Modern history

Presidential Progressivism

The problems created by industrialization and the growth of big business were national in scope. No municipal or state government had the authority, power, and finances to address issues that transcended political boundaries and affected people throughout the country. Recognizing this fact, prominent progressives sought national leadership positions. Two of the three early-twentieth-century presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, instituted progressive reforms during their terms. In the process, they reinvigorated the presidency, an office that had declined in power and importance during the late nineteenth century.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Square Deal

Born into a moderately wealthy New York family, Theodore Roosevelt graduated from Harvard in 1880 and entered government service. Appointed by William McKinley as assistant secretary of the navy in 1897, Roosevelt left his post the following year to form a regiment of soldiers—the “Rough Riders”—and fought in Cuba against Spanish forces. In 1898 voters in New York sent the popular war hero to Albany as the new Republican governor. Elected as William McKinley’s vice president in 1900, Roosevelt became president after McKinley’s assassination a year later.

Roosevelt brought an activist style to the presidency. Rather than seeing himself as merely administering the nation’s business, he considered his office a bully pulpit—a platform from which to promote his programs and from which he could rally public opinion. To this end, he used his energetic and extroverted personality to establish an unprecedented rapport with the American people, providing newspaper reporters with a limitless supply of colorful stories about his life and exploits.

For all his exuberance and energy, President Roosevelt pursued a moderate domestic course. Like his progressive colleagues, he opposed ideological extremism in any form. Rather than promoting any particular cause, Roosevelt believed that as head of state he could serve as an impartial arbiter among competing factions and determine what was best for the public. Reform was, in his view, the best defense against revolution.

As president, Roosevelt sought to provide economic and political stability, what he referred to as a “Square Deal.” He insisted that “a republic such as ours can exist only by virtue of the orderly liberty which comes through the equal domination of the law over all men alike.” The coal strike that began in Pennsylvania in 1902 gave Roosevelt an opportunity to play the role of impartial mediator and defender of the public good.

Miners had gone on strike for an eight-hour workday, a pay increase of 20 percent, and recognition of their union. Roosevelt sympathized with the plight of the workers, but he was more concerned that a prolonged strike would choke the supply of heating fuel to consumers as winter approached. Union representatives agreed to have the president create a panel to settle the dispute, but George F. Baer, president of the Reading Railroad, which also owned the mines, pledged that he would never agree to the workers’ demands. Disturbed by what he considered the owners’ “arrogant stupidity,” Roosevelt threatened to dispatch federal troops to take over and run the mines. When the owners backed down, the president established a commission that hammered out a compromise giving the strikers a 10 percent wage hike and a reduction of the workday to nine hours, but not union recognition.

At the same time, Roosevelt used his executive authority to tackle the problems caused by giant business trusts. In February 1902, the president instructed the Justice Department to sue the Northern Securities Company under the Sherman Antitrust Act (see chapter 16), a law that had rarely been used against big business since its passage in 1890. Northern Securities held monopoly control of the northernmost transcontinental railway lines. The powerful financier behind Northern Securities, J. P. Morgan, believed that he could do business with Roosevelt as he had with previous presidents. “Send your man to my man and they can fix it up,” Morgan informed Roosevelt. However, the president’s man at the Justice Department responded: “We don’t want to fix it up, we want to stop it.” In 1904 the Supreme Court ordered that the Northern Securities Company be dissolved, ruling that the firm had restricted competition. With this victory, Roosevelt affirmed the federal government’s power to regulate business trusts that violated the public interest. Overall, Roosevelt initiated twenty-five suits under the Sherman Antitrust Act, including litigation against the tobacco and beef trusts and the Standard Oil Company, actions that earned him the title of “trustbuster.”

Roosevelt distinguished between “good” trusts, which acted responsibly, and “bad” trusts, which abused their power and hurt consumers. Railroads had earned an especially bad reputation with the public for charging higher rates to small shippers and those in remote regions while granting rebates to favored customers, such as Standard Oil. In 1903 Roosevelt helped persuade Congress to pass the Elkins Act, which outlawed railroad rebates. Three years later, the president increased the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission to set maximum railroad freight rates. In 1903 Roosevelt also secured passage of legislation that established the Department of Commerce and Labor. Within this cabinet agency, the Bureau of Corporations gathered information about large companies in an effort to promote fair business practices.

Soaring in popularity, Roosevelt ran for president in 1904 and easily defeated the Democratic nominee, Judge Alton B. Parker. During the next four years, the president applied antitrust laws even more vigorously than before. He steered through Congress various reforms concerning the railroads, such as the Hepburn Act (1906), which standardized shipping rates, and took a strong stand for conservation of public lands. Roosevelt charted a middle course between preservationists and conservationists. He reserved 150 million acres of timberland as part of the national forests, an action that delighted the preservationists. At the same time, he authorized the expenditure of more than $80 million in federal funds to construct dams, reservoirs, canals, and other conservation projects, largely in the West.

