US History/Progressive Era


A Progressive Era cartoon in favor of Women's Rights. Suffragists saw success on the west coast, and wanted to extend equality to the east coast.

Industrialization led to the rise of big businesses at the expense of the worker. Factory laborers faced long hours, low wages, and unsanitary conditions. The large corporations protected themselves by allying with political parties. The parties, in turn, were controlled by party leaders, rather than by the voters. The Progressive movement was an effort to cure America: not so much an organized movement, but a general spirit of reform embraced by Americans with diverse goals and backgrounds during the early twentieth century [1]. These problems included the aftermath of slavery, Reconstruction from the American Civil War, and female subjugation. The goal was to remove corrupt political machines and get more common people into the political process. Progressivism believed individuals could make the world better through regulation and reform. It worked on the Federal, state, local and public and private spheres, moving toward local public safety and efficiency, elimination of corruption, social justice, and the social control of knowledge.

Local Reform


At the urban level, Progressivism mainly affected municipal government. The system whereby the city is governed by a powerful mayor and a council was replaced by the council-manager or the commission system. Under the council-manager system, the council would pass laws, while the manager would do no more than ensure their execution. The manager was essentially a weak mayor. Under the commission system, the executive would be composed of people who each controlled one area of government. The commission was essentially a multi-member, rather than single-member, executive.

At the state level, several electoral reforms were made. Firstly, the secret ballot was introduced. Prior to the secret ballot, the ballots were colored papers printed by the political parties. Due to the lack of secrecy, bribing or blackmailing voters became common. It was to prevent businessmen or politicians from thus coercing voters that the secret ballot was introduced. Also, reforms were made to give voters more say in government. The initiative allowed voters to propose new laws. The referendum allowed certain laws (for example tax increases) to be approved by the voters first. Finally, the recall, allowed the voters to remove public officials for wrongdoing while in office.

In addition, Progressives sought to combat the power of party leaders over which candidates would be nominated. The direct primary was instituted, under which the voters cast ballots to nominate candidates. Before the primary was introduced, the party leaders or party faithful were the only ones allowed to nominate candidates. The South pioneered some political reforms; "the direct primarily originated in North Carolina; the city commission plan arose in Galveston, Texas; and the city manager plan began in Stanton, Virgina. Progressive governors introduced business regulation, educational expansion,and other reforms that duplicated actions taken by northern counterparts.

Labor Reforms


Progressive movement also attempted to give more power over legislation to the general populace. Three practices - the referendum, the initiative, and the recall - were created. The referendum allowed the voters to vote on a bill at an election before it took force as law. The initiative permitted the voters to petition and force the legislature to vote on a certain bill. Finally, the recall permitted voters to remove elected officials from office in the middle of the term. State laws were formed to improve labor conditions. Many states enacted factory inspection laws, and by 1916 nearly two-thirds of the states required compensation for the victims in industrial accidents.

In 1901, Jane Addams founded the Juvenile Protective Association, a non-profit agency dedicated to protecting children from abuse. In 1903, Mary Harris Jones organized the Children's Crusade, a march of child workers from Kensington, Pennsylvania to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, New York, bringing national attention to the issue of child labor. In 1909, President Roosevelt hosted the first White House Conference on Children, which continued to be held every decade through the 1970s. In 1912, the United States Children's Bureau was created in order to investigate "all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people." At the instigation of middle class coalitions, many states enacted factory inspection laws, and by 1916 two-thirds of the states required compensation for victims of industrial accidents. An alliance of labor and humanitarian groups induced some legislatures to grant aid to mothers with dependent children. Under pressure from the National Child Labor to Committee, nearly every state set a minimum age for employment and limited hours that employers could make children work.Families that needed extra income evaded child labor restrictions by falsifying their children's ages to employers.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911.

States also regulated female labor by setting maximum work hours, especially when an accident at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory resulted in the deaths of more than 100 women. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of regulated work hours for women in "Muller v. Oregon". Finally, some minimum wage provisions were introduced (for men and women).

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in Chicago in 1905 at a convention of anarchist and socialist union members who were opposed to the policies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Unlike the AFL, which was a group composed of separate unions for each different trade (craft unionism), the IWW supported the concept of industrial unionism, in which all workers in a given industry are organized in one union, regardless of each worker's particular trade. They promoted the idea of "One Big Union" in the hopes that one large, centralized body would be better equipped to deal with similarly-large capitalist enterprises.

1881 The Great influx of Russian and Polish Jews. They formed an objectionable part of the population, because they couldn't speak English, lived closely crowded, and dirty. Penniless and unfamiliar with industrial conditions. They were apart of industrial, intellectual, and civil life. Their willingness to work 18 hours obnoxiously was crazy compared to Americans who worked (part-time). "It's not the condition that the immigrant comes from that determines he's usefulness;But the power one shows to rise above the condition."

President Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt circa 1904.

At the national level, Progressivism centered on defeating the power of large businesses. President Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded to the Presidency when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, helped the Progressive movement greatly.

