United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

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Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

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$63.90

Hardcover print text only

$87.99

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$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

$87.99

Per volume

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Chapter 20: Populists and Progressives



Pre Chapter Discussion 1 - Level 5

Before you begin reading the material in the following chapter, think about being a nineteenth-century farmer living in a small, rural area of the great Plains. What challenges might you face in this situation?


Pre Chapter Discussion 2 - Level 3

Before you begin reading the material think about the political meaning of the term progressive. Try to come up with specifics. What would you consider as “progressive" issues?


Chapter Overview

Most Americans understood that in the wake of the Civil War, the country had to reconstruct the broken bond between the North and the South. Only gradually did it become apparent that national reconstruction also involved the economic and political integration of the West and the industrial transformation of the North. Taken together, these developments transformed the United States in ways many found unexpected and often unwelcome. Typically, unhappy citizens found themselves without recourse in the political system. After all, the Republican Party catered to industrial interests in the North and African American voters in the South, while the Democratic Party was preoccupied with immigrant communities in the Northeast and the demands of wealthy white landowners in the South. Rural Americans tried to bring about substantive reforms to restore economic justice in the rapidly industrializing and urbanizing nation, and they frequently organized third party challenges for that purpose. On their heels followed a progressive movement that effected significant reforms for the nation’s economy, its cities, its wilderness, and its democratic system. By the eve of World War I, both movements had determined that the federal government had to play a bigger role in the lives of regular Americans.

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the problems facing American farmers in the South and the Midwest at the turn of the century and explain how farmers became politicized
  • Explain the significance of the Populists and the 1896 presidential election
  • Indicate the connection between the Populists and the Progressives and demonstrate their shared legacies
  • Describe the Progressive movement and identify its major causes
  • Identify, compare, and contrast the progressive policies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson



American Agriculture in an Industrial Age

Farmers’ Struggles in the West

In the aftermath of the Civil War, many Americans had looked to the West to fulfill their hopes for economic independence and opportunity. Considering that the sectional crisis had erupted over “free soil” in the new territories after the war against Mexico, a central promise of Reconstruction had been settlement of the West. But by the 1880s, many Americans who had ventured into the Great Plains to stake out their farms had seen their hopes dashed.

Figure 20.1: A four-man crew riding on a combination harvester and thrasher pulled by a team of approximately 30 horses in the 1890s. The use of such machinery by large landowners in the west increased output significantly – and pushed down the price for all farmers. [1]​

The volatile climate, lack of water, and isolation made farming the Plains hard enough. To make matters worse, western wheat farmers struggled with worsening terms of trade—the balance between the price their crops commanded on the one hand and the prices they paid for goods and services on the other. Railroad companies that enjoyed regional monopolies charged farmers premium rates for shipping their crops but offered rebates to big corporations. At a time when the biggest returns on investment came from industrial manufacturing in the urban Northeast, rural banks had little credit to offer. Because farmers needed loans every year to keep them afloat until harvest time, they had no choice but to pay steep interest rates. On top of that, large growers using efficient harvester combines in California and elsewhere produced wheat cheaply in large quantities, while modern steamships improved ocean transports and, in combination with the railroad, fostered the emergence of a global market for agricultural commodities. All of this change meant that farmers earned less and less on their crops. 

The Decline of the Rural South

Western farmers were not the only ones to suffer under these conditions. In the South, Reconstruction had delivered self-ownership to black Americans, but even Radical Republicans stopped short of land reform. The Civil War had set back white small landowners in the South, either because their land and crops had been destroyed in four years of warfare, or because their military service had caused their idle farms to sink into foreclosure, reducing the owners to becoming tenants or joining African Americans families in working the land as sharecroppers. Forced to either pay rent or be unable to choose their crop, more and more Southerners produced the region’s most important cash crop: cotton. They too saw prices drop in an increasingly global market with competitors in Egypt and India, and they too struggled to pay premium rates to railroads and banks.

Question 20.01

20.01 - Level 3

Describe some of the macroeconomic forces behind the struggles of American farmers in the late 19th century.

Click here to see the answer to Question 20.01. 

The Politics of Rural Protest

In Search of Producers’ Fair Deals: The Greenback Labor Party

Rural protest first began to formulate reform ideas in the 1870s. After the Civil War, Republicans were eager to reduce the amount of money in circulation because the wartime issue of $450 million worth of “greenbacks” had caused inflation. Concerned about the deleterious effects of a currency not based on gold, Resumptionists not only pushed for a withdrawal of greenbacks, but also stopped the use of silver as a currency with the Coinage Act of 1873. This “Crime of 1873,” many farmers protested, made old debts harder and harder to pay off, since less money in circulation meant that each and every dollar was more valuable than it had been before. Wage cuts and a drop in farm prices accompanying the depression that followed the Panic of 1873 further encouraged calls for monetary reform. Many debtors and industrialists supporting both parties favored expanding the supply of money in gold or silver, but Greenbackers called for additional paper currency without any precious metal to back it up. The Greenback Labor Party won over a million votes in 1878 and sent 14 delegates to Congress. However, improving economic conditions undermined their appeal, and by the following year, the Resumptionists’ argument, stating that only a gold-based currency constituted “honest money,” gained support. The calls for expanding the money supply to include silver did not die out, however, and in fact rose across the West and South during every economic recession.

Figure 20.2: A Civil War era “greenback”–a U.S. Treasury bill not exchangeable for gold. While wealthy businessmen feared that such paper money would lead to rampant inflation, many farmers in the 1870s identified the additional currency as a means of restoring liquidity to their cash-strapped rural economies. [2]​

Change through Self-Help: The Grange

Most farmers across the nation embraced a traditional commitment to self-help and economic self-reliance that was incompatatible with government intervention. The challenges of agriculture in the industrial age convinced many of them that they needed to close ranks, however. The Patrons of Husbandry, commonly referred to as the Grange, provided cooperatives that offered to store grains collectively and withhold them from the market to give members some control over the prices they could garner on the commodity market. The Grangers enjoyed some success in state- level politics, but their attempts to cut out merchants and creditors met with limited success, and membership in the Grange began to dwindle after its peak of 1.5 million members in 1874.