Not all reform came from Roosevelt’s initiative. Congress passed two notable consumer laws in 1906 that reflected the multiple and sometimes contradictory forces that shaped progressivism. That year, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a muckraking novel that portrayed the impoverished lives of immigrant workers in Packingtown (Chicago) and the deplorable working conditions they endured. Outraged readers responded to the vivid description of the shoddy and filthy ways the meatpacking industry slaughtered animals and prepared beef for sale. The book revealed in grisly detail how the meat cut up for sausage “would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into hoppers, and made over again for home consumption.” The largest and most efficient meatpacking firms had financial reasons to support reform as well. They were losing money because European importers refused to purchase tainted meat. Congress responded by passing the Meat Inspection Act, which benefited consumers and provided a way for large corporations to eliminate competition from smaller, marginal firms that could not afford to raise standards to meet the new federal meat-processing requirements.

In 1906 Congress also passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which prohibited the sale of adulterated and fraudulently labeled food and drugs. The impetus for this law came from consumer groups, medical professionals, and government scientists. Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist in the Department of Agriculture, drove efforts for reform from within the government. He considered it part of his professional duty to eliminate harmful products (Table 19.1).

TABLE 19.1 National Progressive Legislation


Department of Commerce and Labor established to promote fair business practices


Pure Food and Drug Act Meat Inspection Act; Hepburn Act


White Slave Trade Act


Underwood Act reduces tariffs to benefit farmers Sixteenth Amendment (graduated income tax)

Seventeenth Amendment (election of senators by popular vote) Federal Reserve System


Harrison Narcotics Control Act Federal Trade Commission Clayton Antitrust Act


Adamson Act provides eight-hour workday for railroad workers Keating-Owen Act outlaws child labor in firms engaged in interstate commerce Workmen's Compensation Act


Eighteenth Amendment (prohibition)


Nineteenth Amendment (women's suffrage)

Roosevelt initially gave African Americans reason to believe that they, too, would get a square deal. In October 1901, at the outset of his first term, Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to a dinner at the White House. White supremacists in the South denounced the social gathering as a “damnable outrage.” Though Roosevelt dismissed this criticism, he never invited another black guest. Also in his first term, Roosevelt supported the appointment of a few black Republicans to federal posts in the South. When segregationist whites chased Minnie Cox from her job as postmistress of Indianola, Mississippi, Roosevelt refused to accept her resignation and closed the post office.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt lacked a commitment to black equality and espoused the racist ideas of eugenics then in fashion (see chapter 18). He deplored the declining birthrate of native-born white Americans compared with that of eastern and southern European newcomers and African Americans, whom he considered inferior stock. He argued that unless Anglo-Saxon women produced more children, whites would end up committing “race suicide.” “If the women flinch from breeding,” Roosevelt worried, “the . . . death of the race takes place even quicker.” Roosevelt never wavered in his belief in the superiority of the white race over people of color.

Once he won reelection in 1904, Roosevelt had less political incentive to defy the white South. He stopped cooperating with southern black officeholders and maneuvered to build the Republican Party in the region with all-white support. However, his most reprehensible action involved an incident that occurred in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. White residents of the town charged that black soldiers stationed at Fort Brown shot up the main street, killing one man and wounding another. Roosevelt ordered that unless the perpetrators stepped forward, the entire regiment would receive dishonorable discharges without a court-martial. Roosevelt never doubted the guilt of the black soldiers, and when no one admitted responsibility, he summarily dismissed 167 men from the military. Although the president spoke out against the brutality of lynching blacks in the South, he participated in this mass “legal lynching” of African American soldiers.

Taft Retreats from Progressivism

When Roosevelt decided not to seek another term as president in 1908, choosing instead to back William Howard Taft as his successor, he thought he was leaving his reform legacy in capable hands. A Roosevelt loyalist and an Ohio native, Taft had compiled a distinguished record as a federal judge, solicitor general of the United States, governor of the Philippines, and secretary of war. Taft easily defeated the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who was running for the presidency for the third and final time.

Taft’s presidency did not proceed as Roosevelt and his progressive followers had hoped. Taft did not have the charisma or energy of his predecessor and appeared to move in slow motion compared with Roosevelt. More important, the new president, in contrast to Roosevelt, had a narrower view of the scope of his office and its power to shape public opinion. Taft proved a weak leader and frequently took stands opposite to those of progressives. After convening a special session of Congress in March 1909 to support lower tariffs, a progressive issue, the president retreated in the face of conservative Republican opposition in the Senate. That year, when lawmakers passed the Payne-Aldrich tariff, which raised duties on imports, Taft signed it into law, thereby alienating key progressive legislators such as Senator Robert M. La Follette. The president also remained aloof from the fight by House insurgents to curb the dictatorial powers of Speaker Joseph Cannon, a foe of reform.

