Politics in Progressive Era Politics
Populists and Progressives
The famous turn-of-the-century newspaper journalist William Allen White once claimed that a Progressive was a Populist who had shaved his whiskers, washed his shirt, and put on a derby hat.20
In other words, Progressives shared many of the same goals and demands that the earlier Populist movement had unsuccessfully championed: democratic reforms like the initiative (where a popular petition can be voted into law), referendum (where proposed laws have to be referred to the voters for approval), and direct election of senators (rather than through state legislatures). But Progressivism was rooted in the middle class, unlike the earlier Populist movement of struggling farmers and workers. Perhaps as a result of their class status, their usually high level of education, and their resulting influence, Progressives were also more successful at getting their reforms passed into law, even if some of those reforms failed to accomplish all that the Progressives hoped they would.
Progressive initiatives dominated the legislative history of the early-20th century. At the federal level, Progressives substantially lowered import duties with the Underwood-Simmons Tariff of 1913. Progressives were also responsible for the creation of the income tax. Through the first 100-plus years of American history, tariffs had provided the bulk of government revenues, and there was no such thing as a federal income tax. Pressed by the Progressives to reduce tariffs, Congress had to make up for the lost revenue somehow—it settled on the modern income tax as a means of funding the government budget. Americans have been complaining about their taxes ever since.
Progressives also ensured the direct popular election of senators with the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. Progressives supported Prohibition—the banning of alcohol—by passing the 18th Amendment of 1918, and contributed to the final push for women's suffrage, which was granted by the 19th Amendment in 1920. And Progressive reforms at the state and municipal levels were even more dramatic.
Progressives tended to be less radical than Populists, so they didn't push for nationalization of the railroad and grain storage industries as their rural predecessors had done. Yet during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, Progressives did secure passage of the Warehouse Act, which offered credit to farmers who stored their crops in federally licensed warehouses, which resembled the old Populist subtreasury plan. In the 1890s, farmers sought to improve rural conditions by pressing the government to build warehouses where they could store their crops until they were sold; they could then use the stored crops as collateral for federal loans with low interest rates. The Adamson Act, also passed under Wilson, established an eight-hour day for railroad workers, and the eight-hour day—for workers in all industries—had been a central demand of the labor movement for decades.
For all of their successes, Progressives often found their legislation compromised by the diluting influence of elites like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Henry Stimson. Such prominent figures positioned themselves as champions of the cause, but were willing to make compromises in order to satisfy key constituents and remain in power. Progressivism championed noble aims, but was often co-opted by businessmen seeking to enact symbolic or less radical reforms, and was hampered by the diverse and sometimes contradictory motives and identities of its own activists.
Teddy Roosevelt and the Square Deal
Progressivism followed hard on the heels of Populism. In 1896, the Democratic party co-opted the Populist platform and nominated Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan for the presidency. Bryan lost to William McKinley and the Populist movement dissolved in the process.
But the push for reform remained a powerful presence in American life. This proved abundantly clear when McKinley's 42-year-old vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, took office upon McKinley's assassination in 1901. Roosevelt would become the first president to be commonly associated with Progressivism, characterized by historian Alan Brinkley as "a champion of cautious, moderate change."21 Roosevelt was the epitome of a Progressive leader—he wasn't out to revolutionize government, but simply to guarantee a balanced approach to both workers and businessmen whenever possible.
Roosevelt tried to distinguish between "good" and "bad" corporations and sought to help the former by stamping out the latter, which he defined as monopolistic trusts in restraint of fair and open competition. This so-called "trust-busting" approach was a popular tactic with voters during the early-20th century, as economic concentration peaked in the United States and some 4,000 smaller businesses were swallowed up by larger conglomerates seeking to attain monopolistic power in the marketplace.22
But trust-busting was always more a matter of legend than fact. The government never attempted to bust most of the country's trusts, though Roosevelt did successfully bring a few well-publicized suits, like a 1902 case against the Northern Securities Company railroad combination. Banker J. P. Morgan had created Northern Securities as a holding company—that is, it held the stock and the control over three large railroad lines in the West. The railroads of Northern Securities controlled most of the transportation lines between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Lakes, depriving Western customers of the benefits of competition. The Supreme Court agreed with the government and ordered Northern Securities to be dissolved in 1904.
