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During the Progressive Era (1900–1920), the country grappled with the problems caused by industrialization and urbanization. Progressivism, an urban, middle-class reform movement, supported the government taking a greater role in addressing such issues as the control of big business and the welfare of the public. Many of its accomplishments were based on efforts of earlier reform movements. The federal income tax and the direct election of senators, for example, were a part of the Populist program, and Prohibition grew from a pre-Civil War anti-alcohol reform tradition. Although the Progressives formed their own political party in 1912, the movement had broad support among both Democrats and Republicans. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft (Republicans) and Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) all claimed the Progressive mantle.
The need for reform was highlighted by a group of journalists and writers known as the muckrakers, who made Americans aware of the serious failings in society and built public support for change. Exposés such as Lincoln Steffens' The Shame of the Cities (1904), an attack on municipal corruption, and Ida Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), which chronicled John D. Rockefeller's ruthless business practices, often first appeared in the new mass circulation magazines, such as McClure's and Cosmopolitan, and were later published as books. The muckrakers' impact could be powerful, as in the case of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), a book whose vivid descriptions of working and sanitary conditions in Chicago's meatpacking plants led directly to federal laws regulating the industry. Making government more responsive and efficient. Two important objectives of Progressivism were giving the public the opportunity to participate more directly in the political process and limiting the power of big city bosses. Progressives hoped to accomplish these goals through a variety of political reforms. These reforms included the direct primary a preliminary election giving all members of a party the chance to take part in a nomination and that was intended to limit the influence of political machines in selecting candidates; initiative a process for putting a proposition or proposed law on a ballot (usually by getting a specified number of signatures on a petition), and referendum, the voting on an initiative, allowing the people to enact legislation that a state legislature is either unwilling or unable to do; and recall, a process giving voters the power to remove elected officials from office through
petition and a vote. Governor Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin championed these reforms, and their implementation in his state became the model for the rest of the country (the Wisconsin Idea). Meanwhile, making the national government more responsive to the people was expressed through the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) which provided for the direct election of senators rather than their selection by the state legislatures. State legislatures were also increasingly concerned about the welfare of their citizens. In 1902, Maryland became the first state to offer workmen's compensation, payments to workers or their families for disability or death suffered on the job. Some protection was offered to federal employees under the 1916 Workmen's Compensation Act. Progressives were also fascinated by efficiency and scientific management. In 1900, when a hurricane and flood destroyed much of the infrastructure of Galveston, Texas, the mayor and city council were replaced with a commission made up of nonpartisan administrators who ran each of the city's municipal departments. The commission form of government became popular in small and medium-sized cities throughout the country. Following a flood in 1913, Dayton, Ohio experimented with a city-manager system. Under this plan, the structure of a city government followed that of a business corporation, with a city administrator acting as a manager reporting to a board of directors made up of a mayor and city council. The Progressive Era also saw the growth of the public ownership of water, gas, and electric service; municipally owned utilities offered consumers lower rates than private companies. Utilities that remained in private hands invariably came under the jurisdiction of regulatory commissions that reviewed rates, mergers, and other business activities. Railroads and urban transportation systems were under similar regulation. Progressive reform measures, however, extended beyond restructuring the government and addressed social problems as well. Prohibition. The campaign against the evils of alcohol made little progress until the formation of the Anti-Saloon League in 1893. Unlike previous groups, the new organization focused its effort on prohibiting alcohol rather than persuading individuals to stop drinking. Supported by Protestant churches, it pioneered singleissue politics and backed only “dry” candidates for elected office. This strategy worked, and by 1917 almost two thirds of the states had banned the manufacture
