|Summary||Country Life Organizations||Leaders|
President Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission Report emerged in a confluence of activities destined to have lasting impact on the United States. The Progressive Era of a century ago marked both a reaction to corporate abuses and a positive plan to rebuild faith in a government that had lost its moral compass. The reformers wanted to restore government, conserve natural resources, and build an economy that offered opportunities for everyone, rural or urban.
In the early years of the twentieth century America experienced the climax of the Progressive Era. During this period, the United States evolved rapidly into a modern society, an industrial leader and global empire. The advancement in urban and manufacturing centers abolished many older and traditional practices. Reformers such Roosevelt saw the dire need to modernize agriculture and rural society in the wake of these significant changes.
In 1908, Roosevelt created the Country Life Commission to survey the country, to provide an observation of the current status in rural America and to pose recommendations for necessary improvements for rural life. The commission picked up threads of the Populist Movement, but was a product of the Progressive Era. More important though, the Commission established a template for rural community development and sustainability.
Roosevelt appointed the commission as his term was about to end. Later administrations tried to ignore the report after it was issued in March, 1909, just as Roosevelt was leaving office. The sheer force of Roosevelt’s persona helped keep the ideas vital. In addition, commission members represented a broad swath of agricultural and rural educators and journalists. Several members, along with academicians and interested citizens, with their expertise, energy, and passion, also kept the commission’s ideas alive.
Perhaps most importantly, the commission’s approach to understanding rural America helped create its legacy. Members were pressed for time and used budding social science methods to gather information quickly and build support from rural farm communities. They held well-publicized hearings nationwide. They did a survey. Although the commissioners certainly had preconceived notions, members listened to rural residents and included some of their ideas in the final report and recommendations. They offered a vision for rural America and called farm constituents to work with their schools and churches to strengthen farming communities.
The commission’s scientific methods and institutional approach are a foundation for rural community development research and practice, conservation, rural sociology, and agricultural economics. Significant descendants of the Country Life Commission include the American Country Life Association (1919-1976) and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which remains a leading player in national farm policy.
Thanks to Stephen R. Hicks, who received his master’s degree from the History Department at Western Illinois University. He spent most of his graduate assistantship with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs researching and drafting information for this website. His passion for Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Era flows through this work.
Then and Now Media
Former Assistant Director
Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs