The Progressive Era

After the collapse of the farm movement, the focus or reform turned to the cities. Instead of farm problems, reformers looked at issues such as crime, and vice in the cities; provision of sufficient utilities and services for city dwellers, etc. The result of this movement towards urban reform was the Progressive movement.

The Progressive era is from 1900 Ė 1917. It rose from several causes:

Depression of 1890ís and social unrest that followed it.

Hard times as a result of the depression caused unrest in the middle classes.

People began working towards improving social conditions.

Shi describes the progressive era as a "time of fermenting idealism and constructive social, economic and political change."

Progressives saw themselves engaged in a crusade against the urban political bosses and corporate robber barons. They promoted greater democracy, social justice, honest government, regulation of business, and revived commitment to public service. These things, they believed, would ensure the "progress" of American society.

Said one reformer: "The real heart of the movement is to use the government as an agency for social welfare."

One newspaper writer, William Allen White saw the progressives as simply Populists who had gained a degree of respectability. White said that Progressivism was simply populism that had "shaved its whiskers, washed its shirt, put on a derby, and moved up into the middle class.

Urban business and professional leaders brought to progressivism a certain respectability and political savvy that the Populists had never possessed. Many Populists felt that their movement was vindicated by the Progressive movement.

Some social critics emphasized the need for urban reform. A number of them thrived on exposing scandal in business. Theodore Roosevelt gave them the name "Muckrakers," after a character in The Pilgrimís Progress. {Bunyan had described a man who could look no way but downwards with a muckrake in his hands."} Said Roosevelt: "the muckrakers are indispensable to . . . society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck."

It might be a fair comparison to say that the muckrakers were the Harriet Beecher Stowes of the early twentieth century.

Muckrakers published articles in popular magazines such as McClures. Later, their articles were collected into book form.

Among the Muckrakers:

Henry Demarest Lloyd: Wrote Wealth against Commonwealth. He wrote about corporate giants who answered to no one but themselves; and able to corrupt, if not control governments.

Jacob Riis: How the Other Half Lives (1890). About slum conditions in New York.

Lincoln Steffens: The Shame of the Cities. On political corruption.

Ida M. Tarbell: History of the Standard Oil Company.

These were not the only areas targeted. Muckrakers wrote about corruption in the stock market, the meat industry, the life insurance business, and in politics.

As a rule, the progressives were stronger on diagnosis than on remedy. They quickly pointed out the ills of society; but offered few suggestions for reform. They seemed to think that if people were informed, if corruption were exposed, then correction would automatically follow. In other words, the cure for the ills of democracy was more democracy.

Features of Progressivism

Democracy: Progressives advocated the direct primary and nomination of candidates by the votes of party members. Previously, all candidates had been chosen by convention, which allowed political insiders to control the selection process.

Twenty states initiated laws providing for initiative and referendum. (This allowed voters to enact laws directly, such as in Californiaís "Propositions." South Carolina required a referendum on the lottery issue.) Twelve states enacted recall legislation: a provision whereby public officials could be removed from office by petition and vote.

Finally, in 1913, the U.S. Senate passed the 17th Amendment, which provided for the popular election of Senators.

Previously, Senators had been chosen by State legislatures; a number of states had enacted "preferential primaries" to indicate the voterís will to the legislatures. The House had four times proposed a Constitutional Amendment, and four times the Senate, denominated a "millionaireís club" had defeated it. The Senate finally saw the handwriting on the wall, and the measure was ratified within a year.

Efficiency in Business and Government:

Business: Frederick W. Taylor, the original "efficiency expert," wrote a book: The Principles of Scientific Management. (1911). The idea was efficient management of time and cots, proper routing and scheduling of work, standardization of tools and equipment. The process became known as "Taylorism."

Government: In Andrew Jacksonís day, the common belief was that any reasonably intelligent citizen could perform the duties of public office. That view had now changed, as government was much more complex. It was felt that administrative tasks within the government were best handled by hired professionals, not elected officials.

Many cities instituted city manager forms of government, and states and cities instituted commissions to handle administrative duties, rather than elected officials.

Among those pushing reform were the Governor of Wisconsin, Robert La Follette, who developed a system of efficient government for that state. La Follette was the progressiveís William Jennings Bryan.

A number of progressives won election to office after exposing fraud and corruption. Among them:

Charles Evans Hughes: exposed insurance fraud, and was elected Governor of New York.

Hiram Johnson: elected governor of California after promising to rein in the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Governors were elected in several southern states who promised to regulate the railroads.

Government Regulation of Big Business: Originally, the plan was to restore competition by busting up big corporations. This proved to be unworkable, as it was more difficult than had been anticipated. Regulatory agencies were put in place, but they inevitably fell under the influence of the very industries they were supposed to regulate. Example: Railroad men gained control over the Interstate Commerce Commission, simply because they had more knowledge of the details of the business than would an outsider who was ignorant of railroad operations.

