progressive era

Copyright © Henry J. Sage 2012, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt: The Republican Progressive

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

t. RooseveltTheodore Roosevelt was born to a wealthy family in New York City and raised in a warm and loving family. Although he adored his father—“the best man I ever knew”—, he later wrote that his father was the only man whom he ever really feared. He explained that it was a good kind of fear based upon respect. As a sickly and myopic youth, Theodore required frequent medical attention and was schooled at home by tutors. But his father suggested a vigorous program of physical activity, exercises and fresh air as a cure for the child’s asthma. Eyeglasses corrected his vision problem, and for the rest of his life, TR, as he was commonly known, was physically robust and fond of exercise..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Progressive Era

2The Progressive Era, which lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s, was an age of reform, the nation’s response to the industrial revolution. Its effects touched virtually all Americans and transformed the role of government in American society. Although some areas of American life, namely, racial issues and women's rights, were neglected during the progressive age, the groundwork was laid for future reforms in those areas and others.

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

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

The opening lines of the poem define the mood:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals of the Progressive Movement

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

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

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

Link to More Information about the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.

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

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

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

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

Big, Bad Business

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

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

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

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

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

Investigative Journalism at Work: The Muckrakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advancing Democracy: Progressives and the Political Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regulation of Business

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

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

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

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

Social Justice: Aid to the Urban Poor

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

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

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

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

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

(See “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.)

Theodore Roosevelt the Progressive: Round One

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

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

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

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

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

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

teddy bear cartoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement of Progressivism: The Election of 1912

bull moose cartoon







The election of 1912 has been seen as a strong endorsement of the Progressive Movement by American voters. Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate for president, was nominated by the Democratic Party even though he had served only two years in public office as governor of New Jersey. Nevertheless, in that short time he had established his progressive credentials, and had also left a record of progressive reforms at the elite Princeton University, of which he had been president. Since the Democratic Party had evolved as the party that tended to support the working classes, a vote for Wilson was seen as a vote for progressivism.

On the Republican side, Theodore Roosevelt’s break with Taft was complete, and in 1912 he challenged the incumbent president for the Republican nomination. Taft, however, had sufficient control of the Republican Party machinery that he was able to secure the nomination. Frustrated, Roosevelt and his supporters bolted and formed the Progressive Party, with Roosevelt their candidate. When asked how he was feeling during the election campaign, Roosevelt replied, “I feel as fit as a bull moose!” Thus his party became known as the Bull Moose Party. In the election Roosevelt out polled the incumbent president of his previous  party by about one million votes. The political press, always relishing an opportunity to cover the colorful TR, was delighted that he was back in the race. Cartoonists had a ball with the “latest arrival at the political zoo.” (Left)


During the campaign, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin on his way to deliver a campaign address. The bullet was slowed somewhat by the thick speech manuscript in his jacket pocket. Although the bullet did pierce his body, causing bleeding, the indomitable Roosevelt nevertheless delivered his speech. At the end, he proudly displayed the blood-stained manuscript. “You see,” cried the colonel, holding up the manuscript so that the audience could see the bullet hole through the sheets of paper, “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!”

—From the Detroit Free Press.

Thus was named the Bull Moose Party!

1912 Election Results



Popular Vote

Electoral Vote

Woodrow Wilson




Theodore Roosevelt




William Howard Taft




Eugene Victor Debs




Labor leader Eugene Debs ran as a Socialist in 1912. Although the nation was not ready to elect a Socialist president, the fact that Debs got close to one million votes also suggested that people were concerned about the excesses of capitalism. Thus in the election overall, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs won approximately 75% of the popular vote. Because the Republican vote was split between Roosevelt and Taft, Woodrow Wilson was elected in the Electoral College. The presidential election of 1912 was not the first in which a third party helped determined the outcome. No third party has, however, changed an election outcome since that time.