In Pursuit of State Reform: The Farmers’ Alliances 

The National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, also known as the Farmers’ Alliance, was more effective at organizing farmers for practical and political change. Established in 1877 in Texas, the organization found many followers both in the South and the West. Not backward-looking hicks, as their critics often alleged, the Alliance sought to educate its members on good business practices and scientific agriculture, and bought fertilizer and other tools in bulk to save  its members money. The Alliance also supported better public schools, ran a network of newspapers, and offered lectures to alleviate its members’ rural isolation. Like the Greenback Labor party that preceded it, the Alliance pushed for an inflation of the money supply. Members also proposed a plan for a sub-treasury system that would float farmers low- interest loans to let them sell their crops at a later time at a higher price concept borrowed from the Grangers’ idea of organizing farmers into marketing cooperatives.

By the late 1880s, the Alliance had several million members, predominantly in the South, Plains, and West. Their convention in Ocala, Florida, in 1890 established a political platform calling for the free coinage of silver, government-run sub-treasuries, a graduated income tax, and reduced tariffs to make imported goods more affordable. The Alliance also proposed a constitutional amendment requiring the direct election of senators rather than having them selected by state legislatures—an effort to neutralize the influence of railroads and other big businesses on the states’ political elites. Additionally, the Alliance demanded caps on salaries for public officials and public ownership of railroads. These big businesses often held regional monopolies on a service that was essential to the public welfare, and therefore, the Alliance reasoned, public interest rather than private profit should govern such corporations.

Threatening White Supremacy: The Colored Farmer’s Alliance

By 1890, the Farmers’ Alliance had three million members nationwide, but it refused to admit black members. In the South, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance had been organizing members since 1886 and growing rapidly in popularity. At a time when Southern politics was dominated by white large landowners appealing to white small landowners and tenants with the language and policies of white supremacy, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance offered African Americans a degree of political empowerment that they had not enjoyed since Reconstruction. Their ready collaboration with white-run farmers’ organizations was a harbinger of the interracial coalition of the Populist movement that would pose a serious challenge to Southern white elites after 1890. The Colored Farmers’ Alliance suffered a violent end in 1891, when a white posse hunted down and lynched 15 black cotton pickers who had participated in a strike for higher wages in Tennessee.

20.02 - Level 3

Why did farmers begin to organize politically in the 1870s?

A

They resented the outcome of the Civil War

B

They were upset about the nation’s debt

C

They wanted to ensure women’s participation in the democratic process

D

The established parties focused exclusively on the rights of workers

E

They sought to improve their standing in the market economy


20.03 - Level 1

Which of the following parties first advocated an inflationary monetary policy?

A

Republicans

B

Democrats

C

The People’s Party

D

The Greenback Labor Party

E

The American Socialist Party


20.04 - Level 2

Put the following events in the proper chronological order.

A

Congress passes the Coinage Act

B

Greenback Labor Party wins over one million votes

C

The Farmers’ Alliance holds its convention at Ocala Florida

Question 20.05

20.05 - Level 4

If you were attempting to build a new political coalition in late 19th century America, what groups might you try to unite and how? Consider issues that the groups discussed in the previous section agreed upon. Consider also what challenges you might face. 

Click here to see the answer to Question 20.05.

Breaking the Stalemate of Gilded Age Politics

Droughts, poor harvests, and the increasing competition from Australian, Russian, and Canadian wheat farmers on the European export market dramatically worsened the terms of trade for American farmers after 1890, when wheat prices plummeted and southern cotton earned less than a fifth of what it had in 1866. An economic recession in 1893 made conditions even worse, leaving farmers with high-interest loans on lands that had lost their value. By 1900, more than half of southern farmers and approximately one fifth of farmers in the Plains had been reduced to a state of sharecropping or tenancy.

Figure 20.3: In 1892, this Independent People's Party (Populist) Convention at Columbus, Nebraska nominated Omer Kem for Congress. His election made him the first Congressman living in a sod-house in the prairie. [3]

The 1892 Omaha Convention

These conditions fueled the fires of agrarian radicalism. In the elections of 1890, candidates with the support of the Farmers’ Alliance moved into the governors’ mansions in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina, won majorities in eight southern legislatures and Nebraska, and virtually took over Kansas. In Minnesota and South Dakota, Alliance representatives carved out a controlling share of power between Democrats and Republicans. Even Congress welcomed three senators and forty-four representatives that brought the Alliance agenda with them.

Buoyed by this success, the Alliance met in February of 1892 in St. Louis to form the People’s Party, or Populists. Not only did they unite farmers from the West and South, but they also sought the support of industrial workers for a national victory over the Republican and Democratic parties. At their national convention in Omaha, Nebraska in July, Populists selected James B. Weaver, a Union Army general with Civil War fame, as their presidential candidate. Their platform leaned heavily on the work done by the Grange and Farmers’ Alliances and included the national ownerships of railroads as well as telephone and telegraph networks, a sub-treasury plan, the direct election of senators, a graduated income tax, a currency based on silver as well as gold, an eight-hour day for government workers, and restrictions on immigration.

African Americans, Women, and Workers in the People’s Party

Populists opened doors for unfamiliar alliances and new voices. In the South, a growing number of white farmers were willing to suspend their racial prejudices and see the common cause they shared with black farmers. Between 1892 and 1896—southern Democrats had effectively used to a one-party system since Redemption—Democrats worked hard to suppress Populist votes at the polls, recognizing the threat of farmers’ interracial solidarity.

