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 McKinley.

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 reform!

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) Square Deal

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 political bosses.  

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 Czolgosz) and 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 explanation:

“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 dealing.”

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 Roosevelt do?

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 tariff  reform.  

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 bull moose.”

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 the nomination.

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
•    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

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.

wilson and taftIn 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 higher incomes.

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% interest.

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....