Banking Reform Progressive Era Essay

Copyright © Henry J. Sage 2012, 2017

Overview. H.W. Brands, a widely respected historian, formerly at Texas A&M University and now at the University of Texas, published The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s in 1995. The decade of the 1890s was filled with tensions and problems that cried out for resolution. In the previous section on the Gilded Age we discussed the rampant exploitation of people and resources by the reckless behavior of the “robber barons”and suggested that if actions were not taken to alleviate the glaring injustices in American society, the nation might have been driven to rebellion. Indeed, the conflict we described as “the war between capital and labor” was filled with bloody violence and extensive property damage, a situation that continued well into the 20th century, even though it was alleviated to a significant extent during the Progressive Era. In the some ways the 1990s in America were much like the 1890s, with major differences, of course. The term “progressive,” however, is still used to describe public figures or policies favoring reform.

In any case, by 1900 America was a tinderbox in 1900. Cities were crowded with millions of poor laborers, and working conditions were appalling. Poor parents kept their children from attending school, desperately needing the meager income that their offspring might provide by sweeping floors in a factory. From the local level to the highest institutions in the land corruption darkened politics. The aforementioned “war between capital and labor” made it difficult for workers to escape the abusive practices of industrial and business leaders.

Something had to be done, and the progressive movement was the nation’s response. Although the progressive reformers and politicians—numerous nongovernmental organizations operated within the progressive movement itself—did not fix everything, yet there were a few issues that escape their attention. In the years leading up to 1900, bribery and corruption of political officials at all levels was rampant. Since political corruption made it difficult for political officeholders to address the rapid economic and social changes brought about by the industrial revolution in America, the progressive movement grew outside government and eventually forced government to take stands and deal with the growing problems. Desperately needed were public figures, especially elected officials, who were willing to undertake changes in the status quo.

As mentioned in the previous page on the roots or origins of progressivism, the Populist Party paved the way for progressive reform through its 1892 Populist Party platform. While the demands they listed in their platform might be called extreme, such as calling for a widespread boycott of merchants who sold goods made by oppressive manufacturers and the outlawing of the Pinkerton Detective agency, whom they branded as a mercenary army, other demands such as a graduated income tax and government control of utilities were eventually realized. And by 1917 most of the concerns which the Populists had raised in 1892 had been addressed by the federal government. So the path to progressive reform was generated by the widespread discontent in the nation upon which the Populist Party was founded.

William McKinley was one in a long list of presidents to hail from Ohio, sometimes known as the “mother of presidents.” He had a long and distinguished political career, serving in Congress as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and governor of Ohio. He was elected over William Jennings Bryan in 1896, thanks largely to the help of his manager, Mark Hanna. His tenure in office is best known for his foreign-policy adventures, including the Spanish-American war and the acquisition of the Philippine Islands and Guam.

McKinley's domestic policy was dominated by the long-standing American tradition of economic protectionism, a philosophy that goes back to the early days of the republic, when American businesses had difficulty competing with their European counterparts. It is worth noting again that tariffs have two functions: raising revenue and protecting American business. Revenue tariffs have only a modest impact on the price of domestic goods, being used mostly to support the customs service, necessary today because in addition to our ports, there are almost 100 international airports in the United States, all of which have to be manned by customs agents. Protective tariffs, on the other hand, are generally high tariffs designed to do exactly what the name implies, protect American businesses. The difficulty with those high tariffs is that they lead to higher prices for domestic consumers, not necessarily for superior products. During McKinley's first term the Dingley tariff was passed, the highest protective tariff in American history.

By 1900 Republicans had been in power in Congress since 1894 and in the White House since McKinley's election. Republicans campaigned on the issue of the success of the war with Spain, which had added new territory to the United States. The economy had begun to recover, and the Open Door policy with respect to China promised new markets and enhanced trading opportunities. Thus McKinley's reelection seemed a sure thing, and the major issue at the Republican convention was to select a person to replace Vice-President Garret A. Hobart, who had died the previous year.

The man selected for the job was Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most remarkable characters in American history. As both police Commissioner of New York City and governor of New York, Roosevelt had pursued policies which would later be expanded into his progressive agenda when he became president. Roosevelt was wildly popular because of his success in the Spanish-American War, which he helped bring about while serving as assistant secretary of the Navy. McKinley's manager Mark Hanna was appalled at the notion of “that damned cowboy” being only a heartbeat away from the presidency. But the demand for the popular Roosevelt prevailed. Roosevelt provided the impetus for the progressive movement and oversaw the first phase of America’s rise to world power. Best known for his “walk softly and carry a big stick” approach to foreign policy, he is also remembered a an aggressive reformer who was willing to use presidential influence—the “bully pulpit,” as he called it—to bring about needed change in American society. Although there were many critics of his aggressive foreign-policy ventures, his place on Mount Rushmore is well deserved.

Theodore Roosevelt: The Republican Progressive

Only the United States could have produced a national leader like Theodore Roosevelt. From his birth in 1858 to his death in 1919, he lived life as fully and vigorously as almost any other human being. He was a man of enormous talents, widespread interests and huge appetites. Physically and intellectually vigorous, he participated in athletic and sporting adventures for most of his days, wrote books and articles throughout his life and claimed to have read a book every day. He dominated political life in New York, the nation and the world, social events both formal and informal, and his family. He was admired and feared, hated and loved, sometimes by the same people at different times. He bored people to tears but also kept them rollicking with laughter. He was kind and gentle but also ferocious and, as some claimed, “completely mad.” He became president by accident, was reelected overwhelmingly, and as a third party candidate in yet another presidential election, he got the highest percentage vote of any third-party candidate in history, out polling the incumbent President of the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt was born to a wealthy family in New York City and raised in a warm and loving family. Although he adored his father—“the best man I ever knew”—, he later wrote that his father was the only man whom he ever really feared. He explained that it was a good kind of fear based upon respect. As a sickly and myopic youth, Theodore required frequent medical attention and was schooled at home by tutors. But his father suggested a vigorous program of physical activity, exercises and fresh air as a cure for the child’s asthma. Eyeglasses corrected his vision problem, and for the rest of his life, TR, as he was commonly known, was physically robust and fond of exercise..

Roosevelt was educated at Harvard, where he gained a reputation as a diligent scholar with a bold and outgoing personality that for some often bordered on the obnoxious. A vigorous debater and athlete, he was popular with his classmates. During his junior year his father died, leaving him bereft and the head of the family. He adored his mother and did everything in his power to ease her grief. While at Harvard he met a young woman named Alice Hathaway Lee, with whom he fell instantly in love. The first time he saw Alice, he said to a friend, "That's the woman I'm going to marry." She became his first wife, the second woman in his life whom he adored.

Roosevelt had planned to become a naturalist, as he was always interested in the great outdoors with its teeming plant and animal life, but he sought a vocation that would be more lively and stimulating.  Although it was not fashionable for wealthy young men, Roosevelt drifted into politics and was soon elected to the New York State legislature.  Always a believer in honesty and integrity in both public and private life, Roosevelt soon made a name for himself as a vigorous reformer.

Tragedy struck during his time in Albany, however, and he was summoned home by his brother Elliot (who, incidentally, would eventually become the father of Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt's fifth cousin and wife.) Theodore arrived home just in time to witness the death of both his mother and his wife within the same 24-hour period. (The Speaker of the New York House suspended activity for a day, calling it the saddest day in the history of that chamber.) Alice died in childbirth. Theodore, overcome with grief, turned the baby, also named Alice, over to his sister for raising and headed west.

In North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt became a cowboy, and not of the urban variety. Always able to mix with men of modest means and working-class attitudes, Roosevelt proved himself capable of weathering the life of a rancher. Despite his patrician origins and fancy dress, he earned the grudging respect of his fellow cow punchers. When a blizzard wiped out most of his cattle, Roosevelt headed back east to reassess his future. There he encountered a childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow, and the two soon married.

Although there is no way to know Theodore Roosevelt's innermost thoughts, one suspects that he may well have made a deathbed promise to his first love, Alice, never to marry again. But Roosevelt was a passionate and vigorous man, and the thought of a life without female companionship was no doubt a painful state to contemplate. And for a man of Roosevelt's personal morality, intimate relationships outside marriage would have been unthinkable. Probably arriving at some sort of compromise with himself, he married Edith in England with little fanfare. In the end, Edith was a loving and supportive wife who bore Theodore five children. As Theodore's cousin Franklin once said, Edith was the only person on earth who could control her rambunctious husband. Theodore’s first daughter, Alice, soon rejoined her father in the new family.

Roosevelt’s progressive impulses were strengthened by his term on the United States Civil Service Commission and as police commissioner of New York City, where he fought against corruption among New York’s finest. As a popular Republican he was invited to join McKinley’s administration in 1897 as assistant secretary of the Navy. He resigned his office to fight with the famous Rough Rider regiment in the Spanish-American War (which he helped to orchestrate.) He returned home a hero and was elected governor of New York.

At the Republican convention of 1900, Roosevelt found himself in a peculiar position. As governor he had rattled the cages of the machine politicians both in Albany and New York City. They were anxious to get him out of the way. Confident that he would be buried in the office of vice president, they planned to plant him there. Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, President McKinley's campaign manager, was appalled at the thought of Theodore Roosevelt being one step from the White House. Hanna considered Roosevelt almost a mad man, but Roosevelt's general popularity carried the day, and he joined McKinley on the ballot. Far from being buried, however, TR ascended to the presidency within a year when McKinley was killed by an assassin. (Mark Hanna’s response to the news of McKinley’s death: “Oh, my God, that damned cowboy’s in the White House!”)