Social Justice: The most recent social justice movement had been the Settlement houses; and they had spawned a crew of reformers. They had worked as private charities; but it soon became apparent that real reform could only be instituted by the power of the government. Among the reforms made in the name of social justice:

The National Child Labor Committee: led a movement for laws to ban child labor. Legislation was adopted in most states banning labor of underage children and limiting working hours of older children.

Reform of laws regulating working women. Florence Kelly headed the National Consumers League. The idea was to protect women from dangerous working condition. Many states outlawed night work and dangerous occupations for women and children.

        Child labor in factories was not unusual; in fact it was quite commonplace.  In 1895, Gate's Grandfather, John Edward Gates, went to work in a Columbia textile mill at the age of eight.  (He had attempted to work their earlier, but had been turned down because he was "too young."  He carried a box in order to climb up on the loom frames, and reported that the Foreman carried a strap to whip kids who were not working.  He worked 12 hours per day (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) six days per week for which he was paid 50 cents per day ($3.00 per week).  He worked at this same job for 54 years until he retired (without a pension) at age 62.  He died four years later at the age of 66; having spend all but twelve years of his entire life as a textile worker.  He worked at the same job for the entire 54 years, other than for a period of two years when he was drafted and sent to France during World War One, where he fought in the battle of Meuse- Argonne.  His wife, Myrtle Geiger Gates also went to work in the mill at age 12 and worked until she gave birth.       

1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York caught fire. The resulting fire killed 146 people; mostly women. Most of the deaths resulted from inadequate exits. Most of those killed were trapped on the top three floors of a ten story building. Many had jumped to their deaths.

As a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a series of workmenís compensation laws were passed that covered workers who suffered on the job injuries. Also, stricter building codes and factory inspection acts were enacted.

Prohibition: The liquor traffic was associated with bossism and "special interests. It also fit neatly with the generally bad reputation held by saloons.

1874: Earliest temperance movement was the : Womenís Christian Temperance Union. More successful was the Anti-Saloon League which was instrumental in the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1913. The Amendment was ratified six years later (1919) but by that time, three quarters of the states had gone "dry" on their own initiative.

Progressivism Under Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt believed that the best way to bring about reform was to keep things on an even keel. He believed that control should rest in the hands of sensible Republicans, not irresponsible Democrats; or even worse, the Socialists.

Most of Rooseveltís accomplishments were by executive action than by legislation. He did not allow himself to be troubled by legal niceties. Roosevelt believed he had the power to take any action that was not strictly forbidden to him by the Constitution.

Who does this sound like? Hamilton!

The Trust Problem: Roosevelt made a speech in a tour of New England and the Midwest in which he called for a "Square Deal" for all. This included enforcement of existing antitrust laws, and stricter control of big business. However, he was not in favor of wholesale trust-busting. He felt that regulation was the best way to go.

Congress balked at legislation to regulate industry; so Roosevelt turned to the Courts. He ordered his attorney general to bring an action against the Northern Securities Company, a holding company that controlled the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railways. Among its stockholders was J.P. Morgan. In 1904, the Supreme Court ordered that the Trust be dissolved as being formed in restraint of trade.

The Coal Strike: The United Mine Workers had walked off the job in Pennsylvania and West Virginia in 1902, demanding a large wage increase and reduction of their work day hours. The situation seemed to grow worse, so Roosevelt invited the Union leaders and Mine owners to the White House for a conference to discuss a settlement. At the meeting, the owners refused to even speak to the Union representatives, which outraged Roosevelt. He called them "woodenheaded" and said he wanted to grab one of them by the breeches and chuck him out a White House Window.

When the meeting got nowhere, Roosevelt threatened to take over the mines and run them with the Army.

A congressman in attendance questioned the constitutionality of such a move. Roosevelt, already exasperated, roared back "to hell with the Constitution when the people want coal!"

It is doubtful that Roosevelt could have constitutionally have seized the mines; but the threat was enough to get the miners and union to settle the dispute.

All told, Rooseveltís administration brought 25 antitrust suits. The most notable was the case of Swift and Company vs. United States in which he broke up a system by which meat packers had avoided competitive bidding in the purchase of livestock.

In the Swift case, the Supreme Court adopted a "stream of commerce" ruling; which said that if products moved in the "stream" of interstate commerce" they were subject to federal regulation. This broadened the power of the Federal Government to regulate business. Previously, the Supreme Court had held that business had to be strictly interstate before it could be regulated.

In 1903, Congress passed the Elkins Act which made rebates illegal.

