Study Guide

Progressive Era Politics Analysis

  • Law

    Judicial Restraint

    Rather than the executive or legislative branches, it was the judiciary that proved perhaps the most conservative institution of the Progressive Era, frequently stymieing Progressive reform efforts. 

    By the 1880s, the Supreme Court had radically redefined the 14th Amendment, which had been ratified in 1868 to empower the federal government to overturn state laws that violated citizens' rights. Originally passed by Republicans in Congress to protect the newly emancipated African Americans of the South, by the 1880s, the 14th Amendment was more often cited by the Court as the basis for defense of the "liberty of contract." 

    In either case, working women and children faced restricted job opportunities because of their limited hours or the "freedom" to work long hours with little regulation of any kind. Such a double bind exemplified the difficulties of enacting true labor reform in the United States.

  • Labor

    The Industrial Backbone

    The Progressive Era was a difficult time to be a worker. While Progressives did try to make working conditions better for laborers, their efforts only yielded mixed results. Furthermore, workers' own actions sometimes proved more effective than the Progressive reforms enacted in their names.

    America never could've risen to its preeminent place in the world of industrial nations without the backbreaking toil of its workers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Laborers were behind the railroads that stretched across over 3,000 miles of the continent, the steel rails that provided the tracks, the skyscrapers that dominated the city skylines, the textiles that clothed the Western world, and the coal and oil that fueled a transportation revolution. They toiled in the steel mills of Braddock and Homestead, the textile factories of the South, the coal mines of Allegheny County, and among the oil derricks of northwestern Pennsylvania. 

    They typically worked seven days a week, 12 hours each day, some enduring 24 straight hours of intense labor every other Sunday on what was known as the "long turn." This was hard manual labor that seldom gave employees any pause for rest during their shift. There was no nationally mandated minimum wage until 1938—railroad workers in the 1880s could expect to make about 10¢ an hour and if the economy turned sour, the company would cut all wages down to 9¢. It was an excellent month for a railroad worker if he made as much as $25. Steel workers could make 14¢ an hour in the late-19th century and 17¢ an hour by 1908—this amounted to about $13 for 84 to 96 hours' worth of work. 

    Author Thomas Bell, himself a descendant of Slovak immigrants who worked in the steel-mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, noted that with such a wage, a couple "could just keep alive. [...] Two people, if they were thrifty and their wants were simple, could manage on that; two people with debts and growing children could not."blank">West, it wasn't middle-class Progressives but working-class Americans who spearheaded the formation of the Union Labor Party, which prompted passage of California legislation to limit working women's maximum hours on the job, as well as a child labor law. Unions organized to support similar reforms in other states.

    The Triumph of Conservatism

    Recent studies have also indicated that Progressive reformers weren't solely responsible for enacting worker's compensation laws in the 1910s. The key economic interest groups with a stake in the legislation—employers, workers, and insurance companies—anticipated benefits from the new regimented system. Employers and insurance companies found themselves increasingly at risk for paying large sums due to recent state laws on employer liability, court decisions that limited employers' defenses in liability suits, and rising workplace accident rates.blank">Great Depression. In the early 1880s, more than half of all strikes didn't involve a formal trade union organization. The proportion of work stoppages rose over the next 20 years, but by 1900, one-third of all strikes were still waged without union intervention. In the absence of effective legislation or union support, workers set out on their own to assert their collective power over the production process. 

    To the extent that Progressive reforms actually succeeded, it may have been that employers and the government welcomed legislative regulations as an alternative to strikes, which could disrupt large sectors of American society. In this sense, workers bolstered the Progressives' cause and played a direct role in the attempt to better their lives for themselves and their children.

  • Economy

    Captains of Industry and the Money Trusts

    As American industry was just beginning to develop in the 19th century, most people had no concept of the amount of wealth that could be made—or the tactics that might be implemented to make it. There were no personal or corporate income taxes until 1913, and with few government regulations, the country's burgeoning industrial empires enjoyed a period of rapid growth throughout the "Gilded Age" of the late-19th century. 

    Perhaps the most famous of the entrepreneurs to take advantage of the wide-open state of American capitalism was John D. Rockefeller, who started out as a clerk for a Cleveland merchant before earning a small fortune from a grain and meat partnership by the end of the Civil War. Rockefeller went on to invest in a small Cleveland oil refinery, using it as the platform from which to launch Standard Oil in 1870. Standard Oil grew rapidly and became the nation's most powerful corporation, based on monopolistic business tactics. Rockefeller used Standard Oil capital to buy out all his competitors—if that failed, he drove them out of business by fixing prices and production quotas. He made secret deals with railroad companies for lower freight rates. The railroads went along with this because, if they didn't, Rockefeller would ship through a competing rail line. 