Woodrow Wilson: Doctor in the White House

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, December 29, 1856, son of a Presbyterian minister. The family moved to Augusta, Georgia when he was two. His family lived in the path of Sherman's march to the sea in 1864, an event no doubt burned into his memory. Wilson was educated largely at home until he was nine. He spent one year at Davidson College, then went on to Princeton, graduating in the class of 1879. Although born in Virginia, Wilson was not necessarily seen as a Southerner because of his years in the North. Yet his views did to some extent reflect his Southern heritage.

He tried studying law at the University of Virginia Law School, but withdrew. He then went to Johns Hopkins University to study politics and history. In 1885 he published “Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics,” which was later accepted as his doctoral dissertation, awarded to him in 1886. He is the only U.S. president to have earned a Ph.D. He married in 1885, had three daughters, and was a good husband and father.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was always interested in politics, and was very ambitious. He was a severe intellectual and an admirer of Robert E. Lee. God was a strong factor in Wilson's life, and he believed in the virtue of the honest citizen. He once said, “The very conception of America is based upon the validity of the judgments of the average man,” a sentiment with which Thomas Jefferson would have heartily agreed.

Wilson’s career was mostly in academia as a professor and football coach at various schools, including Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, and the University of Connecticut. In 1889 he published another work, “The State.”   In 1890 he went to Princeton and became a popular teacher. Twelve years later he was the first non-clergyman to become president of Princeton. He instituted many reforms, wrestled with a conservative faculty and put many progressive ideas of education to work.

Wilson had few close friends, but in close circles he could be witty and charming. He was voted most popular member of Princeton faculty four times. According to biographer Ray Stannard Baker, Wilson possessed “The finest mind in public life.” Yet he often came across as grim, dry, ascetic, and professorial in larger circles. His stubborn attitude of moral superiority complicated his political life and handicapped him once he was in office.

In 1910 Wilson was invited to run for governor of New Jersey as a progressive candidate on the Democratic ticket. He resigned from Princeton and was elected. As governor he fought machine politics and built a solid reputation as reformer. Nevertheless, some of his more liberal critics felt he was “conservative if not reactionary.” In any case New Jersey was a leader in the Progressive movement, and in 1912, after an endorsement by three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, Wilson was nominated by Progressive Democrats on the 46th ballot. Governor T. R. Marshall of Indiana was elected vice president but had virtually no role in Wilson’s administration.

Wilson was a “transitional figure in the emergence of the new consciousness.” He was stubborn, self-righteous and no shy violet in politics; he had learned how to be tough as a college president, and he certainly knew a lot about politics. He was called “ambitious, capable . . . and of a disconcerting ruthlessness.” His biographers suspect that he had had his eye on the White House all along. Physically he was something of a wreck, suffering from frequent headaches and indigestion, but he was always a vigorous politician with a strong mind. (Page Smith, A People’s History of the Progressive Era and World War I: American Enters the World (New York, 1985), pp. 311, 318.)

Wilson's first wife died in 1914 while he was in the White House, and he married Edith Galt in 1915 after a whirlwind courtship. When Wilson later became incapacitated from his stroke, Edith Wilson became in the minds of some the first woman acting president of the United States. She controlled access to her husband and brought him documents to sign, occasionally offering guidance on courses actions he should follow.

As mentioned above Wilson pursued his progressive goals with vigor, and his domestic accomplishments are notable. But his legacy, like his presidency, became dominated by his performance in the international arena. He continued America's intervention in Latin America, with the highest of motives, and also reluctantly led the United States into World War I in 1917. As the first incumbent American president to travel to Europe, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Versailles and was largely responsible for the creation of the League of Nations. (See following section.)

Woodrow Wilson as Progressive: Round Two

Although Woodrow Wilson benefited from the Republican split, he nevertheless ran a spirited campaign and assumed office fully prepared to continue to advance the Progressive cause. Although there was no love lost between Roosevelt and Wilson, to say the least, the two Progressives were not far apart in terms of political positions. Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech of 1910, in which he reasserted his call for a square deal, sounds much like Wilson’s “New Freedom,” which he articulated in his first inaugural address. (See Appendix.)

