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In the Eyes of Aggressive Progressives

A Review of Linda Lear’s Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive, 1874-1933

Linda Lear was born in Philadelphia and grew up with a family that supported her in her dreams and aspirations to become a writer. She is now a historian and an author who currently resides in Washington D.C. Some other famous books she wrote include: The Sense of Wonder, Witness for Nature, and Silent Springs.


From the beginning of American history, multiple events have played a great role in the molding process of America, especially during the Progressive Era. Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive, 1874-1933, written by Linda Lear, helps solidify the significance of the Progressive Era during the 1930s. This biography takes us through the Progressive Era of the twentieth century. It yields deeper insight on topics regarding the Progressives through the eyes of Harold L. Ickes. Progressivism is known as “a reform movement that reached its height early in the twentieth century and is generally considered to be middle class.”1 It arose as a response to the vast array of changes brought on by modernization, such as the growth of large corporations and railroads, and also fears of corruption in American politics.

Harold L. Ickes was born on March 15, 1874, near Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania and grew up on a farm where his father ran a store and participated in local politics. Martha Ickes, Harold’s mother, died in 1890; then, her “sister took Harold and his sister into her care.”2 He attended Englewood High School, where he had the support of teachers such as Agnes Rogers, who urged Ickes to go onto college. Surprisingly, Ickes graduated from Englewood in only three years, and he was at the top of his class. By this time, all of Ickes’s teachers knew that he was ready for college and allowed him to graduate early. Although he was academically prepared to continue onto college, there was something holding him back; Ickes did not have the money to pay for tuition. All the prestigious universities he could have attended cost too much money. Fortunately for Ickes, the President of the University of Chicago agreed to admit Ickes while allowing him to pay his tuition over a period of time by working for the school. Ickes got a job at school working for the library and cleaning dormitories. Shortly after graduating from the University of Chicago, Ickes worked as a newspaper reporter for The Chicago Record, later transferring to the Chicago Tribune for an increase in pay. The Chicago Record “gave Ickes an opportunity to insult… [His] dispositions, accumulate a broader vocabulary, and improve his literary style.”3 This helped to Ickes’ss growth as a political realist and potential skeptic in the political world and also gave him a lot of insight on how the newspaper industry functioned. From 1900 to 1903, Ickes took an inside look on Chicago politics from both the reformers and the bosses; many called him the “political ghost” because he went around keeping in touch with many different groups and came into contact with political leaders from both parties.4 Ickes earned the reputation of a knowledgeable and alert political observer, jokingly known as becoming a “human sponge.”5 He was a very fast learner, and he quickly became proficient in the area of work in politics. One of the most important influences on Ickes’s expanding social and political consciousness was “his friendship with Raymond and Margaret Dreier Robins.”6 The Robins had come to Chicago in February of 1901 to work at Graham Taylor’s settlement house, the Chicago Commons. Raymond quickly became interested in the politics of the Seventeenth War and was instrumental in electing William Dever, the future mayor or Chicago, to the City Council. In 1905, Robins campaigned for John Harlen– this is where he met Harold Ickes. Through Robins and his associates, Ickes got a deeper understanding of the goals of the social justice reform. By the fall of 1907, Ickes became uncomfortable and restless working in Harlan’s office; Ickes did not want to be part ofHarlan’s way of doing business with others. In January, 1908, he decided to leave the firm.