    This method is known as horizontal expansion—eliminating competitors who manufacture the same product and acquiring control over the means of production and distribution. Rockefeller could undersell his competitors by making his own plants the most efficient in the country, then selling the products at well below cost. This sort of cutthroat competition forced Rockefeller to absorb his losses, but it paid off when Standard Oil finally eliminated its competitors and cornered the market. Then the company could charge more than ever. So, monopolization yielded windfall profits.

    Rockefeller then began expanding beyond Cleveland and vertically integrating his monopoly—that is, he made sure that Standard Oil controlled almost every step in the process of oil production and distribution, from the drilling to the refining to the storage and the delivery. By 1879, less than a decade after Standard Oil's founding, the company controlled 90% of the American oil industry and had cornered virtually the entire international market for oil—a precious commodity in an industrializing world.

    "Combination Is Here to Stay"

    Most of the "captains of industry" were unapologetic about such outcomes of their total workplace control. Rockefeller declared that "combination is here to stay" and that "individualism has gone, never to return.""

    The amount of wealth these men controlled is almost hard to imagine, especially in contrast to the meager state of their employees' living and working conditions. By one estimate, financier J. P. Morgan and his partners controlled at one time some $30 billion dollars of the U.S. economy—the equivalent of $7.5 trillion today and an amount equal to 40% of all industrial, commercial, and financial capital in the United States. Since Morgan's wealth peaked just before World War I, at the tail end of a full generation of Progressive reform, those reforms clearly didn't bring about any fundamental redistribution of assets or market control.

    Criticisms of their excesses notwithstanding, Gilded Age "captains of industry" did build the industrial capacity that made America the world's foremost manufacturing power by the turn of the 20th century. 

    • They laid the track for a nationwide rail network that enabled citizens to travel farther and faster than ever before
    • They built the factories that provided vital building materials for the growing cities.
    • They amassed the capital that underwrote new projects in national transportation, production, and distribution networks.
    • They fostered an economic system that prized ingenuity and efficiency.

    But their enormous concentrations of wealth and the aggressive tactics they employed to obtain it generated fierce opposition, as critics complained of income maldistribution, working-class poverty, and political corruption. The railroad workers, steel plant employees, coal miners, and others who toiled to produce their wealth were typically paid paltry wages, forced to labor long hours with little rest, and quickly replaced if they spoke out or struck for better wages and working conditions. The country frequently seemed on the verge of outright industrial warfare.

    The Progressives who became critics of many facets of this new industrial world were, at the same time, products of it. Many Progressives belonged to the expanding middle-class of white-collar professionals that could only come into existence along with industrialization. They spoke out against monopolization and its effects not because they sought a socialistic redistribution of wealth but because they believed that the Gilded Age's unprecedented concentrations of power ran counter to deeply cherished American ideals of democracy, equal opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness. They felt that monopoly destroyed the free market itself, and that the growth of a permanent underclass of impoverished workers confined to hopeless urban slums would lead to violent revolution and the collapse of the entire system. 

    At the center of the Progressive vision then, was a commitment to realizing a particular Progressive conception of the mythic American Dream—that those with talent and a strong work-ethic could rise to the top, that the free market should be freed of domination by trusts, and that the government ought to ensure the rights and liberties of all citizens.

  • Ideology

    The Progressives?

    Who were the Progressives? Reformers.

    • Middle-class citizens intent on bettering society and saving capitalism in America by curbing the worst abuses of the capitalist system.
    • Bourgeois whites terrified of a workers' revolution and determined to thwart it by pushing through some nominal reforms. Businessmen seeking to avoid more stringent reforms by supporting watered-down federal laws.
    • Women fighting for the right to vote.
    • Religious women struggling to stamp out alcohol as one of society's greatest vices.
    • Privileged idealists hoping and trying to uplift the poor.

    Depending on who you ask, any—or all—of these answers qualify. The Progressives were a loosely defined group from the start, so it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to offer a single, definitive explanation of who they all were and what they all stood for. They didn't compose a single political party—they comprised several. They pushed for various democratic and workplace reforms, but often discriminated against minorities or simply patronized them as child-like dependents.

