United States History
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United States History
XVII. Progressivism and Reform

The growth of industry and cities created problems. A small number of people held a large proportion of the nation’s wealth while others fell into poverty. Workers faced long hours, dangerous conditions, poor pay, and an uncertain future. Big business became closely allied with government, and political machines, which offered services in return for votes, controlled some city governments. As the United States entered the 20th century, demand arose to combat these ills.

Progressive reformers sought to remedy the problems created by industrialization and urbanization. To progressives, economic privilege and corrupt politics threatened democracy. Never a cohesive movement, progressivism embraced many types of reform. Progressives strove, variously, to curb corporate power, to end business monopolies, and to wipe out political corruption. They also wanted to democratize electoral procedures, protect working people, and bridge the gap between social classes. Progressives turned to government to achieve their goals. National in scope, progressivism included both Democrats and Republicans. From the 1890s to the 1910s, progressive efforts affected local, state, and national politics. They also left a mark on journalism, academic life, cultural life, and social justice movements.

Crusading journalists helped shape a climate favorable to reform. Known as muckrakers, these journalists revealed to middle class readers the evils of economic privilege, political corruption, and social injustice. Their articles appeared in McClure’s Magazine and other reform periodicals. Some muckrakers focused on corporate abuses. Ida Tarbell, for instance, exposed the activities of the Standard Oil Company. In The Shame of the Cities (1904), Lincoln Steffens dissected corruption in city government. In Following the Color Line (1908), Ray Stannard Baker criticized race relations. Other muckrakers assailed the Senate, railroad practices, insurance companies, and fraud in patent medicine.

Novelists, too, revealed corporate injustices. Theodore Dreiser drew harsh portraits of a type of ruthless businessman in The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). In The Jungle (1906) Socialist Upton Sinclair repelled readers with descriptions of Chicago’s meatpacking plants, and his work led to support for remedial legislation. Leading intellectuals also shaped the progressive mentality. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen attacked the “conspicuous consumption” of the wealthy. Educator John Dewey emphasized a child-centered philosophy of pedagogy, known as progressive education, which affected schoolrooms for three generations.

A. Progressivism in the Cities and States

As a political movement, progressivism arose at the local and state levels in the 1890s. Urban reformers attacked political machines run by corrupt bosses and monopolies in municipal services such as electricity or gas. To address these problems, they promoted professional city managers and advocated public ownership of utilities.

The social settlement movement, which originated in cities in the 1890s, also became a force for progressive reform at the local level. Settlement houses offered social services to the urban poor, especially immigrants. Pioneering settlement houses, such as Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889, provided nurseries, adult education classes, and recreational opportunities for children and adults. Settlements spread rapidly. There were 100 settlement houses in 1900, 200 in 1905, and 400 in 1910. Settlement leaders joined the battle against political machines and endorsed many other progressive reforms.

At the state level, progressives campaigned for electoral reforms to allow the people to play a more direct role in the political process. Some Western states adopted practices that expanded voter rights, including the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. Under the initiative, citizens could sign petitions to force legislatures to vote on particular bills. With the referendum, a proposal could be placed on the ballot to be decided by a vote at election time. Using the recall, voters could petition to oust officials from their jobs. Progressives also supported the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, which provides for election of U.S. senators directly by vote of the people, rather than indirectly by state legislatures.

Progressive reformers used the states as laboratories of reform. For instance, Wisconsin governor Robert La Follette, who held office from 1901 to 1906, introduced progressive changes such as establishing a commission to supervise railroad practices and raising state taxes on corporations. Following Wisconsin’s example, one state after another passed laws to regulate railroads and businesses.