That same year, Roosevelt also became the first president ever to intervene in a labor dispute without taking the side of the employers. An ongoing miner's strike threatened to endanger coal supplies for the approaching winter. Roosevelt forced anthracite coal industry leaders and the striking United Mine Workers to accept federal arbitration in their labor dispute. When mine owners refused to accept arbitration, Roosevelt threatened to dispatch federal troops to seize the mines. The owners then capitulated to federally brokered talks and the workers won a 10% wage raise and a nine-hour day in the resulting arbitration.
Roosevelt's pragmatic reformism proved quite popular with the American people. In the 1904 presidential election, Roosevelt won over 56% of the popular vote and pledged to continue his policy of giving everyone a "Square Deal." In 1906, he signed the Hepburn Railroad Act, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) the added regulatory authority to examine the account books of the powerful railroad companies.
That same year, socialist author Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a sensationally graphic account of the meatpacking industry in Chicago's stockyards. Sinclair was trying to raise public awareness of corporate corruption and the deplorable conditions in which poor workers toiled, but most of the resulting public outcry instead centered on the disgusting state of the country's meat supply. In response, Roosevelt supported passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Roosevelt called for further reforms, including regulation of the stock market, taxes on income and inheritance, worker's compensation for accidents on the job, and an eight-hour workday. But Roosevelt increasingly came into conflict with conservatives in his own Republican Party, who opposed these measures and kept them from passing through Congress.
Despite the bevy of Progressive legislative reforms passed under Roosevelt's watch, the capitalist marketplace remained quite volatile—financial panic struck in 1907. Progressive reforms didn't cause the economic downturn, though conservative Republicans argued otherwise. The panic proved that the government still held little substantive regulatory power over the financial sector, so Wall Street didn't look to the government to help rectify the crisis. Since the Federal Reserve Bank didn't yet exist, nor did any real regulatory authority, it wasn't the government but financiers like J.P. Morgan who took steps to rectify the economic instability.
Morgan pooled the resources of New York banks to bail out the failing institutions that prompted the recession. He also secured a guarantee from President Roosevelt that the government would not pursue antitrust action against U.S. Steel, which had recently purchased shares of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. Morgan successfully presented the acquisition to the Roosevelt administration as an act of goodwill that would shore up Tennessee Coal, one of many companies struggling not to go bankrupt in the panic. Despite this period of economic turmoil, Roosevelt did manage to secure quite a popular reputation before he voluntarily stepped down from office in 1908.
Roosevelt was one of the presidency's greatest environmental advocates. Roosevelt secured his legacy as a steward of the environment thanks largely to the influence of naturalist and Sierra Club co-founder John Muir. Roosevelt read Muir's 1901 work, Our National Parks, and the two met in 1903, when they traveled together to the Yosemite Valley to explore the wilderness. Muir convinced the president to ditch his security detail and appealed to his sense of rugged adventurousness by taking him camping in Yosemite's Mariposa Grove for four days.
The experience apparently had quite an effect on the young president. Five years later, Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation establishing the Muir Woods National Monument just north of San Francisco. He also used his executive authority to restrict private development on public lands, which constituted millions of acres at the turn of the century. Conservatives, however, acted to thwart Roosevelt's designs by restricting his authority over undeveloped government land. Nonetheless, Roosevelt managed to establish five National Parks, 148 million acres of National Forest, and 23 National Monuments during his eight years in the White House. He also created the nation's first wildlife refuge on Pelican Island in Florida, another result of his meeting with Muir.
And the president could agree with the conservative members of his party on the importance of reclamation and irrigation, in which the government funded construction of reservoirs, canals, and dams in the West in order to facilitate widespread settlement, land cultivation, and provide affordable electric power.
But for all his influence, Muir lost a hard fight against Roosevelt's chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, and the residents of nearby San Francisco when the beautiful and high-walled Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park was converted into a reservoir to provide drinking water for the city by the Bay.
