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Too good to win

"The Best Men": Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age - John G. Sproat

John G. Sproat's book offers a critical analysis of the politics and achievements of college-educated independents during the Gilded Age. He identifies these liberal reformers by their shared characteristics: their belief in classical liberalism, a moral code firmly based in their Protestant faith, independence from parties in the political process, moderate reform goals, and their confidence that their intentions made them truly the "best men" in the political process. Those objective was to create a small, technically efficient government run by themselves, which would allow them to reduce taxes, encourage individualism, and curtail public services so as to allow each man regardless of their social origins to use their talents to benefit society without warping natural laws.


Yet for all of their earnestness these reformers more often failed than succeeded in attaining their goals. Sproat attributes their failure to their inability to come to terms with the times in which they lived. In spite of their open-mindedness in terms of social progress, they proved too fixed in their social and moral standards and rigid in their economic and political ideas. Their unwillingness to compromise their ideological purity, along with their elitist rejection of involvement with mass movements, effectively limited their impact by depriving them of the opportunities to gain power that would have allowed them to implement their agenda.


Though published nearly a half-century ago, Sproat's book remains the best work available on this prominent group of Gilded Age activists. Its endurance is in no small measure credited to Sproat's acute analysis, which continues to define how these men are understood today. As such it remains required reading for anyone wishing to better understand Gilded Age politics and the limits of contemporary efforts to reform government.