Progressives also focused on labor reform at the state level. They sought to eliminate (or at least regulate) child labor, to cut workers’ hours, and to establish a minimum wage. By 1907 progressive efforts had led 30 states to abolish child labor. In Muller v. Oregon (1908), the Supreme Court upheld a state law that limited women factory workers to a ten-hour day, and many states began to regulate women’s working hours. Progressives also endorsed workmen’s compensation (an insurance plan to aid workers injured on the job) and an end to homework (piecework done in tenements). In New York’s Triangle Fire of 1911, many women leapt to their deaths from a burning shirtwaist factory. The tragedy reminded people of the need for higher safety standards in factories and the need to protect workers from unscrupulous employers.

Some progressive reformers supported causes that had a coercive or repressive dimension, such as Prohibition, a movement to prevent the manufacture, sale, or use of alcohol. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874, had long campaigned against alcohol. In 1895 the Anti-Saloon League of America joined the crusade. Together they worked to gain support for the 18th Amendment, which provided for Prohibition. The amendment was ratified in 1919 and remained law until 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed it. Progressive moral fervor also emerged in campaigns to combat prostitution and to censor films. Finally, some progressives endorsed other restrictive causes, now seen as ungenerous or inhumane, such as a campaign against immigration or support for eugenics, a movement to control reproduction in order to improve the human race.

Progressive causes won support from a broad section of the middle class—editors, teachers, professionals, and business leaders—who shared common values. Progressive supporters appreciated order, efficiency, and expertise; they championed investigation, experimentation, and cooperation. Many, including some progressive employers, sought regulations to make business practices more fair and break up monopolies. To regulate business, however, progressives had to wield influence on the national level.

B. Progressivism at the National Level

When progressives began to work for reform at the national level, their major goal was government regulation of business. Seeking antitrust laws to eliminate monopolies, they also supported lower tariffs, a graduated income tax, and a system to control currency. They found a spokesperson in President Theodore Roosevelt.

Regulation, Roosevelt believed, was the only way to solve the problems caused by big business. A leading publicist for progressive ideals, Roosevelt became known as a trustbuster. He revived the Sherman Antitrust Act, vigorously enforcing it to break up large trusts that reduced competition and controlled prices. He also pursued a railroad monopoly, took on the meatpacking trust, and attacked oil, tobacco, and other monopolies. In 1906 Roosevelt helped push through a meat inspection act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Hepburn Act. This law expanded the regulatory powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the agency that regulated commercial activity crossing state lines.

Roosevelt was also a leading nature conservationist who wanted to preserve the nation’s natural resources. He withdrew thousands of acres of forests, mineral lands, and waterpower sites from the public domain to protect them from exploitation by private interests. Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks and established many national monuments and wildlife refuges. He also supported a 1902 law to provide irrigation and hydroelectric development by building dams on some of the nation’s rivers.

Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, was more conservative, and domestic reforms slowed during his administration. He reluctantly signed a bill in 1909 that slightly raised tariffs, but he aggressively pursued twice as many antitrust proceedings. Taft won major victories against Standard Oil Company and American Tobacco Company, which were ordered by the Supreme Court to break into smaller, competing firms. Taft also signed laws for progressive measures such as raising corporation taxes.

Taft lost support in 1912, however, when Roosevelt, who disagreed with him on tariff policy and railroad regulation, entered the presidential race as head of the new Progressive Party. Roosevelt’s program of New Nationalism sought state regulation of big business. New Jersey’s progressive governor, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, envisioned more limited federal power. Wilson supported an effort to destroy monopoly and aid small business through tariff reduction, banking reform, and tightening of antitrust laws. His program was known as the New Freedom.

Progressivism reached its peak during Wilson’s first term as president. In 1913 Wilson signed the Underwood Tariff, which reduced taxes on imported goods. The bill also included an income tax, permitted by the new 16th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Wilson supported the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which created a centralized banking system to act as a lender of last resort to forestall bank crises and to permit a more elastic currency, one that could be readily expanded or contracted to suit the national need.