The Taft Presidency
Perhaps no example better demonstrated the internal conflicts and contradictions of Progressivism than the William Howard Taft presidency. Taft was Roosevelt's good friend and chosen successor in 1909, having served as his Secretary of War and a close adviser. Like his predecessor, Taft beat William Jennings Bryan—American history's only three-time presidential loser—to win the presidency.
Taft benefited substantially from Roosevelt's endorsement and the general expectation that he would carry on the Progressive policies of the outgoing administration. Yet Taft ran into trouble with the Progressive wing of the party almost immediately after taking office when he went along with the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, which failed to reduce tariff rates to the degree that Progressives had long demanded. Progressives wanted a lower tariff to increase imports, thereby fostering more open competition that would undermine the trusts' stranglehold on the market. Although Roosevelt had largely ignored this issue, Taft had made it a campaign promise, but the final legislation actually increased some rates instead of dramatically reducing all of them.
Payne-Aldrich represented a compromise measure between the House and the more conservative Senate, and Taft may have been pragmatic to accept it as the only feasible measure that Congress could agree upon. But Progressives ferociously criticized his decision. It proved the first in an ominous series of debacles for the Taft administration.
The president seemed to reveal further conservative predilections when he sided with his new Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, in the so-called "Ballinger-Pinchot controversy." Ballinger was a corporate lawyer whom Taft had chosen to replace James R. Garfield, a staunch conservationist. Shortly after taking office, Ballinger confirmed environmentalists' fears about him by returning almost one million acres of forest reserve land back to the public domain under the argument that President Roosevelt had overstepped his authority in keeping the land off limits to private ownership or access.
Gifford Pinchot, the head of the Forest Service since the Roosevelt administration, accused Ballinger of colluding with business interests, like mining and lumber companies that stood to profit handsomely from use of the newly accessible land. Taft investigated these accusations, but found no evidence to prove them. Since he remained unconvinced, the president took no action. Determined to prevail, Pinchot then leaked the story to the press and called for a congressional investigation of Ballinger. Taft fired Pinchot in response, and the ensuing uproar severed most of the remaining ties between Roosevelt partisans—and Progressives in general—and the president.
Two years after the controversy, in the presidential election of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt reemerged as the spokesmen of the Progressives, while Taft had become the conservatives' candidate.
Paradoxically, however, Taft was an even more aggressive trust-buster than TR himself. Taft's administration took on some of the most powerful corporations in the American economy. While Roosevelt had deemed John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company a "good" trust, the Taft administration convinced the Supreme Court to declare Standard Oil in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Rockefeller's behemoth monopoly was then forced to break up into separate companies, one each for marketing, refining, and producing petroleum.
In 1911, the government filed suit against U.S. Steel, claiming that its 1907 acquisition of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company was illegal. This suit outraged Roosevelt, for he'd specifically approved the U.S. Steel acquisition during the Panic of 1907 and was personally offended at the implication that he was wrong or even unethical to have allowed it to go through. Under Taft, the Interstate Commerce Commission was strengthened by the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910; a Department of Labor was created the following year. The government also prevailed in a suit against American Tobacco Company, which the Supreme Court ordered to stop using cutthroat pricing policies that were bankrupting smaller businesses.
Taft also supported the 16th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913 before he left office and which authorized Congress to enact a graduated income tax. This tax would help modernize the rapidly expanding federal government and provide it with a stable source of revenue. Up until this time, the government had relied on tariffs as its chief source of revenue. (A first temporary income tax had been passed during the Civil War, but was phased out by 1872.) With the Progressives' push for a lower tariff to encourage more open competition in the marketplace, the government needed a new source of income.
In 1894, Congress tried to pass another income tax, but the Supreme Court quickly rejected it as unconstitutional. In his opinion for the majority, Chief Justice Fuller argued that the Constitution's framers had intended that the "the power of direct taxation would be exercised only in extraordinary exigencies." Since America was at peace, the income tax must not be allowed to serve as a potentially "ordinary and usual means of supply" whenever it is not absolutely necessary.23
A Constitutional Amendment was therefore necessary to pass an income tax. Taft worked to make that amendment a reality.