Theodore Roosevelt’s major contribution to American history was his vigorous performance as a Progressive leader. When he became president, the U.S. was at the dawn of the Progressive Era. Capitalism had grown out of control throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, and reform was necessary. Workers were treated badly, slums in cities were horrific, and politics were rife with corruption. Roosevelt stepped in and helped to clean up the mess that had been created during the Gilded Age. As a Progressive, one of his major areas of interest was conservation, and he did much to further the cause of protecting America’s natural resources.

TR is equally well known for having made America a major player on the world stage. He pushed the U.S. to get involved in the Cuban revolt from his position as assistant secretary of the Navy. Pursuing an aggressive foreign policy of intervention in the Caribbean and Central America, Roosevelt placed his own imprint on the Monroe Doctrine. Yet he won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Russo-Japanese War. (See below.)

As a devoted husband and father, TR enjoyed life immensely, but he was never so happy as when he was at the center of great events. Even reporters who disagreed with his policies found him eminently newsworthy. He was a great if flawed man, earned his place on Mount Rushmore, and began the transformation of the office of President of the United States into its modern, powerful position.

The Man in the Arena. The following quotation from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910, shows the value he placed on personal leadership:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

We will follow the career of Theodore Roosevelt through his presidency, focusing on both his progressive reform policies and his foreign exploits, which were characterized by his famous remark, “Speak softly and carry and big stick; you will go far.”

The Progressive Era

The Progressive Era, which lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s, was an age of reform, the nation’s response to the industrial revolution. Its effects touched virtually all Americans and transformed the role of government in American society. Although some areas of American life, namely, racial issues and women's rights, were neglected during the progressive age, the groundwork was laid for future reforms in those areas and others.

Although the Progressive Era was a hopeful time, following as it did the “Reckless Decade,” or Gay Nineties, a foreboding atmosphere nevertheless overrode much of the optimism of that turn-of-the-century era. Labor violence, industrial accidents, foreign intrigues and cultural disturbances were felt by much of the American population, and big businesses still seemed to be controlling people's lives. Theodore Roosevelt did much to change the mood of Americans, but it was hard work.

The Progressive Mood. We can get a sense of the oppressive atmosphere felt by many Americans at the start of the Progressive Era in the United States by referring to a famous poem written by Edwin Markham in 1899, The Man with a Hoe. The poem was widely published in newspapers throughout the United States and struck a sympathetic chord with many Americans. Markham’s poem was inspired by a painting, shown at the left, “L’homme à la houe,” by the French artist, Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), which Markham called “the most solemnly impressive of all modern paintings.” French artist, Jean-François Millet, (1814-1875), shown at the left.

The opening lines of the poem define the mood:

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back, the burden of the world.

In the closing stanza the threat to the stability of the nation is vividly expressed:

How will the future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings—
With those who shaped him to the thing he is—
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?

Markham later reflected on what he meant by the poem. He said that “while all true work is beautiful and holy, it is also a fact that excesses are evil—a fact that joyless, hopeless, endless labor, overwork and under-paid work, tends to break down both men and nations.” The poem thus reflected a feeling among Americans that the appalling conditions under which many people lived were bound to cause trouble if not addressed.

Another work which help to clarify the mood in 1900 was a book by  Henry George, Progress and Poverty. In his introduction George observed:

[I]t is at last becoming evident that the enormous increase in productive power which has marked the present century and is still going on with accelerating ratio, has no tendency to extirpate poverty or to lighten the burdens of those compelled to toil. It simply widens the gulf ... and makes the struggle for existence more intense. The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamed. But in factories ... little children are at work; wherever the new forces are anything like fully utilized, large classes are maintained by charity or live on the verge of recourse to it; amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation; ... the worship of wealth, shows the force of the fear of want. The promised land flies before us like the mirage. (See longer excerpt.)

In other words, poverty is, in some ways, produced by progress itself.

America in 1901. The nation Theodore Roosevelt inherited upon President McKinley’s death in 1901 was a vigorous and powerful entity. The Spanish-American War of 1898 freed Cuba from Spanish control and also gained the United States an empire—the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands. As was noted above, Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in guiding the nation toward participation in the conflict. His conduct in the war led to his election as governor of New York and then as vice president. Somewhat like his cousin Franklin, who guided the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is built upon his contributions in both foreign and domestic affairs. In 1901, his attention was fixed firmly on domestic issues.

Apart from the harsh conditions for workers, living standards in 1900 had risen dramatically for the emerging Middle Class since the end of the Civil War. The nation was spanned by railroads from coast to coast; American industry had outstripped virtually every other nation on the planet; agricultural production was stunning (even as farmers found it difficult to prosper); the country was well on its way to mass free public education, except in the most rural areas; and the freedoms of press and religion were understood and accepted by all.

People had more leisure time for reading by 1900, and the press—magazines and newspapers—became a significant force in shaping American life. New forms of advertising and cheap, mass methods of production delivered information about the need for reform far and wide. The Progressives were stimulated by a new breed of journalists, the “muckrakers”—journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens—who wrote books and articles exposing the flaws of America's capitalist society.

Under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and many other political and business leaders, the nation began to clean up its act. By 1916 hundreds of national, state and local laws had begun to make the cities cleaner and healthier, the workplace safer, and businessmen more considerate of their workers and customers. Progressive reform also touched private institutions such as universities, hospitals, and even charitable or religious groups. Although politics remained a rough-and-tumble sport, steps were taken to clean up the political process, especially at the state and local level, and four constitutional amendments advanced progressive causes.

Ironically the great material progress that had come with industrial advance (and added to poverty) made possible the Progressive Movement. Much progressive reform was built on the basis of what has been called “enlightened self-interest.” Businessmen, for example, discovered that cleaner, healthier workplaces using practices that alleviated tedium led to more contented workers . Worker productivity increased, even though the actual hours of work may have been reduced. For some businessmen such changes meant doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Whatever the motives of the reformers, progress was made, and not a moment too soon. The Progressive Era did not see the end of all social and other problems, nor were labor troubles put to rest, but it was a start.

Goals of the Progressive Movement

The Progressive Movement was a massive assault on the problems that plagued American life at the turn of the century. Their targets included working conditions such as hours, safety, wages and job security. They attacked abuses of the capitalist system in order to preserve it, rather than replace it with socialist alternatives. They addressed moral issues such as prostitution and alcohol abuse, which they saw as contributing to domestic violence. The progressives wanted better management of businesses and political entities such as cities and counties. They wanted fairness in all things, although the progressives were less than aggressive in addressing civil rights for minorities, including Indians. (The specific goals of the Progressives are listed in the summary outline below.)

The Progressive Movement succeeded because it had support from Republicans and Democrats, labor and management as well as American Middle Class. The motives of the working classes were obvious. Workers themselves, sweating in the factories, on construction projects and doing other forms of wearisome labor, were in no position to begin a movement on their own behalf. They had in most cases neither the time nor the vision to be able to see their problems in larger perspective. Those who did understood that their jobs might be threatened if they engaged in union-related activity. Reformers such as Henry George, however, and labor leaders like Eugene Debs, Samuel Gompers and others understood the problems of the working class and moved for reform. To the extent that laborers and workers joined unions, and to the extent that the working classes were able to perceive what was going on in the workplace, they naturally supported the Progressive Movement.

The violence that did erupt from time to time, such as in the great railroad strike of 1877, the Homestead strike, and other disruptions, provided an impetus for those at higher levels to work to reform the capitalist system. Although the Progressive Movement did much to ameliorate the conditions under which many working people suffered, it would be wrong to believe that the violence was immediately quelled, or that working conditions improved overnight. The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 led to the deaths of 146 women, most of them immigrants, and was the worst workplace disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001.

Link to More Information about the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.

In 1912 immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, led by the Industrial Workers of the World, went on strike when their wages were lowered in response to a law shortening the work week. The courage of the female workers, who were willing to brave frigid weather as well as police and militia in order to march on picket lines, led to the strike being identified as the "bread and roses" strike. The reference came from the poem and song of that name, which was sung by the women who were on strike. (Lines from the poem included: "“Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes/ Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”) I.W.W. leaders Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn moved in and helped organized the strike, which was opposed by the AFL as being revolutionary.

In the early 1920s, coal miners in West Virginia engaged in repeated conflicts with mine owners and their hired detectives in what became known as the West Virginia coal field wars. One incident known as the “Matewan Massacre” has been memorialized in the John Sayles film, Matewan. The violence in West Virginia continued off and on for several years; it was a continuation of the earlier struggles highlighted by Homestead and Haymarket incidents. Despite the best efforts of labor organizers and progressive leaders, the war between capital and labor continued unabated into the 1930s and even beyond.

The Middle Class supported the Progressive Movement for reasons that were also fairly obvious. The Middle Class were prospering; they enjoyed comfortable incomes, lived in reasonably comfortable homes, enjoyed a certain amount of leisure time, and became aware of working conditions in America through newspaper and magazine articles written by muckraking journalists.

Although not always sympathetic to the plight of the working class, from which many Middle Class people had only recently escaped, those comfortable folks nevertheless realized that the system from which they benefited was threatened by the rumbling from below. Thus for some middle-class Americans, the motivation for reform was anxiety, if not outright fear of revolution. Many others in the Middle Class, however, had more altruistic motives. They were often moved by the plight of the working poor, and realized that moral imperatives required reform, not only to protect the system but for the sake of humanity. Although their “better” motives were often genuinely felt, some critics referred to the Progressives as “middle-class moralists,” prone to meddling in affairs which were none of their business. On the other hand, the moralistic goals of the Progressives included such targets as alcoholism and prostitution, both of which were socially damaging and threatening to the stability of middle-class life.