Roosevelt was re-elected in 1904. The Republican convention re-nominated him by acclamation. The Democrats were scared to nominate Bryan again, so they nominated Alton B. Parker, Chief Justice of New York, and a staunch labor advocate. The fear of Parker being elected scared big business so much that even J.P. Morgan contributed handsomely to Rooseveltís campaign.

Roosevelt won handily; and on election night announced he would not run for a third term. He lived to regret that promise, and to eat his own words.

Now that he was elected in his own right, Roosevelt had renewed confidence, and in his annual message to Congress addressed the issue of regulation of business. This really burned the businessmen who had contributed to his campaign.

One of them, Henry Frick, a Steel magnate, said "We bought the S.O.B, and then he did not stay put."

1906: The Hepburn Act: gave the ICC power to set maximum freight rates.

Another area of concern was the manufacturers of patent medicines and regulation of meat packers and food processors.

Muckrakers had revealed a number of problems in these industries. The Ladies Home Journal among others printed stories of false claims and dangerous ingredients in patent medicines.

One of the chief offenders was something called "Lydia Pinkhamís Vegetable Compound" advertised to work wonders for the relief of "female complaints." It probably did work, as it was 18 per cent alcohol.

The most telling blow came from a book by Upton Sinclair: The Jungle. He intended the book to be a tract for socialism, but its main impact came from its portrayal of the filthy conditions in Chicagoís meat packing industry. An excerpt:

It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.

Roosevelt read the book, and sent inspectors to Chicago to see if it were really true: They reported that it was: "We saw meat shoveled from filthy wooden floors, piled on tables rarely washed, pushed from room to room in rotten box carts, in all of which processes it was in the way of gathering dirt, splinters, floor filth, and the expectoration of tuberculous and other diseased workers."

The end result was:

Meat Inspection Act of 1906 which required Federal Inspection of meats destined for interstate commerce

Pure Food and Drug Act: restricted sale of patent medicines and prepared foods; forbade manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated, misbranded, or harmful foods, drugs, and liquors.

Roosevelt was also a great supporter of Conservation. He worked to stop the wanton destruction of national forests. During his administration, he added 50 federal wildlife refuges and approved five new national parks, as well as designating national monuments, one of which was the Grand Canyon.

One of those appointed by Roosevelt to protect the public interests was Gifford Pinchot, who headed the National Forestry Service.

Roosevelt gave it up in 1908, and designated as his successor William Howard Taft, his Secretary of War. The Democrats figured their previous philosophy of abandoning Bryan had backfired re-nominated him again.

Taft followed Rooseveltís advice and attacked Bryan on every issue; so as not to allow Bryan to frame the campaign issues. He claimed that a Bryan election would result in a "paralysis of business." It worked, and Taft won the election.

Roosevelt was only 50 when he left office, and went on a big-game hunt in Africa. J.P. Morgan, who hated Roosevelt said when he heard about it, "let every lion do his duty."

Taft was the largest man to ever become President. He weighed over 300 pounds. He was so large that a special bathtub had to be installed in the Whitehouse for his use. Once when he sent a telegram to a friend saying he had just come back from a horseback ride, the friend asked, "How is the horse." Taft once attended a baseball game of the old Washington Senators where he was asked to throw out the first pitch. He was quite uncomfortable in his wool suit, plus sitting in a tight chair. During the seventh inning, he got up to stretch his legs because he was so uncomfortable. When he did, the crowd thought he was leaving, and they all stood also. Thus began a tradition: the seventh inning stretch.

Taft hated politics; it wasnít suited to his temperament. He once remarked that when someone said "Mr. President," he looked around for Roosevelt. Later, he was appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the only President to serve in that capacity where he distinguished himself mightily.

In foreign affairs, Taft practiced Dollar diplomacy. (The term was coined by his critics.)

The plan was to encourage American bankers to help prop up the finances of shaky governments. He did so in Haiti in 1910 and in 1911 in the Dominican Republic.

Taft also supported and worked for the passage of a lower tariff. This was in line with old Republican values; because a low tariff did not support big business. He was considered a conservative when the political atmosphere favored progressivism. As a result, he angered and alienated many people in his own party.

One republican said that Taft had been elected to carry out Rooseveltís policies; and he was indeed carrying them outóon a stretcher.

Roosevelt in particular was offended by Taftís policies. He refused, with rather severe politeness, an invitation to visit the White House. He wrote Taft, "I shall keep my mind open and my mouth shut." Neither was easy for Roosevelt.

Roosevelt and Taft finally parted company in 1911, and Roosevelt began making noises about seeking the Republican nomination for President in 1912. He said that Taft had "sold the Square Deal down the river" and called him a "hopeless fathead."