One of Wilson’s first accomplishments was his signing of Underwood Tariff on October 3, 1913, which provided the first substantial reductions of rates on imported goods and was a move intended to reduce the cost of living. It still included protectionist measures, but took into account the needs of consumers as well.

Ever since Andrew Jackson had “killed” the National Bank with his 1832 veto, the country had been without a comprehensive national banking system. Believing the control of banking and currency should ultimately rest in government hands, Wilson sponsored the Federal Reserve Act of December, 1913. The act divided the country into 12 districts, each with its own Federal Reserve Bank, all of which would be controlled by the Federal Reserve Board (known today as “the Fed.”) Once again the nation had a central banking system.

The Mission of the Federal Reserve Board states:

The Federal Reserve System is the central bank of the United States. It was founded by Congress in 1913 to provide the nation with a safer, more flexible, and more stable monetary and financial system. Over the years, its role in banking and the economy has expanded.

What the Fed actually does is control the value of money by adjusting interest rates which member banks pay to the Federal Reserve System for funds they use to conduct business. Interest rates are adjusted up or down to control inflation or to stimulate business growth. Everything from mortgage loan rates to credit card interest is affected to some extent by the interest rate charged by the Fed. The stock market often reacts sharply to interest rate changes announced by the Fed. The system was designed to prevent abuses that occurred when banks overreached their gold and silver reserves and issued more paper than they could back, which sometimes led to financial panic or bank failures.

Under Wilson’s leadership to Congress also created the Federal Trade Commission, whose purpose was to prevent “unfair methods of competition” by businesses conducting interstate commerce. The Clayton Antitrust Act expanded the scope of the Sherman Antitrust Act to cover such things as interlocking directorates (boards of directors having members in common), price discrimination among buyers, use of court injunctions in labor disputes and multiple ownership by one corporation of stocks in similar enterprises.

Additional progressive measures supported by President Wilson included the Seamen’s Act of 1915, which was meant to ensure the safety and security of American merchant sailors. The Federal Workingmen’s Compensation Act of 1916 provided allowances for civil service workers for disabilities suffered on the job. It was the forerunner of later disability insurance programs. The Adamson Act of 1916 called for an eight-hour day for railroad workers, with extra pay for overtime. It was the first law that allowed the federal government to regulate the working hours of private companies. Wilson’s progressive programs contributed to his election victory in 1916 and strengthened his support within his own party. However, the First World War, which began in 1914, soon demanded Wilson’s full attention and began to divert him from his progressive agenda.

The greatest challenge faced by the progressives was the stubbornness of the corporate wrongdoers coupled with the weakness of the federal government. This unfortunate combination was often exacerbated by the fact that government officials frequently collaborated with businessmen in fraudulent activities. It was often difficult to get senior management officials to realize that what they were doing was wrong. Given the attitude of “social Darwinism” that had grown up in the late 19th century, many believed that all was fair in the rough-and-tumble world of business, and only the strongest and most ruthless would survive.

The Socialist Alternative

Historian of early America Carl Degler has commented that “the capitalists arrived on the first ships.” It is quite true that the Jamestown colony was begun as an investment venture; the Virginia Company was owned by stockholders who hoped for a return on their capital investment, much as modern Americans who invest in public companies hope to get. It is more than a coincidence that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, a primer of modern capitalism, was published in 1776. Early in the 19th century the shape of modern American capitalism began to emerge. The development was aided by the Supreme Court decisions of John Marshall, who helped to define the legal essence of contracts, corporations, interstate commerce, and other matters as he “made the nation safe for capitalism.”

As modern capitalism grew stronger, often wielding tremendous influence over governments and populations, reactions began to emerge, at the heart of which was publication of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in 1848 and his huge work, Das Kapital, written with Friedrich Engels. Thus, by the turn of the century, capitalism, aided by conservative political forces, was marching ahead on the right. Meanwhile, anti-capitalist forces, supported by liberals and defined by both socialism and communism, advanced on the left. Caught in between were those who, while not quite ready to condemn capitalism, certainly were sympathetic to the plight of the working class. President Theodore Roosevelt to a great extent personified that divide. (TR’s political foes accused him of being a Socialist.)