Big, Bad Business

For the wealthy classes, the businessmen, entrepreneurs and those generally referred to as “capitalists” or “robber barons,” the motivation to support progressive reform can be included under the heading of the aforementioned enlightened self interest. They recognized the need for reform partly because of the attention to social and working conditions paid by sociologists and others. These “human engineers” recognized that pushing workers relentlessly was not the path to greater efficiency.

It is a well-known fact of business practice today that providing workers with benefits, rest periods, more comfortable working conditions and amenities leads to greater productivity and thus greater profits in the long term. While those motives may be seen as selfish, they were also enlightened to the extent that they made the lives of the working classes more tolerable. Additionally, the proprietary or ownership class of businessmen also recognized that if reforms were not instituted from the top, they would certainly begin at the bottom, as had been demonstrated during the labor unrest of the late 19th century. Thus businessmen, who wanted most of all to preserve the capitalist system, eventually welcomed progressive reform.

One of the best examples of a businessman reformer was Henry Ford, a millionaire capitalist responsible for the assembly line and other major advances in automobile production. As the first entrepreneur to pay his workers five dollars a day, he led the movement for better conditions for workers. Rather than running the Ford Motor Company from an aloof position, he often wandered through production areas, asking workers how they were doing. Ford was no saint, but he was a leader in improving conditions for the working class.

In more modern times, courses at business schools have regularly addressed methods of keeping up worker morale in order to stimulate efficiency, covering everything from the color of paint on office walls to workplace amenities such as exercise rooms and lounges. Such benefits as day care assistance for working mothers and maternity or family leave for both wives and husbands are still regularly discussed in the media. The computer technology industry has been noted for its generous amenities provided for workers. A large computer manufacturer in Texas, for example, realizing that high-tech workers often like to keep strange hours, holds its cafeteria in the assembly plant open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if only a handful of employees are present. Workers may work on the schedule of their own choosing. In many ways the progressive movement has never ended.

Similar kinds of motives were at work in the political arena. Those in positions of power at all levels saw their power threatened if the people became discontented. With information available through newspapers, magazines and books written by the muckraking journalists of the era, politicians recognized that American democracy was far from fully democratic. Thus Constitutional amendments such as the direct election of senators and women's suffrage were products of the Progressive Era at the national level. At the state and local levels many kinds of reforms of the political system were instituted to give the people a greater voice in the democratic process.

Investigative Journalism at Work: The Muckrakers

As mentioned above, the “muckrakers”—so named by Theodore Roosevelt—took it upon themselves to enlighten the public about the details of the underside of American life, writing in magazines such as McClure’s and Collier’s Weekly, which achieved wide circulation. Their work, however, was not confined to magazine pieces. Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, uncovered unhealthy conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry and led to passage of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Theodore Dreiser’s novels, The Financier and The Titan, exposed the machinations of big capital. Lincoln Steffens' The Shame of the Cities and Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives revealed the depths to which urban life had sunk and spurred people to action.

Although journalists and publishers were sometimes guilty of exaggeration, muckraking, which we now call “investigative journalism,” became a highly respected vocation. (The CBS program 60 Minutes, for years a top-rated show, is a modern incarnation of muckraking journalism.) Writers like Riis, Steffens and Ida Tarbell exposed fraud, waste, corruption and other evils in government and business, and they shined a light on poor social conditions, such as the slums of the cities. They took on bossism, profiteering, child labor, public health and safety, prostitution, alcohol, political corruption and almost every aspect of public and even private life. They achieved some spectacular successes at virtually every level, from supporting child labor laws across the country to four constitutional amendments: direct election of Senators, women's suffrage, prohibition of alcohol and the income tax. For all the good they did, however, the muckrakers often had more problems to present than they had solutions to solve them.

Ida Tarbell’s target was John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. After graduating from Allegheny College as a biology major and the only woman in her class of 1880, Tarbell became a teacher, but soon turned to her life’s work, writing. While doing graduate work in Paris, where she wrote biographies of historic figures, she was hired as editor for McClure’s. No doubt motivated by her father’s experiences in the oil business, she sought interviews with leaders of the Standard Oil Company.

Assuming that she would write a favorable account, Standard Oil officials gave her free access to their activities and records. The result was a series of articles, eventually published as a book in 1904, The History of the Standard Oil Company. It was a devastating account of the ruthless practices of Rockefeller and his minions that helped lead to the breakup of the company in an antitrust suit in 1911. The work was later cited near the top of the list of the 100 best books of the twentieth century. Later in her career she wrote a number of books about issues of concern to women, which supported the early feminist movement as women struggled for the right to vote.

Even as reputable journalists were doing their best to uncover societal ills, their managers, motivated by competition for profits, often sensationalized the findings of their reporters, contributing to the phenomenon known as “yellow journalism.” Circulation battles between men like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst often encouraged irresponsible reporting. Evidence that the phenomenon is not dead can often be seen at checkout counters in retail establishments today.

Progressive Targets. Progressives attacked a broad range of issues, and many hundreds of local laws and ordinances were passed, changing the social and political landscape of America. Liberals of the Jeffersonian Era saw government as a threat to liberty. By contrast, progressives believed that broadening the role of government would advance the welfare of its citizens by protecting them from business abuses. Government, instead of being the problem, was a major part of the solution.

As the Populists had recognized during the 1880s and 1890s, the problems generated by the industrial era touched virtually every aspect of American life. The scope of the reforms necessary to reverse the degradation of American life, therefore, had to be instituted at all levels of society. The nation had become far too vast and complex for any reform movement that concentrated solely on a single aspect of the social and political structure to remain successful.

Political Reform. In the political arena Progressives wanted good government at all levels, and among their more notable achievements were the aforementioned direct election of Senators and women's suffrage. But good government meant more than expanded democracy, or honesty in public officials. Progressives wanted aggressive, proactive government that foresaw problems and acted to prevent calamities before they occurred. Thus they demanded safety legislation, closer regulation of public health issues and better management of things like public utilities. They also sought to make government more efficient, so that the taxpayer got what he was paying for. If Americans did not have good government, said the Progressives, then they had only themselves to blame. The Progressives were activists, generally impatient, sometimes overzealous, but rarely satisfied until they had achieved a good portion of their goals.

A recent well-known Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, said famously that all politics in the end are local. Thus reforms had to start at the local level, and the cities came first. In bringing about urban reform, the progressives first attacked “invisible government”—the forces operated by political machines behind the scenes that corrupted the democratic process. Political hacks, previously rewarded with jobs for political activity with no proof of their competence, were replaced by professional civil service workers who made the system run. With this change, administrative officials within city governments were no longer as subject to changes in the political winds. Instead of elected officials running everything, boards of commissioners and professional city and county managers were employed to provide stability and expertise as governing became ever more complicated.

Local governments were also encouraged to adopt scientific management techniques. The “Gospel of Efficiency” was applied to city hall in the form of careful budgeting and accounting practices. The growth of city infrastructures, including public transportation, utilities and sanitation, could not be successfully managed by careless mishandling of funds or wasteful practices. Progressives also maintained that governments at different levels had to learn to cooperate. Officials at the city, county, township and state level needed to agree on the locus of boundaries of overlapping areas of jurisdiction. Shared responsibility was seen as preferable to finger-pointing and time wasting arguments over the limits of one’s jurisdiction.

Recognizing the need for professional guidance and tackling local problems, elected local officials built coalitions, using university professors, engineers and other experts as advisors, and they often reached out to businessmen to cooperate in reform efforts for the public good. The Wisconsin plan of Robert La Follette, discussed below, is an example.
Taxation was made fairer, and the practice of requiring kickbacks from political employees was exposed.

Progressives pushed for greater involvement by government in public affairs. They hoped it would improve public services, build schools, facilitate loans, construct roads, beef up conservation and sanitation efforts, and advance such causes as public health, welfare, care of handicapped, farm aid, regulation or limitation of child labor, mandatory school attendance, and transportation safety.

Advancing Democracy: Progressives and the Political Process

As liberalism, the core of progressive philosophy, moved toward the embrace of government as a protector of individual freedom, progressives wanted to make sure that government faithfully represented the will of the people. In order to give the citizenry more say in government affairs, the processes of initiative, referendum and recall were introduced.

  • Initiative allowed citizens to introduce legislative proposals at the state or local level through petitions which required political bodies to address areas of concern, or place issues directly on the ballot.
  • Referendum was the process of allowing voters to pass judgment on proposed legislation, such as on the issuance of bonds to raise capital for public improvements. (Referenda are common today for such issues as approval for bond issues, amendments to state constitutions, etc.)
  • Recall allowed voters to demand special elections to recall or “un-elect” an official not doing his or her job. (In recent years at least two state governors have been recalled.)

Progressives also called for Direct Primaries—allowing the people to vote in primary elections rather than leaving nominations up to political operatives. Decisions once made behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms were to become more transparent. In the South, where primaries were for whites only, the needs were more sharply defined.

The “Wisconsin Idea.” State governments often provided the nexus between national and local issues, especially since the United States Senate—until the Seventeenth Amendment was passed in 1913—was still elected by state legislatures. One of the most famous progressives, Robert M. La Follette, nicknamed “Fighting Bob,” was able to identify the corrupting influence of large corporations on both state and national governments.

Having grown up in a farming family, La Follette embraced the populist ideal of agrarian reform and became a champion of farmers, small businessmen, and laborers. His public demands for reform led to his election as governor of Wisconsin in 1900. He included in his campaign platforms such issues as fair taxation, open political primaries, and state regulation of railroads and utilities.