Spotlight on Primary Sources

In "The Negro Question in the South" (1892), Tom Watson told a mixed audience that they were “made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves us both.”

Why should the colored man always be taught that the white man of his neighborhood hates him, while a Northern man, who taxes every rag on his back, loves him? Why should not my tenant come to regard me as his friend rather than the manufacturer who plunders us both? Why should we perpetuate a policy which drives the black man into the arms of the Northern politician? […]
Let us draw the supposed teeth of this fabled dragon by founding our new policy upon justice—upon the simple but profound truth that, if the voice of passion can be hushed, the self interest of both races will drive them to act in concert. […]
The question of social equality does not enter into the calculation at all. That is a thing each citizen decides for himself. No statute ever yet drew the latch of the humblest home—or ever will. Each citizen regulates his own visiting list—and always will.
The conclusion, then, seems to me to be this: the crushing burdens which now oppress both races in the South will cause each to make an effort to cast them off. They will see a similarity of cause and a similarity of remedy. They will recognize that each should help the other in the work of repealing bad laws and enacting good ones. They will become political allies, and neither can injure the other without weakening both. It will be to the interest of both that each should have justice. And on these broad lines of mutual interest, mutual forbearance, and mutual support the present will be made the stepping-stone to future peace and prosperity.



Populists also embraced women in their party, not only in the form of female suffrage but also by sponsoring charismatic female orators like Kansas lawyer and lecturer Mary Elizabeth Lease, who urged farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.” The highly visible participation of female speakers in the Populist campaign attracted angry denunciations from conservatives who were shocked by women engaged in rough-and-tumble debate.

Populists looked beyond their agrarian constituency to include all “producing classes”—a concept that revealed their understanding of the concentration of economic wealth in the hands of corporations and the increasing distance between regular working Americans and the fruits of their labor. An enthusiastic Ignatius Donnelly thundered at the Omaha Convention against corrupt governments, corporations, and their efforts to “drown the cries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff,” invoking the common cause of workers, small businesses, and farmers. But for workers, the issue was often more complicated since the low prices that squeezed farmers meant more affordable food for them, and tariff barriers often gave trade advantages to industries in which they found employment. In the end, workers saw their interests better served by a Republican Party whose deflationary monetary policy resulted in lower food prices and a protective tariff that shielded their employment from competition overseas.

The Panic of 1893

An economic downturn in 1893 underscored the Populists’ demands for reform and highlighted how vulnerable farmers and workers were to the vagaries of an industrial economy. What had begun with the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia and Reading railroads escalated into a wave of business failures, leaving one out of every four railroads insolvent. The stock market crashed. Industrial nations in Europe sold their American investments and only accepted payment in gold, since they could convert this into cash back home. As a consequence, American gold reserves became dangerously low, and the nation’s banking system, shaken by a series of bank runs and closures, teetered on the brink of collapse. Without bank loans, farmers and businesses soon ran into trouble. Hundreds of banks failed, leaving farmers and entrepreneurs unable to get loans to keep their businesses going. By the end of 1894, 12% of the American workforce—about three million people—were out of work.

As people lost their homes and farms, the streets of American cities filled with tens of thousands of homeless people. Jacob Coxey, a former Greenbacker, businessman, and Populist reformer, led a march on Washington to protest the inaction of President Grover Cleveland’s administration. He hoped that his “army” of unemployed men, which numbered no more than 300, would move Congress to create jobs and expand the money supply. The president, however, had Wall Street financier J.P. Morgan bail out the federal treasury in 1895 rather than abandon the gold standard. “While the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government,” he declared, “its functions do not include the support of the people.” Support for businesses was another matter. When the American Railroad Union went on strike and refused to move cars for the Pullman Palace Car Company, which had cut its workers’ wages significantly in 1894, the president sent federal troops to Chicago to break the strike. 

Question 20.06

20.06 - Level 5

How would you evaluate President Grover Cleveland’s response to the Panic of 1893? How might a critic have responded?

Click here to see the answer to Question 20.06.

The Election of 1896

The lack of government action underlined the significance of the Populist alternative. In the midterm elections of 1894, the People’s Party made gains in the South and West, but Democrats’ fraud and violence diminished their impact in the South. Nationwide, the discontented tended to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Millions blamed Grover Cleveland for the economic crisis, and in response, they delivered a dramatic change to Congress, where 117 new Republicans entered the House of Representatives. The economy began to stabilize after 1895, but the depression had made a lasting impact on American politics. Democrats who disavowed their president, Republicans, and Populists all now called for stronger government action, but they disagreed over what action to take. 

At the heart of the political debate leading up to the presidential contest was the issue of currency. Republicans and Democrats officially endorsed the gold standard, though some of their members also supported an expansion of the money supply through the coinage of silver. “Free silver” advocates dominated the People’s Party, which was also amenable to expanding the money supply with greenbacks. In the debate, all important economic policy issues—employment, foreign trade, the prosperity of small farmers, the power of corporations—boiled down to whether the dollar should be based on gold or silver. In this battle of the standards, the presidential candidates once again talked about economic issues in the same ways Americans had heard for a century. However, they employed the advertising and fund-raising techniques of the twentieth century. 

Republicans selected William McKinley from Ohio, a congressman and author of a protective tariff bill, at their convention in St. Louis in June 1896, where the party rallied around the gold standard and high tariffs. A month later in Chicago, most Democrats were eager to abandon their president but lacked a new, forceful leader. Into this uncertainty stepped a young former congressman from Nebraska: William Jennings Bryan. A charismatic person and energetic speaker, Bryan mastered the speech patterns of a camp preacher. “Destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country,” he warned. Bryan then called for the free coinage of silver with a powerful religious metaphor: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Bryan whipped the convention into such a frenzy with his “Cross of Gold” speech that he gained not only the Democrats’ nomination, but that of the People’s Party, too, which had agreed to whittle down its platform to one demand: a silver-based currency.

Figure 20.4: This commemorative print of William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech included not only pictures of the Democratic Party nominee and his family, but many symbols underlining this Populist message of 1916.[4]

Not since the Civil War had a presidential race pitted such different characters into such an exciting contest. McKinley ran his campaign effectively from his front porch, addressing no less than 750,000 people visiting him from about 30 states, and publishing these speeches in newspapers across the country afterwards. The campaign was run by the Cleveland oil-millionaire and Republican party boss Mark Hanna, who knew how to reduce McKinley’s promise into effective slogans spread across the country on posters.

Where Hanna spent between $3 to $7 million on McKinley’s campaign, Bryan ran his campaign on a shoestring, traveling the country by train and carriage and delivering over 500 speeches in almost 30 states—a personal touch that not all voters considered appropriately “presidential.” More harmful than his unusual accessibility was the improving economy that delivered steadily rising crop prices to farmers whose economic plight had radicalized them years prior. In the end, Bryan’s victories in southern and western states could not overcome McKinley’s dominance in the industrial Northeast and part of the upper Midwest. McKinley captured the Electoral College with 271 votes versus Bryan’s 176. Populists had lost their ground, giving up much of their platform for the cause of silver only to see their compromise candidate defeated in an election with record voter turnouts. 

20.07 - Level 4

Click on the image in the figure above that symbolized the central issue of William Jennings Bryan’s Presidential campaign.


20.08 - Level 2

Which of the following best describes the attitudes of southern white Populists towards black sharecroppers and tenants?

A

They understood their common economic grievances despite their racial prejudices.

B

They realized that racial animosity was a tool of southern white elites used to maintained their dominance.

C

Their racial prejudice made it impossible for them to work with black farmers, even though they shared the same economic difficulties.

D

They did not engage with black tenants and sharecroppers at all since they lived in different states.


20.09 - Level 1

Who aided the federal government when the treasury’s gold reserves dropped to dangerously low levels?

A

Grover Cleveland

B

Jacob Coxey

C

William Jennings Bryan

D

J.P. Morgan

E

John D. Rockefeller


20.10 - Level 1

William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of ______\_\_\_\_\_\_” speech assured him the nomination of the Democratic Party as well as that of the People’s Party.


The Populist Legacy

Populists had gambled away and lost their political identity with their endorsement of Bryan in 1896, and the party crumbled soon thereafter. But their reform challenge and quest for a political revolution left behind an important legacy that white middle class reformers would carry forward into the early 20th century. For one, Populists’ positive attitude toward the role of the state and its regulatory functions forced even Republicans to speak about the way they would assure broad prosperity. Government, they implicitly acknowledged, played a role in citizens’ prosperity. Future reformers would also learn from the Populists’ struggles, compromises, and ultimate defeat in 1896 that backroom deals and corruption made party politics a poor vehicle for reform. More effective than the national party had been the organizations that preceded the People’s Party. Organization and interest-specific clubs could bring about effective change for which parties had little room. 

 And yet, many of the issues that had bothered Populists remained at the top of the agenda for the generation of reformers that followed them. Big businesses and monopolies continued to threaten the American promise of equal opportunity and erode the nation’s producer ethos that grounded workers, businessmen, and farmers in the social, cultural, and economic value of their labor rather than merely their wages or profits. Future generations of reformers looked back on William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” speech and envied its powerful religious symbolism, for they too understood their political efforts as an evangelical mission and Christian duty. 

 With the Populists also died a nineteenth century political tradition. Their fall marked the last time a powerful political movement would emerge from rural America and seek to restore the fading opportunities of millions of small landowners. Theirs was the last revolt against the rising political and economic power of urban America. Never just backward-looking “hellraisers,” the constituents of the People’s party stood squarely in the economic landscape of the nineteenth century, at the center of which stood the individual independent producer. In the wake of their defeat, however, a new type of reformer sought change that anticipated a different world, dominated by a much more complex consumer economy.

20.11 - Level 3

Which of the following characteristics distinguished Populists from the reformers that followed?

A

Unlike later reformers, Populists believed in the need for more government regulation.

B

Unlike future reformers, Populists, were convinced of the religious righteousness of their reform efforts.

C

In contrast to reformers of the Progressive era, Populists were committed to erasing political corruption.

D

Unlike the progressive reformers that followed, Populists sought the direct election of U.S. Senators.

E

In contrast to future Progressives, Populists spoke first and foremost on behalf of rural Americans.


20.12 - Level 2

Which of the following best explains why the agrarian Populist movement did not see any revivals in the twentieth century?

A

They lacked the proper leadership.

B

They had been banned from political participation.

C

Their problems had large been solved.

D

The nation was rapidly becoming a consumer economy.

E

The Republican Party was now fighting their cause.


20.13 - Level 1

Click on the region of the country where the Populist movement had the least amount of support.


20.14 - Level 3

The collapse of the Populist Party in the late 19th century heralded the end of which founding father’s dream for a nation of yeoman farmers?

A

George Washington

B

John Adams

C

Thomas Jefferson

D

Alexander Hamilton


20.15 - Level 3

Which of the following traits were highly valued in the “producer ethos” that dominated American attitudes towards work in the 19th century?

A

Hard work

B

Self-control

C

Thriftiness

D

All of the above

Question 20.16

20.16 - Level 4

Consider the nature of the monetary dispute during the late 19th century. What are the arguments of putting too much or too little currency in circulation? Who “wins” and who “loses” if the government prints more money?

Click here to see the answer to Question 20.16.

Who Were the Progressives?

The depression that came in the wake of the financial panic of 1893 gravely affected farmers, workers, and many businesses, and the intensifying conflicts between capital and labor, such as the Pullman strike, stirred the reform impulse in a traditionally Republican constituency: the new middle class. 

These were the Progressives and the fears that motivated them. White collar professionals in the new industrial economy, such as engineers, accountants, lawyers, educated entrepreneurs, and employees in corporate middle management, feared what would become of the nation if industrial conflict erupted into either a socialist revolution or a monopoly-ruled economy with millions of paupers and a few millionaires. The desire to address public concerns over the power of big business had prompted Congress to pass the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, but the vaguely written ban on “conspiracy, in restraint of trade” proved toothless against giant corporations and instead became a tool for banning unions. Progressives wondered aloud who would hold big businesses accountable if they tampered with the economy, exploited and maimed their workers, and tricked or poisoned their customers. This educated middle class feared the diseases, crime, and poverty that might spread from city tenements and recoiled at the ways in which child labor, prostitution, and alcohol abuse undermined what they considered the most essential institution in American life—the family. They had always thought of America as a “city on the hill” (in John Winthrop’s words), the shining example for the world. But now, New York and Chicago looked as filthy and disorderly as London, and urban violence between workers and soldiers was much worse in the United States than in Germany, where the Socialist Party was more successful than anywhere else in the world. Progressives fretted over the future of democracy when party bosses and railroad corporations determined the composition of senates at the state and national level. American city governments were as corrupt as Italian mobs, it seemed to Progressives. In addition, they vacillated between empathy and disdain for the plight of millions of immigrants. Where were the American virtues that distinguished the old from the new world, they wondered. 

Progressives tended to be predominantly urban white middle-class Protestants who strove with missionary zeal on a righteous crusade and for whom religious conviction was often a spur to social action. However, Progressives could be found across class barriers and ethnic or racial identities, and they shared an adherence to a set of principles: They looked to state and federal regulations but shunned the party process. They readily formed clubs and societies and believed deeply in the superior usefulness of carefully laid out organization and schedules. They were convinced that many urban ills could be addressed with innovative science and technology. Above all, they believed that they were the ones who ought to be in charge of restoring the distended nation.

Question 20.17

20.17 - Level 5

What do you think about the Progressives as a group? What do you think of the approach they took to identifying and solving society’s problems? Do you see any problems with their plan?

Click here to see the answer to Question 20.17.

Muckrakers

The most visible Progressives were a group of investigative journalists that wrote scandalous and stinging exposés in the popular new newspaper format of illustrated weekly journals. Eager to capture the attention of readers in a more competitive media market, muckrakers typically adhered to the genre of social realism and focused on issues like corruption and social injustice. In the South, teacher and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells wrote in her newspaper Free Speech in 1892 about the horrors of southern lynchings, explaining that these violent murders had little to do with popular justice and everything to do with southern white hatred and fear of “uppity” blacks, especially men. She had to flee the South and live in hiding thereafter. In 1901, Frank Norris’s novel Octopus depicted the stranglehold the southern Pacific Railroad had on California’s agriculture, economy, and political life. Ida Tarbell’s biting 1902 McClure’s essay on Standard Oil and its head, John D. Rockefeller, made the petroleum giant the most hated corporation in the country. “Our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises,” Tarbell fumed. Lincoln Steffens lamented political corruption in cities and the public indifference in a series of articles that were published in book form as The Shame of the Cities in 1904. In 1906, a young prolific writer by the name of Upton Sinclair wrote epic novel The Jungle about the life of Lithuanian immigrants at work in a Chicago meatpacking plant. His vivid descriptions turned his readers’ stomachs even as they failed to inspire the kind of solidarity with workers’ plights that Sinclair had hoped for. The way in which these writers shaped public opinion did not always sit well with progressive politicians, and President Roosevelt derisively called them “muckrakers” for their tendency to expose society’s dark underbelly, but they played an important role in popularizing the need for urban reform, economic regulation, consumer protection, and workers’ rights.

20.18 - Level 2

Match the “muckraker” to the social issue for which they are best known.

Premise
Response
1

Ida B. Wells

A

Political corruption

2

Lincoln Steffens

B

Industrial workers' welfare

3

Upton Sinclair

C

Racial violence


Urban Reform

Anyone who visited a major American city at the turn of the century hardly needed a muckraker's exposé to see the need for reform. “The challenge of the city," wrote Frederick C. Howe, “has become one of decent human existence.” Pollution, a lack of proper sewers, contaminated water, and plain filth posed serious health risks to urban dwellers far beyond just the poor neighborhoods where crowded tenements became a breeding ground for infectious diseases.

Figure 20.5: While trying to reform public markets, USDA investigators studied traffic congestion around markets, such as that on Chicago's South Water Street, shown in 1915. [5]

Urban reformers engaged in a "good government" campaign and formed national organizations such as the National Municipal League to establish order and basic services in American cities. Instead of letting political machines award private monopolies over garbage collection of streetcar operations to incompetent contractors, they advocated for public ownership. The city of Toledo in Ohio turned its jumble of streetcar operations into an efficient system under public control, and many cities followed the example of European cities by establishing municipal water, gas, and electric companies, which improved city life considerably.

Good government also involved reform of city governance. In many American cities, political machines made way for more honest and efficient governments that based their organization on the model of the corporation. This was the result of changes to city charters that replaced elections by wards with city-wide elections of city council members. When a terrible hurricane destroyed much of the city of Galveston, Texas in 1900, the city deployed expert managers to handle the crisis. The resulting city manager system was soon adopted in cities across the nation.

