Democracy, Representative And Participatory (C1) -From Populism to the Progressive Era in the USA,1900-1912



The depression of the 1890s seemed a distant memory by the early years of the twentieth century. The economy had rebounded and farm prices stabilized. Some US companies profited handsomely from the expansion of the navy and acquisition of overseas colonies, even if many Americans agreed with Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts that ruling these territories without the consent of the people was “contrary to the sacred principles” of the nation. These individuals and a wealth of others hoped to promote social justice and greeted the twentieth century with optimism and energy. Taken together, these predominantly middle-class reformers who emerged during the 1890s are known as the Progressives.

The Progressives believed government should be more active in promoting the welfare of the people. However, although they agreed with some of the ideas of the Populists, the Progressives were generally much more conservative. They were often alarmed at the radicalism of the Populists and believed in reforming society and government rather than proposing sweeping changes to the Capitalist system. For example, they rejected the Populist idea of direct government control or ownership of railroads. They also rejected major changes to the monetary system, such as using both gold and silver to back the dollar. Instead, the Progressives believed that government should use its powers to more actively regulate the financial system and prevent the growth of monopolies. They also hoped the government would be more active in promoting social justice and human welfare.

In short, the Progressives were middle-class reformers who believed in the preservation of private property but opposed the laissez-faire policies of the past. They hoped to reduce government corruption and increase efficiency by appointing a new generation of college-educated experts to key government positions. In doing so, the Progressives were optimistic that government regulation could protect all members of society within the existing Capitalist system. They sought reform rather than revolution, and feared that sweeping changes or retreat from Capitalism would disrupt the economic growth of the previous decades.

Despite a number of similarities, the Progressives were as diverse as the issues they championed. Some sought social justice through anti–child labor laws, prison reform, workplace safety regulations, public health programs, or minimum wage laws. Others focused on providing more services, such as public utilities and urban sanitation. Still others believed that the key to reform was to make the political system more democratic. By exposing the misdeeds of corrupt businesses and politicians and empowering voters to have more control over their government, the Progressives believed that voters would naturally support reform candidates and demand more accountability. A small number also fought for more rights for women and minorities, although issues of race and gender often divided the Progressives. Still others championed the developing fields of social and political science, searching for ways to make government and society more efficient.

Even if they supported a diverse range of goals, the Progressives themselves usually had a few things in common. They were generally well educated and shared a common faith in the power of public education to improve society and reform the political system. They generally supported local government initiatives aimed at providing better schools, sanitation, roads, and municipal services like utilities and public transportation. Progressives rejected Socialism but also rejected the notion that the private sector could regulate itself or that existing charitable organizations were sufficient to provide for the needy.

National Politics during the Progressive Era

The Rise of Teddy Roosevelt and Federal Power

The politician who would come to represent the Progressive movement on the national stage was Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. An asthmatic and sickly child born into affluence, Roosevelt developed his own brand of toughness as he labored to transform his mind and body, often against the warnings of his physicians. Wealth facilitated his metamorphosis, as Roosevelt went from home school to Harvard where he embraced “masculine” activities such as boxing. Affluence allowed him to cultivate a diverse range of talents. However, it was his force of personality and talent that empowered Roosevelt and drove him to try his hand at a variety of careers. Believing the men of his postfrontier generation were becoming “soft,” Roosevelt dedicated much of his life to searching for adventure—a way of living he called the “strenuous life.” Roosevelt succeeded at most of his activities, publishing a book on naval history, tracking down horse thieves in the Dakotas, leading a contingent of cavalrymen in the Spanish-American War, and serving in the state legislature of New York. And this was just the first four decades of the future President’s life.

Roosevelt’s family fortune also softened the consequences of his failures. Roosevelt bought and then abandoned a ranch in North Dakota after a blizzard wiped out his herds in 1886. While most men would face ruin after such a disaster, Roosevelt was able to return to his home in New York City where his wealth and connections led to a series of increasingly important political appointments, including commissioner of police. Later appointed to the newly formed US Civil Service Commission, Roosevelt gained a reputation as a reformer who rooted out political corruption. Roosevelt was appointed assistant secretary of the navy in 1897 but resigned his post the following year when the Spanish-American War broke out. Roosevelt saw the war as an opportunity for adventure and personally led a group of volunteers against an entrenched Spanish position. Regarded as a war hero following the successful assault on San Juan Hill, Roosevelt returned to New York and was elected governor on the Republican ticket in 1898. The leaders of the state’s powerful Republican political machine feared that Roosevelt’s popularity and reform agenda would loosen their grip on local politics. To remove Roosevelt, state politicians encouraged the incumbent President McKinley to select the war hero as his running mate in 1900.

