If you study European history, you will find that it’s the 19th century
that gets the nickname the “Age of Progress,” and for good
reason. The 19th century was a time of unprecedented scientific,
technological, and economic expansion. For the US too, the 19th
century was an age of industrial progress—as we’ve seen already.
But in US history, it’s not the 19th century but the early years of the
20th century that are most associated with the progress label—but for
progress of an entirely different sort. In the early years of the
20th century, crusaders of various types took on all of the many evils
plaguing American society-- crime, disease, corruption, poverty,
ignorance, and injustice--and won! At least, sort of.
The forces of darkness....
For those people we call “progressives,” the people who wanted to see
major changes in America, taking on the many evils of American society
was a daunting task, like David taking on Goliath or, perhaps a better
analogy, like Heracles taking on the Hydra. Cut off one head, and the
head will grow right back unless you figure out which is the “immortal”
head and can find a way to deal with that.
Consider the problems facing America at the time:
• Exploitation of workers
• Destruction of independent farmers
• Crime and poverty in the cities
• The growth of the trusts
• America’s support of economic imperialism
On top of all this, there was the corrupt political system: cities
controlled by bosses, and, at the national level, the ability of big
business to buy elections—as it had in the 1896 contest between Bryan
And if the magnitude of the problems wasn’t discouraging enough, there
was the failure of so many earlier attempts at reform:
• The Sherman Anti-trust Act used to stop striking
workers instead of monopolistic big business practices
• The Knights of Labor collapsing because of
unfavorable press treatment following the Haymarket riot.
• The Grange reverting to a social organization after
its efforts to compete with John Deere, etc. failed
• The Populist defeat of 1896 when not even William
Jennings Bryan (a splendid candidate who ran a splendid campaign and
who was also nominated by the Democratic Party) could overcome Mark
Hannah and his $16,000,000.
At first, the 20th century looked like it was just going to be more of
the same. Certainly the 1900 presidential election suggested that
that would be the case.
1900 Presidential Election
The presidential candidates were the same as they had been in 1896,
McKinley for the Republicans, Bryan for the Democrats. Once
again, “free silver” was an important issue. But Bryan had
another important theme: American imperialism. In 1900, the Filipinos
were still waging a campaign to drive the Americans out, and American
forces responded to the insurrection with a brutality every bit as
great as the Spaniards had displayed earlier. Mark Twain
unleashed his “pen warmed up in hell” against our occupation of the
Philippines, and it seemed that the anti-imperial theme should have
been a winner for Bryan. But it wasn’t. Partly, this is
because running an anti-war campaign when American boys are actively
fighting is hard to do. Anti-war sentiment at home encourages enemies
abroad to fight harder and longer—and, done the wrong way, an anti-war
campaign all by itself increases American casualties. Besides,
most Americans don’t really understand or care about issues so far away
from their own lives. Bryan, realizing this, quickly dropped the
anti-war emphasis to focus on domestic issues. But here, too, the
Republicans gained the upper hand. McKinley used perhaps the most
effective campaign slogan he could have found, “Let well enough
alone.” In my opinion, a winning slogan most of the time in
American politics! Another McKinley slogan: “Four more years of the
full dinner pail.”
Things weren’t perfect, maybe, but Americans were better off than any
other people in the world. A major reason not to experiment with
By voting for the Republicans, the American people gave their approval
to four more years of the status quo, leaving things as they
were. But, as it turns out, they had elected a man who would make
major changes in the U.S. system.
Not, of course, William McKinley—Mark Hanna’s McKinley, his slave, his
echo, his suit of clothes. No. but in electing McKinley they had
also elected his running mate, Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy Roosevelt and the (sort of)
Roosevelt is a fascinating man. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of
Harvard, a squinty-eyed, glasses wearing scholar, author of over 30
books, and an expert on—well, if you asked him, nearly
everything. But there were other sides to Roosevelt. He was
a ranch owner and cowboy, spending some very rugged winters in the
North Dakota badlands. He was also a military man, serving as
Assistant Secretary of the Navy during McKinley’s first term. But
when the Spanish American War started, he resigned so that he could
fight himself. He ended up leading a famous charge up San Juan Hill,
and he clearly enjoyed the fighting, writing about his delight at
seeing a Spaniard “curl up like a jackrabbit.”
