As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
Politics and the Impulse to Reform

Today we begin the last discussion of Unit I in which we have spent a great deal of time talking about the domestic policies that resulted in the closing of old frontiers and the foreign policies resulting in the opening of new frontiers - in terms of political and economic gains in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific. As we have learned, there is often a high price to pay for progress, and today's discussion focuses on those Americans who, at the turn of the 20th Century, recognized that price and began to clamor to use the political arena for both economic and political reform.

As we begin this discussion, it is important to set the stage. So, what was America like in 1900 and how it compared with America 100 years later in 2000?

Map of U.S. in 1900

Today, we are going to continue our discussion about progress and the price of progress through three specific goals.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To understand what is meant by the Progressive Era and progressive politics.
  2. To the discuss the reasons for reform in late 19th and early 20th Century America.
  3. To examine the overall achievements and failures of Progressive reform during this period.

Goal #1: To understand what is meant by the Progressive Era and progressive politics

What was the Progressive Era? The period of social activism and political reform in the United States that is known as the Progressive Era occurred from the 1890s to the 1920s. One main goal of the Progressive movement was and establishing further means of direct democracy. Progressives also sought regulation of monopolistic trust corporations through antitrust laws, which were seen as a means to promote fair competition for the benefit of consumers. The Progressive sought several goals:

As historian Eric Foner tells us in Give Me Liberty, the Progressive Era was:

Who were the Progressives? Progressive reformers formed a loosely defined political movement - the Progressive Movement -Political Cartoon Rockefeller of individuals and groups who were worried about the state of society, the effects of industrialization and urbanization, social disorder, poverty, and political corruption. Progressives included:

What were the goals of the Progressives? Progressives believed that a strong central government could become a weapon for social justice by helping to reform the excesses of society and of capitalism. Among their primary goals were using that strong central government to

Who were the Progressive Presidents? The three Progressive presidents - Theodore Roosevelt (Republican until 1912 and then a Progressive), William Howard Taft (Republican), and Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) - were men who

Their party affiliation was less important than the issues they championed.

Goal #2: To discuss Five Reasons for Reform in Late 19th and Early 20th Century America

There were at least five specific reasons that individuals and groups of reformers arose during the turn of the century:

  1. The consequences and excesses of industrialization and urbanization.
  2. A historic shift in Republican party politics.
  3. Interest in reform among members of all classes.
  4. Economic depression.
  5. Criticism of capitalism.

Reform Reason #1: The Consequences and excesses of industrialization and urbanization (Review)

  1. The nation grew faster than it ever had, bringing about great shifts: from a largely homogeneous population of Western European immigrants into a more heterogeneous population; from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy; from a predominately rural society to a predominately urban society; and from an isolated nation that was economically dependent upon European capital and manufactured good to an international nation that became a major industrial, financial, and trading power.
  2. American social beliefs became intimately tied to capitalism and Social Darwinism.
  3. Corporations became increasingly dominant in the American economy.
  4. Violent conflict arose between the industrialists/Robber Barons and American laborers.
  5. The nation became increasingly urban.

Reform Reason #2: A Shift in Republican Party Politics

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and its success in a Union victory in the Civil War and abolishing slavery, the Republican Party dominated the national political scene until 1932. It's supporters were largely northern white Protestants, businessmen, small business owners, professionals, factory workers, farmers, and African-Americans. Thus, the party was pro-business, and in so doing, supported banks, railroads, and tariffs to protect industry. Under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, it emphasized an expansive/imperialistic foreign policy. Cartoon for Election of 1912

Beginning in 1900, however, with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, for the first time in American political history the entire domestic economic and social foundation of America was being questioned. And it was our first progressive president, the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who shepherded this shift because of his belief that the president was "the steward of the public welfare."

How does Roosevelt change the nature of Republican Party Politics? Roosevelt:

What does the presidency of William Howard Taft add to this shift in Republican Party Politics? Taft:

What was the status of the Republican Party after 8 years of the Roosevelt Presidency (1900-1908) and four years of the Taft Presidency (1909-1912)? The party was divided:

This split in the Republican Party - between the conservative and progressive sides - played a huge role in the Election of 1812. So, let's look at the candidates:

Photo President William Howard TaftWilliam Howard Taft - the Republican incumbent - took over the presidency in 1908 after Theodore Roosevelt turned it down. Taft is decent, well-meaning, and eager to please his both his mentor - TR - and the big-money party donors. Taft shouldered the burdens of the presidency, but he did not enjoy it much. He wanted nothing more than to retire to the Supreme Court - which he eventually did. During his presidenial four years, Taft puts forth a conservative Republican plan that preaches a politics of contentment and calls for minor reform without activism. Taft carried 2 states (Vermont and Utah) and 3,500,000 votes.