La Follette tapped members of the faculty of the University of Wisconsin to work as nonpartisan civil servants and the state government. He was later elected to the United States Senate and ran for President on the Progressive Party in 1924, gaining approximately 6 million votes out of 30 million cast.

Urban reformers also worked to clean up city governments, which were typically ruled by political machines such as New York City’s famous Tammany Hall, whose origins go back to the post-revolutionary era. (Aaron Burr was once its leader.) In New York, Mayor Seth Low, former president of Columbia University, worked to clean up the political process, with modest success. Mayor Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones in Toledo fostered municipal ownership of utilities, as did San Francisco mayor James D. Phelan and Detroit’s Hazen Pingree.

Constitutional Amendments. At the national level the Progressives’ most visible successes came in the form of four Constitutional amendments. The federal government had enacted an income tax law during the Civil War, taxing incomes over $800 per year at 3%. The law expired in 1872 but was reenacted twice more, then finally declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1895. The result of that history was passage of the Sixteenth Amendment enabling the government to collect Income Taxes, which was ratified in 1913.

The SeventeenthAmendment providing for the direct election of United States Senators was also ratified in 1913. Senators had originally been elected by the state legislatures, and as the state legislatures were known for being beholden to powerful business interests, reformers pushed for and succeeded in getting the amendment passed and ratified..

The EighteenthAmendment was the culmination of the temperance movement, which had begun well before the Civil War. Americans had been heavy drinkers even in colonial and revolutionary times, and the damage and social disruption caused by excessive drinking could scarcely be denied. Social reformers, often with religious backgrounds, had advocated temperance for decades before deciding that for chronic abusers of alcohol, alcoholics, the only solution was total abstinence. One of a number of moral issues pursued by progressives was prohibition of alcohol. By the time the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, more than 30 states had already gone dry, and many local jurisdictions also restricted or limited drinking altogether. Thus the groundwork had been laid for the Eighteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1919 and began the Prohibition Era. The amendment made the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors illegal in the United States. It was repealed by the Twenty First amendment in 1933.

The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage

Also a product of decades of effort  going back to the early 19th century, the NineteenthAmendment, finally ratified in 1919, at last granted women's suffrage. The struggle for women’s right to vote was 0ne of the key elements in women’s overall fight for greater equality. The Seneca Falls, New York, Convention of 1848, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, took the first major step toward acquiring suffrage for women when they included the following in the resolutions passed by the convention:

Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.

Stanton and Susan B. Anthony continued to work for the right to vote for women, but for most of the 19th century their efforts were focused on the states.  The first jurisdiction in the world to give women the right to vote was the territory of Wyoming, which took the step in 1869.  Wyoming later became the first state where women had the right to vote when it was admitted in 1890. Other states followed, but the move for a constitutional amendment, although introduced as early as 1878, made little progress in Congress until 1912.

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had met in England where they became involved with the struggle for women’s rights in that nation. Both participated in public activities in support of women’s equality, and both were jailed several times in London. Alice Paul returned to the United States and joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1912. In 1913 she and Lucy Burns formed the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage, making a concerted effort to get a constitutional amendment passed by Congress. The Congressional Union soon became the National Woman’s Party, and together with the NAWSA, they lobbied Congress for passage of the amendment.

During the 1916 presidential election, the women campaigned vigorously against Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to support the women’s suffrage amendment. They paraded and picketed in front of the White House and were eventually arrested for obstructing traffic. Sent to the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia, Paul protested the harsh treatment and went on a hunger strike. When she was moved to the psychiatric ward and force fed raw eggs through a tube, other women joined her protest.

Press reports of the events in the workhouse brought pressure to bear on President Wilson at the time when the nation was becoming engaged in the First World War. Early in 1918 the president capitulated and supported women’s suffrage as a reflection of the national effort for unity in the war. He urged Congress to pass the amendment as an aid to the war cause. On June 5, 1919, the New York Times reported:

WASHINGTON, June 4.  After a long and persistent fight advocates of woman suffrage won a victory in the Senate today when that body, by a vote of 56 to 25, adopted the Susan Anthony amendment to the Constitution. The suffrage supporters had two more than the necessary two-thirds vote of Senators present.

Section 1 of the Nineteenth Amendment reads: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Ratification was delayed because of opposition in some Southern states, but on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify. Women were able to vote in the 1920 presidential election. Passage of the amendment had at first only a limited impact on America’s voting patterns, as most women tended to vote with the males in their families.  Eventually, however, a “gender gap” developed when many women began to view political questions differently from men.

The excellent HBO film Iron Jawed Angels tells the story of the final years of the suffrage movement. The Synopsis from HBO:

IRON JAWED ANGELS recounts for a contemporary audience a key chapter in U.S. history: in this case, the struggle of suffragists who fought for the passage of the 19th Amendment. Focusing on the two defiant women, Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor), the film shows how these activists broke from the mainstream women's-rights movement and created a more radical wing, daring to push the boundaries of political protest to secure women's voting rights in 1920. Breathing life into the relationships between Paul, Burns and others, the movie makes the women feel like complete characters instead of one-dimensional figures from a distant past.

The issue of women's rights had been raised in 1776 by Abigail Adams, and she was surely not the first woman to raise the point. She wrote in a famous letter to John Adams as follows:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

Regulation of Business

Along with political corruption at all levels of government, the greatest challenge for progressives was getting businesses to behave in an ethical manner. The two issues were intertwined because much of the corruption in government, especially at the state and federal level, had been brought about by the undue influence of powerful business interests. Going back to the time of Jefferson and Jackson, Americans had been skeptical of the power of government as an interfering force in their lives.  But times had changed, and big business and to a large extent supplanted government as the dominant force in American society. The only agency capable of bringing big business to heel was government, which required a thorough rethinking of Americans laissez-faire attitude towards capitalism.

The 1890 Sherman Act was weakened from the outset by what might be called philosophical loopholes, the reluctance to interfere in any business practice that was obviously not directly related to interstate commerce. In the 1895 Supreme Court case of United States v. E.C. Knight Company, a court determined that although the company in question controlled the manufacture of 98% of all the sugar produced in the United States, the Sherman Act did not apply; the manufacture of sugar by itself was not “interstate commerce.” The sole dissenting vote was cast by Justice John Marshall Harlan, who declared that it was the “settled doctrine of this court that interstate commerce embraces something more than the mere physical transportation of articles of property.”

Although President Theodore Roosevelt directed his Attorney General to use the Sherman Act more vigorously in pursuit of monopolistic practices, the act was nevertheless deemed insufficient to control giant corporations, and additional laws were passed to strengthen the government’s authority to regulate business practices.

Under various pieces of progressive legislation, both federal and state, businesses were required to follow equal pricing policies, with no kickbacks or other under-the-table deals to favored customers. As stronger control measures were instituted, the burden of proof of wrongdoing began to shift from government to business. In cases of injury, for example, factory owners were required to prove that the workplace was safe, rather than workers having to prove that injuries were not their fault. President Roosevelt and others sought a reasonable balance between laissez faire capitalism and outright Socialism; although Theodore Roosevelt became known as the trust buster, he was less interested in breaking up large corporations than in making them behave. Strong regulation was the key. Better wages and job protection for workers were also important progressive goals.

Social Justice: Aid to the Urban Poor

The concept of social Darwinism that emerged in the late 19th century was in many ways a pernicious concept, and certainly not in keeping with what Charles Darwin had in mind when he wrote The Origin of Species. The idea of social Darwinism seem to suggest that those who could not survive in a rigorous competitive social environment should be allowed to fall by the wayside; eliminating the weaker members of society would ultimately strengthen the entire group. But gradual evolution over the millennia was a very different phenomenon than the rapid changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Progressives rightly understood that people struggling in the lower tiers of existence could hardly be expected to find a means of survival without assistance, especially in the face of predatory business practices.

Private charity was inadequate to address conditions in the inner cities. Wealthier members of the church congregations were tending to migrate to the suburbs, leaving urban parishes short of funds. Despite the growth of settlement houses in slums (discussed in the previous section), those private institutions and inner-city churches could not do it all. Thus various forms of welfare legislation were brought about by progressive activists. Worker’s Compensation laws were passed to make the workplace safer and to provide relief for those who suffered injuries on the job. In some areas employers were mandated to provide accident insurance for their employees. Building codes that mandated safe conditions in the workplace were also established, and procedures for fixing the responsibility for accidents were introduced. Labor laws were passed at the state and local level to protect women and children, and additional laws required that children of school age not be forced to work in lieu of getting a basic education.

In order to ensure that all citizens had equal access to basic living requirements, the concept of “Gas and Water Socialism” began ensuring that utilities were fairly and equally administered and distributed to all citizens at reasonable prices. Consumer issues were also part of the general reform movement, as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 made clear. The act required federal inspection of meat and other products and prohibited the manufacture, sale, or interstate transportation of adulterated food products or poisonous medicines.

One of the targets of the pure food and drug laws was the Coca Cola Company, whose product contained high amounts of caffeine. Interestingly, the minuscule amount of cocaine that the product originally contained, and from which it derived its name, was a lesser concern.

Progressives also vigorously attacked the moral ills of prostitution and abuse of alcohol. The White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910, better known as the Mann Act, banned the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes.” It addressed the issues of prostitution and trafficking of human beings. As mentioned above, the moral crusade of progressives also brought alcohol prohibition through the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment.

(See “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.)