The Election of 1912: A Progressive Apex
Taft's unpopularity among Progressives prompted Teddy Roosevelt to re-enter the political arena, making for one of the most remarkable presidential elections in American history.
By 1912, the Progressive platform dominated electoral politics from all sides of the political spectrum. That year's election would pit four strong candidates against each other, all of whom embraced at least some of the Progressive agenda: both a current and former president from the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, a strong nominee from the Democrats, and a popular Socialist, to boot. For all of Taft's contributions to Progressive causes-trust busting, expanding government's role in improving Americans' lives, and safeguarding citizens' rights—his mixture of conservatism and Progressivism proved too volatile to prevent challenges to his re-nomination in 1912.
Most Progressives thought that one of the most powerful challenges would come from Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette. As a legislator and then a governor, La Follette had directed the most influential reform administration at the state level. He'd gained a wide following by appealing directly to the people and pushing through important reforms that came to be known collectively as the "Wisconsin Idea." They included a direct primary law (so that popular vote and not party bosses could nominate candidates for office), tax reform legislation (which included the taxation of corporate profits), railroad rate control, regulation of public utilities, and other measures.
But after campaigning hard for more than a year for the presidency, La Follette, exhausted and preoccupied with his daughter's sickness, experienced something of a nervous collapse during a speech in Philadelphia before the Periodical Publishers Association in February 1912. He spoke for over two hours, fiercely decrying the members of the press in his audience and repeating large sections of his speech. La Follette had intended the talk as a warning against media reliance on advertisers, who wielded considerable influence over the freedom of the press through their business. But La Follette's illness and exhaustion, combined with his daughter's illness, made for a disastrous setting and an equally disastrous speech. His presidential campaign imploded, though La Follette himself recovered and offered no apologies for the incident.
By the end of the month, Roosevelt had announced his candidacy. Seeing an opening for a Progressive candidate, TR decided to jump back in to offer moderate voters an appealing alternative to Taft, but without the more radical brand of Progressivism that La Follette had represented.
Now, the sitting Republican president found himself in the awkward position of competing against a popular former Republican president in the party nomination fight. Roosevelt's Progressive platform clearly captured the interest and the affinity of voters throughout the 13 presidential primaries, which he won easily. Presidential primaries themselves were a new democratic reform measure that Progressives had successfully enacted in several states. Before this time, as author Patricia O'Toole explains, "the electing took place in state conventions and caucuses tightly controlled by party bosses."24
Voters themselves could now directly choose their candidate by majority vote and Roosevelt won 278 "pledged" delegates to Taft's 48. But even with the primaries in place, Progressives had yet to break the stranglehold of state party organizations over the nominating process. The delegates that "pledged" to Roosevelt could be manipulated at the national party convention, and they were. State-level elites supported Taft by replacing the TR-pledged-delegates with "at large" or substitute state delegations that pledged their votes to Taft. Republican Party leaders thereby awarded Taft a disproportionate number of delegates at their Chicago party convention, securing him the party's nomination.25
For Roosevelt and the Progressives, this was only further evidence of the political corruption and anti-democratic tendencies that needed to be rectified in American government. Roosevelt took his supporters out of the Republican Party and formed a new Progressive (or "Bull Moose") Party, so nicknamed because Roosevelt claimed to be "fit as a bull moose" for the coming election fight.26
Many Progressive sympathizers nonetheless refused to take the dramatic step of bolting from their party. TR and Taft ended up splitting the votes of Republicans, opening the door for the Democrats, who'd otherwise been struggling through a long dry spell in national politics, managing to get only a single Democrat—Grover Cleveland—elected to the White House since 1860.
The Democratic nominee in 1912, Woodrow Wilson, was the Governor of New Jersey, where he'd established a worker's compensation program and increased state regulation of railroads and public utilities. With a reputation for getting Progressive legislation passed, Wilson announced a "New Freedom" platform that pledged not only to regulate monopolies, but to destroy them. He promised to support small businesses, protect workers' right to unionize, and to strengthen the current antitrust laws.