Women’s Municipal Housekeeping

Reformers also tackled the lack of decent housing for the working poor. Inspired by the settlement house movement in England, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr acquired a run-down mansion in a working class neighborhood in Chicago and in 1889 opened Hull House, the nation's first settlement house. By 1901, there were over one hundred across the country. Hull House offered affordable housing to immigrant women, embraced their cultural differences, and provided a variety of programs, childcare, home economics classes, lectures, a small savings bank, and social clubs to help its residents ease into American life. For many single white middle-class women, the work in settlement houses became a deeply meaningful expression of their faith as well as a political effort to help build a vibrant democratic community.

Far less successful was the Progressives' campaign for public housing. Florence Kelley contrasted the clean public working class apartments in Germany, Japan, and England with the overcrowded conditions of New York's Lower East Side—a neighborhood so dense that the entire U.S. population would have fit into New York's five boroughs at the time had all Americans lived so close together. City governments were generally unwilling to expand the role of government to the level necessary to address such issues.

Women also led the charge against the proliferation of saloons and prostitution in American cities because they understood them as threats against family and the home—and not without reason. While women reformers’ adherence to strict Victorian sexual mores led them to condemn many working-class women as “prostitutes” simply because of their free enjoyment of premarital sex, they were right to fear for young women who had little protection against male sexual violence and exploitation, especially in the nation’s cities. There, big breweries carpeted urban neighborhoods with saloons to drive up retail sales of beer and whiskey. It was not uncommon to find a saloon for every 150 to 200 residents, and saloonkeepers often offered other vices like gambling to remain competitive. The money working men spent in saloons hurt their families’ household budgets, and domestic violence and abuse became all the more common under the influence of alcohol.

Temperance, the nation’s oldest reform movement, dated back to the 1820s and for most of the nineteenth century remained a religious campaign involving ostentatious prayers in front of bars and saloons. Toward the end of the century, however, it also became a political fight. Frances Willard’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union, established in 1874, campaigned to ban liquor licenses. This political activism expanded into a fight for women’s suffrage. “The mothers and daughters of America,” Willard argued, had a right to decide whether “the door of the rum shop is opened or shut beside their homes.”

Although some suffragists argued that women were entitled to the right to vote based solely on their citizenship, many Progressives saw women’s suffrage as part of their larger reform agenda. They believed that women voters would support the social welfare campaigns that they felt would improve urban life, particularly the health and well-being of children. They also argued that women could not fulfill their responsibilities as mothers and housekeepers without the ability to influence politics and policy debates. Not all suffragists were committed to social justice reforms, however. Some hoped that if white women were able to vote, they would counteract the political influence of immigrants and African Americans and help Anglo-Saxon men maintain control of the changing nation.

Nor was women’s suffrage a cause that all women supported. Many northeastern upper-class and middle-class women considered politics a corrupt and filthy affair in smoke-filled backrooms—and for much of the Gilded Age, it had been exactly that. Many considered women too morally pure and virtuous to be involved in such unwholesome activities. Women’s influence, they contended, was most visible through church organizations, charities, and education. A good number of southern white women often endorsed their fathers’ and husbands’ claim to patriarchal authority and were more interested in restoring political order with the disfranchisement of African Americans than by adding women to the electorate. Women’s suffrage proved most compelling in frontier and pioneering communities of western states, where legislators saw women routinely assume roles well beyond the “domestic sphere.” They sometimes hoped to attract new settlers and balance out their disproportionate number of men in their communities. Others sought to dilute the votes of nonwhite voters. In 1889, Wyoming had become the first state to grant its women the right to vote, and by 1914, all states west of the Rocky Mountains granted women suffrage whereas none of the eastern states except for Kansas did so.

Question 20.19

20.19 - Level 4

Describe some of the arguments for and against women’s suffrage during the early 20th century. Why do you think that some women did not want the right to vote?

Click here to see the answer to Question 20.19.

Figure 20.6: Garment Workers in New York City, 1908. Reformers wanted to improve living conditions for immigrant workers, but they were rarely interested in the ideas and cultures of the poor themselves. [6]

Progressives and Civil Rights

As the wide range of women’s reform activism illustrates, Progressives could be champions of social justice and empowerment of the weak while simultaneously proving blind to the rights of the working class and minorities. Alcohol consumption in the United States did reach an all-time high during the Gilded Age. Many men spent money in saloons that could have been of better use to their wives and children, and alcoholism did often fuel domestic violence. But saloons also served as social and cultural centers, restaurants, and sometimes even savings banks for immigrants and other working poor. Tenements were indeed squalid accommodations, but residents did not necessarily want to be told how to keep house or where to move instead. Too often, Progressives failed to take seriously the arguments and sentiments of the very people they sought to help, running roughshod over their individual rights in pursuit of their own vision of “the public good.”

In no case were the limits of progressivism as clear as when it came to race. Reformers in the South did recognize the increase in racial tensions and violence. Their solution, however, was not to defend of the civil rights of African Americans, but to broaden the practice of segregation to eliminate conflict between blacks and whites. These Jim Crow laws had their origins on southern railroads, which sought to keep middle-class blacks out of the traditionally all-white first class cars. African American civil rights activist Homer Plessy challenged this practice as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment all the way to the Supreme Court which, to his surprise, further cemented the constitutionality of segregation in its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. “Separate but equal” facilities, read the opinion of the seven to one majority, helped preserve "the public peace and good order." Northern Progressives cared little about southern Jim Crow laws—nine out of ten African Americans lived in the South until 1900—and practiced segregation informally in their own neighborhoods. As the number of southern black migrants to northern cities grew in the twentieth century, the practice of exclusion became more common in the North as well, and organizations, businesses, and clubs began banning black members and customers. Even a progressive institution as open-minded as Hull House treated black women with a suspicion it did not display towards immigrants.