Theodore Roosevelt the Progressive: Round One

Although officially saddened by McKinley’s death, Theodore Roosevelt could scarcely contain his glee at being elevated to the highest office in the land. Within days of being sworn in he waded into the business of his office with the firm conviction that many of America's problems could be solved only on the national level. Along with Progressive leaders such as Wisconsin Senator and later Governor Robert La Follette, Roosevelt pursued reformist goals with passion and vigor. Roosevelt promised the people a “Square Deal,” and set about to provide it. Roosevelt’s approach to the office of the President was a broad departure from past practice. When he decided to set aside land for a nature preserve and was told that he might not have the authority, he simply asked if there was anything in the Constitution that prevented him from taking steps. Told there was not, he forged ahead. Though there was nothing official on the record, TR adopted a policy that said, in effect, “If the Constitution doesn't prohibit it, I can do it.” (A stricter view of the Constitution might point out that according to the Tenth Amendment, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”)

Never known for a tempered approach to much of anything, Roosevelt was too impatient to wait for the halls of Congress to move with new legislation. In the area of trusts, for example, he was not the least deterred by Supreme Court’s prior interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. He set his attorney general to the task of creating ways to use existing legislation more forcefully. Although he never went after large business combinations or trusts just for the sake of breaking them up, he did vow to make them behave; nevertheless, he was soon known as the “trust buster.” Roosevelt's Justice Department initiated dozens of cases to bring business into line.

Where authority of the government was not well defined, however, Roosevelt was happy to propose and sign legislation broadening the scope of government power. Bills to regulate the food industry, strengthen the Interstate Commerce Act, and set aside public lands for preservation arrived on his desk and were quickly signed. Not interested in antagonizing business, Roosevelt oversaw creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor with its Bureau of Corporations, designed to assist business to clean up its own act.

Although a Republican, Roosevelt was not a strict party man. If he judged a political figure decent and honest, it was of little concern to him whether the man was a Republican or Democrat. Since the Progressive Movement crossed party lines in any case, Roosevelt was comfortable working with anybody whose view of the world coincided with his in a general way. In his own autobiography, published in 1913, he is quick to point out that some of his most recalcitrant political foes were conservative Republicans, men of his own party. Some business leaders, feeling that Roosevelt in the end would be loyal to people of his own class, approached him via the back door. J.P. Morgan is said to have told the president, “Let me send my man down to see your man and we’ll straighten this all out,” hoping to avoid a legal action. But Morgan and others soon discovered that TR would not abandon his principles for anyone.

Because of his ebullient personality and behavior that often bordered on the eccentric, the press adored TR—he was always the source of a good story. His family added to the fun, and formal White House meetings were often interrupted by the intrusion of the Roosevelt boys, who had “just discovered a bear in the attic!” Whereupon TR would rush out of the room to dispatch the imaginary beast and return minutes later wearing his famous broad grin and rubbing his hands together. “Well, where were we?” he would say. Not all his colleagues were amused; a few truly thought he was indeed mad.

Roosevelt's eldest daughter, Alice, although back in the family fold, was something of a rebel herself. Such antics as smoking cigarettes on the roof of the White House or driving cars, which proper young ladies did not do, gave Alice a press following of her own. She even had a dress made in a color named for her: ‘Alice Blue.’ When called to answer for one of Alice's indiscretions, her father fumed: “Look! I can run the government of the United States, or I can take care of Alice, but I can't do both at the same time!” She later married House speaker Nicholas Longworth, and became the famous Washington hostess, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, a feature player in Washington society in her own right.

Roosevelt's progressive program and his personal appeal made his reelection in 1904 a sure thing. With 56% of the popular vote and 336 electoral votes, Roosevelt won by a landslide. Although he announced, too early perhaps, that he did not intend to run for another term in 1908, Roosevelt was anything but a lame duck. Charged up by his victory, Roosevelt drifted further to the left politically as he continued to perceive conservatives as his chief foes. In 1906 Congress passed the Hepburn Act, which strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Pure Food and Drug Act. TR’s Justice Department fined the Standard Oil Company of Indiana $29 million and required the American Sugar Refining Company to refund $4 million in illegal payments while also convicting some of its company officials.

Roosevelt also continued to expand conservation programs, increasing timberlands set aside for preservation and parks by millions of acres. He sought to put an end to what he considered wasteful exploitation of natural resources, and he set the government about reclaiming large tracts of neglected land for public use. He also applied systematic efforts to control the outbreak of forest fires and to plant new trees in areas that had been stripped by loggers.

A famous incident occurred while TR was hunting in Mississippi. After a long and fruitless search, his hosts found and treed a bear cub, offering the “trophy” to the president. Roosevelt refused, saying it would not be sporting to shoot the cub. A New York toy manufacturer saw the cartoon by Clifford Berryman and wrote to the president for permission to call his bears “Teddy Bears.” Roosevelt agreed, and the rest is history. Cartoonists had a ball with it (left).

Roosevelt's hand-picked successor was William Howard Taft, who had served admirably as American governor of the Philippines. Taft, a far less vigorous man than TR, did his best to continue Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. He continued to prosecute trusts, oversaw creation of a postal savings bank, expanded the civil service and supported two constitutional amendments: the 16th Amendment, which authorized a federal income tax; and the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, which called for the direct election of senators by the people. But Roosevelt, who had been on safari in Africa during much of his successor’s first two years in office, returned to discover to his dismay that Taft had accepted higher tariffs and grown closer to the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

By 1910 the Republicans were divided, and in the off year election the Democrats regained control of Congress. In a speech at Ossowatomie, Kansas, on August 31, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt laid out a revised program for reform, which he called “The New Nationalism.” It sounded the keynote of what would become his campaign theme in 1912. He said:

In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.

… [T]his conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of free men to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.

Some have said that the Kansas speech marked Roosevelt’s entry into a campaign to gain the Republican nomination for president in 1912. That was not to be, but it did not mean that TR was out of the race.

Summary and Keywords

The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members.

Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.

Keywords: Progressives, Progressivisms, democracy, reform, justice, equality, capitalism, urbanization, immigration, corruption

The reform impulse of the decades from the 1890s into the 1920s did not erupt suddenly in the 1890s. Previous movements, such as the Mugwump faction of the Republican Party and the Knights of Labor, had challenged existing conditions in the 1870s and 1880s. Such earlier movements either tended to focus on the problems of a particular group or were too small to effect much change. The 1890s Populist Party’s concentration on agrarian issues did not easily resonate with the expanding urban population. The Populists lost their separate identity when the Democratic Party absorbed their agenda. The reform proposals of the Progressive era differed from those of these earlier protest movements. Progressives came from all strata of society. Progressivism aimed to implement comprehensive systemic reforms to change the direction of the country.

Political corruption, economic exploitation, mass migration and urbanization, rapid technological advancements, and social unrest challenged the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal society. Now groups of Americans throughout the country proposed to reform the country’s political, social, cultural, and economic institutions in ways that they believed would address fundamental problems that had produced the inequities of American society.

Progressives did not seek to overturn capitalism. They sought to revitalize a democratic promise of justice and equality and to move the country into a modern Progressive future by eliminating or at least ameliorating capitalism’s worst excesses. They wanted to replace an individualistic, competitive society with a more cooperative, democratic one. They sought to bring a measure of social justice for all people, to eliminate political corruption, and to rebalance the relationship among business, labor, and consumers by introducing economic regulation.1 Progressives turned to government to achieve these objectives and laid the foundation for an increasingly powerful state.

Social Justice Progressivism

Social justice Progressives wanted an activist state whose first priority was to provide for the common welfare. Jane Addams argued that real democracy must operate from a sense of social morality that would foster the greater good of all rather than protect those with wealth and power.2 Social justice Progressivism confronted two problems to securing a democracy based on social morality. Several basic premises that currently structured the country had to be rethought, and social justice Progressivism was promoted largely by women who lacked official political power.

Legal Precedent or Social Realism

The existing legal system protected the rights of business and property over labor.3 From 1893, when Florence Kelley secured factory legislation mandating the eight-hour workday for women and teenagers and outlawing child labor in Illinois factories, social justice Progressives faced legal obstacles as business contested such legislation. In 1895, the Supreme Court in Ritchie v. People ruled that such legislation violated the “freedom of contract” provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court confined the police power of the state to protecting immediate health and safety, not groups of people in industries.4 Then, in the 1905 case Lochner v. New York, the Court declared that the state had no interest in regulating the hours of male bakers. To circumvent these rulings, Kelley, Josephine Goldmark, and Louis Brandeis contended that law should address social realities. The Brandeis brief to the Supreme Court in 1908, in Muller v. Oregon, argued for upholding Oregon’s eight-hour law for women working in laundries because of the debilitating physical effects of such work. When the Court agreed, social justice Progressives hoped this would be the opening wedge to extend new rights to labor. The Muller v. Oregon ruling had a narrow gender basis. It declared that the state had an interest in protecting the reproductive capacities of women. Henceforth, male and female workers would be unequal under the law, limiting women’s economic opportunities across the decades, rather than shifting the legal landscape. Ruling on the basis of women’s reproductive capacities, the Court made women socially inferior to men in law and justified state-sponsored interference in women’s control of their bodies.5

Role of the State to Protect and Foster

Women organized in voluntary groups worked to identify and attack the problems caused by mass urbanization. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (1890) coordinated women’s activities throughout the country. Social justice Progressives lobbied municipal governments to enact new ordinances to ameliorate existing urban conditions of poverty, disease, and inequality. Chicago women secured the nation’s first juvenile court (1899).6 Los Angeles women helped inaugurate a public health nursing program and secure pure milk regulations for their city. Women also secured municipal public baths in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities. Organized women in Philadelphia and Dallas were largely responsible for their cities implementing new clean water systems. Women set up pure milk stations to prevent infant diarrhea and organized infant welfare societies.7

