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The Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism

The Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism

Urban Political Culture in Boston, 1900–1925

James J. Connolly

ISBN 9780674909502

Publication date: 09/15/1998

Progressivism, James Connolly shows us, was a language and style of political action available to a wide range of individuals and groups. A diverse array of political and civic figures used it to present themselves as leaders of a communal response to the growing power of illicit interests and to the problems of urban-industrial life. As structural reforms weakened a ward-based party system that helped mute ethnic conflict, this new formula for political mobilization grew more powerful. Its most effective variation in Boston was an “ethnic progressivism” that depicted the city’s public life as a clash between its immigrant majority—“the people”—and a wealthy Brahmin elite—“the interests.” As this portrayal took hold, Bostonians came to view their city as a community permanently beset by ethnic strife.

In showing that the several reform visions that arose in Boston included not only the progressivism of the city’s business leaders but also a series of ethnic progressivisms, Connolly offers a new approach to urban public life in the early twentieth century. He rejects the assumption that ethnic politics was machine politics and employs both institutional and rhetorical analysis to reconstruct the inner workings of neighborhood public life and the social narratives that bound the city together. The result is a deeply textured picture that differs sharply from the traditional view of machine–reform conflict.


  • The Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism is absolutely ‘must reading’ for anyone interested in Progressive Era municipal reform or ethnocultural politics. At the very least, it is the best history to date of that crucial period in Boston’s history, as well as an excellent model for similar studies of other major cities during the same era. The sections that focus on what Connolly dubs a ‘ground-level analysis’ of Boston politics are exceptionally well constructed, exhaustively documented, and cogently presented. Viewed in a wider perspective, the author has succeeded in challenging almost everything we thought we knew about Progressive Era municipal reform and in constructing a provocative new paradigm to encompass the mass of the data informing existing interpretations… It is fair to say that any scholar worth his salt has an intellectual obligation to test his own theories against those proffered by Connolly.

    —John D. Buenker, Journal of American History


  • James J. Connolly is Assistant Professor of History, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press