“You are the heirs of one of the country’s great traditions, the Progressive movement that started late in the nineteenth century and remade the American experience piece by piece,” Bill Moyers told a throng of liberal Democrats who recently gathered in a Washington hotel to plan the defeat of George W. Bush. What made Progressivism so great, according to Moyers, was its nonviolent war on the Gilded Age plutocracy, which, aided by such clever rogues as Mark Hanna, had “strangled” the promise of social equality “in the hard grip of a merciless ruling class.”

It’s an eminently usable past. If Karl Rove styles himself a twenty-first-century Hanna, fashioning a new era of Republican dominance, then why can’t the postmodern left be the second coming of Robert La Follette and Jane Addams–those inspiring figures, in and out of office, who challenged the politics of laissez-faire cupidity and began to make the United States a fairer, more humane society?

Only a hopeless pedant would dismiss the value of history as a motivating force for the living. But contemporary “progressives” would be wise to look more closely at the white middle-class crusaders who coined the name before they rush to emulate their achievements. Michael McGerr’s consistently intelligent, superbly crafted survey, A Fierce Discontent, is a fine place to start.

The Progressives, McGerr explains, had ambitions that stretched far beyond mere crackdowns on trust-builders and graft-takers. With income and inheritance taxes and a ban on child labor, they sought to narrow the class divide that yawned between the factory tenement and the mansion on the hill. They yearned to purify the body politic through an aggressive politics of the body–which meant banning prostitution, limiting divorce and abolishing the “liquor traffic.” And behind each specific reform lay a grand desire to replace the self-serving individualism of American culture with an ethic of service and responsibility. Although the insurgency included Catholics and Jews, it always had the flavor of a Protestant crusade. Most reformers abandoned the evangelical faith of their childhood, but their messianic zeal for perfecting society could not have been any stronger if they’d founded a new church and written their own Bible.

This portrait might unsettle some of the liberals who cheered Moyers’s address, delivered at a conference that vowed to “Take Back America.” Janus could have been the Progressives’ patron saint. In their stern regulation of big business and attempts to redistribute wealth, they were the forerunners of New Deal liberals. But on cultural matters, most were militant Victorians, aspiring to reshape the nation into a well-ordered, hard-working, self-disciplined community. In one of his many White House exhortations, Theodore Roosevelt urged the “steady training of the individual citizen, in conscience and character, until he grows to abhor corruption and greed and tyranny and brutality and to prize justice and fair dealing.”

Lofty visions of self-improvement always look better in speeches than when chiseled into law. For certain white reformers (most, but not all of them, from Dixie), “taking back America” meant building the elaborate machinery of Jim Crow. McGerr realizes, of course, that segregation deprived African-American citizens of their hard-won constitutional rights. But many of its architects, he points out, sincerely believed they were protecting black people from the routine sadism visited on them by the insecure white majority. “Ours is a world of inexorable divisions,” wrote a leading Southern Progressive. “Good fences make good neighbors.” The most powerful black man in America agreed, at least in public. Secretly, Booker T. Washington was funding boycotts of Jim Crow streetcars in several Southern cities.

Progressivism has always been a difficult beast for historians to tie down. How can a narrative lucidly round up all the different species of reformers–from Marxian preachers to polite racists to upper-class suffragists to moralizing scolds to a hyperactive President who won a Nobel Peace Prize yet was in love with war? Richard Hofstadter and Robert Wiebe set the standard several decades ago with interpretations (The Age of Reform, published in 1955, and The Search for Order, in 1967) drenched in the irony of unintended consequences. They described how a generation of sanguine altruists was blind to the clever antics of well-heeled conservatives–witness the hijacking of the recall and initiative in California–and the resistance of ordinary folk to being perfected–cf. the failure of Prohibition.

McGerr is not averse to irony, but his book dwells more on the social history that activists confronted than on the foibles of overreaching. For example, he shows how the attempt to “transform Americans” looked to a poor Jewish immigrant named Rahel Golub. Golub gladly accepted medical aid from settlement-house workers but was puzzled by a visiting college girl who pestered her with “eager questions”–and she recoiled at missionaries who tried to convert her to Christianity. Drawing on a small library of good histories published since the 1960s, McGerr takes full measure of how women shaped the course of social change–as reformers, intellectuals, wage-earners and seekers after a myriad of pleasures, both new and old.

Unlike his scholarly forebears, McGerr offers no big idea to make sense of the era. Hofstadter argued that most reformers were anxious about their declining status in an order run by new-rich industrialists, while Wiebe focused on the rise of do-gooder bureaucrats who sought to bring social harmony out of chaos. But McGerr paints on a larger canvas than they did, and his ambitious meld of character, policy and context should make his book a landmark in the field. A Fierce Discontent may even do something to reawaken public interest in the turn-of-the-century crusaders themselves, who have often seemed a rather grim and confusing lot.

McGerr also has a perceptive response to the tricky question of why, by the 1920s, the Progressive flame had flickered so low. The key, he contends, was the rise of a new definition of individual freedom. In the nineteenth century, freedom meant the liberty of people and property from an authoritarian state. Now it meant the ability to enjoy the fruits of mass culture. Increasing numbers of Americans were stepping out to dance halls, vaudeville theaters, baseball games, department stores, picture shows and a celebrated art exhibition that featured Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, which one puzzled viewer likened to “a lot of disused golf clubs and bags.” Meanwhile, autos, airplanes and telephones were altering received notions of time and space.

The young men and women, from all classes and races, who reveled in these commodities and adventures grew unwilling to let work, however virtuous its purpose, rule their imagination as well as their days. McGerr doesn’t adequately explain why this epochal change, which began to occur in the late nineteenth century, didn’t rob reform of its energy long before the doughboys sailed home in triumph from the battlefields of France. But he does give a rich account of how the dream of personal liberation “unsettled the nascent order of progressive America” and sapped movements for collective uplift. Not for the first or last time did the pursuit of individual happiness trump yearnings of a more earnest, selfless kind.

If there’s a flaw in McGerr’s thoughtful study, it’s his virtual silence about party politics–the point of departure for Moyers’s rousing speech. Individual reformers and movements could thrust an issue like child labor or corporate bribery into the headlines. But only when Democrats and/or Republicans embraced it for their own purposes could a lasting change occur. Despite the lofty reputation Teddy Roosevelt has gained (thanks, in part, to John McCain and Edmund Morris), it was the Democrats who most consistently fought for class-based reform during the Progressive years. They were particularly active in restraining corporate power and passing laws to aid wage-earners and small farmers–while excluding most black people from taking part in politics at all. The fact that William Jennings Bryan led his party’s populist charge from the Cross of Gold speech in 1896 up to the eve of World War I suggests how deep were the evangelical roots of the fierce discontent.

But no faction of Progressives was able to meet the challenge of what McGerr calls “the promise of liberation.” Nor, it should be added, have their would-be emulators done so today. Citizens who value self-expression above all else make poor recruits for social movements. The post-1960s left has certainly helped to free millions of Americans from the pressure to conform to the straight white ideal. But a respect for diversity is only one element of a good society. Contemporary progressives have yet to figure out how to speak as compellingly about material decency for all Americans as they do about freedom of the self. When they do, the heirs of Mark Hanna will begin to fear for their future.