Social justice Progressives sought national legislation to protect consumers from the pernicious effects of industrial production outside of their immediate control. In 1905, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs initiated a letter-writing campaign to pressure Congress to pass pure food legislation. Standard accounts of the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and pure milk ordinances generally credit male professionals with putting in place such reforms, but female social justice Progressives were instrumental in putting this issue before the country.8

Social justice Progressives sought a ban on child labor and protections for children’s health and education. They argued that no society could progress if it allowed child labor. In 1912 they persuaded Congress to establish a federal Children’s Bureau to investigate conditions of children throughout the country. Julia Lathrop first headed the bureau, which was thenceforth dominated by women. Nonetheless, when Congress passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act (1916), banning interstate commerce in products made with child labor, a North Carolina man immediately sued, arguing that it deprived him of property in his son’s labor. The Supreme Court (1918) ruled the law unconstitutional because it violated state powers to regulate conditions of labor. A constitutional amendment banning child labor (1922) was attacked by manufacturers and conservative organizations protesting that it would give government power over children. Only four states ratified the amendment.9

Woman suffrage was crucial for social justice Progressives as both a democratic right and because they believed it essential for their agenda.10 When suffrage left elected officials uncertain about the power of women’s votes in 1921, Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infant Welfare bill, which provided federal funds for maternal and infant health. The American Medical Association opposed the bill as a violation of its expertise. Businessmen and political leaders protested that the federal government should not interfere in health care and objected that it would raise taxes. Congress made Sheppard-Towner a “sunset” act to run for five years, after which it would decide whether to renew it. Congress temporarily extended it but ended the funding in 1929, even though the country’s infant mortality rate exceeded that of six other industrial countries. The hostility of the male-dominated American Medical Association and the Public Health Service to Sheppard-Towner and to its administration by the Children’s Bureau, along with attacks against the social justice network of women’s organizations as a communist conspiracy to undermine American society, doomed the legislation.11

New Practices of Democracy

Women established settlement houses, voluntary associations, day nurseries, and community, neighborhood, and social centers as venues in which to practice participatory democracy. These venues intended to bring people together to learn about one another and their needs, to provide assistance for those needing help, and to lobby their governments to provide social goods to people. This was not reform from the bottom; middle-class women almost always led these venues. Most of these efforts were also racially exclusive, but African American women established venues of their own. In Atlanta, Lugenia Hope, who had spent time at Chicago’s Hull House, established the Atlanta Neighborhood Union in 1908 to organize the city’s African American women on a neighborhood basis. Hope urged women to investigate the problems of their neighborhoods and bring their issues to the municipal government.12

The National Consumers’ League (NCL, 1899) practiced participatory democracy on the national level. Arising from earlier working women’s societies and with Florence Kelley at its head, the NCL investigated working conditions and urged women to use their consumer-purchasing power to force manufacturers to institute new standards of production. The NCL assembled and published “white lists” of those manufacturers found to be practicing good employment standards and awarded a “white label” to factories complying with such standards. The NCL’s tactics were voluntary—boycotts were against the law—and they did not convince many manufacturers to change their practices. Even so, such tactics drew more women into the social justice movement, and the NCL’s continuous efforts were rewarded in New Deal legislation.13

A group of working women and settlement-house residents formed the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL, 1903) and organized local affiliates to work for unionization in female-dominated manufacturing.14 Middle-class women walked the picket lines with striking garment workers and waitresses in New York and Chicago and helped secure concessions from manufacturers. The NWTUL forced an official investigation into the causes of New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire (1911), in which almost 150 workers, mainly young women, died. Members of the NWTUL were organizers for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Despite these participatory venues, much literature on such movements emphasizes male initiatives and fails to appreciate gender differences. The public forums movement promoted by men, such as Charles Sprague Smith and Frederic Howe, was a top-down effort in which prominent speakers addressed pressing issues of the day to teach the “rank and file” how to practice democracy.15 In Boston, Mary Parker Follett promoted participatory democracy through neighborhood centers organized and run by residents. Chicago women’s organizations fostered neighborhood centers as spaces for residents to gather and discuss neighborhood needs.16

Suffrage did not provide the political power women had hoped for, but female social justice Progressives occupied key offices in the New Deal administration. They helped write national anti-child labor legislation, minimum wage and maximum hour laws, aid to dependent children, and elements of the Social Security Act. Such legislation at least partially fulfilled the social justice Progressive agenda that activist government provide social goods to protect daily life against the vagaries of the capitalist marketplace.

Political Progressivism

Political Progressivism was a structural-instrumental approach to reform the mechanisms and exercise of politics to break the hold of political parties. Its adherents sought a well-ordered government run by experts to undercut a political patronage system that favored trading votes for services. Political Progressives believed that such reforms would enhance democracy.

Mechanisms and Processes of Electoral Democracy

The Wisconsin Idea promoted by the state’s three-time governor Robert La Follette exemplified the political Progressives’ approach to reform. The plan advocated state-level reforms to electoral procedures. A key proposal of the Wisconsin Idea was to replace the existing party control of all nominations with a popular direct primary. Wisconsin became the first state to require the direct primary. The plan also proposed giving voters the power to initiate legislation, hold referenda on proposed legislation, and recall elected officials. Wisconsin voters adopted these proposals by 1911,17 although Oregon was the first state to adopt the initiative and referendum, in 1902.18

The political Progressives attacked a patronage politics that filled administrative offices with faithful party supporters, awarded service franchises to private business, and solicited bribes in return for contracts. Political Progressives proposed shifting to merit-based government by experts provided by theoretically nonpartisan appointed commissions or city managers systems that would apply businesslike expertise and fiscal efficiency to government. They proposed replacing city councils elected by districts (wards) with citywide at-large elections, creating strong mayor systems to undercut the machinations of city councils, and reducing the number of elective offices. They also sought new municipal charters and home-rule powers to give cities more control over their governing authority and taxing power.19

Political Progressives were mainly men organized into new local civic federations, city clubs, municipal reform leagues, and municipal research bureaus and into new national groups such as the National Municipal League. They attended national conferences such as the National Conference on City Planning, discussing topics of concern to political Progressives. The National Municipal League formulated a model charter to reorganize municipal government predicated on home rule and argued that its proposals would provide good tools for democracy.20

In general, only small cities such as Galveston, Texas, and Des Moines, Iowa, or new cities such as Phoenix, Arizona, where such political Progressives dominated elections, adopted the city-manager and commission governments.21 Other cities elected reform mayors, such as Tom Johnson of Cleveland, Ohio, who placed the professional experts Frederic Howe and Edward W. Bemis into his administration.22 Charter reform, home rule, and at-large election movements were more complicated in big cities. They failed in Chicago.23 Boston switched to at-large elections, but the shift in mechanisms did lessen political party control. A new breed of politicians who appealed to interest group politics gained control rather than rule by experts.24

Good Government by Experts

Focus on good government reform earned these men the rather pejorative nickname of “goo-goos.” These Progressives argued that only the technological expertise of professional engineers and professional bureaucrats could design rational and economically efficient ordinances for solving urban problems. When corporate interests challenged antipollution ordinances and increased government regulation as causing undue hardship for manufacturers, political Progressives countered with economic answers. Pollution was an economic problem: it caused the city to suffer economic waste and inefficiency, and it cost the city and its taxpayers money.25 In Pittsburgh, the Mellon Institute Smoke Investigation marshaled scientific expertise to measure soot fall in the city and to calculate how costly smoke pollution might be to the city.26 The Supreme Court in Northwestern Laundry v. Des Moines (1915) ruled that there were no valid constitutional objections to state power to regulate pollution.27

The political Progressives’ cost-benefit approach to regulation clashed with the social justice idea that protecting the public health should decide pollution regulation. The Pittsburgh Ladies Health Protective Association argued that smoke pollution was a general health hazard.28 The Chicago women’s Anti-Smoke League called smoke pollution a threat to daily life and common welfare, as coal soot fell on food and in homes and was breathed in by children. They demanded immediate strict antismoke ordinances and inspectors to vigorously inspect and enforce the ordinances. The league urged all city residents to monitor pollution in their neighborhoods.29 The Baltimore Women’s Civic League made smoke abatement a principal target for improving living and working conditions.30 The cost-benefit argument usually won out over the health-first one.