and sale of alcohol. With German Americans prominent in the brewing and distillery industries, American participation in the First World War added allegedly patriotic motives to the calls for a constitutional amendment on prohibition. In December 1917, Congress adopted the Eighteenth Amendment, which was approved by the states in January 1919 and went into effect a year later, banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol nationwide. Child labor and women's rights. The National Child Labor Committee coordinated a movement to address the exploitation of children. One of the most effective weapons in its campaign were photographs taken by Lewis Hine that showed boys and girls as young as eight years of age working with dangerous equipment in coal mines and factories. By 1910, many states had enacted legislation establishing the minimum legal age when children could work (between 12 and 16) and the maximum length of a workday or week. It is not clear, however, what had more of an impact on child labor — these laws or the state compulsory school attendance requirements that were becoming more widespread at the same time. Progressives also wanted to limit how long women could work, arguing that long hours in a factory were detrimental to a woman's well being. The Supreme Court agreed in Muller v. Oregon (1908) and upheld a state law that limited women laundry workers to working no more than ten hours a day. The case was significant because the Court accepted the Brandeis Brief a wealth of sociological, economic, and medical evidence submitted by attorney Louis Brandeis demonstrating that the health of the women was impaired by long factory hours. Sometimes, however, change came only as a result of tragedy. On March 25, 1911, almost 150 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. In response, the New York State legislature established a 54-hour workweek for women, prohibited children under 14 from working, and imposed new building regulations and factory safety rules. Although the cause of equal opportunity in the workplace was pushed back by the Progressive's argument that women were weaker than men, women finally did get the right to vote. A number of western states had already granted suffrage (enfranchisement, or voting privileges) — Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), and Washington (1910) — and the Democratic Party platform in 1916 called on the remaining states to do the same. While the National American Woman
Suffrage Association relied on patient organizing, militant groups adopted more direct tactics. The Congressional Union, for example, was committed to gaining the vote through the passage of a constitutional amendment rather than securing it piecemeal state by state, and the National Woman's Party used picket lines, marches, and hunger strikes to build momentum for their cause. Women's participation in World War I, through service in the military and work in defense plants and the Red Cross, heightened the momentum. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, passed the Senate in June 1919 and was ratified by the states in August 1920, more than 70 years after the first women's rights meeting in Seneca Falls, New York.
Progressivism: Roosevelt and Taft
On September 6, 1901, an anarchist shot President William McKinley, who died a few days later. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt returned from a camping trip to take the oath of office. Although he was the youngest person ever to hold the office, Roosevelt had considerable political experience. The vice president previously served as a member of the New York State Assembly, commissioner of the New York City police, assistant secretary of the Navy, a leader of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, and governor of New York. Just as Progressives believed that state and local governments had an expanded role to play in controlling big business and public welfare, so did Roosevelt believe that the federal government and the presidency itself had a greater job to do.
Roosevelt and big business. Roosevelt had a well-deserved reputation as a “trustbuster.” During his administration (1901–09), 44 antitrust actions were filed against the nation's largest corporations, including the Northern Securities Company (a railway holding company). But the essence of the president's Square Deal — Roosevelt's approach to social problems, big business, and labor unions — was that he distinguished between “good” and “bad” trusts and strongly preferred to regulate corporations for the public welfare rather than destroy them. In the case of the railroads, for example, the practice of rebating was eliminated through the Elkins Act (1903), and the Hepburn Act (1906) allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to set maximum railroad rates. The Hepburn Act also expanded
the ICC's jurisdiction to include pipelines, ferries, sleeping cars, and bridges and made the ICC's orders on carriers binding, pending a court ruling. Regulation meant protecting the interests of consumers as well as controlling the power of big business. The muckrakers had raised serious questions about such problems as the utility of the patent medicines sold to Americans and sounded the alarm that meat infected with disease or covered in rat droppings was processed and sold to the public. Congress reacted to these revelations by passing the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of food or drugs in interstate commerce that had been adulterated or fraudulently labeled. The Meat Inspection Act, which was enacted in the same year, sought to enforce sanitary conditions in the packing industry and authorized the Department of Agriculture to inspect meat sold through interstate commerce. Conservation of natural resources. Outdoorsman, hunter, and naturalist in his own right, Roosevelt was the first president to actively promote the conservation of the country's natural resources. Under his administration, millions of acres were set aside as national forest lands; coal and oil reserves as well as hydroelectric power sites were placed in the public domain; and the national park system was enlarged. For Roosevelt, conservation meant wise use, and this was the theme of the White House Conference on Conservation (1908) that brought together members of the Cabinet and Congress as