Roosevelt, by contrast, developed a "New Nationalism" program that treated big business as an inevitable presence in the country's booming economy and industrial sector. Roosevelt pledged to harness the power of government to regulate and control big business and to heavily tax the very wealthy individuals and corporations who profited the most. Both candidates agreed that government must play an integral role in preserving citizens' rights and freedoms, but they differed on economic policy, the merits of expanding government power, and the inevitability of big business as an outgrowth of rapid industrialization.
Further to the left than Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft stood Socialist Party nominee Eugene V. Debs, who demanded public ownership of the banks and railroads, a nationwide minimum wage, labor laws that would give workers shorter hours, and government aid to the unemployed.
With all four candidates for president committed to various aspects of the Progressive agenda, 1912 marked a moment of triumph for the reform movement. It was also the beginning of the end for Progressivism. Ironically, because all the major candidates seemed to have accepted the movement, the very meaning of Progressivism was diluted. Though its central premise of expanded government support for individual citizens and its call for economic regulation remained intact, people from different parties and backgrounds now claimed to be Progressives, regardless of the differences between their philosophies and backgrounds.
What's more, Woodrow Wilson's victory in the election—he received 42% of the popular vote compared to Roosevelt's 27%, Taft's 23%, and Debs' 6%—brought a committed "Progressive" into office. Wilson would win many battles in the Progressive cause, but he ultimately lost the war.27
Wilson tied his personal legacy to the spread of Progressive ideals not just in America, but across the world, by promising to "make the world safe for democracy" through military intervention in World War I. When the disillusioned United States turned away from that attempt at international reform in the wake of the devastation of the First World War, Progressivism died along with Wilson himself.
Wilson: The Strong Executive
Woodrow Wilson's presidency began with a degree of optimism and energy characteristic of Progressivism itself. Backed by a Democratic Congress, Wilson passed a series of strong Progressive reforms.
To make amends for the disappointing Payne-Aldrich Tariff that Taft had supported, Wilson pushed through the Underwood Tariff shortly after his inauguration in 1913. This new measure reduced import duties much more substantially, enabling more foreign competition in the marketplace. Progressives hoped that such competition would undermine the power of domestic monopolies. Since the reduced tariff meant that government would be receiving less income from duties, Congress passed a graduated income tax. The first of its kind, the income tax applied a 1% levy to married couples and corporations that earned over $4,000 a year and to single people who made over $3,000 a year. Marginal tax rates increased for even wealthier citizens, maxing out at 6% for incomes over $500,000.
At a time when the average American adult made only about $900 a year, the vast majority of the American people (95%) paid no income tax at all. Even the wealthy paid taxes at rates that seem extraordinarily low compared to today.28
Next, Wilson held Congress in session throughout the summer of 1913 to pass major reforms of the banking system. Even at this early juncture, it became clear that Wilson had abandoned certain aspects of his New Freedom plan and embraced policies reminiscent of Roosevelt's New Nationalism. Rather than aggressively trust-busting, Wilson advocated banking reforms that marked an increased government role in supervising the economy. This included the Federal Reserve Act, which created the Federal Reserve System of 12 regional banks that issued currency and propped up unstable banks in danger of failing. The Federal Reserve would set the interest rate at which its regional banks issued loans to private banks and its currency—Federal Reserve notes—became the country's government-backed medium of trade. With this new system in place, Progressives hoped to prevent future crises like the one that had occurred in 1907, when multiple financial institutions failed and threatened to undermine the entire banking system.
But Wilson hadn't yet given up entirely on his campaign promises to smash monopolies. In 1914, Congress passed the Clayton Act and established the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The Clayton Act exempted labor unions from antitrust laws and prevented courts from issuing injunctions against workers' right to strike. Yet Wilson seemed to lose interest in the bill and conservative congressmen managed to considerably dilute several of its most effective provisions before it was passed. The FTC was designed to regulate businesses and notify them in advance if their action—such as price fixing or monopolistic measures—might be deemed "unfair" or unacceptable to the government. Regardless of such advances in government regulation, Wilson proved himself anything but an enemy to monopolies. Though the FTC represented a substantial boost for the federal government's regulatory capacity, many businessmen welcomed it, along with the Federal Reserve Act, as a means of stabilizing the economy and as a palatable alternative to more radical attacks against corporate wealth and power.