Coal Strike


In early 1902, anthracite coal miners struck. Their salaries had not been raised in over two decades. Furthermore, they were paid with scrips. Scrips were essentially coupons for goods from pricey company stores.

The president of the Reading Railroad, George F. Baer, said that the miners had erred by distrusting the owners. He declared that the mine owners were "Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country,"[2] who could be trusted more than union leaders.

The owners and the miners refused to negotiate with each other. As autumn approached, many feared that the coal strike would cripple the economy. President Roosevelt intervened by asking the owners and miners to submit to arbitration. The miners accepted, but the owners refused Roosevelt's suggestion. Roosevelt then threatened to use the Army to take over the mines. The owners finally acquiesced; the strike was settled in 1903. Roosevelt's policy triumphed in 1904 when the Supreme Court, convinced by the government's arguments, created by J.P Morgan and his business allies. Roosevelt choose however , not to attack others trust, such as u.s steel another of Morgan's creations. Prosecution of northern securities began reportedly collared Roosevelt and offered "if we have done anything wrong, send your man to my man and we can fix it up".

Sherman Antitrust Act


Roosevelt continued his Progressive actions when he revived the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Act sought to prevent companies from combining into trusts and gaining monopolies. A trust is formed when many companies loosely join together under a common board of directors to gain total control of an entire market so that prices can be raised without the threat of competitors. This total control of a market and subsequent price raising is a monopoly. However, until Roosevelt's administration, the Act was rarely enforced.

Hepburn Act


Roosevelt also enforced the Hepburn Act, which allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroads. The railroads had allied themselves with large businesses, charging higher rates to those business' competitors. Thus, the large businesses would gain even more power. The Hepburn Act prevented railroads from granting reduced rates to businesses.

Panama Canal

President Roosevelt visits workers on the Panama Canal in 1906

President Roosevelt oversaw the successful completion of the Panama Canal. The finished canal vastly improved shipping logistics, allowing boats going from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice versa to bypass the voyage around South America, saving much time on each trip.



Roosevelt also championed the cause of conservation. He set aside large amounts of land as part of the national park system.

Conflicts with other Imperialist Nations

A political cartoon showing Roosevelt's use of naval power as a way to protect American nations from European interference.

Imperialism was yet a common theme in the relations between nations in this era. It should be noted that although the US annexed Hawaii, Japan also had interests in the island and an aggressive foreign policy; Japan had already seized Taiwan from China in 1885 and would annex Korea in 1905. Imperial Germany was another aggressive power. The U.S. and Germany had conflicts over who would control Samoa, in the Pacific, as well as nearly faced a naval war with Germany in 1902 over German plans to seize the customs revenues of Venezuela.

However, under the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States became more open in asserting international power. In 1905, Russia and Japan went to war over control of Korea and China. The Japanese won naval victories over two Russian fleets, in the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima. President Roosevelt offered to negotiate peace between the two nations, and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a peace treaty was signed.

To demonstrate the ability of the United States to project power around the world (unlike Russia), Roosevelt ordered a fleet of U.S. men-o'war to sail around the world. The fleet left the east coast of the U.S. in 1908 and returned in 1909, visiting ports in Europe, Australia, and Japan.

President William Howard Taft

President Taft

When Theodore Roosevelt decided not to run for the presidency again in the election of 1908, that opened the doors for another Republican candidate. Into the gap stepped William H. Taft, former Ohio Supreme Court Justice, former Solicitor General of the United States, and former judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. James S. Sherman was chosen as his vice president. They ran against the Democratic slate of William Jennings Bryan and John Kern, and Socialist nominee Eugene V. Debs. Taft won the election by over a million votes and the Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress. During Taft's presidency, his primary goals were to continue Roosevelt's trust-busting and to reconcile old guard conservatives and young progressive reformers in the Republican Party. [3] Taft was somewhat more cautious and quiet than Roosevelt, despite his own credentials, and therefore had less public attention.

Taft tried to win over the Filipino people by reforming education, transportation, and health care. New railroads, bridges, and telegraph lines strengthened the economy. A public school system was founded, and new health care policies virtually eliminated such diseases as cholera and smallpox. These reforms slowly reduced Filipino hostility.

Although Taft was less of an attention-grabber than Roosevelt, he went far beyond what Roosevelt ever did. Taft used the Sherman Antitrust Act, a law passed in 1890 that made trusts and monopolies illegal, and they had to sue many large and economically damaging corporations. Taft won more antitrust lawsuits in four years than Roosevelt had won in seven.

Taft also pushed for the Sixteenth Amendment, which gave the federal government the right to tax citizens' income. The amendment was meant to supply the government with cash to replace the revenue generated from tariffs, which Progressives had hoped that Taft would lower. Taft failed to lower the tariff. In addition, he failed to fight for conservation and environmentalism, actually weakening some conservation policies to favor business. When Roosevelt came back from an expedition to Africa in 1910, he was disappointed in Taft, and vigorously campaigned for progressive republicans in the congressional elections of 1910.