Of course, segregation did not solve any racial conflict, as the three-day riot in Atlanta in 1906 made abundantly clear. Driven by rumors of a black man attacking a white woman—an almost always false charge that triggered the vast majority of the nearly two hundred lynchings every year in the late nineteenth century—a mob of 10,000 armed white men ransacked black businesses, tortured about 25 black men and women to death, and wounded dozens more. Riots also occurred in New York and Springfield, Illinois that year.

African Americans responded in a variety of ways. Born into slavery in Virginia, Booker T. Washington pursued economic development in lieu of political protest to avoid provoking white hatred. At the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895, Washington argued that “agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly,” and recommended that southern blacks instead make their path to full citizenship by gaining the trust of whites with an industrial skill or small business. Opposing this position as a form of accommodation and surrender of civil rights, Harvard educated historian and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois insisted that the burden of change lay on the nation rather than on African Americans. Civic, economic, and political equality was a right blacks had been guaranteed after the Civil War, after all. Along with Ida B. Wells, DuBois was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909 and publicly condemned lynchings, segregation, and black disfranchisement. But the heroic courage displayed by black Progressives in the early twentieth century did not change the fact that theirs was a dark period in American race relations. 

Spotlight on Primary Source



Read Ida B. Wells' "The Red Record" (1895)

If the Southern people in defense of their lawlessness, would tell the truth and admit that colored men and women are lynched for almost any offense, from murder to a misdemeanor, there would not now be the necessity for this defense. But when they intentionally, maliciously and constantly belie the record and bolster up these falsehoods by the words of legislators, preachers, governors and bishops, then the Negro must give to the world his side of the awful story.
A word as to the charge itself. In considering the third reason assigned by the Southern white people for the butchery of blacks, the question must be asked, what the white man means when he charges the black man with rape. Does he mean the crime which the statutes of the civilized states describe as such? Not by any means. With the Southern white man, any mesalliance existing between a white woman and a colored man is a sufficient foundation for the charge of rape. The Southern white man says that it is impossible for a voluntary alliance to exist between a white woman and a colored man, and therefore, the fact of an alliance is a proof of force. In numerous instances where colored men have have been lynched on the charge of rape, it was positively known at the time of lynching, and indisputably proven after the victim's death, that the relationship sustained between the man and woman was voluntary and clandestine, and that in no court of law could even the charge of assault have been successfully maintained.



Question 20.20

20.20 - Level 5

Having read Booker T. Washington’s and W. E. B. DuBois’s responses to race relations, evaluate their arguments. Which position do you think has more merit and why?

Click here to see the answer to Question 20.20.

20.21 - Level 2

Which of the following African American leaders in the early 20th century believed that the key to black advancement was through entrepreneurialism rather than social activism?

A

W.E.B. Du Bois

B

Booker T. Washington

C

Ida B. Wells

D

All of the above


Reform at the State Level

Progressives quickly learned that meaningful political reform had to take place at the state level, where corporations exercised undue influence over governors' mansions and legislatures. Against the opposition of many senators and businesses, reformers succeeded in their campaign to have U.S. senators be elected directly by voters—a proposal dating back to the Grangers. In 1913, the measure finally became law with the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Reformers' desire to establish a more direct connection between voters and their representative government was also apparent in a series of direct democracy measures. The ballot initiative allowed citizens to circumvent their legislatures and put laws on the ballot if their petition had gathered enough signatures, while the referendum let voters reject a state law in a similar process. The recall gave voters the option to remove unpopular office holders. The primary gave voters a say in who would run for political office in each of the dominant parties, reducing the power of party bosses and shady deals in "smoke-filled backrooms."

Progressives' democratic impulse was not simply aimed at maximizing voter participation, however. They were more interested in giving a clear voice to "virtuous citizens" and purifying a democratic process that had in the past often proved messy and rancorous. Southern Progressives embraced the poll tax and literacy tests as a means of removing blacks from politics and eliminating the biggest threat to the stability of white supremacist rule. Reformers across the nation favored the secret ballot, which made voting more difficult for illiterate and foreign-born voters, and they called for citizenship tests and restrictions on immigrants' access to the franchise.

State-level progressive reforms typically originated in the West and then moved eastward. In Wisconsin at the turn of the century, Robert “Battling Bob” La Follette, the first Progressive governor of Wisconsin, created a Legislative Reference Bureau that became known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” A board of experts that included experts such as academic Richard T. Ely drafted laws on worker’s compensation, government regulation of railroad companies, and conservation of natural resources. The keys to these kinds of state reform were appointed commissions of experts working in the name of civil service.

20.22 - Level 1

Which of the following was not a muckraker during the Progressive Era?

A

Robert La Follette

B

Ida Tarbell

C

Ida B. Wells

D

Jacob Riis

E

Frank Norris


20.23 - Level 2

The attitude of white middle class reformers towards the plight of African Americans can best be described as _______.

A

Negligent

B

Well-intended

C

Punitive

D

Enlightened

E

Radical


20.24 - Level 1

Reform measures such as the initiative, referendum, or recall were part of an effort of Progressives to create a more ______\_\_\_\_\_\_ democracy.


Roosevelt’s Progressive Presidency 

The elections of 1896 had highlighted the declining significance of rural voters and the need for both parties to formulate platforms attractive to urban workers and middle-class professionals. William Jennings Bryan attempted once more to unite farmers, workers and middle-class Americans for the Democratic Party in 1900, but in vain. His Republican rival and incumbent William McKinley was buoyed by the "splendid little war" against Spain in Cuba and the Philippines, an advantage he underlined with the selection of Western adventurer, war hero, New York governor, and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt for the Vice Presidency. Republican Party boss Mark Hanna had hoped to contain Roosevelt "the cowboy" in the dead-end that had commonly been the vice presidency, but when unemployed factory worker and anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated the stalwart McKinley, he unwittingly set the stage for a dramatic change of the nation's political landscape. 