The situation deteriorated even further in the field of conservation, which was close to Roosevelt’s heart. When Pinchot criticized Taft’s secretary of the interior, Richard Ballinger, for returning restricted Alaskan coal mines to private mining companies in 1910, Taft fired Pinchot. Taft did not oppose conservation—he transferred more land from private to public control than did Roosevelt—but his dismissal of Pinchot angered conservationists.

Even more harmful to Taft’s political fortunes, Roosevelt turned against his handpicked successor. After returning from a hunting safari in Africa and a speaking tour of Europe in 1910, Roosevelt became increasingly troubled by Taft’s missteps. The loss of the House of Representatives to the Democrats in the 1910 elections highlighted the split among Republicans that had developed under Taft. A year later, relations between the ex-president and the incumbent further deteriorated when Roosevelt attacked Taft for filing antitrust litigation against U.S. Steel for a deal that the Roosevelt administration had approved in 1907. Ironically, Roosevelt, known as a trustbuster, believed that filing more lawsuits under the Sherman Antitrust Act yielded diminishing returns, whereas Taft, the conservative, initiated more antitrust litigation than did Roosevelt.

The Election of 1912

Convinced that only he could heal the party breach, Roosevelt announced that he would run for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination. However, despite Roosevelt’s widespread popularity among rank-and-file Republicans, Taft still controlled the party machinery and the majority of convention delegates. Losing to Taft on the first ballot, an embittered but optimistic Roosevelt formed a third party to sponsor his run for the presidency. Roosevelt excitedly told thousands of supporters gathered in Chicago, including Jane Addams and Gifford Pinchot, that he felt “as strong as a bull moose,” which became the nickname for Roosevelt’s new Progressive Party.

In accepting the nomination of his new party, Roosevelt articulated the philosophy of New Nationalism. He argued that the federal government should use its considerable power to fight against the forces of special privilege and for social justice for the majority of Americans. To this end, the Progressive Party platform advocated income and inheritance taxes, an eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor, workers’ compensation, fewer restrictions on labor unions, and women’s suffrage. This last plank mobilized the efforts of women throughout the country who, like Jane Addams, supported the party that she said “pledged itself to the protection of children, to the care of the aged, to the relief of overworked girls, to the safeguarding of burdened men.”

Roosevelt was not the only progressive candidate in the contest. The Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson, the reform governor of New Jersey. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson had the moral conviction of a pastor who knew what was best for his flock. As an alternative to Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Wilson offered his New Freedom. As a Democrat and a southerner (he was born in Virginia), Wilson had a more limited view of government than did the Republican Roosevelt. Wilson envisioned a society of small businesses, with the government’s role confined to ensuring open competition among businesses and freedom for individuals to make the best use of their opportunities. Unlike Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Wilson’s New Freedom did not embrace social reform and rejected federal action in support of women’s suffrage and the elimination of child labor.

If voters considered either Roosevelt’s or Wilson’s brand of reform too mainstream, they could cast their ballots for Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate who had been imprisoned for his leadership in the Pullman strike (see chapter 17). He favored overthrowing capitalism through peaceful, democratic methods and replacing it with government ownership of business and industry for the benefit of the working class.

The Republican Party split decided the outcome of the election. The final results gave Roosevelt 27 percent of the popular vote and Taft 23 percent. Together they had a majority, but because they were divided, Wilson became president, with 42 percent of the popular vote and 435 electoral votes. Finishing fourth, Debs did not win any electoral votes, but he garnered around a million popular votes (6 percent). Counting the votes for Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs, the American electorate overwhelmingly cast their ballots for reform.

Woodrow Wilson and the New Freedom Agenda

Once in office, Wilson hurried to fulfill his New Freedom agenda. Even though he differed from Roosevelt about the scope of federal intervention, both men believed in a strong presidency. An admirer of the British parliamentary system, Wilson viewed the president as an active and strong leader whose job was to provide his party with a legislative program. The 1912 elections had given the Democrats control over Congress, and Wilson expected his party to support his New Freedom measures.

Tariff reduction came first. The Underwood Act of 1913 reduced import duties, a measure that appealed to southern and midwestern farmers who sought lower prices on the manufactured goods they bought that were subject to the tariff. The law also incorporated a reform that progressives had adopted from the Populists: the graduated income tax (tax rates that increase at higher levels of income). The ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913 provided the legal basis for the income tax after the Supreme Court had previously declared such a levy unconstitutional. The graduated income tax was meant to advance the cause of social j ustice by moderating income inequality. The need to recover revenues lost from lower tariffs provided an additional practical impetus for imposing the tax. Because the law exempted people earning less than $4,000 a year from paying the income tax, more than 90 percent of Americans owed no tax. Those with incomes exceeding this amount paid rates ranging from 1 percent to 6 percent on $500,000 or more.