For political Progressives, good government also meant using professional expertise to plan city growth and reorder the urban built environment. They abandoned an earlier City Beautiful movement that focused on cultural and aesthetic beautification in favor of systematic planning by architects, engineers, and city planners to secure the economic development desired by business.31 Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan (1909) was the work of a committee of men selected by the city’s Commercial Club.32 Experts crafted new master plans to guarantee urban functionality and profitability through “creative destruction,” to build new transportation and communication networks, erect new grand civic buildings and spaces, and zone the city’s functions into distinct sectors. They proposed new street configurations to facilitate the movement of goods and people.33 As the profession of urban planning developed, cities sought out planners such as Harland Bartholomew to formulate new master plans.34

New York’s Mary Simkhovitch contested this approach and urged planning on the neighborhood level, with professionals consulting with the people. She stressed that no plan was good if it emphasized only economy. Simkhovitch and Florence Kelley organized the first National Conference on City Planning (1909) around the theme of planning for social needs. Simkhovitch was the only woman to address the gathering. All the male speakers emphasized planning for economic development. As architects, lawyers, and engineers, and new professional planners such as John Nolen and George Ford dominated the planning conferences, Simkhovitch and Kelley withdrew.35

The democratic reform theories of Frederic Howe and Mary Parker Follett reflected competing ideas about political Progressivism and urban reform. Howe believed that democracy was a political mechanism that, if properly ordered and led by experts, would restore the city to the people. The key to achieving good government and democracy was municipal home rule. Once freed from state interference, his theoretical city republic would decide in the best interests of its residents, making city life orderly and thereby more democratic.36 For Follett, democracy was embedded in social relations, and the city was the hope of democracy because it could be organized on the neighborhood level. There people would apply democracy collectively and create an orderly society.37 Throughout the country, municipal political reform was driven primarily by groups of men. Women and their ideas were consistently pushed to the margins of political Progressivism.38

Social Science Expertise

Social science expertise gave political Progressives a theoretical foundation for cautious proposals to create a more activist state. University of Wisconsin political economist Richard Ely; his former student John R. Commons; political scientist Charles McCarthy, who authored the Wisconsin Idea; and University of Michigan political economist Henry C. Adams, among others, filled the role of social science expert. Social scientists founded new disciplinary organizations, such as the American Economics Association. This association organized the American Association of Labor Legislation (AALL). Commons, University of Chicago sociology professor Charles R. Henderson, and Commons’ student John B. Andrews were prominent members. The AALL focused on workers’ health, compensation, and insurance, in contrast to the NCL emphasis on investigation and working conditions.39 Frederic Howe, with a PhD in history and political science from Johns Hopkins, became a foremost theorist for municipal reform based on his social science theories. John Dewey promulgated new theories of democracy and education. Professional social scientists composed a tight circle of men who created a space between academia and government from which to advocate for reform.40 They addressed each other, trained their students to follow their ideas, and rarely spoke to the larger public.41

Sophonisba Breckinridge, Frances Kellor, Edith Abbott, and Katherine Davis were trained at the University of Chicago in political economy and sociology. Abbott briefly held an academic position at Wellesley, but she resigned to join the other women in applying her training to social research and social activism. Their expertise laid the foundation for the profession of social work. As grassroots activists, they worked with settlement house residents such as Jane Addams and Mary Simkhovitch, joined women’s voluntary organizations, investigated living and working conditions, and carved out careers in social welfare.42

Male social scientists dismissed women’s expertise and eschewed grassroots work.43 Breckinridge had earned a magna cum laude PhD in political science and economics, but she received no offers of an academic position, unlike her male colleagues. She was kept on at the university, but by 1920 the sociology department directed social sciences away from seeking practical solutions to everyday life that had linked scholarly inquiry with social responsibility. The female social scientists who had formed an intellectual core of the sociology department were put into a School of Social Services Administration and ultimately segregated into the division of social work.44

Economic Progressivism

Economic Progressives identified unregulated corporate monopoly capitalism as a primary source of the country’s troubles.45 They proposed a new regulatory state to mitigate the worst aspects of the system. Reforming the banking and currency systems, pursuing some measure of antitrust (antimonopoly) legislation, shifting from a largely laissez-faire economy, and moderately restructuring property relations would produce government in the public interest.

Antimonopoly Progressivism

Antimonopoly Progressivism required rethinking the relationship between business and government, introducing new legislation, and modifying a legal system that consistently sided with business. Congress and the presidency had to take leadership roles, but below them were Progressive groups such as the National Civic Federation, the NCL, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs pushing for significant policy change. These Progressives believed collusion between a small number of capitalist industrialists and politicians had badly damaged democracy. They especially feared that the system threatened to lead to class warfare.

The Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) began to consider the problems of unregulated laissez-faire capitalism and monopoly in restraint of trade. As president, Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) used congressional power to regulate commerce to attack corporate monopolistic restraint of trade. The Elkins Act (1903) gave Congress the power to regulate against predatory business practices; the Hepburn Act (1906) gave it authority to regulate railroad rates; the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) did the same for those industries. Roosevelt created the Department of Commerce and Labor (1903) to oversee interstate corporate practices and in 1906 empowered the Department of Agriculture to inspect and set standards in meat production, a move that led eventually to the Food and Drug Administration.

Presidential Progressivism

Roosevelt considered the president to be the guardian of the public welfare. His approach to conservation was a primary example of how he applied this belief. He agreed with the arguments of social scientists, professional organizations of engineers, and forestry bureau chief Gifford Pinchot that careful and efficient management and administration of natural resources was necessary to guarantee the country’s economic progress and preserve democratic opportunity. Roosevelt appointed a Public Lands Commission to manage public land in the West and appointed a National Conservation Commission to inventory the country’s resources so that sound business practices could be implemented. The commission’s three-volume report relied on scientific and social scientific methods to examine conservation issues.46

William Howard Taft (1909–1913) refused to support further work by the Conservation Commission. He rejected new conservation proposals as violating congressional authority and possessing no legal standing. Taft’s administrative appointments, including Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger, favored opening public lands to more private development. Taft’s Progressivism was the more conservative Republican approach that focused on breaking up trusts because they were bad for business.47 Taft sided with business when he signed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act (1909), which kept high tariffs on many essential goods that Progressives wanted reduced to aid consumers and small manufacturers.48

In 1912, the Republican Party split between Roosevelt and Taft. Political, economic, and social justice Progressives, including Robert La Follette, Charles McCarthy, Jane Addams, Frances Kellor, and George Perkins, a partner at J. P. Morgan and Company, helped establish the Progressive Party. They nominated Roosevelt, who envisioned a platform of “New Nationalism,” which promised to govern in the public interest and provide economic prosperity as a basic foundation of democratic citizenship.49 Addams was unhappy with Roosevelt’s economic emphasis, but she saw him as social Progressives’ best hope.

Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt received two-thirds of the vote, while Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs secured 6 percent of the votes. The election results indicated that the general population supported a middle way between socialism and Taft’s big business Progressivism. Wilson’s (1913–1921) “New Freedom” platform promised to curb the power of big business and close the growing wealth gap. As senator, La Follette helped push through Wilson’s reform legislation. The Clayton Antitrust Act (1914), the Federal Trade Commission (1914), and the Federal Reserve Act (1913) each curbed the power of big business and regulated banking. The Sixteenth Amendment (1913) authorized the federal income tax. The Seventeenth Amendment (1913) provided for the direct election of state legislators, who had previously been appointed by state legislatures.

Trade Union Progressivism

Under Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) fought to secure collective bargaining rights for male trade unionists. The AFL rejected the AALL proposals for worker compensation and insurance and never supported national worker compensation laws, although local federations supported state-level legislation.50 Gompers preferred working with businessmen and politicians to secure the right to collective bargaining, the eight-hour day, and a voice for labor in production. The AFL never tried to form a Labor Party but advocated putting a labor agenda into mainstream party politics.51 The Clayton Antitrust Act, which acknowledged that unions had the right to peaceful and lawful actions, was a victory for trade union Progressivism. The act did not provide everything that Gompers had demanded. Only New Deal legislation would offer more extensive protections to unions.

Gompers and the AFL rejected the AALL’s ideas, fearing that a more activist government might extend to regulating the labor of women and children. The AFL wanted sufficient economic security for white male workers, to move women out of the labor force.52 Other labor Progressives sought the same end. Louis Brandeis and Father John Ryan promoted the living wage as a right of citizenship for male workers. Ryan acknowledged that unmarried women workers were entitled to a living wage, but he wanted labor reform to secure a family wage so that men would marry and families would produce children.53 Hostile to organizing women, Gompers forced NWTUL leader Margaret Dreier Robins off the executive board of the Chicago Federation of Labor.54

Municipal Ownership

On the local level, economic Progressives sought a middle way between socialism and the AFL’s single-minded trade unionism. AFL affiliates and Progressive politicians such as Cleveland’s Tom Johnson favored a municipal democracy that gave voters new powers. Municipal ownership of public utilities such as street railways promised the working class a way to protect their labor through the ballot.55 Such reform would also destroy the franchise system. In Los Angeles, labor and socialists crafted a labor/socialist ticket to challenge the business/party control of the city and enact municipal ownership. A socialist administration in Milwaukee appealed to class interests to support an agenda that included municipal ownership. In Chicago, socialist Josephine Kaneko argued that she did not see much difference between socialism and women’s Progressive agenda for reform to benefit the common welfare.56 Despite such flirtations between labor and socialists, labor remained attached to the Democratic Party.

Some cities achieved a measure of municipal ownership. Most middle-class urban Progressives deemed municipal ownership too socialist. They favored state economic regulation, led by experts, rather than ownership to break the monopoly in public utilities.57

International Progressivism

Progressivism fostered new international engagement. The economic imperative to secure supplies of raw materials for industrial production, a messianic approach of bringing cultural and racial civilization around the globe, and belief in an international Progressivism that focused on international cooperation all pushed Progressives to think globally.

Securing Economic Progress

Although he was generally against Progressivism, President William McKinley annexed Hawaii (1898), saying that the country needed it even more than it had needed California.58 The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1904) declared that intervention in the Caribbean was necessary to secure economic stability and forestall foreign interference in the area. Progressive Herbert Croly believed that the country needed to forcibly pacify some areas in the world in order for the United States to establish an American international system.59 The Progressive Party platform (1912) declared it imperative to the people’s welfare that the country expand its foreign commerce. Between 1898 and 1941, the United States invaded Cuba, acquired the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, took possession of Puerto Rico, colonized the Philippines and several Pacific islands, encouraged Panama to rebel against Colombia so that the United States could build the Panama Canal, invaded Mexico to protect oil interests, and intervened in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. To protect its possessions in the Pacific, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Elihu Root finalized the Root-Takahira Agreement (1908), which acknowledged Japan’s control of Korea in return for its noninterference in the Philippines. American imperialism based on economic and financial desires became referred to as “Dollar Diplomacy.”60

Mission of Civilization

Race, paternalism, and masculinity characterized elements of international Progressivism. Senator Albert Beveridge had supported Progressive proposals to abolish child labor and had favored regulating business and granting more rights to labor, but he viewed Filipinos as too backward to understand democracy and self-government. The United States was God’s chosen nation, with a divine mission to civilize the world; it should exercise its “spirit of progress” to organize the world.61 William Jennings Bryan had previously been an anti-imperialist, but later, as Wilson’s secretary of state, he advocated intervening in Latin America to tutor backward people in self-government.62 In speeches and writings, Roosevelt stressed that new international possessions required men to accept the strenuous life of responsibility for other people in order to maintain American domination of the world.63 Social science likened Filipino men to children lacking the vigorous manhood necessary for self-government.64 Beveridge contended that it was government’s responsibility to manufacture manhood. Empire could be the new frontier of white masculinity.65 Roosevelt concluded a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1907) in which Japan agreed to stop issuing passports to Japanese laborers to immigrate to the United States.