The campaigns that Ickes had been through with John Harlan ended the first phase of his political career. This was a phase in which Harold Ickes had learned how civic politics worked. In Illinois, the progressives had gained ground. Progressive activity in the state largely centered on a group of reformers within the Cook County Republican organization. Like Progressive leaders in other parts of the country, Ickes was fully aware that the 1914 elections would be an important test of the party’s future. From the time of the elections to the opening of the presidential campaign of 1916, Ickes used his organizational skills to handle the dissolution of the party by mounting cynicism with reform. Ickes struggled for two years to hold the progressive ranks together. Although Ickes’s actions were motivated by his personal need for recognition, Ickes believed in the principles of party reformation. However, Ickes was forced to abandon the party and promote both himself and the progressive reform from within the Republican Party. While Ickes was publicly optimistic about the spring elections, he was secretly worried about the effect of rumors that Theodore Roosevelt would be a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1916. Ickes’s works in the county and state progressive organizations had been impeded during the spring elections by Robins’ sickness. Robins lost his voice just before the elections and threatened to withdraw from political activity because of a physical breakdown. Ickes mollified Robins and took over his work during the final days of the election, but kept this all a secret for fear that the possible loss of his leadership in the state would send more Progressives back to the Republicans side. The death of Robins took a huge toll on the Progressives in which the loss “knocked the props clean from under me and is the most serious blow that struck our party in this state since it was organized.”7 Although Ickes tried to comfort Robins, he confessed that his own physical and mental state was such that he could not carry the burden alone and that he intended to resign as County Chairman. Although it is not certain, it is believed that Ickes’ss threatened resignation was more of a result of frustration and depression rather than an earnest decision. He believed that “if the Progressive organization collapsed in the mind of Robins; he too would change his mind and reconsider his own situation.”8

In the mean time, Ickes relentlessly supported U.S. participation in World War I. Though most progressives were not as active as a cohesive political, geographical, or ideological group with regard to the war, Ickes’s pro-war attitudes were representative of many progressives during that time. His early advocacy of America’s involvement was a logical outcome of his intense nationalism, his personal nature toward aggressive activity, his admiration for President Roosevelt, and his tendency to “view all issues on moral terms.”9 Ickes had developed his own particular dislike for pacifism during the war; much of his opinion had been shaped by Theodore Roosevelt, whom he had admired with heroic magnitude. Everything Roosevelt believed, Ickes believed as well. He was proud of his relationship with Roosevelt and always tried to imitate him in all that he did, including his habits, postures, and especially his political views. Unsurprisingly, Ickes enthusiastically supported Roosevelt’s decision to take an American regiment to France. When Wilson rejected this offer, Ickes became furious and more militant, for he was concerned about the popular response to the war and deplored the lack of morals. Ickes believed that the government should start a pro-war campaign and that Roosevelt should “revive the national spirit.”10 His interest in war propaganda was encouraged by the presence of the large German-speaking population of Chicago. The conspicuousness of the pro-German groups made Ickes uncomfortable. He believed that immigrants must be thoroughly educated on the war issues and turned into “real” Americans, and he was anxious to get involved into the war. He got involved in war related efforts in America, such as the American Red Cross, so he could try to volunteer for any sort of duty abroad. He got deployed to France, where he served at an American Red Cross to aid the wounded soldiers and support the doctors. To his disbelief, when Ickes returned back to the states, Theodore Roosevelt was dying. By the time Ickes got to Chicago to say goodbye to Roosevelt, he was dead. Ickes states that he felt as though “something went out of his life that has never been replaced.”11 Later, Ickes was asked by many newspaper agencies and interviewers to write an account of his relationship with Roosevelt.

Later on, from 1926 until the presidential campaign of 1932, Ickes had no party vehicle to use his impressive political skills. Although his political activity during this period appeared to be frenetic, his opposition to the political and economic domination of Samuel Insull and the corruption of the Republican part in Illinois underlines the persistence of his progressivism. Ickes later retreated to his law office “to watch politics from the side and to write cynical notes to friends.”12 Amid all the political chaos, Ickes’ family life had been traumatically affected when Ickes’ wife had died in 1935. Harold Ickes was devastated and found no motivation to work hard at anything in life, especially work that included politics. After three years of mourning, Ickes found himself in love again with another lady; eventually, he married Jane Dahlman, a recent college graduate, and they had two children. When he left government service, Ickes lived in semiretirement with his family on his farm near Olney, Maryland. He wrote a syndicated newspaper column and contributed regularly to the liberal weekly New Republic. On Feb. 3, 1952, he died in a Washington hospital.

