Study Guide

Progressive Era Politics People

  • Theodore Roosevelt

    Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was the 26th President of the United States and a proponent of the "New Nationalist" variety of Progressivism. A master of populist rhetoric and public charm, Roosevelt quickly tapped into the widespread fervor for reform. His administration pursued some widely publicized antitrust cases against large companies like Northern Securities and the Swift Beef Trust, but for all his aggressive rhetoric, Roosevelt actually went after fewer monopolies than his successor, William Howard Taft.

    Throughout his administration, Roosevelt attempted to strike a balance between employers and employees in labor disputes and pledged to give Americans a "Square Deal" that prized a person's character above his class. He made notable strides in the cause of conservationism, dedicating many National Parks and restricting private development on government lands. 

    After voluntarily stepping down from office in 1908, Roosevelt became increasingly disenchanted with William Howard Taft, his hand-picked successor to the presidency. He challenged Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, and when he lost, he started his own Progressive (or "Bull Moose") Party, positioning himself as the more aggressive trust-busting candidate. 

    While Roosevelt's New Nationalist policy accepted economic concentration as an inevitability in America's rapidly industrializing society, Democrat Woodrow Wilson pledged to destroy the trusts altogether in order to restore competition to the marketplace. Roosevelt lost the election but remained a legendary figure in American political history.

  • William Howard Taft

    William Howard Taft (1857–1930) was the 27th President of the United States and Theodore Roosevelt's hand-picked successor. 

    Taft supported Teddy Roosevelt's "Square Deal" policy of attempting to strike a balance between employers and employees and conservatives and Progressives, but it soon proved impossible to please everyone. Taft simply didn't have Roosevelt's personal charisma. Over time, he wound up satisfying conservatives more often than Progressives. His administration nonetheless pursued more antitrust suits than Roosevelt.

    Taft appointed conservatives to several key government posts, which embroiled him in controversy almost immediately. His Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, was accused of colluding with private business to release valuable Alaskan coal fields for development. Taft's refusal to fire Ballinger and his firm position against Gifford Pinchot (head of the Forest Service) forever alienated him from Roosevelt supporters. Taft also betrayed a platform pledge by going along with the Payne-Aldrich Act, which not only failed to substantially reduce duties (as Progressives had promised), but actually raised several of them. 

    An outraged Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, and though Taft won the primary, in the general election, he received an even smaller percentage of the popular vote than Roosevelt, who ran as third-party candidate.

  • Woodrow Wilson

    Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was the 28th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1913 to 1919. As president of Princeton University and later as governor of New Jersey, Wilson was a leading Progressive, arguing for a stronger central government and fighting for anti-trust legislation and labor rights. 

    As president of the United States, he passed important legislation on those and many other issues, narrowly winning reelection in 1916 after pledging to keep America out of World War I. Wilson's foreign policy was noted for its idealistic humanitarianism; his Fourteen Points—a statement of national objectives that envisioned a new international order after World War I—ultimately failed, but was one of the clearest expressions of interventionist American values. Wilson suffered a severe strokes during his second term in office and died in 1924.

    Wilson ran in 1912 under a platform known as the "New Freedom," in which he pledged to reintroduce real competition to the marketplace by destroying monopolistic economic trusts. In practice, however, his actions quickly came to resemble the "regulated monopoly" of Republican candidate Theodore Roosevelt, and few trusts were dissolved during his tenure. 

    Though he achieved passage of a 1914 measure to create a Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the regulatory body became co-opted by business interests just like the Interstate Commerce Commission before it. Wilson lowered the tariff, introduced the income tax, and instituted the Federal Reserve System to reform the national economy.