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Imagine, If You Can

Eugene Debs Socialist Party

Socialist Debs received almost a million votes in the 1912 presidential election

Imagine a political movement spanning a generation that had significant strength in both major political parties, and elected two of our most important presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican; and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.  Imagine presidential elections where 70 to 80% of voters cast ballots in the north and mid-west.  Imagine a Socialist, Eugene V. Debs, running for president in 1912 and capturing 6% of the vote, almost a million ballots.  Imagine a Populist Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, morphing into a Progressive, and his contemporary Robert F. La Follette overthrowing the Republican establishment in Wisconsin to serve as governor and U. S. senator.  Imagine a generation of younger leaders in both parties, like Charles Evans Hughes and Herbert Hoover, Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, launching their careers.  Imagine a reform drive that drew on academics from various disciplines who worked to make government more honest and efficient.  Imagine a Republican president fighting to protect the environment and the American wilderness, and intervening decisively in a strike by beleaguered coal miners.  Imagine a tribe of crusading investigative  journalists, “the muckrakers,” who spoke truth to power, afflicted the comfortable, and took on Standard Oil, big city bosses, and the plight of the urban poor.   Imagine Jane Addams and a legion of social workers in settlement houses helping the working class, and consumer organizations fighting corporate greed.  Imagine the most notorious political machine in the country, New York City’s Tammany Hall, reforming itself after the Triangle Fire of 1911.  Imagine millions of women protesting for the ballot, and countless Americans male and female struggling against the evils of alcohol.  Many Americans are unaware of how much we owe to the legacy of the Progressive era, generally dated from about 1890 to 1920.


Jane addams

Jane Addams

Last week the students in the American Seminar discussed Lewis L. Gould’s slim but comprehensive book, America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1914 (2001).  With Progressive presidents from each party, Gould says reform had an unprecedented legitimacy.  He finds the roots of Progressivism in the 1880s, and indeed it borrowed some important ideas from the Populists, such as the popular election of U. S. senators, and the direct primary.   The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was a result of growing protests against big business, even though Supreme Court decisions, as in the Sugar Trust case of 1895, stripped it of much of its power.  Yet the Sherman Act helps mark the beginning of the Progressive era, which transformed the United States by World War I.

At the end of the second year of Wilson’s first term America had a central bank, the Federal Reserve system, a change helped by the long Populist fight for free silver, currency reform, and financial stability.  America also had new regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration.  Some gains had been made in the struggle to reduce child labor, and organized labor had taken steps toward legitimacy.

Progressive actions on race relations are the most serious blot on their record.  Though Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to lunch at the White House (in a bid to win black delegates at the next Republican convention) and caused a storm of controversy, he tarnished his legacy with his shameful actions after the Brownsville Raid in 1906.  The Springfield, Illinois, riot of  1908 was a notable instance of virulent racism in the north.  The Virginian Wilson, though president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey, brought a distinct southern tone to the White House, relied most closely on an adviser from Texas, Edward M. House, and put several southerners in his cabinet.  With Wilson’s backing they segregated the civil service.


Disposing of alcohol during prohibition

Another sign of the political and social ferment of the era is that in just over seven years four amendments to the Constitution were ratified: the Sixteenth (25 February 1913),  establishing an income tax; the Seventeenth (31 May 1913), providing for the direct election of U. S. Senators; the Eighteenth (Pr0hibition, 29 January 1919); and the Nineteenth(26 August 1920), woman suffrage.   The amendments and their dates of ratification can be found in any historical reference.  Gould goes much further with his balanced, incisive analysis.  For example, the U. S. government adopted an income tax, partly to replace revenue lost when the protective tariff was reduced, albeit modestly, in 1909.  The direct election of U. S. senators had been approved by the House of Representatives several times, but was always defeated in the Senate.  A bribery scandal in the Illinois legislature over the selection of a Republican as the state’s next senator provided the momentum needed to push throught the amendment.  Prohibition passed not just because evangelical Protestants hated booze, and political reformers hoped to destroy the power of urban machines based on saloons, but because of anti-German sentiment stirred up during World War I, the Germans beging regarded as notorious brewers and consumers of beer, and because of the argument that the grain for making alcohol would be better used feeding our doughboys in France.  One rationale for the woman suffrage amendment was that middle and upper class females would help make up for the absence of male voters from those classes who were serving in the military, and thus offset the dangers posed by alien men.  Left unspoken was the obvious fact that the vote for women would include those who were lower class and immigrants.

According to Gould, by 1914 the tide of Progressivism in the domestic arena was waning.  The Republicans recaptured Congress in 1918, and in the postwar years a conservative reaction set in that can be seen in the last phase of Reconstruction, and in the post-World War II red scare.  Yet the Progressives left a bipartisan record of accomplishment that stands comparison with other political movements, and in some ways prepared the way for FDR’s New Deal.  The Progressive era ended with the death of Roosevelt in 1919, and the stricken Wilson’s departure from office in 1921.  That may seem like a long time ago, but it was only yesterday.  Imagine, if you can.

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About The Author: Michael Chesson was the Founding Dean of the American College of History and Legal Studies.

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