Progressive Era

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The Progressive Era in the United States was a period of political, economic and social reform that lasted from the 1890s through the 1920s. People called it the "Progressive Era" at the time, but since then historians have debated the title, noting the incongruous growth of social movements considered reprehensible today: white supremacy and eugenics, for example, and specifically asking whether or not it was dominated by the old middle class or included ethnic workers, whether it began with Theodore Roosevelt becoming president in 1901 or started as a taxpayer revolt in the 1890s, whether it ended with World War I or continued into the 1920s, whether it was a precursor to the New Deal, and how much was influenced by European ideas. The Progressive party created by Roosevelt in 1912 was a short lived breakaway from the Republican Party, which took its name from the era.

Reform ideas

Progressivism meant expertise, and the use of science, engineering, technology and the new social sciences to identify the nation's problems, and identify ways to eliminate waste and inefficiency and to promote modernization. The reformers of the Progressive Era advocated the Efficiency Movement. Progressives assumed that anything old was encrusted with inefficient and useless practices. A scientific study of the problem would enable experts to discover the "one best solution." Progressives strongly opposed waste and corruption, and tended to assume that opponents were motivated by ignorance or corruption. They sought change in all policies at all levels of society, economy and government. Initially the movement was successful at local level, and then it progressed to state and gradually national. The reformers (and their opponents) were predominantly members of the middle class. Most were well educated, white, Protestants who lived in the cities. Catholics, Jews and African Americans had their own versions of the Progressive Movement. See George Cardinal Mundelein, Oscar Straus and Booker T. Washington.

Women came to the fore in the Progressive era and proved their value as social workers. The suffrage movement was a key part of Progressivism. It started in the west (with California giving the women the vote in 1912 after several smaller states), and moved east. It was opposed by ethnic machines in the northeast and traditionalists in the South, but finally became law by Constitutional amendment (the 19th) in August 1920.

The Progressives pushed for social justice, general equality and public safety, but there were contradictions within the movement, especially regarding race. To many Progressives, especially in the South, black suffrage was a corrupting force (the votes were presumably purchased or controlled by ministers) and had to be minimized. The Catholics had their own version of the movement which they applied to their schools, colleges, and hospitals.

Almost all major politicians declared their adherence to some progressive measures. In politics the most prominent national figures were Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette and Democrats William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson.

The Progressives tried to permanently fix their reforms into law by constitutional amendments, included Prohibition with the 18th Amendment and women's suffrage by the 19th amendment, both in 1920 as well as the federal income tax with the 16th amendment and direct election of senators with the 17th amendment. After Progressivism collapsed, the 18th amendment was repealed (in 1933).


Muckrakers were journalists who exposed waste, corruption and scandal in the highly influential new medium of national magazines, such as McClure's. Progressives shared a common belief in the ability of science, technology and disinterested expertise to identify all problems and come up with the one best solution.

Purifying democracy

Progressives moved to enable the citizenry to rule more directly and circumvent political bosses; California, Wisconsin and Oregon took the lead. California and Oregon established the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. About 16 states began using Primary elections. Many cities set up municipal reference bureaus to study the budgets and administrative structures of local governments. In Illinois, governor Frank Lowden undertook a major reorganization of state government. In Wisconsin, the stronghold of Robert LaFollette, the Wisconsin Idea, inspired by Charles McCarthy, used the state university as the source of ideas and expertise.

Progressive politics

The "Bull Moose" or "Progressive" party was the instrument created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 in his effort to punish President William Howard Taft for "stealing" the Republican nomination. Political progressivism was a powerful force at the national level, and in the first dozen years of the century Roosevelt was its most articulate spokesman. Roosevelt, trained as a biologist and naturalist, identified himself and his programs with the mystique of science. The other side of Progressivism was a burning hatred of corruption and a fear of powerful and dangerous forces, such as political machines, labor unions and "trusts" (large corporations.) Roosevelt, the former deputy sheriff on the Dakota frontier, and police commissioner of New York City, knew evil when he saw it and was dedicated to destroying it. Roosevelt's moralistic determination set the tone of national politics.