    Historians' conceptions of who the Progressives were and what they were trying to accomplish have changed over time. Because several prominent historians like Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, and Vernon L. Parrington were part of the Progressive movement, the cause was portrayed as a public outcry against corrupt politicians, greedy monopolists, and "special interests" well into the 1950s. In other words, these historians believed in the Progressive movement, casting their struggle in admirable terms so that it would be remembered for posterity as a popular effort to dismantle the unfair business practices and inordinate wealth of the so-called "special interests."

    In 1951, historian George Mowry challenged the preexisting consensus by describing Progressives in California as a small group of wealthy elites. Mowry argued that these Progressives assumed a leadership role in order to reclaim their social status, which had been usurped, or at least threatened, by industrialization's newly wealthy capitalists. Four years later, Richard Hofstadter echoed this argument and expanded Mowry's interpretation to apply to Progressives across the country. Hofstadter contended that Progressive Era elites mounted a "status revolution" through Progressivism as a means of regaining their psychological confidence and their respected stature in the community. 

    Subsequent scholars like Samuel Hays and Robert Wiebe moderated these claims by describing Progressivism as a broad framework of bourgeois professionals who sought to improve and reorder their society and government. This middle class stood to benefit from a stable society and a prosperous economy, one that didn't suffer from the tumult of worker strikes, the corruption of urban political machines, or the financial panics and crises of an unregulated marketplace undergoing rapid industrialization. Yet many—perhaps most of them—were well-intentioned people who tried to make the government more accountable to the people, sought to improve working conditions for immigrants and other poor people (especially women and child workers), and were motivated by a Christian spirit of charity and uplift.

    The Progressives nonetheless remain a subject of ongoing historical debate and controversy. They coincided with the Jim Crow era, one of the lowest points in American race relations history, when thousands of Black people were lynched across the South and Midwest. This wasn't simply a coincidence—many Progressives viewed their mission as a quest to uplift the white race and considered Blacks biologically inferior. Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous Progressive presidents, reintroduced segregation among federal employees. And the infamous immigration restriction movement reemerged during the Progressive era, when many reformers championed it as the only means of preventing a "mongrel" race of poor, illiterate immigrants from reproducing at such a rate that they took over the "true" American population of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (or WASPs).

    The Progressive mission failed spectacularly after World War I, when the nation turned inward and rejected the long-term international involvement that President Wilson's League of Nations represented. Government suppression and persecution of radicals and dissenters during wartime undermined the democratic aspect of the Progressive image. The European nations' insistence on heavy reparations and continued control over colonial holdings and resources made a mockery of the Progressive ambition to "make the world safe for democracy." 

    As the 1920s dawned, Progressivism seemed increasingly relegated to a bygone era of naiveté, with only a few of its most notorious reforms in place—namely, the unpopular and unsuccessful Prohibition period. And so, the Progressive legacy is as complex a subject as the movement's composition. The topic is likely to remain contentious and there will probably be future rounds of historical revisionism as contemporary conditions change and cause historians to cast a new eye on the past.

  • Politics

    Populists and Progressives

    The famous turn-of-the-century newspaper journalist William Allen White once claimed that a Progressive was a Populist who had shaved his whiskers, washed his shirt, and put on a derby hat.blank">Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park was converted into a reservoir to provide drinking water for the city by the Bay.

    The Taft Presidency

    Perhaps no example better demonstrated the internal conflicts and contradictions of Progressivism than the William Howard Taft presidency. Taft was Roosevelt's good friend and chosen successor in 1909, having served as his Secretary of War and a close adviser. Like his predecessor, Taft beat William Jennings Bryan—American history's only three-time presidential loser—to win the presidency. 

    Taft benefited substantially from Roosevelt's endorsement and the general expectation that he would carry on the Progressive policies of the outgoing administration. Yet Taft ran into trouble with the Progressive wing of the party almost immediately after taking office when he went along with the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, which failed to reduce tariff rates to the degree that Progressives had long demanded. Progressives wanted a lower tariff to increase imports, thereby fostering more open competition that would undermine the trusts' stranglehold on the market. Although Roosevelt had largely ignored this issue, Taft had made it a campaign promise, but the final legislation actually increased some rates instead of dramatically reducing all of them. 

    Payne-Aldrich represented a compromise measure between the House and the more conservative Senate, and Taft may have been pragmatic to accept it as the only feasible measure that Congress could agree upon. But Progressives ferociously criticized his decision. It proved the first in an ominous series of debacles for the Taft administration.

