Progressive Era Politics Timeline
How It All Went Down
Interstate Commerce Act
Congress passes the Interstate Commerce Act, creating the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to regulate the railroads. The Supreme Court interprets the ICC's powers so narrowly that it is rendered essentially powerless by the early twentieth century.
Sherman Antitrust Act
Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act to prohibit trusts (monopolies), which have grown rapidly over recent decades. This federal legislation supplements and further strengthens many preexisting state laws that lack the power to govern interstate commerce. Any contract, combination (monopoly or otherwise), or conspiracy in restraint of interstate and foreign trade is declared illegal. Violators will be charged with maximum penalties of a $5,000 fine and imprisonment for one year. Problematically, the nation's courts use this Act to deem labor unions and agricultural cooperatives among the forbidden combinations in the restraint of trade.
President McKinley is shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.
President McKinley dies from complications relating to his shooting and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes the 26th president of the United States.
The hatters' union institutes a nationwide boycott of a non-union hat manufacturer in Danbury, Connecticut. The manufacturer sues the union for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by unlawfully combining to restrain trade.
Northern Security Antitrust
The Roosevelt administration brings an antitrust suit against the Northern Securities Company, which bankers have created in order to pool the holdings of the largest railroad tycoons.
Coal Miner Strike
Anthracite coal miners go on strike in Pennsylvania, protesting the deplorable working conditions of the mines and in the mining towns.
Coal Strike Ends
After months of striking, coal miners and their reluctant employers finally agree to an arbitration commission at President Roosevelt's behest. The commission awards the mine workers a nine-hour day and a 10% wage increase, but the United Mine Workers Union does not receive company recognition and the miners are forbidden from striking again for the next three years.
Congress passes the Elkins Act, which is intended to strengthen the Interstate Commerce Act. The Elkins Act makes it a crime for railroads to grant freight rates other than those which they have published. Railroad companies themselves have lobbied for this regulation because most are tired of the rebating practice. With rebates, some rail lines—especially the larger ones—grant off-the-books discounts to important customers. These special customers are usually trusts who demand special treatment or else threaten to take their extremely valuable business elsewhere.
Court Dissolves Northern Securities
The Supreme Court orders the dissolution of the Northern Securities Company, a trust that the Roosevelt administration has pursued for years.
Socialist author Upton Sinclair publishes The Jungle, a sensationally graphic account of the meatpacking industry in Chicago's stockyards. Sinclair is trying to raise public awareness of corporate corruption and the deplorable conditions in which poor workers toil, but most of the resulting public outcry instead centers on demand for more food safety provisions.
Food and Drug Act
Congress passes the Pure Food and Drug Act in response to exposés of the patent-drug, meatpacking, and food industries.
On the same day as it passes the Pure Food and Drug Act, Congress also approves its second Meat Inspection law to date. The U.S. Drug Administration must inspect all animals destined for human consumption—cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and swine—before they are slaughtered. Carcasses are subject to post-mortem inspections and slaughterhouses and processing plants must uphold cleanliness standards.
The Hepburn Act is passed at President Roosevelt's behest, expanding the powers of the ICC beyond railroads to express companies and other forms of transportation (like ferries, sleeping-car companies, etc.). The ICC can now reduce rates that it finds unreasonable.
A financial panic strikes the nation. Conservative Republicans incorrectly argue that Progressive reforms have caused this economic downturn. In the absence of a Federal Reserve Bank or any real regulatory control over American businesses, financiers like J.P. Morgan take steps to rectify the economic instability. Morgan pools the resources of New York banks to bail out the failing institutions that caused the recession. He also secures a guarantee from President Roosevelt that the government will not pursue antitrust action against U.S. Steel, which has recently purchased shares of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company.
President Roosevelt chooses Secretary of War William Howard Taft as his successor. Taft secures the Republican nomination and wins the presidency against Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in November.
Court Opposes Union
In the Danbury Hatters' Case, the Supreme Court decides in favor of a non-union hat manufacturer in Danbury, Connecticut. It holds that the hatters' union is in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act for unlawfully combining to restrain trade. This case indicates some of the unintended consequences (and interpretations) of antitrust legislation like the Sherman Act and sets a precedent for judicial interference with organized labor until future statutes address this issue.
Muller v. Oregon
In Muller v. Oregon, the Supreme Court holds that Oregon can constitutionally pass a law limiting women's work in factories and laundries to ten hours a day. The Court has allowed states to regulate child labor within their borders, but until now, it has taken a more restrictive approach to laws concerning the conditions of adult female workers because it used to consider such regulations to be violations of adult employees' freedom of contract. The Muller decision reverses this trend.
The word "Progressive" enters common parlance as a description of the burgeoning political movement that seeks to reform various aspects of American society and politics.
The Mann-Elkins Act is passed in order to strengthen the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Department of Labor
The Taft administration creates the Department of Labor.
Standard Oil Antitrust
The Taft administration uses the Sherman Antitrust Act to act against the Standard Oil trust and the American Tobacco Company.