Trusts were a major issue, with public opinion fearing that large corporations could impose monopolistic prices to cheat the consumer and squash small independent companies. By 1904, 318 trusts controlled about two-fifths of the nation's manufacturing output, not to mention powerful trusts in non-manufacturing sectors such as railroads, local transit, and banking. Roosevelt's Justice Department launched 44 antitrust suits.

TR moves left 1907-1912

By 1907-08, his last two years in office, Roosevelt was increasingly distrustful of big business, despite its close ties to the Republican party in every large state. Roosevelt, freely lambasting his critics and conservative judges, called on Congress to enact a series of radical new laws that would regulate the economy. He wanted a national incorporation law (all corporations had state charters, which varied greatly state by state), a federal income tax and inheritance tax (both targeted on the rich), limits on the use of court injunctions against labor unions during strikes (injunctions were a powerful weapon that mostly helped business), an employee liability law for industrial injuries (pre-empting state laws), an eight-hour law for federal employees, a postal savings system (to provide competition for local banks), and, finally, campaign reform laws. None of his agenda was enacted, and Roosevelt carried over the ideas into the 1912 campaign. Roosevelt's increasingly radical stance proved popular in the Midwest and Pacific Coast, and among farmers, teachers, clergymen, clerical workers and some proprietors, but was appeared as divisive and unnecessary to eastern Republicans, corporate executives, lawyers, party workers, and Congressmen.

Taft elected

Roosevelt certified Taft a genuine "progressive" in 1908 when he pushed through the nomination of his uncharismatic Secretary of War. With most northern states safely Republican, Taft easily won. He defeated William Jennings Bryan, who was running his third race, this time claiming that he not Taft was the true progressive. Taft sincerely considered himself a "progressive" because in his deep belief in "The Law" as the scientific device that should be used by judges to solve society's problems.

Taft proved an inept politician. Who could follow Roosevelt, perhaps the most charismatic national figure ever? Anyway Taft lacked the energy and personal magnetism, not to mention the publicity devices, the dedicated supporters, and the broad base of public support that made Roosevelt so formidable. When Roosevelt realized that lowering the tariff would risk severe tensions inside the GOP, pitting producers (manufacturers and farmers) against department stores and consumers, he stopped talking about the issue. Taft ignored the risks and tackled the tariff boldly. He negotiated a breakthrough treaty with Canada that would sharply lower tariffs with the nation's largest trading partner. Taft hurt himself in the Midwest, where farmers feared an influx of competitive products, and yet he never reaped the benefits because Canadians revolted against the possibility of American domination, and rejected the treaty. Pushing a new tariff through Congress, Taft on the one hand encouraged reformers to fight for lower rates, then cut deals with conservative leaders that kept overall rates high. The resulting Payne-Aldrich tariff of 1909 was too high for most reformers, but instead of blaming this on Nelson Aldrich and big business, Taft took credit, calling it the best tariff ever. Again he had managed to alienate all sides.

Unlike Roosevelt, Taft never attacked business or businessmen in his rhetoric. However he was attentive to the law, so he launched 90 antitrust suits, including one against the largest corporation, U.S. Steel for an acquisition that Roosevelt had personally approved. The upshot was that Taft lost the support of antitrust reformers (who disliked his conservative rhetoric), of big business (which disliked his actions), and of Roosevelt, who felt repudiated by his protegé.

Under the leadership of Senators Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and Albert Beveridge of Indiana, Midwestern GOP progressives increasingly became party insurgents, battling both Taft and the conservative wing of the Republican party. The tariff issue initially brought the insurgents together, but they broadened their attack to cover a wide range of issues. In 1910 they cooperated with Democrats to reduce the power of Speaker Joe Cannon, a key conservative. In 1911 LaFollette created the National Progressive Republican League to defeat the power of political bossism at the state level, and to replace Taft at the national level. More trouble came when Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, a leading conservationist and close ally of Roosevelt, who had alleged that Taft's Secretary of Interior was in league with big timber interests. Conservationists sided with Pinchot, as Taft alienated yet another vocal constituency. Roosevelt, back from Europe, launched an attack on the federal courts, which deeply upset Taft. In the 1910 Congressional elections, Democrats swept to power and Taft's reelection in 1912 was increasingly in doubt.