    The president seemed to reveal further conservative predilections when he sided with his new Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, in the so-called "Ballinger-Pinchot controversy." Ballinger was a corporate lawyer whom Taft had chosen to replace James R. Garfield, a staunch conservationist. Shortly after taking office, Ballinger confirmed environmentalists' fears about him by returning almost one million acres of forest reserve land back to the public domain under the argument that President Roosevelt had overstepped his authority in keeping the land off limits to private ownership or access. 

    Gifford Pinchot, the head of the Forest Service since the Roosevelt administration, accused Ballinger of colluding with business interests, like mining and lumber companies that stood to profit handsomely from use of the newly accessible land. Taft investigated these accusations, but found no evidence to prove them. Since he remained unconvinced, the president took no action. Determined to prevail, Pinchot then leaked the story to the press and called for a congressional investigation of Ballinger. Taft fired Pinchot in response, and the ensuing uproar severed most of the remaining ties between Roosevelt partisans—and Progressives in general—and the president. 

    Two years after the controversy, in the presidential election of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt reemerged as the spokesmen of the Progressives, while Taft had become the conservatives' candidate.

    Paradoxically, however, Taft was an even more aggressive trust-buster than TR himself. Taft's administration took on some of the most powerful corporations in the American economy. While Roosevelt had deemed John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company a "good" trust, the Taft administration convinced the Supreme Court to declare Standard Oil in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Rockefeller's behemoth monopoly was then forced to break up into separate companies, one each for marketing, refining, and producing petroleum. 

    In 1911, the government filed suit against U.S. Steel, claiming that its 1907 acquisition of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company was illegal. This suit outraged Roosevelt, for he'd specifically approved the U.S. Steel acquisition during the Panic of 1907 and was personally offended at the implication that he was wrong or even unethical to have allowed it to go through. Under Taft, the Interstate Commerce Commission was strengthened by the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910; a Department of Labor was created the following year. The government also prevailed in a suit against American Tobacco Company, which the Supreme Court ordered to stop using cutthroat pricing policies that were bankrupting smaller businesses.

    Taft also supported the 16th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913 before he left office and which authorized Congress to enact a graduated income tax. This tax would help modernize the rapidly expanding federal government and provide it with a stable source of revenue. Up until this time, the government had relied on tariffs as its chief source of revenue. (A first temporary income tax had been passed during the Civil War, but was phased out by 1872.) With the Progressives' push for a lower tariff to encourage more open competition in the marketplace, the government needed a new source of income. 

    In 1894, Congress tried to pass another income tax, but the Supreme Court quickly rejected it as unconstitutional. In his opinion for the majority, Chief Justice Fuller argued that the Constitution's framers had intended that the "the power of direct taxation would be exercised only in extraordinary exigencies." Since America was at peace, the income tax must not be allowed to serve as a potentially "ordinary and usual means of supply" whenever it is not absolutely necessary.blank">female suffrage until he ultimately capitulated to public pressure in 1916.

    Progressivism Writ Large, and Doomed

    In 1914, the Democrats suffered major losses in the congressional elections. As they'd continue to do many more times in the years to come, voters used the election to express their disenchantment with the ruling party. This was for a number of reasons. 

    Activists like Alice Paul had vigorously campaigned against the Democrats that year in response to President Wilson's refusal to publicly support female suffrage. Black voters—though small in number because of their disfranchisement in the South—deserted the Democratic Party because they felt betrayed by the disconnect between Wilson's campaign promises and his administration's actions in segregating federal employment. Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" (or Progressive) Party continued to run candidates for office, siphoning off potential Democratic votes. An economic malaise was beginning to take hold over the national economy. In response, Wilson attempted to pass a new slate of reforms.

    In June of that same year, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This seemingly isolated incident sparked a series of reactions and counter-reactions between allied nations that led to the opening of World War I in Europe by August 1914. Initially determined to keep out of the conflict, Wilson proclaimed American neutrality. But while the war dragged on in the ensuing years, such attempts to maintain neutrality became increasingly difficult as rumors of German atrocities spread and economic ties to France and England pulled Americans toward an alliance with the Allies.

    After running successfully for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "He kept us out of war," Wilson was forced to go to Congress with a request for a declaration of war against Germany less than a month after he was inaugurated into his second term. To justify this sudden policy reversal, Wilson proclaimed a grand extension of Progressive aims. Not only the nation, but "the world," he declared, "must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty."blank">Great Depression years.