The United States attracted great attention from the international political left, especially as it grew into an economic and industrial giant. Karl Marx became interested in American capitalism even before the Civil War, and he followed that conflict with interest. For him, American slavery as it existed on Southern plantations was nothing more than a logical extension of capitalist exploitation of workers. When the headquarters of the Communist International in Paris was shut down during the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, its headquarters moved to New York City.

Among the millions of immigrants who flooded to the United States between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the First World War were many working-class people. Their sympathizers were strongly influenced by communist and socialist trends in Europe. Since the revolutions of 1848, socialist parties had grown up throughout the continent, and the dividing line between socialism and communism was in many cases barely distinguishable.

The American labor movement, discussed elsewhere in these pages as “the war between capital and labor,” was strongly influenced by the international Socialist movement. One of the most conspicuous labor groups in the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, known as the “Wobblies,” was led by many who openly embraced communism. And as the political left at its extreme edge was associated with anarchism and political violence, the entire leftist spectrum was tainted by incidents such as the Haymarket riots in Chicago.

The Progressive Movement, which gained substantial strength after 1900, can be defined in part as a protective reaction against the growing threat of communism or socialism in American economic and political life. The Progressives were behind many reforms aimed at cleaning up capitalism and protecting workers’ rights. But because the Progressive Movement did not move fast enough for some, the Socialist Party in United States gained a bit of traction. In 1912 the Socialist party under Eugene Debs won almost a million votes. The Populist Party in 1892 had had similar success, and though the Populists were not explicitly communists or socialists, their interests certainly lay in the same direction.

Although the Progressive Movement is considered to have ended with the outbreak of the First World War, the Progressive Party continued to thrive, and many liberal politicians were—and still are—comfortable being identified as Progressives. Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette garnered almost 5 million votes as the Progressive Party candidate for president in the election of 1924. When the Great Depression hit and American capitalism seemed to be crumbling, those who had embraced communism and socialism seemed vindicated. Intellectuals flocked to the Socialist camp, led by men such as Lincoln Steffens who, having visited Soviet Russia, said, “I have seen the future and it works.”

The Communist and Socialist Parties were quite visible during the election of 1936. The Communists held their convention in Madison Square Garden to rally behind their presidential candidate, Earl Browder. (He got 80,000 votes.) In 1948 Henry Wallace ran on the United States Progressive Party ticket (and American Labor); Norman Thomas ran on the Socialist ticket. The other candidates were Republican Thomas Dewey, Democrat Harry Truman, and J. Strom Thurmond, the nominee of the States’ Right Democrats or “Dixiecrat” Party. Wallace came in fourth, Norman Thomas fifth.

With the Cold War tensions on the rise, and with the rise of McCarthyism in the early 1950s, the Socialist movement began to die out. Being labeled a communist or socialist ceased to be respectable except to the fringe on the very far left of America’s political spectrum. That fringe emerged once again in the 1960s as part of the protest movement against the Vietnam War and the excesses of American capitalism; a few old Socialists became darlings of the “New Left.” But with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the end of the Cold War, the Socialist alternative in America was for a time considered dead and buried. More recently, however, government responses to the economic crisis and the debate over health care reform have awakened the notion that the nation may be drifting toward socialist solutions.

Link to Important Dates And Events Of The Progressive Era

Suggested Readings

  • H. W. Brands. TR: The Last Romantic. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
  • A. Scott Berg. Wilson. New York: Putnam, 2013.
  • Ron Chernow. Titan: A life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • --. The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance. New York: Grove Atlantic, 1990.
  • H. W. Brands. Woodrow Wilson. New York: Times Books, 2003.
  • Theodore Roosevelt. Autobiography. Various additions, Including The Library of America.
  • Kevin Phillips. William McKinley: The American Presidents Series: The 25th President, 1897-1901. New York: Times Books, 2003.
Progressive Home | Progressive Roots | Progressive Dates | Updated January 28, 2018