TR breaks with Taft, 1911

Late in 1911 Roosevelt finally broke with Taft and announced as a candidate for the Republican nomination. Most of LaFollette's supporters went over to Roosevelt, leaving the Wisconsin Senator embittered. Roosevelt, stepping up his attack on judges, carried 9 of the states with preferential primaries, LaFollette took two, and Taft only one. Most professional Republican politicians were supporting Taft, and they proved difficult to upset in non-primary states. In a decisive move, Taft's people purchased support of corrupt politicians who represented the shadow Republican party in southern states that were overwhelmingly Democratic. Taft delegates beat back challenges to their southern delegations, proving that Taft had a slim majority at the Republican national convention. Roosevelt's people had made similar purchases in the South 1904, but this time the Rough Rider called foul. Not since 1872 had there been a major schism in the Republican party; with the Democrats holding about 45% of the national vote, any schism would be fatal. Unable to tolerate the personal humiliation he suffered at the hands of Taft and the Old Guard, and refusing to entertain the possibility of a compromise candidate, Roosevelt struck back hard. Outvoted, Roosevelt pulled his delegates off the convention floor and decided to form a third party.

Third Party

Roosevelt, Pinchot, Beveridge and their allies created the "Progressive Party" structuring it as a permanent organization that would field complete tickets at the presidential and state level. It was popularly known as the "Bull Moose Party." At his Chicago convention Roosevelt cried out, "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord." The crusading rhetoric resonated well with the delegates, many of them long-time reformers, crusaders, activists and opponents of politics as usual. Included in the ranks were Jane Addams and other feminists and peace activists. The platform echoed Roosevelt's 1907-8 proposals, calling for vigorous government intervention to protect the people from the selfish interests.

The great majority of Republican governors, congressmen, editors and local leaders refused to join the new party, even if they had supported Roosevelt before. Only five of the 15 most prominent progressive Republicans in the Senate endorsed the new party; three came out for Wilson. For men expecting a future in politics, bolting the party ticket was simply too radical a step; for others it was safer to go with Wilson, and quite a few supporters of progressivism had doubts about the reliability of Roosevelt's beliefs. If The Bull Moose had only run a presidential ticket, it might have attracted many more Republicans willing to split their ballot. But the progressive movement was strongest at the state level, and therefore the new party had to field candidates for governor and state legislature. In Pittsburgh, the local Republican boss, at odds with state party leaders, joined Roosevelt's cause. In California, Governor Hiram Johnson and the Bull Moosers took control of the regular Republicans party; Taft was not even listed on the California ballot. Johnson became Roosevelt's running-mate. In most states there were full Republican and Progressive tickets in the field, thus splitting the Republican vote. The Socialist party, also troubled by deep internal divisions, again nominated Eugene Debs, their best stump speaker. The central problem faced by the Bull Moosers was that the Democrats were more united and optimistic than they had been in years