Roosevelt tried to capitalize on his still enormous popularity by again running for reelection in 1912, but he failed to win the nomination because of Taft's connections to influential people in the Republican Party. Roosevelt and his supporters then broke off from the Republicans, forming the Progressive Party. (This later was known as the Bull Moose party after Roosevelt declared that he felt "as strong as a bull moose!") The Republican split hurt the two candidates, and Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson gathered a 42 percent plurality of the popular votes and 435 out of 531 electoral votes.

On the Supreme Court

Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1921.

Taft would later become a member of the Supreme Court, making him the only former President to do so. In 1921, when Chief Justice Edward Douglass White died, President Warren G. Harding nominated Taft to take his place, thereby fulfilling Taft's lifelong ambition to become Chief Justice of the United States. Very little opposition existed to the nomination, and the Senate approved him 60-4 in a secret session, but the roll call of the vote has never been made public. He readily took up the position, serving until 1930. As such, he became the only President to serve as Chief Justice, and thus is also the only former President to swear in subsequent Presidents, giving the oath of office to both Calvin Coolidge (in 1925) and Herbert Hoover (in 1929). He remains the only person to have led both the Executive and Judicial branches of the United States government. He considered his time as Chief Justice to be the highest point of his career: he allegedly once remarked, "I don't remember that I ever was President."

President Woodrow Wilson

Official portrait of President Woodrow Wilson, painted in 1913.

Although Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat, he still pushed for progressive reforms. One of the first successes of his administration was the lowering of tariffs, which he accomplished in 1913. Wilson believed that increased foreign competition would spur U.S. based manufacturers to lower prices and improve their goods. That same year, Wilson passed the Federal Reserve Act, which created twelve regional banks that would be run by a central board in the capitol. This system gave the government more control over banking activities.

Wilson also pushed for governmental control over business. In 1914, a Democratic-controlled Congress established the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate companies that participated in suspected unfair and illegal trade practices. Wilson also supported the Clayton Antitrust Act, which joined the Sherman Antitrust Act as one the government's tools to fight trusts the same year.

By the end of Wilson's First term, progressives had won many victories. The entire movement lost steam, though, as Americans became much more interested in international affairs, especially the war that had broken out in Europe in 1914.

The Supreme Court and Labor


Upset workers had succeeded in lobbying Congress to pass legislation that improved work conditions. However, the Supreme Court of the United States somewhat limited the range of these acts. In Holden v. Hardy (1896), the Supreme Court ruled that miners' hours must be short because long hours made the job too dangerous. However, in Lochner v. New York, laws ruled that bakery workers did not have a job dangerous enough to put restrictions on the free sale of labor. Putting aside this decision, in 1908, the decision in Muller v. Oregon said that women's health must be protected "to preserve the strength and vigor of the race." This did, clearly, protect women's health, but it also locked them into menial jobs.

Controlling Prostitution

An anti-prostitution cartoon, portraying a women being conned in an Ice Cream parlor.

Moral outrage erupted when muckraking journalists charged that international gangs were kidnapping young women and forcing them into prostitution, a practice called white slavery. Accusations were exaggerated, but they alarmed some moralists who falsely perceived a link between immigration and prostitution. Although some women voluntarily entered "the profession" because it offered income and independence from their male counterparts, some women had very little option to a life where they had little if any amenities and many were forced into this profession and lifestyle. Reformers nonetheless believed they could attack prostitution by punishing both those who promoted it and those who practiced it. In 1910 Congress passed the White Slave Traffic Act (Mann Act), prohibiting interstate and international transportation of a woman for immoral purposes. By 1915 nearly all states outlawed brothels and solicitation of sex. Such laws ostensibly protected young women from exploitation, but in reality they failed to address the more serious problem of sexual violence that women suffered at the hands of family members, presumed friends, and employers. [4]

Football and the Formation of the NCAA

A college football game in 1921.

By the turn of the century American football was already in the process of becoming a large national sport. Originally formed and played at universities as an intercollegiate sport, it was seen as only for the upper class. The size of the field depended on what the players agreed with, but it was almost always over 100 yards. Once a player started a game, the player could not leave unless he/she became injured. [5] Very soon the sport began to gain spectators, and with spectators came controversy. With over 15 deaths in 1905 alone, many saw a need for change in the sport. However, others liked the violence and would watch because of this. President Roosevelt formed a group to reconstruct the rules of football and make it less violent. Standard rules would not be made and used until 1894.[6] The group was originally named the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and in 1910 it was renamed to the National College Athletic Association.


  2. Workers Don't Suffer by James O. Castagnera
  3. "Super Review; United States History"
  4. Mary Beth Norton et al., “A People and A Nation: A History of the United States; The Progressive Era;1895-1920,” ed. Mary Beth Norton et al. (Boston: Cengage Learning 2009).

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