Theodore Roosevelt - who formed the Progressive Party after failing to receive the Republican nomination - had been chomping at the bit after 4 years out of public office and was eager to return to the political limelight. Photo Theodore Roosevelt By 1912, he is fed up with Taft and eager to reassume the presidency and continue his trust-busting agenda. But this agenda is the reason he is turned down in 1912 by the wealthy party bosses - for ordering a successful antitrust suit against J.P. Morgan's holding company, forcing mining owners to accept arbitration of their employee's grievances, authorizing government control of railroad rates, limiting injunctions against labor unions, and calling for the imposition of income and inheritance taxes. TR carried 6 states with 88 electoral votes and 4,100,000 votes.

Woodrow Wilson - the Democratic candidate - Photo of Woodroow Wilsonwas the relatively unknown governor of New Jersey, a former history professor and president of Princeton University. The Democratic Party bosses felt he had a chance to overcome the progressive agenda presented by Roosevelt. He was a conservative Virginia Democrat, steeped in religion and racist prejudices of the Old South. He was an apostle of states' rights, limited government, and the corrective virtues of free competition. However, he was also interested in reform and what he called "moral regeneration." His New Freedom program called for breaking up monopolies in order to restore free competition. Wilson carried 40 states with 435 electoral votes and took 6,300,000 votes.

Eugene Debs - the Socialist Party candidate - was a labor leader, pacifist, political agitator, and socialist - and unlike the other candidates, he had known poverty and hardship. He would be a virtually unthinkable candidate today. Such a person would have to combine Photo of Eugene DebsHoward Zinn's politics with Ralph Nader's crusading zeal and Bill Clinton's charisma. He did not stand a chance of winning, but he had a cause to pursue and a voice to be heard. His presidential platform calls for the peaceful transferal of the power held by American capitalists to those who produced the wealth by the sweat of their brows - the workers. (Debs carried no states, but garnered 900,000 votes.)


Map of Election of 1912

The results: Wilson carried 40 states with 435 electoral votes and took almost 6,300,000 popular votes; Roosevelt carried 6 states with 88 electoral votes and 4,200,000 popular votes; Taft carried 2 states (Vermont and Utah) and took 3,500,000 popular votes; Debs took no states, but garnered 900,000 popular votes. (Map at,747,1301&pid=11382)

Picture of frontspeice James Chace "1912"The Significance of the 1912 Election According to James Chase in 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs - The Election That Changed the Country (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2004), the election is important for at least three reasons:

  1. It fractured the Republican Party by splitting it into reactionary and reformist wings. If TR had won the Republican nomination, the Republicans probably would have become the party of domestic reform and international realism.
  2. It changed the nature of the Republican and Democratic parties. The split within Republican ranks brought about a historic shift. Thereafter, the Republicans become associated with conservatism and the Democrats with governmental activism and reformist idealism.
  3. It framed the questions that we continue to address in the 21st Century:

Reform Reason #3: Interest in reform among members of all classes

1. Reform among the urban laboring classes - Labor Union Organizers and Supporters. Lower class members of the labor force joined or supported unions as a way to improve their working conditions. Foremost on their list of reforms was adopting the 8-hour workday; raising wages; and ending the use of convict labor. National Labor Union (NLU), Knights of Labor, and American Federation of Labor (AFL) were the largest unions.

2. Reform among the middle class work force - Small farmers and small businessmen. These lower to middle-class workers had a long list of proposed reforms:

Grant Wood Photo of Agrarian MythIn particular, small farmers suffered greatly at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Many small farmers had become victims of both an Agrarian Myth and the growing commercialization of farming.

3. Reform among the middle and upper classes - The Progressive Party drew heavily from the middle and upper classes. Map of New York City in 1850 showing the grid patternTo get a real understanding of reformist thinking among the middle and upper classes, we can look at the creation of Central Park in New York City.

Reform Reason #4: Economic Depression

The Gilded Age was a period of explosive growth and devastating depressions. Three major depressions occurred: 1873, 1884, and 1893 - the last one having the most devasting effects.

The Panic and Depression of 1893 began with the railroad industry that had experienced incredible growth in the previous two decades and had resulted in wild investment and speculation. Business and financial interests promoted a laissez-faire environment during boom times, over did it, and lived beyond their means. So when railroad growth slowed down in early 1890s, so did the iron and steel industries. Then, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad collapsed, investors panicked and converted their stock to gold, forcing stock prices to decrease, and dramatically decreasing the gold reserve - thus leading to an economic collapse in 1893.

But the depression's end exposed fundamental tensions in the industrial system - a huge gap between the employers and employees, the haves and have nots.

Such tension gave rise not only to the demands for reform, but for further labor agitation, and for greater attraction to alternative political and economic systems - especially Socialism and in some cases, anarchism.


Reform Reason #5: Criticisms of Capitalism

Toward the end of the Century, a small minority of Americans began to question the wisdom of capitalism. In so doing, some began to express interest in socialism, communism, and anarchism

Capitalism - An economic system in which goods, services, and the means of production are controlled by individuals. Capitalism is based on the economic philosophy that governments should keep their hands off business. 1899 Political Cartoon "A Lesson of the Last Strikes"This laissez-faire attitude, popularized largely by the Scottish economist, Adam Smith (1723-1790) argues that self-interest supplies an "invisible hand" in the market place by automatically balancing the supply of and demand for goods and services.