To curb trusts, Wilson pushed through Congress the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 (see Federal Trade Commission). The law established a commission with authority to prevent business practices that could lead to a monopoly. He also supported the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, a statute intended to bolster the poorly enforced Sherman Act. The new law banned interlocking directorates, in which a few people controlled an industry by serving simultaneously as directors of related corporations. It also exempted labor unions from the category of illegal combinations and gave workers the right to strike. Finally, Wilson appointed Louis Brandeis, a leading critic of big business, to the Supreme Court. Full of moral fervor, Wilson carried progressive goals into World War I, which the United States entered in 1917.

C. African Americans in the Progressive Era

Despite their zeal for reform, few progressives made race relations a priority, and in the South, leading progressives often endorsed racist policies. In 1900 more than two-thirds of 10 million African Americans lived in the South; most were sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Rural or urban, Southern blacks faced poverty, discrimination, and limited employment opportunities. At the end of the 19th century, Southern legislatures passed Jim Crow laws that separated blacks and whites in public places (see Segregation in the United States). Because blacks were deprived of the right to vote by the grandfather clause, poll taxes, or other means, their political participation was limited. Lynching increased, and a steady stream of black migrants moved north. From 1890 to 1910, some 200,000 African Americans left the South, and even more moved out during World War I. For more information, see United States (People): Major Migrations of the U.S. Population: Black Migration.

As African Americans tried to combat racism and avoid racial conflict, they clashed over strategies of accommodation and resistance. Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, urged blacks to be industrious and frugal, to learn manual skills, to become farmers and artisans, to work their way up economically, and to win the respect of whites. When blacks proved their economic value, Washington argued, racism would decline. An agile politician, with appeal to both whites and blacks, Washington urged African Americans to adjust to the status quo. In 1895, in a speech that critics labeled the Atlanta Compromise, Washington contended that blacks and whites could coexist in harmony with separate social lives but united in efforts toward economic progress.

Northern intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Washington’s policy. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois deplored Washington’s call for patience and for cultivation of manual skills. Instead he urged equal educational opportunities and the end of discrimination. In 1909 Du Bois joined a group of progressives, black and white, to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP strove to end the disfranchisement of black people, to abolish segregation, and to promote black civil and political rights.

D. The Women’s Movement

Middle-class women and progressive reformers shared common goals. In the progressive era, women made great advances in higher education, the professions, and women’s organizations. By 1910, for instance, when about 5 percent of college-age Americans attended college, about 40 percent were women. Activist women joined organizations such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, a women’s volunteer service organization founded in 1890. The National Consumers’ League (1899) and the Women’s Trade Union League (1903) spearheaded efforts to limit women’s work hours and to organize women in unions. College students read Women and Economics (1898) by feminist intellectual Charlotte Perkins Gilman; college graduates worked in settlement houses; and homemakers joined women’s clubs to promote civic improvement. Reformer Florence Kelley led the charge for child labor laws and other measures to protect workers. On the left, anarchist Emma Goldman, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and feminist Crystal Eastman promoted aspects of women’s rights.

Settlement leaders, women’s clubs, and temperance groups supported progressive measures. The woman suffrage movement, in turn, won progressive support. Women had been fighting for the right to vote since the passage of the 15th Amendment gave voting rights to black men. In 1869 two rival organizations formed to support voting rights for women on state and federal levels. In 1890 the competing suffrage groups united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which pursued the battle in the states. As late as 1909, women could vote in only four states (Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado), but momentum picked up. Suffragists used more aggressive tactics, such as parades, rallies, and marches, and gained ground. They won a key victory by gaining the right to vote in New York State in 1917, which helped empower them for their final push during World War I.

E. Foreign Affairs

Progressive presidents sought to impose order on the world, and especially to find markets for American products. For example, Roosevelt believed that a world power such as the United States was obliged to maintain global peace. He brought Russia and Japan together to sign a treaty in 1905 that ended the Russo-Japanese War and gave Japan rights in Korea. Roosevelt also supported expansion of U.S. influence abroad.