well as the governors of most of the states. The president's utilitarian approach was championed by the head of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, and was reflected in such legislation as the National Reclamation Act of 1902, which directed that proceeds from the sale of public lands be used to finance irrigation projects in the West. Taft as a progressive. After the 1904 election, Roosevelt stated that he would not run for president again. Four years later, William Howard Taft, his handpicked successor, easily defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan in his third and final run for the White House. Although Taft had never held elective office, he did have years of public service behind him. He had been a prosecutor and judge, U.S. solicitor general under President Harrison, the first civilian governor of the Philippines, and Roosevelt's Secretary of War. Although more conservative than his predecessor, Taft filed twice the number of antitrust suits as Roosevelt, and the Supreme Court upheld the breakup of Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust Act (1911) during his
administration. Through the Mann-Elkins Act (1910), the authority of the ICC was again expanded to cover regulation of telephone, telegraph, and cable companies. The act also enabled the commission to suspend rates set by railroads pending investigations or court actions. Taft actively supported both the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments (which provided for the federal income tax and direct election of senators, respectively) and established new agencies, such as the Bureau of Mines, which set standards of mine safety, and the Federal Children's Bureau. Despite his strong reform record, the president lost support within the Republican Party and among Progressives. Taft ran into trouble with a group of Progressive Republicans in Congress known as the Insurgents, led by Senator Robert La Follette. Although the president wanted lower duties on imports, he was unable to stop the conservative Republicans from pushing through the Payne-Aldrich Tariff (1909) which kept rates on some products high over the objections of the Insurgents. Taft sided with Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon in his struggle to hold on to his power against congressional reformers. When the Speaker's authority was weakened through changes in the House rules, the president also lost influence. In the meantime, a dispute over conservation policy between the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service ultimately caused Taft to fire Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt's close friend and the man who epitomized the federal government's commitment to the environment. Early into Taft's term a major split in Republican ranks between conservatives and progressives became apparent. Whatever other goals they had, the Progressive Republicans were determined to gain control of the party and deny Taft's nomination for a second term. Roosevelt began to seriously consider running again when he returned from a safari in Africa in 1910, and LaFollette was clearly a candidate in 1911. The election of 1912. Roosevelt indicated early in 1912 that he would accept the Republican nomination if it was offered to him. Even though the former president won several primaries and carried a number of state conventions, Republican conservatives controlled the nominating convention and made sure Taft was chosen to run for a second term. Roosevelt and his supporters bolted and formed the Progressive Party, whose platform called for presidential primaries, direct election of senators, the vote for women, greater regulation of the trusts, and a ban on child labor. The Democrats selected the past president of Princeton University and
governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, as their nominee. Although put into the State House by the Democratic bosses, Governor Wilson had proved himself to be a reformer, pushing through a direct primary law, workmen's compensation, and public utility regulation. The election of 1912 was a contest between Roosevelt and Wilson and their respective progressive philosophies. Roosevelt campaigned for his New Nationalism, which maintained that large corporations were an integral part of modern industrial society. The responsibility of the federal government was to regulate, not to destroy, business combinations while protecting the interests of the underprivileged. Wilson's New Freedom called for restoring competition through elimination of the trusts and lowering tariffs. Although recognizing that federal power was necessary to accomplish these goals, he was just as concerned with big government as big business; any expansion of authority from Washington he considered to be only a temporary expedient. With the Republican vote split between Roosevelt and Taft, Wilson won with the largest electoral majority of any presidential candidate up to that time.
The election of Wilson was significant in several respects. First, it brought the Democrats back to power for the first time since the Civil War. The party controlled not only the White House but both houses of Congress as well, which had happened only briefly (1893–95) under Cleveland. The election also represented the political resurgence of the South. Despite spending most of his working life in the North, Wilson was born and raised in the South. In addition to making William Jennings Bryan, who had long enjoyed strong southern support, his secretary of state, Wilson appointed a number of other southerners to the Cabinet and Colonel Edward House of Texas as his chief political advisor. Because of the seniority system, the chairs of many key House and Senate committees were southern Democrats.