Similarly, though the Clayton Act demonstrated a substantial expansion of the federal government's role, it also signified the disconnect between symbolism and reality in American politics. Clayton was supposed to embody the Wilsonian promise of added labor protections and workers' rights, but because it was watered down in Congress, Americans were left with the impression that their president had passed the necessary reforms without realizing that those reforms had been compromised before they could even be implemented. Once businessmen and others fully understood this potential for deception, they took advantage of it by cloaking themselves in Progressive language and then using all of their influence to ensure that conservative congressmen diluted the reforms.
The push for Progressive reforms empowered Wilson and the Democratic Congress to pass important legislation opposing child labor, mandating an eight-hour day for railroad workers and offering federal grants to match states that supported agricultural extension education. But the broad and multifaceted Progressive agenda was far from complete—the reforms enacted brought about some change, but not the fundamental social transformation that some Progressives sought.
In other matters, progress was nonexistent—or worse. Wilson, who was born in Virginia and raised a Southerner, reintroduced segregation in federal government agencies and presided over one of the worst periods in race relations in American history. Discrimination against Blacks in Washington predated the Wilson administration, but Wilson and his staff oversaw the removal of thousands of Black civil service officials and perpetuated a nationwide trend in segregating federal employment.29 Wilson also refused to support female suffrage until he ultimately capitulated to public pressure in 1916.
Progressivism Writ Large, and Doomed
In 1914, the Democrats suffered major losses in the congressional elections. As they'd continue to do many more times in the years to come, voters used the election to express their disenchantment with the ruling party. This was for a number of reasons.
Activists like Alice Paul had vigorously campaigned against the Democrats that year in response to President Wilson's refusal to publicly support female suffrage. Black voters—though small in number because of their disfranchisement in the South—deserted the Democratic Party because they felt betrayed by the disconnect between Wilson's campaign promises and his administration's actions in segregating federal employment. Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" (or Progressive) Party continued to run candidates for office, siphoning off potential Democratic votes. An economic malaise was beginning to take hold over the national economy. In response, Wilson attempted to pass a new slate of reforms.
In June of that same year, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This seemingly isolated incident sparked a series of reactions and counter-reactions between allied nations that led to the opening of World War I in Europe by August 1914. Initially determined to keep out of the conflict, Wilson proclaimed American neutrality. But while the war dragged on in the ensuing years, such attempts to maintain neutrality became increasingly difficult as rumors of German atrocities spread and economic ties to France and England pulled Americans toward an alliance with the Allies.
After running successfully for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "He kept us out of war," Wilson was forced to go to Congress with a request for a declaration of war against Germany less than a month after he was inaugurated into his second term. To justify this sudden policy reversal, Wilson proclaimed a grand extension of Progressive aims. Not only the nation, but "the world," he declared, "must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty."30
The war resolution overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate. Progressives from almost every rank—including intellectuals, muckrakers, social reformers, prominent authors, and union leaders—got behind the war effort. They envisioned the global crisis as an opportunity for obtaining a more just and equal society at home and a chance to share American values and institutions abroad.
But in the war that followed, the United States paradoxically subverted its own democratic principles even as it fought to spread democracy across the globe. Wilson and his administration were so convinced of their righteousness that they deemed any dissent to be synonymous with treason. So, they passed the Espionage Act of 1917, the first systematic restriction on Americans' freedom of speech since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Under the terms of the Act, citizens were forbidden from interfering with the draft, spying, or even making "false statements" that could affect U.S. success on the battlefield. Exactly how such statements would apply to military movements in Europe was never made clear.