In her biography of Ickes, Linda Lear points out the progressive point of view through the eyes of Harold L. Ickes to explain that progressivism is simply democratic reforms of government, use of government, and laws to restrict the excesses and abuses of business interests. She also details the Progressive struggle to cope with a wide range of social, economic, and cultural changes. She saw Progressives differently because their perceptions of the nature of the nation’s problems and of how best to resolve them. To Lear, America’s “entry to World War I shifted the energy of reformers, and after the war progressivism pretty much died.”13 The movement’s legacy lived on, however, in the political reforms that it achieved and the acceptance that it won for the principle of government regulation of business. Most of the social welfare measures advocated by progressives found new life in the New Deal era. Lear’s viewpoints are fairly accurate and provide a different perspective on how progressivism shaped America. During the time this book had been published, Linda Lear was at an age where she experienced the Progressive Era and the 1930s.

According to Lear, Harold L. Ickes and many other progressives helped to create a society where morals were strongly put into play in order to make decisions. In the case of Harold L. Ickes, he often looked to his morals to see whether or not a situation was correct. This period marked a watershed in American political history because in state after state, “progressives advocated a wide range of political, economic, and social reforms.”14 They urged adoption of the secret ballot, direct primaries, the initiative, the referendum, and direct election of senators. They struck at the excessive power of corporate wealth by regulating railroads and utilities, restricting lobbying, limiting monopoly, and raising corporate taxes. To correct the worst features of industrialization, progressives advocated worker’s compensation, child labor laws, minimum wage and maximum hour’s legislation especially for women and widows’ pensions.

Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive, 1874-1933, becomes more complex and at times harder to understand. It is a quick read, but at times grows too detailed too quickly. Many names are used and this abundance of information is often confusing. However, the story told through the Progressive Harold L. Ickes, gives an accurate inside look of that time frame. Also provided in the book are footnotes at the end of each page that cited the sources that the authors used. This lends the book credibility and makes any research on the topic easy. The book helps catalyze an understanding of Progressivism and takes a detailed outlook of a Progressive during this time. Although at times the content becomes dull, there are also many interesting facts and stories in the book. The epilogue also provides critical background information before the start of the book; without the information in the epilogue, it would be very hard to understand what was going on and for what reason things were happening. The epilogue lays the previous events out clearly in a brief but comprehendible way. The conclusion iss also helpful in that it wrapped up all of Lear’s thoughts into a few pages where it was laid out clear to the readers to comprehend the main point of Lear.

Ickes went into politics because it provided “an exciting diversion from his law practice, an outlet for his energy, a sense of importance by association with respected men, the excitement and challenge of a contest, and because it gave him an opportunity for the personal recognition he need very badly.”15 Realizing early that despite his ability he lacked the personal appeal and disposition to be elected to office himself, Ickes became an astute observer of political behavior and an indefatigable worker. He mastered the skills of political organization and efficient management and used them in behalf of aggressive, independent candidates who like himself, viewed politics and life as a moral battle. Growing up in the urban reality which the muckrakers only described, Ickes believed that honesty and good government was the major challenge. He became interested in municipal reform through his associations and friendships with the remarkable community of workers who lived in Chicago after the depression of 1893. Ickes joined the Progressive party because of his almost mystical admiration for Theodore Roosevelt; Ickes seemed to want to do everything that Roosevelt did and more. Icke’s progressivism was a product of his personal and political observation that men seek power and privilege for themselves at the expense of the public welfare by corrupting the institutions of government which were established to protect the rights of the American people. Ickes believed that to prevent this destruction of democracy, government had to be reformed, honest men elected to office, and social responsibility enforced.



1: Lear, Linda. Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive, 1874-1933.New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1981. 3
2: Lear, Linda. 44.
3: Lear, Linda. 65.
4: Lear, Linda. 66.
5: Lear, Linda. 78.
6: Lear, Linda. 90.
7: Lear, Linda. 122.
8: Lear, Linda. 129.
9: Lear, Linda. 131.
10: Lear, Linda. 131.
11: Lear, Linda. 145.
12: Lear, Linda. 180.
13: Lear, Linda. 269.
14: Lear, Linda. 306.
15: Lear, Linda. 308.

Student Bio

Alex Hwang was born in Garden Grove on January 1, 1993. After high school, he plans on attending either San Diego State University or Point Loma Nazarene University to major in criminal justice and minor in psychology and later join the FBI.


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