-congratulatory evasion is not as easy for today’s Progressives as it was at the dawn of the last century. Nor is the confidence in government as a force for good so readily found. The House of Truth conveys how deeply the original Progressives held their views. It inadvertently makes clear, however, why those views have not worn well, and why the Progressive enterprise has made so much less progress than its originators hoped and expected.