A quarter of a million people joined the American Protective League and spied on their neighbors to help the Justice Department identify war critics and "radicals." Vigilante mobs and the government worked together to crush radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In July 1917, a Bisbee, Arizona anti-union organization called the Citizens' Protective League organized to suppress an IWW-led strike of local copper miners who wanted safer working conditions and a stable wage. Thousands of vigilante "deputies" forcefully deported some 1,186 men—some of them local copper miners and union members, but others sympathizers who weren't on strike at all—into the desert of Hermanas, New Mexico, where they were abandoned without rations or shelter. The copper companies were never held liable for the deportation.31
A month later, a crowd of masked vigilantes in Butte, Montana, kidnapped IWW organizer and outspoken war critic Frank Little and lynched him. Little had been in Butte to help workers who were striking against the Anaconda Copper Company. No one was ever arrested for the murder.32
The postmaster general banned from the mail any newspapers or magazines critical of the war or the administration. Prominent antiwar figures like Socialist Eugene Debs were arrested and imprisoned for years. Debs articulated an eloquent self-defense at his trial on the grounds that dissent was a thoroughly American tradition, dating back to the country's founding with the writing of Thomas Paine, but amidst the wartime hysteria, such history lessons were of no avail.
The war years afforded many Progressive activists an opportunity to push through several other aspects of their platforms. At times, their very success proved disastrous to the movement itself. Temperance, which had been a Progressive goal, was enforced in several states and then became national policy with the 18th Amendment of 1919. The so-called Prohibition period commenced in 1920 and soon turned into a complete debacle. Mobsters like Al Capone got rich off black-market liquor sales, millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens flaunted the new laws to continue drinking alcohol, and virtually none of the promised benefits of Prohibition materialized: workers didn't become more disciplined, American cities remained just as chaotic and crime-ridden as before, and domestic violence didn't disappear.
The Progressive Era was nearing its end. President Wilson tried to embody its goals on a worldwide scale, but he failed so miserably in this endeavor that the movement itself was drowned by a wave of isolationism in the post-World War I period. Progressives thought that they could control the chaos of World War I in order to remake the world anew, according to their "liberal purposes," as the young critic Randolph Bourne termed it.33 But the war was uncontrollable—it destroyed Progressives' optimism, naiveté, and faith in modern science and technology.
The people of America and Europe watched in horror as the very advancements they'd made in industry and technology were applied to the business of killing millions of human beings. Troops poisoned one another with mustard gas and mowed each other down with newly invented machine guns, creating a warfront of unprecedented brutality.
In the aftermath of the war, Wilson traveled to Paris in 1918 to negotiate a peace, hoping to establish a Progressive new world order. Yet his idealism proved no match for the bitter vindictiveness and self-interest of the war-torn European nations, each of which demanded heavy reparations from the defeated Central Powers. Wilson's one major achievement, the creation of a League of Nations, was designed to prevent future wars and apply the principle of self-determination to Eastern Europe, in the former territories of the vanquished Austro-Hungarian Empire. But when Wilson returned home to present the Senate with the Treaty of Versailles in July 1919, he encountered stiff opposition from Republicans who despised the president and argued that the League would unduly restrict future American policies.
Wilson, ever the fervent Progressive, was sure that the treaty represented "the hand of God" and he sought to take his case directly to the people by embarking on a grueling nationwide speaking tour.34 After more than three weeks of nonstop traveling, sometimes speaking four times a day on little rest, Wilson suffered severe headaches and then a major stroke after his return to Washington. He recovered only partially and spent the last 18 months of his presidency as an invalid.
Uncompromising to the end, Wilson wouldn't consider any of the almost 50 amendments that the Senate recommended for the Treaty. Ratification failed in March 1920 and the next fall, Americans turned their back on Wilson's Democrats and the Progressivism they represented, and voted conservative Republican Warren G. Harding—a man with no attachments to the Progressives in his party—into office.
The Progressive Era was over.
A few of its ideas survived among the dissenters of the conservative 1920s. Robert La Follette finally completed a presidential campaign in 1924, only to receive just one-sixth of the total vote. He campaigned on tried-and-true Progressive platforms: environmental conservation, public ownership of the railroads, the abolition of child labor, and government relief for farmers. But in the changed political climate of postwar America, Republican candidate Calvin Coolidge could successfully attack such proposals as "Communistic and Socialistic."35
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had raised the specter of communist revolution before the world and a massive wave of labor strikes in 1919 threatened similarly sweeping changes in American life. Coolidge and the Republicans capitalized on voters' fears of such radical social upheavals in order to associate the old Progressive (and Populist) reform agendas with the radicalism of the new social movements. Progressivism died off when it ceased to be "respectable," although some of its spirit would reemerge in the New Deal of the Great Depression years.