Socialism - An economic system in which goods, services, and the means of production are controlled by the government. Socialism is based upon the German philosophers and writers Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1821-1895) who argue in The Communist Manifesto that capitalism is ultimately undemocratic because employers gain profit, or "surplus value" at the expense of their workers. Thus:

Communism - A political system that comes about under a Socialist economy. Communism emerges after the proletariat revolution when the state would "wither away," thus bringing about the emergence of a collective, classless, communist society in which exploitation would vanish.

Anarchism - A political system in which governments are believed to be unnecessary and that people will voluntarily cooperate to meet the political, economic, and social needs of society at large. Anarchism is based upon the belief that because any considerable accumulation of property is theft, capitalism is merely theft with legal sanction; laws protecting property and property-holders were immoral; and any government - capitalist or socialist - existed chiefly to oppress individuals by upholding the rights of property. The early 20th Century publication Mother Earth, defined anarchism as "the theory that all forms of government rest on violence and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary" and associated anarchism with "voluntary economic co-operation of all towards the needs of each. A social arrangement based on the principle: To each according to his needs; from each according to his ability."

Disagreement about capitalism was especially rampant in the Unions. Workers in general were widely unhappy - and corporate owners took advantage of their situation by making certain that they were divided by ethnicity, race, gender, and age. Such divisions were fostered in order to keep workers from uniting.

Divisions within the Work Force

  1. Ethnicity, race, gender, and age.
  2. Skills - skilled, unskilled, and family tenement workers

Despite such divisions, workers had much in common. Thus, it is not impossible to understand why many workers who were divided in so many ways turned to union organization and other reform measures!

Commonalities among the Workers

  1. They worked long hours - about 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. They all hoped for a federal law that would require an 8-hour work day. Banner - 8 hours for what we will
  2. They had to deal with the impersonality of the large factory and the sense of being an anonymous cog in a big wheel.
  3. They were subjected to poor wages, wage reductions, and inflated living costs. As owners tried to raise profits, many laborers were forced to live in company-owned homes and shop in company-owned stores with inflated prices.
  4. They faced dangerous and unsafe working conditions each day. The railroads were a perfect example. In 1881, 30,000 railroad workers were injured or killed on the job.
  5. They faced a growing sense of powerlessness as corporate profits grew; the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
  6. Thus, some workers turned to unions for help.

And what about the Unions? Unions were a positive reform mechanism of the industrial age. Most unions began with peaceful efforts to achieve economic reform. As peaceful efforts failed, both union members and the vast majority of American workers who were unorganized turned to strikes and violence as a way to protest.

And what were the achievements of unions during this period?

Goal #3: To examine the overall achievements and failures of Progressive reform during this period

Progressive Accomplishments

1. Enacted government reform and passed new legislation promoting social welfare and a "more desirable" moral climate

2. Used "enlightened social tinkering" to achieve educational, racial, and feminist reform

Map of states with womens votes 1915

Progressive Failures
  1. The vast majority of Progressive reforms did not pass due to the power of those who opposed reform - especially corporate power.
  2. Many of the new laws failed to really redistribute power because they were not adequately enforced - federal regulatory agencies had no resources for thorough investigations, and they had to get information from the companies they were supposed to police.
  3. Many reforms were watered down - often because reform in reality meant a great deal of political compromise to meet the needs of all involved - the capitalists, workers, reformers, the president, and the congress.
  4. Very little real reform had occurred in the work place other than some state factory inspection laws, victim compensation laws, minimum wage employment laws, and the creation of a watered-down Meat Inspection Act.

Politics and the Impulse to Reform

  1. The impetus for reform in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries arose from the excesses of industrialization and urbanization; a historic shift in party politics; the interest of many people in reform, especially the Progressives; economic depressions; and increasing criticisms of capitalism.
  2. The Election of 1912 is extremely important because it:
  3. Reformers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were responsible for some admirable accomplishments. For example, reformers helped
  4. Reformers failed to create real change for at least three groups:
  5. Most reformers failed to recognize the ambiguity of their reform movements. While reformers wanted to change genuine societal ills, their reform spirit was combined with moral convictions that used "hatred as a kind of creed" - hatred of anything that was different, especially European immigrants, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, big business, trade unions, Socialists, anarchists. In these cases, some types of reform actually stimulated reactive policies rather than proactive reform - especially labor strikes and urban race riots.
  6. Taken as a whole, these reforms were gradual and predictable changes that represented "progress" in a society that could no longer turn a deaf ear to the excesses of industrialization and urbanization, bear the consequences of government corruption, ignore women's demands for equal rights, or allow the wanton destruction of the environment. As such, the reforms of late-19th and early-20th Century America reflected an evolutionary step forward slightly altering the status quo - not a revolutionary overthrow of historical values or operating practices of the nation's traditional power brokers.
  7. Despite the efforts of a few vocal socialists and anarchists, capitalism emerged healthier than ever at the end of the Progressive Era.