Figure 4.1: This 1885 photo of Teddy Roosevelt demonstrates both his rugged grit as a rancher in the Dakotas and the wealth that permitted him to pursue a variety of careers. The ornate silver knife Roosevelt is carrying was made for his family by the New York jeweler Tiffany & Company. Despite his affluence and connections, Roosevelt earned the respect of his fellow ranchers in the Dakotas.

With the popular Roosevelt by his side, McKinley once again faced the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1900. Bryan attempted to revive the issue of free silver in this campaign. However, the recent economic recovery greatly reduced the perceived relevance of Bryan’s economic ideas. Bryan also ran as an antiwar candidate, a position that appealed to many Americans who were beginning to view the war in the Philippines with suspicion. However, Bryan’s anti-imperialist message failed to overcome the belief that McKinley’s probusiness policies and overseas acquisitions were promoting the growth of US industry and commerce. With slogans such as “Four More Years of the Full Dinner Pail,” the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket prevailed in a close election.

McKinley died only six months into his second term after an assassin shot the president during the 1901 Pan-American exposition in Buffalo. Roosevelt was informed of his pending ascension to the White House while he was on a mountain-climbing expedition. He was soon sworn into office and served as president for the remainder of McKinley’s term. Roosevelt also won the election in his own right in 1904. During his seven-and-a-half years as president, Roosevelt’s personality and exploits dominated the news as much as his policies. For example, he invited professional boxers to spar with him in the White House—leading to an injury that left him blind in one eye. Roosevelt even rode one hundred miles on horseback in a single day—a feat many considered impossible. His love of the outdoors was legendary and helped to inspire a number of measures designed to preserve areas for sportsmen and the expansion of the national park system.

While in office, Roosevelt rejected the idea that the president should defer to Congress. “It is the duty of the president to act upon the theory that his is the steward of the people,” Roosevelt remarked, adding that he believed the president “has the legal right to do whatever the needs of the people demand, unless the Constitution or the laws explicitly forbid him to do it.” As president, Roosevelt introduced many of the reform measures sought by the Progressives, and in so doing, created a larger and more active federal government.

During his successful reelection campaign in 1904, Roosevelt promised that he would not seek a second term in 1908. He kept that promise and retired temporarily from public life, only to seek the nomination of the Republican Party in 1912. When the Republicans chose the incumbent William Howard Taft as their candidate, Roosevelt decided to run as the candidate of the Progressive Party. Although many states at this time had various independent third parties that used the term Progressive in their name, Roosevelt’s decision to run under a national Progressive Party banner in 1912 helped to forge a measure of unity among these various local parties. Like the Populists, however, the Progressive Party would prove short lived, but many of their ideas were incorporated into the platforms and policies of the Republicans and Democrats.

Business and Politics in the Progressive Era

By the early 1900s, the largest 1 percent of corporations produced nearly half of the nation’s manufactured goods. Roosevelt and the Progressives believed that industry and finance were ruled by an oligopoly—a system where a small number of individuals exercise almost complete control. In defense of their perspective, nearly all of the nation’s railroads were managed by one of six firms. Half of these companies were controlled by the investment bank led by J. P. Morgan. Standard Oil controlled nearly 90 percent of the nation’s domestic oil refineries. Trusts controlled most other major industries, while a series of mergers and acquisitions meant that retailers were increasingly affiliated with national chains. Many Americans were concerned by the consolidation of power by these corporations. At the same time, they recognized that most of these corporations had succeeded by engineering more efficient methods than the patchwork of local firms they had replaced. Still, the Progressives believed that too much consolidation in any industry discouraged innovation and invited unfair practices.