Democracy and International Cooperation

A cadre of Progressives who had worked to extend their ideals into an international context did not welcome imperialism, dollar diplomacy, and war.66 Addams rejected war as an anachronism that failed to produce a collective responsibility. La Follette rejoiced that failures in dollar diplomacy elevated humanity over property. Suffragists compared their lack of the vote to the plight of Filipinos. Belle Case La Follette opposed incursion into Mexico and denounced all militarism as driven by greed, suspicion, and love of power.67

Many Progressives opposed war as an assault on an international collective humanity. Women organized peace marches and founded a Women’s Peace Party. Addams, Kelley, Frederic Howe, Lillian Wald of New York’s Henry Street Settlement, and Paul Kellogg, editor of the Progressive Survey, formed the American Union Against Militarism.68 Addams, Simkhovitch, the sociologist Emily Greene Balch, and labor leader Leonora O’Reilly attended the International Women’s Peace Conference at The Hague in spring 1915. Florence Kelley was denied a passport to travel.69 The work of the American Red Cross in Europe during and after the war reflected the humanitarian collective impulse of Progressivism.70

Entry into World War I, President Wilson’s assertion that it would make the world safe for democracy, and a growing xenophobia that demanded 100 percent loyalty produced a Progressive crisis. Addams remained firm against the war as antihumanitarian and was vilified for her pacifism.71 La Follette voted against the declaration of war, charging that it was being promoted by business desires and that it was absurd to believe that it would make the world safe for democracy. He was accused of being pro-German, and Theodore Roosevelt said that he should be hung.72 Labor leader Morris Hillquit and Florence Kelley formed the People’s Council of America to continue to pressure for peace. Under pressure to display patriotism, Progressive opposition to the war crumbled. Paul Kellogg declared that it was time to combat European militarism. The American Union Against Militarism dissolved. Herbert Croly’s New Republic urged the country to take a more active role in the war to create a new international league of peace and assume leadership of democratic nations. John Dewey proclaimed it a war of peoples, not armies, and stated that international reform would follow its conclusion.73

Other Progressives comforted themselves that once the war was won, they could recommit to democratic agendas. Kelley, Grace Abbott, Josephine Goldmark, and Julia Lathrop helped organize the home front to maintain Progressive ideals. They monitored the condition of women workers, sat on the war department’s board controlling labor standards, and drafted insurance policies for military personnel. Suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt volunteered for the Women’s Advisory Committee of the Council of National Defense. Walter Lippmann worked on government projects. City planner John Nolen designed housing communities for war workers under the newly constituted United States Housing Corporation.74

Suffragists protested the lack of democracy in the United States. As Wilson refused to support woman suffrage, members of the National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul, picketed the White House in protest. Picketers were arrested, Paul was put in solitary confinement in a psychiatric ward, and several women on a hunger strike were force-fed. Wilson capitulated to public outrage over the women’s treatment. The women were released, and Wilson urged passage of the suffrage amendment.75 The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, but Progressives’ hopes that equal political rights would bring democratic equality were not fulfilled. The social justice Progressives split over whether to support the Equal Rights Amendment drawn up by the National Woman’s Party, fearing that it would negate the protective labor legislation they had achieved.

Racialized Progressivism

White Progressives failed to pursue racial equality. Most of them believed the country was not yet ready for such a cultural shift. Some of them believed in theories of racial inferiority. Southern Progressive figure Rebecca Latimer Felton defended racial lynching as a means to protect white women.76 Other Progressives, such as Sophonisba Breckinridge, fought against racial exclusion policies and promoted interracial cooperation.77 W. E. B. Du Bois and Addams helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909).

African American Progressivism

African Americans believed that Progressive ideology should lead inevitably to racial equality. Du Bois spoke at public forums.78 He supported the social justice Progressives’ agenda, attending the 1912 Progressive Party convention. Du Bois proposed a racial equality plank for the party platform. Jane Addams helped write the plank. Theodore Roosevelt rejected it, preferring the gradualist policy of Booker T. Washington. Addams objected but mused that perhaps it was not yet time for such a bold move. Racial justice would follow logically from dedication to social justice.79 Du Bois shifted his support to Woodrow Wilson, while Ida B. Wells-Barnett backed Taft. In 1916, African American women founded Colored Women’s Hughes clubs to support the Republican nominee. Hughes had reluctantly backed woman suffrage, and African American women viewed suffrage as the means to protect the race. Nannie Helen Burroughs worked through the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and the National Baptist Convention, demanding suffrage for African American women because they would use it wisely, for the benefit of the race. Burroughs lived in Washington, DC, where she witnessed the segregationist policies of the Wilson administration. She castigated African American men for having voted for him in 1912.80 African American Progressives hoped that serving in the military and organizing on the home front during the war would result in equal citizenship when the war ended. Instead, African Americans were subjected to more prejudice and violence. Southern senators blocked the Dyer antilynching bill (1922).

Immigration Restriction

Anti-immigrant sentiment had been building in the country since passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Several attempts to pass a literacy test bill for immigrants, supported by the Immigration Restriction League (1894), failed. The forty-one volumes of the Senate-appointed Dillingham Commission (1911) concluded that immigrants were heavily responsible for the country’s problems and advocated the literacy test. Frances Kellor believed that all immigrants could be Americanized. Randolph Bourne advocated immigration as the path to Americans becoming internationalists. The New Republic, however, feared that excessive immigration would overwhelm an activist state and prevent it from solving social problems. Lillian Wald, Frederic Howe, and other Progressives organized the National Committee for Constructive Immigration Legislation (1916) hoping to forestall more restrictive measures. In the midst of war fever, Congress passed a literacy test bill over Wilson’s veto (1917).

100-percent Americanism

Progressives such as Kellor, Wald, and Addams believed that incorporating immigrants into a broad American culture would create a Progressive modern society. Theodore Roosevelt promoted a racialized version of American society. As president, he secured new laws (1903, 1907) to exclude certain classes of immigrants—paupers, the insane, prostitutes, and radicals who might pose a threat to American standards of labor—that he deemed incapable of becoming good Americans. He created the Bureau of Immigration to enforce these provisions. The 1907 Immigration Act also stripped citizenship from women who married noncitizens, a situation only reversed in 1922. At Roosevelt’s behest, Congress tightened requirements for naturalization. Wartime fever and the 1919 Red Scare intensified the search for 100 percent Americanism and undermined the alternative Progressive ideal of a cooperative Americanism.81

Progressivism beyond the Progressive Era

The democratizing ideals of the Progressive era lived beyond the time period. A regulatory state to eliminate the worst effects of capitalism was created, as most Americans accepted that the federal state had to take on more social responsibility. After ratification of the suffrage amendment, the National American Woman Suffrage Association reconstituted as the National League of Women Voters (1920) to continue promoting an informed, democratic electorate. The New Deal implemented a substantial social justice Progressive agenda, with the NCL, the Children’s Bureau, and many women who had formed the earlier era’s agenda writing the legislation banning child labor, fostering new labor standards that included minimum wage and maximum hours, and mandating social security for the elderly. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs focused on environmental protection as a democratic right. A women’s joint congressional committee formed to continue pressing for social justice legislation. The National Association of Colored Women joined the committee.

Progressives can be legitimately criticized for not undertaking a more radical restructuring of American society. Some of them can be criticized for believing that they possessed the best vision for a modern, Progressive future. They can be faulted for not promoting racial equality or a new internationalism that might bring about global peace rather than war. Nonetheless, they never intended to undermine capitalism, so they could never truly embrace socialism. In the context of a society that continued to exalt individualism and suspect government interference and working within their own notions of democracy, they accomplished significant changes in American government and society.82

Discussion of the Literature

The muckraking authors and journalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries highlighted rapacious capitalism and characterized its wealthy beneficiaries as corrupting the country. In their exposés of the relationship between business and politics, Ida M. Tarbell, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair accused politicians of a corrupt bargain in pursuit of their own economic interests against the interests of the people.83 Drawing upon these investigative writings, early analyses of Progressivism from Benjamin De Witt and Charles and Mary Beard interpreted Progressivism as a dualistic class struggle. On one side were wealthy and privileged special interests seeking to promote themselves at the expense of everyone else. On the other side was a broad public seeking to restore dignity and opportunity to the common people.84

By the early 1950s, George Mowry and Richard Hofstadter contended that Progressivism was a movement of an older, professional, middle class seeking to reclaim its status, deference, and power, which had been usurped by a new corporate elite and a corrupt political class.85 In the early 1960s, Samuel Hays argued that rather than being the product of a status revolution, Progressivism was the work of an urban upper class of new and younger leading Republican business and professional men.86


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