Roosevelt wasn’t afraid of a fight—and he was certainly willing to
fight for reform. On his return from Cuba, he was elected
governor of New York and he proved to be a real thorn in the side to
It was these bosses who cooked up a scheme to get rid of Teddy—by
kicking him upstairs—all the way to the vice presidency. They
engineered a “draft Teddy” movement at the Republican convention, with
hundreds chanting, “We want Teddy!” The rather egotistical
Roosevelt just couldn’t let his admirers down.
Mark Hanna was no fool. He knew the Republicans were playing with
fire. “Don’t any of you realize that there is only one life
between that madman and the White House?” he asked.
Well, apparently they didn’t—but they should have. Six months
into his 2nd term, McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist (Leon
Roosevelt was president. The big question: what was he going to
do? Well, Roosevelt made it clear very quickly what he hoped to
accomplish. He promised Americans what he called a “Square
Deal.” What did he mean by that? Well, here’s TR’s own
“When I say I
believe in a square deal, I do not mean to give every man
the best hand. If the cards do not come to any man, or if they do
come, and he has not got the power to play them, that is his
affair. All I mean is that there shall be no crookedness in the
A nice sentiment, but with Roosevelt, it was more than a
sentiment. An example: the way Roosevelt settled a Pennsylvania
coal mining strike. The workers had wanted minimal concessions: a
nine hour day and a 20% pay increase. But the mine owners
wouldn’t negotiate, and let the strike drag on. Schools,
hospitals, and factors began to shut down as coal supplies ran short.
Roosevelt said one should speak softly but carry a big stick.
Well, Roosevelt seldom spoke softly, but he wasn’t afraid to pick up a
big stick as well. In this case, he forced the mine owners to
cooperate, threatening to use federal troops if they didn’t. For the
first time, the federal government was intervening on behalf of labor
rather than business.
Far more important, Roosevelt’s role as a trust-buster. J.P.
Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller had bid up the stock of the Burlington
railroad, each trying to gain control for themselves. When
neither could get the upper hand, they joined forces to form the
Northern Securities Company and shared control of the railroad.
In the meantime, their unscrupulous actions had proved costly to many
investors as Burlington stock prices first spiked and then collapsed.
No Square Deal here, thought Roosevelt, so he picked up his big
stick. He brought an antitrust suit against the NSC, and forced
it to disband. Score one for the trust-busters. Roosevelt
likewise launched suits to break up other trusts: the sugar trust, the
fertilizer trust, the tobacco trust, and the beef trust. Not all
the suits were successful, but big business had to watch out.
Roosevelt also pushed reform legislation through Congress, gaining
passage of the Elkins Act, and act forbidding railroad “rebates” and
the giving of free passes.
Roosevelt also got legislation setting aside 125 million acres of
timber reserves, with additional land set aside for coal and water
reserves. The newly-designated lands would be available for
recreation, sustainable-yield logging, watershed land, and grazing:
sound conservation policies.
Limits to progress under Roosevelt
So David had defeated Goliath? Well, not quite. David had
slung a stone or two, but not much more. The trusts were behaving
better perhaps, but big business was as strong as ever. J.D.
Rockefeller supported Roosevelt’s reelection campaign—with good reason!
Further, Teddy pushed the US farther down the imperialist path.
The “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine said we would
intervene in Western hemisphere countries not only to stop European
advances into those countries, but whenever unsettled conditions made
it *look* like European countries were likely to move in.
The creation of the Panama Canal likewise shows Roosevelt’s
quasi-imperial policy. The US wanted a canal built through
Central America, either through Nicaragua or Panama. Panama
seemed promising, but the Colombian government (which controlled
Panama) wanted a fair price for permitting use of this valuable
resource. Roosevelt offered $10 million and $250,000 per year,
but the Bogota government said that wasn’t enough. So what could
Well, in 1903 there was a revolt in Panama. Roosevelt seized his big
stick, sending American ships in to prevent Colombia from maintaining
control. Once the Panamanians established a government of their
own, Roosevelt could now negotiate exactly the terms he wanted.