Fire Ignites Public
A fire breaks out in the supposedly "fireproof" Asch building where Triangle Waist Company occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The shirtwaists that hang on lines above the workers' heads and the shirtwaist cuttings that litter the floors quickly ignite, allowing the blaze to spread rapidly. The workers are locked inside the factory; some jump to their deaths to avoid burning alive. In all, 146 people die in the blaze, all within half an hour. This incident ignites public opinion against unsafe urban working conditions and the plight of young female immigrant workers.
La Follette Collapses
During a campaign speech in Philadelphia, Senator Robert M. La Follette suffers a breakdown and collapses from exhaustion. La Follette has been the leading Progressive candidate to challenge President Taft for the Republican nomination. His setback turns out to be temporary, but it is enough for Roosevelt supporters to make their candidate the front-runner for the Progressive Party nomination within two weeks.
The Republican Party holds its convention in Chicago and nominates William Howard Taft after a fierce struggle. Teddy Roosevelt, Taft's former friend and predecessor in the White House, has been running against Taft since February for the nomination. When he doesn't win the nomination, Roosevelt bolts the party and runs for president on a separate ticket with the Progressive Party.
With the Republican vote split between Taft and Progressive candidate Roosevelt, the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson is elected president. Wilson only polls a plurality of the popular vote (41.9%), but a commanding electoral majority of 435. Roosevelt embarrasses the incumbent Taft by winning 27.4% of the votes to his 23.2%. Socialist Eugene V. Debs wins 6% of all votes cast, or just over 900,000 people.
President Wilson calls a special session of Congress to pass the Underwood-Simmons Tariff, which reduces the nation's protective tariff rates substantially for the first time since the Civil War. Progressives hope that this reform will encourage competition in the marketplace and undermine monopolization. To recoup the lost revenue, the government also passes the first income tax, levied on individuals and corporations earning over $4,000 a year.
The Sixteenth Amendment is ratified, empowering Congress to levy income taxes.
The Seventeenth Amendment is ratified, allowing for the direct election of U.S. Senators instead of through state legislators.
Federal Trade Commission Act
Wilson signs the Federal Trade Commission Act, creating the five-person Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to regulate businesses and investigate possible violations of antitrust laws. Like the ICC (its predecessor), the FTC gradually succumbs to the influence of the very businesses it is supposed to regulate.
Clayton Antitrust Act
President Wilson signs the Clayton Antitrust Act into law in order to supplement the Sherman Antitrust Act. Clayton prohibits the local price cutting that freezes out competitors, exclusive sales contracts, rebates, intercorporate stock holdings, and interlocking directorates in major corporations. Labor unions and agricultural cooperatives are expressly excluded from the category of forbidden combinations in the restraint of trade. The Act also legalizes boycotts, picketing, and peaceful strikes. It restricts the use of the injunction against organized labor, which the courts have used to break strikes and force workers to return to their jobs, yet these labor provisions are weakened by subsequent judicial interpretations.
Benjamin P. DeWitt, a twenty-four-year-old professor of English and government at New York University, publishes The Progressive Movement, his only book. It seeks to offer (as its subtitle stipulates) a "non-partisan, comprehensive discussion of current tendencies in American politics" and is an instant success.1
Woodrow Wilson is successfully reelected after campaigning with the slogan "He kept us out of war."2
Woodrow Wilson signs the Keating-Owen Act, which fights child labor by making it illegal for companies to ship goods produced by children across state lines.
Wilson Asks for War
President Wilson appears before a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany and the Central Powers.
Congress passes the Espionage Act, which imposes a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to twenty years in prison for anyone who interferes with the draft or otherwise encourages disloyalty.
Hammer v. Dagenhart
The Supreme Court declares the Keating-Owen Act (against child labor) unconstitutional in Hammer v. Dagenhart on the grounds that it employs federal control of interstate commerce for noncommercial objectives and that it interferes with state police powers.
Congress passes the Sedition Act, an even more repressive measure than the Espionage Act. Along with the Sabotage Act of 20 April, it expands the penalties of the Espionage Act to apply to anyone who discourages military recruiting, interferes with government bond sales, or criticizes the government, the Constitution, service uniforms, the flag, or the war or even wartime production levels.
Germany surrenders and the Allies win World War I. This comes to be known as Armistice Day.
The Versailles peace conference opens. Woodrow Wilson becomes the first sitting president to leave the United States when he travels to Paris for the occasion, as he is so deeply invested in the outcome. He wants to carry his Progressive principles to Europe and ensure a perpetual peace throughout the region. He is soon overcome, however, by bitter European delegates intent on exacting reparations from Germany and precious land and resources for themselves.
Treaty of Versailles to Senate
President Wilson presents the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate for ratification.
After speaking in Pueblo, Colorado on a nationwide tour to raise public support for the Treaty of Versailles, President Wilson collapses with severe headaches. He suffers a stroke a few days later and spends the last eighteen months of his presidency in a quasi-invalid state.
For the first time, a majority of the American population now lives in cities.3
Adkins v. Children’s Hospital
The Supreme Court once again changes its policy towards women's labor laws with the Adkins v. Children's Hospital case. It strikes down a Washington D.C. law from 1918 that guaranteed working women and children a minimum wage in the district. In the decision, Justice Sutherland recognizes that individuals do not possess an absolute freedom to make contracts, but that the District of Columbia law is an unconstitutional "price-fixing" measure that violates citizens' Fifth Amendment right to life, liberty, and property.4