Wilson the Democrat

The Bull Moosers fancied they had a chance to win by drawing out progressive elements from both the Republican and Democratic parties, That dream evaporated in July, when after 46 roll calls the Democrats unexpectedly rejected party hacks such as Champ Clark and instead nominated their most articulate and prominent progressive, Woodrow Wilson. As the crusading governor of New Jersey, Wilson had attracted national attention. As a leading educator and political scientist, he qualified as the ideal "expert" to handle affairs of state. Wilson appealed to regular Democrats, to progressive Democrats, and to independent progressives of the sort Roosevelt was targeting. Half or more of the independent progressives flocked to Wilson's camp, both because of Wilson's policies and in the expectation of victory, leaving the Bull Moose party high and dry. Roosevelt haters, such as LaFollette, also voted for Wilson instead of wasting their vote on Taft who could never win. Roosevelt nonetheless conducted a vigorous national campaign, denouncing the way the Republican nomination had been "stolen." He bundled together his reforms under the rubric of "The New Nationalism" and stumped the country for a strong federal role in regulating the economy, and, especially, watching and chastising bad corporations and overruling federal and state judges who made unprogressive decisions. Wilson called for a "New Freedom," which emphasized individualism rather than the collectivism that Roosevelt was promoting. Once he was in office, however, Wilson in practice supported reforms that resembled Roosevelt's collectivism more than his own individualism. Taft, knowing he had no chance to win, campaigned quietly, emphasizing the superior role of judges over the demagogy of elected officials. The departure of the more extreme progressives left the conservatives even more firmly in control of the GOP, and many of the Old Guard leaders distrusted Taft as a bit too progressive for their taste, especially on matters of antitrust and tariffs. Much of the Republican effort was designed to discredit Roosevelt as a dangerous radical, but the people knew the Rough Rider too well to buy that argument. The result was the weakest Republican effort in history. All three national campaigns were suspended for a while in October, as Roosevelt recuperated from an assassination attempt. (The bullet was partly absorbed by the text of a long speech in Roosevelt's pocket; bleeding and slightly dazed, he insisted on finishing the speech before being rushed off to the hospital.)

Party funding

The most serious problem faced by the Progressive Party was money. The business interests who usually funded Republican campaigns were either sitting this one out, or supporting Taft. Newspaper publisher Frank Munsey provided most of the funds, with large sums also given by George W. Perkins. Perkins was a divisive factor; a former top official of U.S. Steel, he single-handedly removed the antitrust plank from the Progressive platform. Radicals such as Pinchot deeply distrusted Perkins and Munsey, though realizing the fledgling party depended on their deep pockets. A few newspapers endorsed Roosevelt, including the Chicago Tribune, but the great majority stood behind Taft or Wilson. Lacking a strong party press, the Bull Moosers had to spend most of their money on publicity.

Election results 1912

Roosevelt succeeded in his main goal of punishing Taft; with 4.1 million votes (27%) he ran well ahead of Taft's 3.5 million (23%). However, Wilson's 6.3 million votes (42%) was enough to garner 435 electoral votes. Taft, with two small states, Vermont and Utah, had 8 electoral votes. Roosevelt had 88: Pennsylvania was his only Eastern state; in the Midwest he carried Michigan, Minnesota and South Dakota; in the West, California and Washington; in the South, nothing. The Democrats gained ten seats in the Senate, just enough to form a majority, and 63 new House seats to solidify their control there. Progressive statewide candidates trailed about 20 percent behind Roosevelt's vote. Almost all, including Beveridge of Indiana, went down to defeat; the only governor elected was Johnson of California. Seventeen Bull Moosers were elected to Congress, and perhaps 250 to local office. Outside California there obviously was no real base to the party beyond the personality of himself.

Bull Moose party disintegrates

Roosevelt had scored a second-place finish, but he trailed so far behind Wilson that everyone realized his party would never win the White House. With the poor performance at state and local levels in 1912, the steady defection of top supporters, the failure to attract any new support, and a pathetic showing in 1914, the Bull Moose party disintegrated. Some leaders, such as Harold Ickes of Chicago, supported Wilson in 1916. Most followed Roosevelt back into the GOP, which nominated Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes had a progressive record in New York, and sat out the divisive years of 1910-1916 on the Supreme Court, so he was acceptable to all factions. The ironies were many: Taft had been Roosevelt's hand-picked successor in 1908 and the split between the two men was personal and bitter; if Roosevelt had just waited he probably would have been nominated and elected in 1916; his schism allowed the conservatives to gain control of the Republican party and left Roosevelt and his followers drifting in the wilderness. Out in California, Johnson snubbed Hughes in 1916 and threw the election to Wilson. During the Great War, Roosevelt himself moved to the right, stressing Americanism and denouncing Wilson's weak military policies. He probably would have been the 1920 GOP nominee, but he had aged rapidly and died early in 1919, aged 60, from the effects of a tropical disease. Taft went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the position he wanted far more than President. Although Franklin Roosevelt attracted Ickes and a few other prominent Bull Moosers to his cause in the 1930s, two-thirds of those still politically active rejected the New Deal.