Tariff and banking reform. Staying true to his campaign promises, Wilson tackled the tariff issue first. The Underwood-Simmons Tariff (1913) was the first law to substantially lower rates in 50 years, and the free list of goods, on which no import duties were charged, was expanded to include iron, steel, raw wool, and sugar. To
make up for the revenue shortfall that the reduction in rates caused, the law included a provision for implementing the federal income tax provided for in the justratified Sixteenth Amendment. It levied a tax of one percent on all incomes over $4,000 (the majority of Americans made considerably less than that and therefore paid no income tax), with the tax rate going up to 7 percent for the highest earners. Wilson's most important domestic program, however, was the reorganization of the nation's banking system. A congressional investigation found that the country's credit and money policies were largely controlled by a handful of eastern banks. The administration's response to this discovery was the creation of the Federal Reserve System. Under the Federal Reserve Act (1913), Federal Reserve banks were set up in 12 regions across the United States. These were, in effect, “banks for banks,” and they became the depositories for all national banks and those state banks that wished to join. The Federal Reserve banks took over the outstanding loans of their members in return for Federal Reserve notes, or paper money. The Federal Reserve Board, appointed by the president, oversaw the system and, by setting the interest rates charged on loans to its member banks, could seriously impact the economy. Lower interest rates tended to stimulate business by making more money available for expansion, while higher rates helped control economic growth and cap inflation. Antitrust legislation. The cornerstone of Wilson's antitrust policy was the Federal Trade Commission (1914) which was intended to control unfair competition in interstate commerce. It was empowered to investigate individuals and corporations suspected of unfair practices, and it could issue cease-and-desist orders to stop a company from hindering competition. Already existing antitrust laws were strengthened with the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act (1914). It outlawed specific business practices such as price discrimination, “tying” (an agreement that required a buyer not purchase products from a competitor of the seller), and the acquisition of stock in a competing company. Of particular importance given the way antitrust legislation had been interpreted in the past, was the Clayton Act's specific statement that farm organizations and labor unions were not “unlawful combinations in restraint of trade.” The use of injunctions against strikes was also prohibited, unless it could be shown that irreparable damage to property was likely. However,
the degree of protection these provisions actually offered unions depended on court interpretations. Wilson showed little interest in the social concerns associated with progressivism during his first term. With the Republican Party on the mend as the 1916 election approached, he began to include more reforms in his domestic agenda. For farmers, a program of low-interest loans through Federal Reserve banks was put in place. Child labor was addressed in the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, which prohibited interstate commerce in products made by children under the age of 16. Although the law was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1918, the Court did uphold legislation that set an eight-hour day and time-and-a-half pay for overtime for railroad workers handling cars in interstate traffic. In women's rights, Wilson did not openly support a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote, but he backed action by the individual states as called for in the Democratic Party platform. Immigrants and African-Americans. Two groups did not benefit from the reforming zeal of the Progressive Era: immigrants and African-Americans. Immigration to the United States reached its high tide before World War I, with immigration numbers topping the one million mark six times between 1900 and 1914. During this same period, demands for immigration restriction found growing public support. By 1903, the original list of people who could not enter the country (compiled in 1882) was expanded to include anarchists, prostitutes, paupers, and all those likely to become a public charge (in need of some type of welfare). When the San Francisco School Board ordered Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students to attend segregated schools in 1906, President Roosevelt intervened and the decision was reversed. In return, Japan agreed to voluntarily limit the number of its laborers emigrating to the United States through what became known as the Gentlemen's Agreement (1907). Americans who favored significantly reducing immigration pinned their hopes on a literacy test for those who wished to permanently settle in the United States. Presidents Cleveland (1897), Taft (1913), and Wilson (1915 and 1917) vetoed bills containing requirements for such a test. Wilson's second veto was overriden by Congress, however, and a literacy test became part of immigration law. What direct effect the test had on immigration is difficult to assess because immigration had already declined sharply because of World War I. The legislation did
mark an end to the more or less open immigration policy and paved the way for the quota system that would be implemented in the early 1920s. In 1900, the overwhelming majority of African-Americans lived in the rural South, where segregation was established as a legal institution, and the denial of civil rights to blacks, particularly the right to vote, was an accomplished fact. Conditions in the South and economic opportunities in the North, particularly as the country began to mobilize for war, led to a significant shift in black population. The Great Migration refers to the internal movement of African-Americans from the farms of the South to the factories of the industrial North. Organizations like the Negro Fellowship League, founded by Ida Wells-Barnet in Chicago, and the National Urban League helped the migrants adjust to life in the cities. The North was not free from prejudice, however. Competition for jobs in defense plants and for housing were contributing factors to the violent race riots that broke out in East St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago in 1919. Although President Roosevelt broke with precedent and invited Booker T. Washington for lunch at the White House (1901), the federal government did little to help African-Americans. The driving forces for change were men like Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose Niagara Movement (1905) pressed for political and economic equality for blacks. In 1910, his group joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), established a year earlier by white social-justice progressives and African-Americans to work for equality within the system. The NAACP was most successful in mounting legal challenges aimed at making sure the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were enforced. In 1915, for example, its attorneys persuaded the Supreme Court to strike down the grandfather clause in Guinn v. United States that had been used in Maryland and Oklahoma to deny blacks the right to vote.
Foreign Policy in the Progressive Era
In the wake of the Spanish-American War, the United States joined the ranks of the imperial powers with possessions that stretched halfway around the globe, from Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to the Philippines in the Pacific. In the years leading up to its entry into World War I, America did its best to maintain its influence in Asia through diplomacy while following an aggressive foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere. The United States showed little interest in European affairs until the
outbreak of war in August 1914 and even then remained officially neutral for almost three years. The commitment of American troops in 1917 was a significant factor in the Allied victory and earned President Wilson the right to help shape the peace settlement. The failure of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, however, marked a shift toward a more isolationist foreign policy.