Progressive reformers were generally middle-class women and men who had prospered during the second Industrial Revolution. As a result, they sought to reform capitalism rather than incite revolution. Progressive efforts at economic reform were directed at promoting efficiency and stability. The Progressives were deeply concerned by the kinds of class conflict that were erupting in other industrial nations during this time and hoped that governmental regulation of industry and labor might prevent the growth of radical doctrines such as Socialism in the United States. At the same time, the Progressives believed that failure to regulate industry would result in a system that favored productivity over sustainability and economy over wages and workplace safety. If wages for workers were too low, the Progressives pointed out, workers would be much more likely to launch strikes and adhere to radical doctrines. As a result, the Progressives had a different perspective than unions. They favored many of the same policies, but did so out of concern for sustained economic growth and stability. For the Progressives, the growing popularity of Socialism overseas and in the United States was a symptom of the government’s laissez-faire policies. If government would intervene to prevent the growth of monopolies and mediate labor conflicts, the Progressives argued, the Capitalist system would provide both efficiency and fairness.

Figure 4.2: Although he was a popular president, many satirized Roosevelt’s domineering tendencies. This cartoon depicts Roosevelt as a giant carrying a “big stick,” which he was fond of referring to, and peering down at a diminutive figure labeled “the Constitution.”

Socialists did not believe that the reforms the Progressives favored would be enough. They argued that Capitalism inherently led to exploitation of workers. The only solution, Socialists believed, was for government to seize control of the means of production (factories, mines, farmland, etc.) and run each of these enterprises in the public interest. From the perspective of middle-class Progressives, Socialism was the antithesis of freedom because it eliminated private property. Progressives believed the role of government was to protect private property and nurture the profit motive that inspired hard work and innovation. However, many workers lacked basic necessities and felt they had little chance to acquire any material security under the present system. For those who believed they were being exploited, and for those who contrasted their poverty with the wealth of the leading capitalists, the idea of equally dividing the nation’s wealth and permitting the government to run factories and farms held some appeal.

Progressives recognized the limitations of free market, even if they did not fully appreciate these shortcomings from the perspective of the poor. By enlarging the power and scope of government, the Progressives believed that they could regulate corporate America in a way that would ensure fair competition between businesses and fair conditions for workers. However, some Americans believed that the kinds of government intervention the Progressives sought might inadvertently become the first steps towards Socialism. By creating a powerful central government that had the power to regulate the private sector, they argued, the Progressives might unwittingly be creating a government that might eventually grant itself the power to seize control of businesses and other forms of private property. If the federal government ever became this powerful, opponents of Progressivism feared, political leaders might eventually rise to power by advocating class warfare and the seizure and redistribution of the nation’s wealth.

A small number of business leaders viewed Progressive reform as a compromise between Socialism and pure Capitalism. They believed some government regulation was necessary to make the free market operate correctly. They also believed the possibility of government intervention might help mitigate the demands of workers and prevent the popular uprisings that occasionally swept Europe. These business leaders pointed out that the kinds of changes the Progressives supported were usually mild reforms that reflected the shared interests between workers, management, and the public.

The government’s actions in negotiating a settlement between 100,000 striking coal miners and management during the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike provides an example of this kind of compromise and reform. Miners throughout Pennsylvania demanded a 20 percent raise and provisions forbidding nonunion workers from being employed within the mines. Management refused to consider these demands and argued that permitting a union-only workforce would effectively grant workers control over whom they could hire. As both sides prepared for a long strike, the rest of the nation faced the prospect of a winter without coal. Roosevelt and other Progressive leaders proposed that both sides agree to arbitration by experts in the field of coal mining. The coal unions agreed to this arbitration. Eventually, the government compelled the coal operators to agree as well. Workers’ demands that only union workers could be employed in the mines were rejected, but they did receive a 10 percent raise and reforms designed to increase safety and welfare on the job.

Although he was able to promote a compromise, some aspects of Roosevelt’s response to the coal strike angered conservatives and business owners. For example, the president threatened to use the military to seize and administer the mines if a solution could not be reached. Roosevelt’s intervention demonstrated a new philosophy of federal activism in response to a strike that threatened the public welfare. Rather than sending the military to break up the strike, the military would be used to operate the mines while the government acted as mediator. If mediation failed, both labor and management would suffer. From the perspective of conservative opponents of Progressivism, Roosevelt’s threatened seizure of privately owned mines indicated that the government had grown too powerful. The unions countered that the only reason such methods were even contemplated was because management refused to consider the reasonable requests of workers. From the perspective of the Progressives, the 1902 strike demonstrated that a few coal operators had become too powerful and government regulation was necessary to prevent future conflicts from ever reaching the point of a nationwide strike.