The Progressive Movement was an effort to cure many of the ills of American society that had developed during the great spurt of industrial growth in the last quarter of the 19th century. The frontier had been tamed, great cities and businesses developed, and an overseas empire established, but not all citizens shared in the new wealth, prestige, and optimism.
Efforts to improve society were not new to the United States in the late 1800s. A major push for change, the First Reform Era, occurred in the years before the Civil War and included efforts of social activists to reform working conditions and humanize the treatment of mentally ill people and prisoners.
Others removed themselves from society and attempted to establish utopian communities in which reforms were limited to their participants. The focal point of the early reform period was abolitionism, the drive to remove what in the eyes of many was the great moral wrong of slavery.
The second reform era began during Reconstruction and lasted until the American entry into World War I. The struggle for women`s rights and the temperance movement were the initial issues addressed. A farm movement also emerged to compensate for the declining importance of rural areas in an increasingly urbanized America.
As part of the second reform period, progressivism was rooted in the belief, certainly not shared by all, that man was capable of improving the lot of all within society. As such, it was a rejection of Social Darwinism, the position taken by many rich and powerful figures of the day.
Progressivism also was imbued with strong political overtones, and it rejected the church as the driving force for change. Specific goals included:
The success of progressivism owed much to publicity generated by the muckrakers, writers who detailed the horrors of poverty, urban slums, dangerous factory conditions, and child labor, among a host of other ills.
Successes were many, beginning with the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890). Progressives never spoke with one mind and differed sharply over the most effective means to deal with the ills generated by the trusts; some favored an activist approach to trust-busting, others preferred a regulatory approach.
A vocal minority supported socialism with government ownership of the means of production. Other progressive reforms followed in the form of a conservation movement, railroad legislation, and food and drug laws.
The progressive spirit also was evident in new amendments added to the Constitution (text), which provided for a new means to elect senators, protect society through prohibition and extend suffrage to women.
Urban problems were addressed by professional social workers who operated settlement houses as a means to protect and improve the prospects of the poor. However, efforts to place limitations on child labor were routinely thwarted by the courts. The needs of African Americans and Native Americans were poorly served or served not at all — a major shortcoming of the progressive movement.
Progressive reforms were carried out not only on the national level, but in states and municipalities. Prominent governors devoted to change included Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin and Hiram Johnson of California.
Such reforms as the direct primary, secret ballot, and the initiative, referendum, and recall were effected. Local governments were strengthened by the widespread use of trained professionals, particularly with the city manager system replacing the frequently corrupt mayoral system.
Formal expression was given to progressive ideas in the form of political parties on three major occasions:
See also Constitution (narrative).
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Prairie Club of Chicago by Cathy Jean Maloney.
Originally formed in 1908, as an outgrowth of the Playground Association of Chicago, the Prairie Club was incorporated as a separate entity in 1911. E...
Crime, Corruption and Politics in Hull The Rise and Fall of Boss Smith's Old Ring by John Galluzzo.
If you lived in Hull, Massachusetts, during the first four decades of the 20th century, you knew both the political machinations of Boss John Smith an...
Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard Hofstadter.
Social Darwinism in American Thought portrays the overall influence of Darwin on American social theory and the notable battle waged among thinkers ov...
Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward P. Kohn.
One of the worst natural disasters in American history, the 1896 New York heat wave killed almost 1,500 people in ten oppressively hot days. The heat ...
Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices by Noah Feldman.
As a conservative Supreme Court flexes its muscles against a Democratic president for the first time since the New Deal, a series of recent books has ...
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
For nearly a century, the original version of Upton Sinclair's classic novel, which gave impetus to the Progressive Movement, has remained almost enti...
Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.
Of all our great presidents, Theodore Roosevelt is the only one whose greatness increased out of office. When he toured Europe in 1910 as plain “Colon...
Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920 by John J. Cooper.
These were the years in which two of our greatest presidents--Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson--transformed the office into the center of power; ...