As a two-ocean conflict, the Spanish-American War underscored the value of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The French had tried but failed to construct a canal across the Isthmus of Panama in the 1880s, so the United States decided to take over the project. Under the Hay-Herran Treaty (1903), Columbia agreed to a 99-year lease of a six-mile-wide strip of land in Panama (a province of Columbia at the time) in return for a $10 million cash payment and an annual fee of $250,000. When the Columbian Senate refused to ratify the treaty, the Panamanians mounted a successful revolt that had the tacit approval of the Roosevelt Administration. Sending warships to prevent Columbia from taking action, the United States quickly recognized Panama's independence. A new agreement — the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty — gave the United States full control and sovereignty over the Canal Zone (an area ten miles wide across the isthmus) in return for the same financial arrangements made with Columbia. Construction on the Panama Canal began in 1904, and the first ship passed through the locks in 1914. While the canal construction was a major feat of engineering, medical advances that occurred during the ten-year period, such as the eradication of yellow fever and better control over malaria and other tropical diseases were important accomplishments as well. American intervention in the Caribbean and Central America. Throughout the Progressive Era and well into the 1920s, the United States followed a policy of intervention in the Caribbean and Central America. Under the Platt Amendment (1901), which was incorporated into the Cuban constitution and a Cuban-American treaty, the United States could intervene to preserve the independence or political and social stability of Cuba. Furthermore, Cuba agreed to grant land for an American naval base on the island (Guantanamo Bay), not to sign a treaty with another country that impaired Cuba's sovereignty, and not to incur a debt that could not be repaid out of current revenues. The U.S. government used this amendment as the justification for sending American troops into Cuba in 1906, 1912, and 1917.
Similarly, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1904) maintained that “chronic wrongdoing” by any nation in the Western Hemisphere might force the United States to exercise its “international police power”; that is, it would intervene. Under this principle, the finances of the Dominican Republic came under American control through a treaty, and after a revolution threatened these arrangements in 1916, U.S. troops occupied the country for the next eight years. Essentially the same policy was applied to Haiti, where American civilian personnel and military forces remained on the island from 1915 to 1934. When a revolt against the government jeopardized American interests in Nicaragua in 1912, U.S. Marines arrived and stayed until 1925. They were back a year later to put down another round of civil unrest. As a possible site for a second interocean canal, Nicaragua was particularly important, and the United States wanted to make sure no foreign power gained control of the route. U.S. policy in Asia. At the turn of the century, Japan was the major power in Asia. Fearful of Japanese dominance, Roosevelt played peacemaker in the conflict that broke out between Japan and Russia in 1904 in the hope of limiting Japanese gains. The Treaty of Portsmouth (1905), which ended the Russo-Japanese War and earned the president the Nobel Peace Prize, recognized Japan's influence in Manchuria (a province of China) but did not include a cash indemnity and required Russia to give up only half of Sakhalin Island. At the same time, in the Taft-Katsura Agreement (1905), the United States and Japan acknowledged the United States' control of the Philippines and Japan's control of Korea. Despite the tensions that arose because of immigration and the Gentlemen's Agreement, relations between the two countries remained good. They agreed to respect the territorial integrity of each other's possessions in Asia, and Japan reconfirmed its support for the Open Door Policy through the Root-Takahira Agreement (1908). Taft's foreign policy relied on dollar diplomacy — spreading American influence through the economic penetration of overseas markets by U.S. corporations. In an attempt to maintain the independence of China, the administration unsuccessfully tried to establish an international banking syndicate that would buy back the railroads in Manchuria that were in the hands of the Japanese. The combination of a Japanese-Russian alliance and a lack of support from the Wilson administration led
U.S. investors to reject the project. On the whole, dollar diplomacy was more effective in Central and South America than it was in Asia. Relations with Mexico. Opposing the regime of General Victoriano Huerta, who had come to power in Mexico following the May 1911 revolt, the Wilson administration supported the revolutionary movement headed by Venustiano Carranza. American troops attacked Veracruz in April 1914, which ultimately led to Huerta leaving office and Carranza and his supporters occupying Mexico City. These developments were soon marred by infighting between Carranza and one of his generals, Pancho Villa. When Villa's forces raided a town in New Mexico in 1916, Wilson ordered the U.S. Army to mount a punitive expedition into Mexico to capture him. This prolonged intrusion brought the United States and Mexico to the brink of war until the troops were withdrawn in January 1917.