Figure 4.3: The 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike in Pennsylvania resulted in a ten percent raise and other demands. The victory would prove short-lived as coal companies simply changed the rates they charged miners who were dependent upon supplies and housing controlled by the company.

Given the political upheaval in other developing nations and the past history of violent strikes in the United States, some business leaders were willing to accept a more active government at the turn of the century. Some believed the government might promote stability and better relations between labor and management. Corporate growth had not been curtailed by previous government regulations such as the Interstate Commerce Act, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and various state regulations regarding workplace safety. In fact, some business leaders even argued that the existence of government agencies with limited powers over trade and commerce did more to provide the appearance of government regulation than actual reform. The creation of antitrust laws and small regulatory agencies had appeased reformers during the late nineteenth century, they argued, and might help to absorb public criticism and demands for more substantive reforms.

The Progressives of the twentieth century were not content with the mere appearance of reform, however. They became more insistent on breaking up trusts and creating powerful regulatory agencies as the decade progressed. Roosevelt personified this tendency. He began his administration by agreeing to continue the conservative policies of the late William McKinley. Before long, Roosevelt demonstrated his penchant for greater regulation of corporate America. For example, he ordered the Department of Justice to investigate the Northern Securities Company in 1902. Roosevelt believed that the only purpose of this railroad trust was to create a cartel. Northern Securities was a holding company that controlled three of the largest railroads in the country. The purpose of the company, Roosevelt argued, was to conspire against competitors while not competing against one another. Existing laws and the sentiments of their own shareholders prevented these three companies from simply merging into one giant railroad. Through the creation of Northern Securities Company, however, a single board effectively coordinated operations in ways that reduced competition between the three railroads while strangling many of their smaller competitors. After two years in court, the Supreme Court agreed with Roosevelt and ordered a breakup of the giant trust.

Figure 4.4: Alton Parker swept the South, which was dominated by the Democratic Party by 1904. Roosevelt’s Square Deal and moderate Progressive reforms were supported by the rest of the nation.

During the 1904 election, Roosevelt promised a “Square Deal” that would protect US workers and farmers from monopolies and unscrupulous businesses. The Democratic candidate Alton B. Parker supported many of Roosevelt’s views, especially when it came to the danger of monopolies. However, Parker was far more conservative and opposed the president’s goal of expanding the power of the federal government. Parker believed that the states, rather than the federal government, could best act to protect workers and consumers. As a result, it was difficult for Parker to provide positive examples of what he might do if elected to lead a federal government he believed should defer to the states. Parker and his supporters feared that the expansion of federal power was contrary to the interests of the nation and its traditions of limited government. While many agreed with this message, Roosevelt’s growing enthusiasm for Progressive reforms allowed him to give positive examples of how he might use the government to address issues of concern to voters.

With the exception of Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for overseas expansion—a mainstay of the Republican Party during this era—observers noticed that Roosevelt backed many of the goals that had been associated with the Democrats in recent presidential campaigns. During the 1890s, the Democrats fused with Populists and considered themselves to be the party who defended workers and farmers against the interests of big business. Meanwhile, the Republicans supported more conservative and probusiness policies. Parker’s conservatism and support for the gold standard set him at odds with many in the Democratic Party. In some ways, Roosevelt better fit the ideas of Progressive Western Democrats and former Populists, while Parker embodied many of the ideas of the late William McKinley and conservative Republicans. As a result, it was difficult for Parker to win support among Western and Northern Democrats, and he failed to win even one state beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. Parker swept the Democratic South for two reasons. First, he defended the concept of local control over the federal government. Second, the Republican Party had largely ceased to exist in many Southern communities. In the North and the West, however, voters overwhelmingly supported Roosevelt’s Square Deal and its promise of more rigorous federal regulation.

After winning the presidency on his own in 1904, Roosevelt began to view his office as a “bully pulpit” from which he could enforce his reform agenda. The Roosevelt administration brought lawsuits against several leading trusts, including Standard Oil, the Du Pont Corporation, and the American Tobacco Company. Roosevelt was soon labeled a “trust buster” by some businessmen who opposed him. Ironically, the mood of the country had changed, and this derogatory label backfired by increasing Roosevelt’s popularity among liberal Republicans and Progressives. However, Roosevelt was careful to maintain positive relations with many business leaders, and he continued to receive campaign donations from the usual Republican supporters. Roosevelt also made it clear that he opposed the breaking up of certain “good trusts,” even as he avoided precise definition of which trusts were operating in the public interest. During his two terms in office, Roosevelt initiated only twenty-five lawsuits against corporations he believed had violated the law. Roosevelt preferred working with business leaders and convincing them to agree to certain regulations through the Department of Commerce and Labor, which was created in 1903. The majority of corporations agreed to the relatively mild demands of the commerce department and its growing staff of corporate and legal experts. In this way, Roosevelt’s White House personified the Progressive faith in the ability of experts within government to resolve problems by meeting with labor and business leaders rather than resorting to the courts or strikes to settle differences.