Well, the canal got built—a good thing too—but our friendly
relationship with South America was going…South.
Overall, then, the Roosevelt presidency is a good example of the “sort
of” victory won by progressives. It was at most a partial victory
for the forces of light.
Roosevelt himself realized that the work of reform was far from
complete. In the natural course of things, he would have run for
another term in 1908. But quite early in his presidency,
Roosevelt had promised not to violate the two-term limit that had
become traditional. So, having committed himself not to run for a
third term, Roosevelt did the next best thing, supporting a man who, he
thought, would continue his policies, William Howard Taft.
Taft the progressive--sort of
Taft in some ways was an excellent choice. He had been successful as a
lawyer and judge—and particularly impressive while serving as governor
of the Philippines. Taft had gone a long way toward reconciling
the Filipinos to the American presence—no small task. Taft had
been effective as a trouble shooter for Roosevelt in places like the
Canal Zone and as Secretary of War.
Taft had never held elective office, though, and he wasn’t much of a
campaigner. And he was up against a splendid campaigner—William
Jennings Bryan. But Bryan didn’t have the issue he needed to run
a successful campaign. The imperialism issues was gone now that
the Filipino insurrection was over. Roosevelt’s movements toward
reform likewise stole Bryan’s thunder. Bryan did better than the
conservative Democrat who had been the nominee in 1904, but he still
lost by a substantial margin, and Taft was president.
Taft continued some of the progressive reforms begun by Roosevelt,
bringing suits against the big trusts (including Standard Oil, U.S.
Steel, and International Harvester). He pushed for laws further
strengthening railroad regulation and preventing stock watering.
And, right at the end of his administration, the Constitution was
amended to permit an income tax, something reformers had long wanted,
but that the courts had ruled unconstitutional. Taft also pushed for
But Taft was not politician, not at all skillful in the practical
implementation of his reform measures or in using them for political
advantage. Worse for Taft, his deteriorating relationship with
Roosevelt. After leaving office, Teddy had gone on an African
hunting trip. His enemies said they were rooting for the lions—or
hoping some lion would do its duty. But, when Teddy got back, he
found that Taft had been bringing lawsuits against companies he himself
would not have sued. And Taft was dismissing from office some men
that Roosevelt had appointed—including the Sectretary of the Interior
who Taft had dismissed for insubordination.
Teddy was offended and began attacking Taft, pulling the “progressive”
rug right out from under Taft’s feet. Naturally enough, Taft
turned to more conservative Republicans for support. The
now-divided Republicans were vulnerable, and the Democrats took control
of the House in the 1910 midterm elections.
The 1912 election--reform in the air
And as the 1912 presidential election rolled around, the stage was set
reformers of one type or another to take over. But who would end
up the progressive leader?
One possibility: Robert M. Lafollette. Lafollette had served as
congressman, Governor of Wisconsin, and senator. As governor, he
had succeeded in implementing major reform legislation, and, while in
the Senate, he pushed for similar legislation on the national level.
But Teddy was not quite convinced that Lafollette was the best man for
the job. No. There was somebody better available—much
better. Who? Well, Roosevelt himself, of course. But
wait—hadn’t Teddy promised he wouldn’t run for a third term. No,
said Roosevelt. He had only meant three consecutive terms.
Stepping to the sidelines for four years meant he could run again
without breaking his promise.
But another problem. Simply elbowing Lafollette out of the way
would look bad and alienate many potential supporters. So Teddy waited
for his chance—and he got it. In the middle of one of his campaign
speeches, Lafollette collapsed, and that was all the excuse Teddy
needed. He threw has hat into the ring, saying, “I am fit as a
Going into the 1912 Republican convention, it was at first unclear who
was going to get the nomination, and unclear even who the voting
delegates would be. But when the party apparatus choose to seat
Taft delegates rather than rival Roosevelt supporters to fill 250
disputed seats, it was clear Taft would have sufficient support to gain
Unhappy Roosevelt supporters broke away to form a part of their own,
the Progressive Party, better known as the Bull Moose Party.