Also in 1913, Wilson pressed Congress to consider banking reform. As chronic debtors who had to borrow against next year’s crops, farmers favored a system supervised by the government that afforded them an ample supply of credit at low interest rates. Eastern bankers wanted reforms that would stabilize a system plagued by cyclical financial panics, the most recent in 1907, while keeping the banking system under the private control of bankers. The resulting compromise created the Federal Reserve System. The act established twelve regional banks. These banks lent cash reserves to member banks in their districts at a “rediscount rate,” a rate that could be adjusted according to the fluctuating demand for credit. Federal Reserve notes (paper money insured by the government) also became the medium of exchange and the foundation for a uniform currency. The Federal Reserve Board, appointed by the president and headquartered in Washington, D.C., supervised the system. Nevertheless, as with other progressive agencies, the experts selected to oversee the new banking system came from within the banking industry itself. Although farmers won a more rational and flexible credit supply, Wall Street bankers retained considerable power over the operation of the Federal Reserve System.

Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft This photograph shows Woodrow Wilson (left) on inauguration day in 1913 with his predecessor, William Howard Taft. Taft, a Republican, had disappointed progressives, especially Theodore Roosevelt, during his one term in office. Wilson, a Democrat, would expand progressive reforms from 1913 to 1917. Not considered a jovial man, Wilson is seen here enjoying himself as he takes office. Library of Congress

Next, President Wilson took two steps designed to help resolve the problem of economic concentration. First, in 1914 he persuaded Congress to create the Federal Trade Commission. Although the agency replaced Roosevelt’s Bureau of Corporations, it pursued basically the same approach that Roosevelt had favored. The commission had the power to investigate corporate activities and prohibit “unfair” practices (which the law left undefined). Wilson’s second measure directly attacked monopolies. Enacted in 1914, the Clayton Antitrust Law strengthened the Sherman Antitrust Act by banning certain corporate operations, such as price discrimination and overlapping membership on company boards, which undermined economic competition. The statute also exempted labor unions from prosecution under antitrust legislation, reversing the policy initiated by the federal government in the wake of the Pullman strike (see chapter 17).

By the end of his second year in office, Wilson had achieved most of his New Freedom objectives. Political considerations, however, soon forced him to widen his progressive agenda and support measures he had previously rejected. With the Republican Party once again united after the electoral fiasco of 1912, Democrats lost a substantial number of seats in the 1914 congressional elections, though they still maintained a majority. Fearful for his prospects for reelection in 1916, Wilson resumed the campaign for progressive legislation. Wilson appealed to Roosevelt’s constituency by supporting New Nationalism social justice measures. In 1916 he signed into law the Adamson Act, which provided an eight-hour workday and overtime pay for railroad workers; the Keating-Owen Act, outlawing child labor in firms that engaged in interstate commerce; and the Workmen’s Compensation Act, which provided insurance for federal employees in case of injury. In supporting programs that required greater intervention by the federal government, Wilson had placed political expediency ahead of his professed principles. He would later show a similar flexibility when he lent his support to a women’s suffrage amendment, a cause he had long opposed.

Despite facing a challenge from a united Republican Party led by progressive Charles Evans Hughes, a former governor of New York, Wilson won the 1916 election with slightly less than 50 percent of the vote. Wilson’s reelection owed little to the support of African Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois, who backed Wilson in 1912 for pledging to “assist in advancing the interest of [the black] race,” had become disillusioned with the president. Born in the South and with deep southern roots, Wilson surrounded himself with white appointees from the South, some of whom told racist jokes at cabinet meetings. Despite black protests, Wilson held a screening in the White House of the film Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and denigrated African Americans. Making the situation worse, Wilson introduced racial segregation into government offices and dining facilities in the nation’s capital, and blacks lost jobs in post offices and other federal agencies throughout the South. In Wilson’s view, segregation and discrimination were in the “best interests” of African Americans.

Still, President Wilson achieved much of the progressive agenda—more, in fact, than he had intended to when he first came to office. By the beginning of his second term, the federal government had further extended regulation over the activities of corporations and banks. Big business and finance still wielded substantial power and maintained considerable leeway in conducting their own affairs, but Wilson had steered the government on a course that also benefited ordinary citizens, including passage of social justice measures he had originally opposed.


• How did the progressive agenda shape presidential politics in the first two decades of the twentieth century?

• How and why did the role of the president in national politics change under Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson?

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