Roosevelt gave Taft a run for his money for the nomination; but in the long run, Taftís position as the incumbent gave him the edge. Rooseveltís supporters then bolted the convention and held their own, and formed the Progressive Party. Roosevelt said of himself that he was feeling "fit as a bull moose." He said that he was "stripped to the buff and ready for the fight.

The 1912 election involved four candidates:

Republican: Taft

Progressive (Bull Moose): Roosevelt

Democrat: Woodrow Wilson

Socialist: Eugene V. Debs

During the campaign, Roosevelt was getting in a car to deliver a speech in Milwaukee when he was shot by a fanatic. He yelled at the crowd not to hurt the man, who was about to be lynched. The bullet pierced his overcoat, his glasses case, his folded speech, and broke a rib before lodging just below his lung. He insisted on continuing to make the speech, and showed the crowd his bloody shirt; told them he needed them to listen quietly, his voice was almost gone because he had been shot, but then declared, "It takes more than this to kill a Bull Moose." He wouldnít let doctors remove the bullet until after the speech.

Wilson won the election, primarily because the Republicans were divided; but he was a minority President; he had received only 43% of the popular vote.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson had been born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856. His father was a Presbyterian Minister, and he spent most of his boyhood years in Columbia, S.C. where his father was pastor of a church. He was a Ph.D. in Political Science, and had been President of Princeton University. He had never sought public office before, except when he was elected Governor of New Jersey, the office he held when he was elected President.

He was tall and thin with a long sharp face. He was very stern in his moral views, and quite democratic in his own way. While at Princeton, he had distinguished himself as a scholar and writer; but as President, he got into hot water when he tried to break up a system of social clubs, which he considered undemocratic. The old Princeton guard would not stand for that, so he had to withdraw the proposal.

He published a dissertation, Congressional Government in 1885 that is still taught at American Universities. Gates read it in his college days at U. of S.C.

Wilson believed that a politicianís duty was to promote the general welfare, rather than to protect special interests. He tended to be critical of both big business and organized labor, as well as of radicals in any form. He was similar to Roosevelt ( a member of the opposite party) in his belief that Progressive reform was the only way to prevent Radical change. One must make gradual reforms, otherwise, events will grow out of hand quickly.

The election was a high water mark for progressivism. Progressivist views were debated by all candidates. It was the first to feature presidential primaries, and it gave the Democrats national power for the first time since the Civil War. It also brought Southerners back into national and international affairs. Five of Wilsonís ten Cabinet members were from the South; William Jennings Bryan, the darling of the South, was his Secretary of State.

The election also marked the return of the Republican Party to a more conservative tone. 

As President, Wilson became the first President to address Congress in person since John Adams. Every President since Wilson has followed his lead.

In 1916, he nominated Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. Brandeis, the first Jew to be appointed, was a champion of Social Justice. Wilson also supported passage of the Federal Farm Loan Act, which created a series of Twelve Federal Land Banks, which offered loans to Farmers at low prices.

One of the Federal Reserve Banks is in Columbia. Gates worked there while in Law School. Just outside the Presidentís office is a gold fountain pen encased in a glass case; and an engraved sign which reads "Original pen used by President Wilson to sign the Federal Farm Loan Act.

Under Wilson, two acts were passed to protect farm interests. The Smith Lever Act and the Smith-Hughes Act, which provided for farm agents to act under the supervision of land grant colleges; and for agricultural and mechanical education in high schools.

Also under Wilson, the first Income Tax was passed. The Income Tax had been a part of the 16th Amendment, which had just been ratified. The rates were low: 1% on incomes of $20,000 up to 6% on incomes over 500,000.

Also under Wilson Congress passed the Federal Highways Act of 1916, which led to the creation of a numbered National Highway System.

The Seeds of the New Deal were Sown in Progressivism.

As President, Wilson was also largely responsible for the passage of the Federal Reserve Act. It created a new banking system: the Federal Reserve System. It consisted of 12 Federal Reserve Banks, each owned by member banks. (The member banks were required by law to buy stock in the Federal Reserve Bank in their region.) The operation of the Federal Reserve allowed for expansion of the money supply, and solved the old issue of gold and silver vs. paper.

During Wilsonís Presidency, Congress also revised the Sherman Anti-Trust act and strengthened the Federal Trade Commission.

Wilson was NOT strong on social justice issues as President.

He said that Child Labor laws were really state issues.

He did not support Womenís suffrage.

He had no interest in solving the problems of Blacks; in fact many members of his cabinet were racist.

The Progressivist movement got new life by the time of the 1916 election, and Wilson had to embrace a number of Progressivist programs to be re-elected; however the main reason for his re-election was that World War One was raging in Europe (no one knew there would be a second World War, so this one was simply called the Great War, or the World War.) Wilsonís campaign slogan was "he kept us out of the war."