The federal bureaucracy expanded under Roosevelt and the reform-minded culture of the Progressive Era. Roosevelt secured the passage of the Elkins Act, which forbade railroads from offering rebates to its preferred customers. The Roosevelt administration argued that these rebates were a way of charging different prices to different customers without explicitly violating the Interstate Commerce Act. In 1906, Roosevelt and Congress passed the Hepburn Act. This new law expanded the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) which had been created in 1887 to regulate railroads. In the past, the ICC could only investigate complaints of excessive rates and file lawsuits against railroads they believed were in violation of the spirit of fair competition. Under the Hepburn Act, the ICC could actually establish maximum rates that railroads could charge. If a particular railroad believed the ICC’s rates were set too low, it was now their responsibility to file suit and prove their case. As a result, the burden of proof and the hassle of initiating lawsuits now belonged to the railroads rather than the consumer and the ICC. Progressives cheered the Hepburn Act as model legislation providing the kind of vigorous government intervention they hoped would expand to other industries. Conservatives believed the new law concentrated too much power into the hands of federal bureaucrats. Business leaders feared that the new law might lead toward a much larger role for government as a regulator of private industry beyond the railroads.

The West and Conservationism

Figure 4.5: President Theodore Roosevelt with conservationist John Muir overlooking California’s Yosemite Valley in 1903.

The Hepburn Act signaled an end of laissez-faire policies regarding some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the United States, even if the ICC used its new powers cautiously. ICC officials consulted with the rail companies before establishing maximum rates and other regulations to ensure fairness and continued operation of the nation’s infrastructure. Roosevelt also consulted with business leaders in ranching, agriculture, mining, and forestry before drafting laws regarding land use and environmental conservation. Individual states had taken the lead in establishing nature reserves and state parks. Due to the efforts of Sierra Club founder John Muir and other conservationists, Congress had also established a number of national parks. Roosevelt was inspired by the efforts of Muir, who hoped to preserve the wilderness for its own sake, even if the President tended to see the purpose of conservation in utilitarian terms.

In many ways, Roosevelt’s conservationism was similar to the perspective of Gifford Pinchot, chief of the US Forest Service. Pinchot’s goal was to promote the scientific management of government lands to ensure the long-term availability of lumber and other natural resources. Pinchot harnessed the power of the federal government to halt the destruction of forests and required lumber companies to plant trees and follow other regulations. His agency promoted the natural reforestation of areas where trees were harvested and also banned the controversial practice of clear-cutting entire forests. Together, Roosevelt and Pinchot quadrupled the nation’s total forest reserves to enclose 200 acres.

Roosevelt was a sportsman, and this perspective influenced his policies regarding conservation. He viewed the purpose of conservation largely in terms of preserving lands and species for recreation. In order to prevent overhunting, Roosevelt supported the creation of state agencies that regulated hunting through laws and game wardens. Many of these regulations disrupted the traditional ways of Native Americans and other rural dwellers who depended on hunting for food. At the same time, Roosevelt’s creation of fifty wildlife refuges and numerous national parks helped to preserve the wilderness and various species for future generations. Roosevelt also helped to mobilize public support for conservation, leading to the creation of the National Park Service during the Wilson Administration in 1916.

Muir collaborated with Roosevelt and Pinchot, recognizing the delicate status of the Conservationist Movement and his need to work with the federal government to promote his ideas. However, Muir could not abide by Pinchot’s decision to support the construction of a reservoir within Yosemite National Park. The purpose of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was to provide water to the city of San Francisco. Opponents countered that the reservoir would be disastrous for the ecology of Central California. Roosevelt demonstrated the limits of his belief in conservation, supporting the reservoir as a question of the needs of humanity versus romantic sentiment about the preservation of a picturesque valley. The Sierra Club and its founder John Muir launched a strenuous campaign in opposition to the reservoir project. They could only delay its passage, and construction was finished in 1923. The controversy split the conservation movement between those who sided with Muir about the need to preserve nature for its own sake and those who agreed with Pinchot about the needs to make nature serve the needs of man.

