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"Let Our Little People Go Free": Felix Adler's Campaign for Social Justice in the Progressive Era

Lifshitz, Esther

As an ethical philosopher, social reformer, political activist, spiritual leader, education pioneer, and university professor, Felix Adler defies classification. The label "progressive," however, is both broad and vague enough to encompass these titles. Progressives were men and women, at the turn of the twentieth century, discontented with the changes modernization and industrialization had wrought on their society and culture and, therefore, ventured out to reform their institutions and the principles underwriting these institutions. Yet, Progressive era histories disregard Adler despite his leadership in such reforms as child labor, kindergartens, tenement houses, civil liberties, and education. This thesis uses Adler's pioneering work on child labor reform as a lens for understanding his role as a progressive and the origins, nature, impact, and fate of the progressive movement. For Adler, child labor illustrated the abuses of the industrial order, but more so, child labor represented his deep-seated anxiety—an anxiety shared by many—over the fate of modern society. With the founding of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904, child labor also became one of the progressive initiatives that had national coordination and eventually manifested itself in federal legislation. Although child labor was never entirely eliminated, the campaign unquestionably enjoyed significant successes in both protective and education statutes. The child labor movement was both a labor and an education initiative; the abolition of child labor would ensure the development of children into independent well-informed citizens, advancing public weal, state security, and economic efficiency. While this thesis looks both at the development of Adler's philosophical ideas and his profound and lasting impact on social legislation, especially pertaining to child labor, it also underscores the growing Jewish role in American reform. Historians have emphasized the Protestant roots of the progressive movement but have overlooked the influence of minority groups. Not only was Adler Jewish, but so too were most of his followers in the Ethical Culture movement—his secular substitute for religion that served as a social reform organization. Although he left Judaism, his Jewish upbringing shaped his outlook on social welfare and education reform. Thus, Adler may have been a radical proponent of social justice, but he also embodies many of the contradictions that make the progressive movement so difficult for scholars to define. As a moralist in an age of amoral science and technology, Adler appeared archaic in his later years. With a life that spanned the Civil War to the Depression, Adler had outlived his epoch. Yet, he advanced a timeless vision of children's rights that is now internationally codified. Adler's ideas and actions thus remain relevant and merit renewed attention.

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History
Degree
B.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2010

Notes

Senior thesis.

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