The Bull Moosers were filled with righteous zeal. “We stand at
Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord,” they sang, along with “Onward
Christian Soldiers,” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And then
there is this: “I want to be a Bull Moose, and with the Bull Moose
stand, with antlers on my forehead and a big stick in my hand.”
More important the songs, the Bull Moose platform—a call for thorough
reforms including the following:
• Initiative (laws implemented by the people directly
at the ballot box)
• Referendum (laws overturned by the people directly
at the ballot box)
• Recall of judicial decisions
• Workman’s compensation
• Minimum wage for women
• Women’s suffrage
• Child labor legislation
• Creation of a federal trade and tariff commission
to regulate business
As the election season heated up, Roosevelt and Taft tore each other
apart with Taft calling Roosevelt a “dangerous egotist” and a
“demagogue,” while Roosevelt called Taft “a fathead with the brains of
a guinea pig.”
This meant that the Democrats had a very good chance of capturing the
White House if they could find the right candidate. This,
however, was not so easy. The 1912 Democrat convention went
through 45 ballots without reaching agreement. At this point,
Bryan (still a dominant player in the party) through his support to a
relative unknown, Thomas Woodrow Wilson.
The philospher president--Woodrow
Wilson was a first-rate scholar with an undergraduate degree from
Princeton, a law degree from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D.
from Johns Hopkins. He had taught history, law, and economics,
eventually becoming president of Princeton University.
In 1910, Wilson was persuaded to run for governor of New Jersey,
picked, ironically enough, by political bosses who thought they could
lead the politically inexperience academic by the nose. They had
misjudged badly. Wilson was not a man to compromise with
injustice (or with what he perceived as injustice), and he soon became
a real problem for the machine politicians.
Wilson was an effective speaker (you could waltz to his speeches some
said), and he used his eloquence to expose political corruption,
turning New Jersey around, and getting legislation every bit as
progressive as that passed by Lafollette in Wisconsin.
The 1912 election stirred passions all over the country—and, perhaps
not surprisingly, someone took a shot at assassinating Roosevelt.
Despite the chest wound, the Bull Moose finished his speech without
even bothering to change his bloody shirt, and, within two weeks,
Roosevelt was back on the campaign trail.
Eventually, though, the split between the Bull Moosers and the
Republicans left the door open for Wilson who, even though he won only
41% of the popular vote, managed a 435 (Wilson) to 33 (Roosevelt) to 8
(Taft) electoral college victory.
In some ways,
though, everyone came out a winner. Taft was
tremendously relieved not to be president anymore, and eventually took
a position for which he was far more suited: supreme court
justice. Roosevelt, a rich man, had plenty of things to occupy
his time. William Jennings Bryan got a nice consolation prize,
Secretary of State. And for Americans as a whole, a real
progressive as president. Coupled with state-level reforms of the
Lafollette type and a senate now more responsive to popular pressure
(the 17th Amendment of 1913 provided direct election of senators), a
new era was well under way.
Some Wilson reforms:
1. Tax reform. The tariff was cut from 40 to 29 %, replaced
by an income tax of 1% on income above $4000 with rates up to 6% on
2. Banking. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 created the
Federal Reserve System with its 12 regional banks and its board of
governors appointed by the president. This bank issued federal
reserve notes, notes backed by 40% gold and “commercial and
agricultural paper”—whatever that means. Also, Wilson got adopted
the Federal Farm Loan Board which issued farm loans at no more than 6%
3. Trust-busting. The 1914 Federal Trade Act set up a
federal trade commission to investigate anti-trust violations and
empowered to stop illegal acts. The Clayton Antitrust Act forbid
price discrimination, tying contracts, and interlocking directorships.
4. Labor. Child labor in factories was limited—no one under
14 could work in the factories. The 8 hour day was mandated for
certain industries, e.g., railroads. A Workman’s Compensation Act
provided assistance to workers injured on the job, while a Seaman’s Act
mandated safety standards on shipboard.
Wilson had kept his promises to America—a series of real victories for
the progressives. But the progressive movement ran into trouble
because of the one promise Wilson failed to keep. What was
that? Stay tuned....