The American people have evidently made up their minds that our natural resources must be conserved. That is good, but it settles only half the question. For whose benefit shall they be conserved—for the benefit of the many, or for the use and profit of the few?

—Gifford Pinchot, conservationist and first Chief of the US Forest Service

Similar to the ways that aridity had defined the patterns of Western settlement and life following the Civil War, questions regarding water usage defined Western history during the early twentieth century. Nevada senator Francis Newlands introduced the Water Reclamation Act of 1902, a law which was often referred to as the Newlands Reclamation Act. This law created the Reclamation Service, a federal agency charged with finding ways to spur agricultural and commercial development by distributing water to arid regions of the West. The Newlands Act set aside funds from the sale of federal land for large-scale irrigation projects. For example, the Shoshone Project brought water to the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, while Arizona’s Theodore Roosevelt Dam near Phoenix permitted urban sprawl in the midst of a desert. Original regulations limited the sale of water from the federal government’s dams and irrigation networks to cities and individual family farms that were no larger than 160 acres. However, these regulations were increasingly modified or ignored as commercial farming and industry began to dominate the West.

The federal government largely neglected the most troubling environmental issue of the West—the long-term challenge of sustaining cities and commercial farms within the arid plains. Likewise, the environmental impact of commercial farming, industrial growth, and mining was not addressed. Coal companies were still permitted to abandon mines, even those that left open pits. Mine operators were also permitted to use hydraulic mining techniques that used millions of gallons to blast earth away from ore. The environmental consequences of these mining techniques were rarely considered in an era where cities and factories used rivers as their own dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. Throughout the nation, most cities simply ignored the inconvenient truth that those who lived downstream depended on the same river for their drinking water. The Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron became forever associated with environmental disaster when it became so polluted that it caught on fire in 1969. However, conflagrations on the surface of this and other American rivers were actually quite common during the early 1900s. During these years, cities emptied their sewage directly into rivers. Refineries dumped oil and industrial waste with little thought of the long-term consequences. Although the Progressives sought to preserve the pristine environment of the vanishing wilderness, few gave much thought to the modern environmental concerns of air and water pollution.

Progressivism and President Taft

In a moment of jubilance he would later regret, Roosevelt promised that he would not run for reelection on the evening of his 1904 victory. Despite his desire to seek a second full term, Roosevelt remained true to his word and supported Secretary of War William Howard Taft as the Republican nominee in 1908. Roosevelt’s support helped Taft secure the Republican nomination over Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette. Ironically, La Follette had been one of the strongest advocates of Progressivism and was the Republican leader who had initiated many of the Progressive reforms credited to Roosevelt. As governor of Wisconsin, La Follette instituted direct primaries for all major political offices. He also supported a method called “recall” where citizens could remove public officials. La Follette and other Progressives also supported methods of direct democracy, such as initiative and referendum, where citizens could introduce laws through petitions and special elections.

Progressives within the Republican Party favored La Follette over Taft. However, La Follette was labeled by some conservative Republicans as a radical who supported Socialism. Although he worked with the leaders of the growing Socialist Party in Wisconsin, La Follette strenuously and vocally opposed Socialism. He believed the key to preventing the kind of worker’s rebellion the Socialists were trying to foment was to reform the Capitalist system to be more responsive to the public interest and human rights. This idea was soon known as “the Wisconsin idea,” due to La Follette’s efforts in his home state. La Follette passed stricter regulations regarding worker safety and child labor. La Follette also favored stronger state welfare programs for women and children, as well as government-mandated pensions for workers. Although he would receive nearly 5 million votes as an independent candidate in 1924, many conservatives within the Republican Party viewed La Follette with suspicion and chose to support Taft in 1908.

Figure 4.7: A political cartoon lampooning Bryan’s attempts to revive support for ideas such as free silver. Among Bryan’s supporters is an aged man beating a drum labeled “dead issues.” Following his third defeat in 1908, Bryan moved away from the national spotlight. He would make one final major public appearance during the 1920s debate regarding public education, religion, and the theory of evolution.