Roosevelt intervened in Latin America to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; the canal would link U.S. East Coast ports with East Asia. The United States negotiated a treaty with Colombia for rights to build a canal in Panama, at that time controlled by Colombia. When the Colombian Congress rejected the treaty, Roosevelt encouraged Panamanian desire for independence from Colombia. This tactic succeeded, and a revolution occurred. The United States promptly recognized the new government of Panama and negotiated a treaty that enabled Americans to build the Panama Canal.

Latin Americans questioned Roosevelt’s high-handed maneuver. They also objected to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine, announced in 1823, declared that the United States had the right to exclude foreign powers from expanding in the western hemisphere. It had protected weak 19th-century Latin American nations from powerful European nations. The Roosevelt Corollary, in contrast, stated that “chronic” wrongdoing on the part of Latin American nations entitled the United States to intervene in the affairs of those nations. Most Latin Americans saw Roosevelt’s policy as a form of imperialism.

Roosevelt applied his corollary first to the Dominican Republic, which had trouble paying its debts to other nations. Roosevelt feared that a European power might occupy the country to force repayment of debts. The United States therefore ran the Dominican Republic’s custom service for two years and used money collected there to pay the nation’s debts.

Relations with Japan also became an issue during Roosevelt’s administration. A conflict erupted in 1906 over Japanese immigration to the United States. Prejudice against Japanese immigrants caused a crisis when San Francisco forced Asian children into a separate school. The Japanese government protested. In a “gentlemen’s agreement” in 1907, both nations agreed to discourage immigration from Japan. In the Root-Takahira agreement of 1908, Japan and the United States agreed to respect the territorial integrity of China and the Open Door Policy.

Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, adopted a policy that critics called dollar diplomacy; he encouraged U.S. bankers and industrialists to invest abroad, especially in Latin America. He hoped they would replace European lenders and build American influence in the area. The policy, however, led the United States into unpopular military ventures. For instance, the nation became involved in a civil war in Nicaragua, where the United States in 1909 supported the overthrow of the country’s leader and sustained a reactionary regime.

Woodrow Wilson, an idealist and humanitarian, disliked imperialism and rejected dollar diplomacy. He hoped to establish benevolent relations with other nations and wanted the United States to serve as a force for good in the world. However, in 1913, the United States landed marines in Nicaragua to ensure that its choice for Nicaraguan president would remain in power. The Wilson administration then drew up a treaty with Nicaragua that reduced the country to virtual dependency. In addition, U.S. troops occupied Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916. American business interests continued to prevail in Latin America.

Finally, Wilson came close to involving the United States in a war with Mexico. In 1913, two years after the Mexican Revolution, Mexico’s new president was assassinated, and a reactionary general, Victoriano Huerta, took control. Wilson refused to recognize Huerta’s unjust regime. Many Mexicans who disliked Huerta, however, also resented Wilson’s intervention in Mexican affairs. Both sides were poised to fight in 1914, when a confrontation between American sailors and Huerta’s forces broke out at Veracruz. Wilson accepted the mediation of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, but then supported Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a bandit, until Villa crossed the border and massacred Americans. Wilson sent U.S. troops to pursue Villa in 1916. The United States withdrew in 1917, which ended American involvement but left a legacy of distrust in Mexico and Latin America.

Historians debate the impact of progressivism at home and abroad. Some criticize the progressives’ desire for order and control, their reluctance to criticize capitalism, and progressivism’s coercive or restrictive side. Big business, critics contend, eluded progressive regulations. Other historians applaud progressive initiatives and find in them precedents for New Deal measures of the 1930s. According to more favorable interpretations, progressivism expanded democracy, challenged the close alliance of government and business, considered the public interest, and protected some of the more vulnerable Americans.

Above all, progressivism changed American attitudes toward the power of government. In 1917 Americans turned their attention from domestic concerns to foreign affairs as the United States became involved in World War I.