For the third and final time in 1908, the Democrats selected William Jennings Bryan as their candidate. Once again, the political atmosphere of the early 1900s gave Bryan little room to maneuver and differentiate himself as the defender of the common man. Taft benefitted from his association with Roosevelt, who was hailed as a reformer. Equally important, the Republicans retained the support of corporations as well as many laborers and farmers. Many voters found it difficult to differentiate between the platforms of Bryan and Taft. The Democratic candidate espoused many of the same policies and ideas of the past seven-and-a-half years under Roosevelt—policies the voters believed Taft would continue.

Taft had widespread experience as a public figure through a series of political appointments and diplomatic posts. However, he had never run for political office before his nomination for president in 1908. It mattered little, as Taft’s advisors framed the terms of the campaign in ways that likened their candidate to the popular Teddy Roosevelt. Fairly or not, Bryan was portrayed as a perennial second-place candidate, while Taft was presented as the next Roosevelt. For some, Bryan’s recent conversion to Progressivism seemed opportunistic. In reality, Bryan may have been more committed to Progressive reform than nearly every Republican except Robert La Follette and a few other Republicans of Yankee conviction who simply could not bear the thought of being a Democrat. Bryan craved the opportunity to enforce antitrust legislation nearly as much as he longed to be president. His campaign called for tougher regulation of Wall Street and federal insurance for bank deposits—two reforms that might have addressed some of the problems that led to the Great Depression. In the end, neither of these reforms occurred, at least not until after the financial panic of 1929.

Taft’s victory did not lead to an end to Progressivism. The new president surprised many Republican Party insiders by pursuing antitrust legislation even more vigorously than Roosevelt. Taft made few distinctions regarding the “good” trusts his predecessor had tolerated and trusts that acted in restraint of trade. For example, Roosevelt had defended trusts operated by businessmen like J. P. Morgan, citing several times when the investment banker purchased securities during stock market panics that helped calm other investors. Taft disagreed, taking on companies controlled by the House of Morgan and other “good trusts.”

Figure 4.8: An image depicting Taft as a nurse caring for Roosevelt’s policies, which are being handed by the outgoing president to his hand-picked successor. In reality, Taft was much more aggressive in antitrust legislation but did not share his predecessor’s enthusiasm for politics.

Despite these antitrust lawsuits, Taft generally sided with the conservatives of his party when it came to legislation. Only occasionally did the president side with the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, which was led by La Follete in the Senate and the long-serving Nebraska congressman George Norris in the House. Even then, Taft had little appetite for Congressional politics. For example, the president supported an effort to lower tariffs on manufactured goods—a measure that was opposed by many Northern Republicans. By the time the president’s bill made it through Congress, Senators who represented manufacturing interests had added hundreds of amendments that kept tariffs quite high in nearly every industry. Progressive Republicans urged their president to veto the bill as a matter of principle, but Taft had no stomach for power politics and went along with the conservative leadership of his party.

As the tariff bill demonstrates, many of Taft’s attempts to reform the political system ended in failure because the president refused to go against the conservative majority of his own party. A scandal involving a questionable deal arranged by the secretary of the Interior further reduced the image of the Taft administration. Secretary Richard Ballinger leased federal land in Alaska Territory to men he had once represented as an attorney in Seattle. These men sought to develop coal mines in the Alaska frontier. As head of the Forestry Service, Gifford Pinchot hoped to prevent this from occurring. When his efforts to block the deal failed, Pinchot went behind the president’s back and published a number of accusations. The public and Congress took notice, but an investigation revealed no obvious indication of wrongdoing.

It appeared to many that Pinchot had sought to generate a scandal in order to scuttle the Alaska land deal, and Taft felt he had little choice but to fire Pinchot for insubordination. This action greatly diminished the president’s record as a conservationist while the impression of scandal and disloyalty created a negative impression of the Taft administration. Although Roosevelt would be remembered as the environmental president of the early twentieth century, Taft placed more land under federal protection in his one term as president than Roosevelt. He also secured legislation that granted the president the authority to block federal land sales. However, Taft would be forever remembered as the man who fired Gifford Pinchot and permitted energy companies to exploit the Alaskan frontier. Roosevelt would also be known as the leading Progressive, despite the fact that Taft signed more Progressive reforms into law. However, most of these reforms were the result of legislation that had reached Congress after years of grassroots campaigns led by local Progressives. Taft supported but did not initiate these Progressive reforms.




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