The “Trust Buster”

Figure 20.7: An oil on canvas painting of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent in 1903. [7]​

The youngest man to ever assume the presidency in American history—he was only 42—Theodore Roosevelt was privileged by birth and a reformer at heart, and he reserved much of his energy for the fight against big business. Using the White House as his “bully pulpit,” he chastised monopolistic corporations like the Standard Oil trust as “the most dangerous members of the criminal class—the criminals of great wealth.” He was determined to assert federal authority over these large corporations, even as the United States Supreme Court severely restricted the uses of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Only five months after his move into the White House, Roosevelt shocked the Wall Street elite with an antitrust suit against the Northern Securities Company, a $400 million behemoth that controlled railroad traffic in the Northwest. The president’s willingness to enforce the law and not shirk from the power of Wall Street, which had bailed out the federal government just six years earlier, marked an important turning point in the relationship between Washington D.C. and the nation’s financial elite. In 1904, the Supreme Court upheld the Sherman Act and ordered the dissolution of Northern Securities, prompting the press to cheer Roosevelt as “Teddy the Trustbuster.”

Perhaps sensing the new mood, the Supreme Court, in a significant turnaround, upheld the Sherman Act and called for the dissolution of Northern Securities in 1904. Suits against another forty-three trusts, including Du Pont, American Tobacco, and Standard Oil, soon followed. Roosevelt explained his strategy as the “rule of reason.” Bad trusts, which exploited their monopoly role for profiteering, had to change their ways or face prosecution. Good trusts, which used their size to generate efficiencies of scale to pass on lower prices to consumers, had nothing to fear. The Elkins Act of 1903, which banned railroad rebates for big customers, and the creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor further suggested that Roosevelt preferred regulation over litigation.

Roosevelt, Workers, and Consumers

Roosevelt also demonstrated the authority of the federal government in the interest of labor during the anthracite coal strike in 1902. In May of that year, almost 150,000 miners went on strike in Pennsylvania to demand recognition of their union, the United Mine Workers, a 10% wage increase, and a 10-hour instead of a 12-hour day. When the strike stretched into the fall and winter approached, reduced output began to significantly drive up the price of coal and create urban unrest. Where governors and presidents had previously sent troops to crush labor unions, Roosevelt offered to mediate. The owners’ initial refusal to talk to union representatives only strengthened the president’s conviction that it was up to the federal government to offer a “square deal” in capital labor relations. With this phrase as a campaign slogan, Roosevelt won reelection handily with a popular majority of almost 58%. The politics of the Gilded Age seemed to have come to an end.

However, the opposition of businesses was not that easily crushed, and unions continued to struggle for recognition, living wages, and the basic safety of workers. In March 1911, a fire broke out in the dust and lint-filled crowded sweatshop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. The owners had locked the exits to prevent unauthorized breaks, leaving 500 workers with the choice of jumping to their deaths from the tenth story or burning to death. In the end, 146 workers died in what was the worst industrial accident in the nation’s history. The event stirred progressive demands for reforms and led to the establishment of factory inspections and laws requiring better factory entries and exits, fire extinguishers, the installation of alarm systems and sprinklers, and limits on the maximum number of hours that women and children could work. Then, in 1914, local deputies and state militia in Ludlow, Colorado attacked a camp of striking UMW miners who had been evicted from company-owned housing at the request of mine owners. Drenching the miners’ tents with kerosene and setting them on fire, they shot up the encampment with machine guns and killed 14 people, including 11 children. The gruesome deaths of the victims became known as the Ludlow Massacre and sparked violent retaliation by miners. Federal troops eventually restored order.

Roosevelt continued his pursuit of regulating large businesses in his second term, creating the Interstate Commerce Commission, which had the power to set rates subject to court review following the passage of the Hepburn Act of 1906. This hardly approached the old Populist aspirations, but it set a precedent for a government commission investigating the price-setting and records of private businesses. 

Roosevelt was keenly aware of public sentiments and hunger for reform. In the final years of his administration, he allied himself with Republican Progressives in Congress. Following the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, he signed into law the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food and Drug Acts, which established the Food and Drug Administration.

Roosevelt, Conservation, and Preservation

President Roosevelt's reputation as a trustbuster may have oversold his rather careful strategy when it came to big business, and his support for consumer protection laws may have had more to do with public sentiment than his own convictions. When it came to environmental protection, however, the young president undoubtedly took the lead. At the beginning of the century, some 43 million acres were public lands under federal authority. Roosevelt expanded that territory to 194 million acres. He fought western cattle ranchers, lumber interests in the Pacific Northwest, mine operators in the Rockies and Appalachians, and their allies in Congress to conserve the nation's natural resources for future generations. Chief conservation forester Gifford Pinchot, a scientifically trained expert in familiar progressive fashion, promoted the efficient use of natural resources. In other words, grazing, lumbering, or damming rivers in National Forests was acceptable as long as it did not take reckless forms. But preservationists like Sierra Club founder John Muir insisted that wilderness needed strict protections to endure for the ages, and Roosevelt agreed with both. Anticipating Congressional restrictions on his power to create forest reserves, Roosevelt established twenty-one reserves and a total of 16 million acres in a matter of days in 1907. Using the designation of "ranger station" allowed him to ban any private use from a total of over 2500 sites. 

Figure 20.8: President Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Clifford Pinchot and others in a National Forest, undated [8]

Roosevelt had been an ardent admirer of the American West ever since he had spent two years as a rancher in Dakotas in the 1880s. Determined to compensate for his childhood asthma and ill health with vigorous exercise, Roosevelt understood wilderness as the ideal setting for American men to prove their virility and valor. His celebration of "the strenuous life" revealed an anxiety not uncommon for men of his class, race, and generation, namely that their dependency on an urban industrial infrastructure undermined their claim on the tradition of American individualism. This sentiment fed new popular activities like camping and prompted the growth of the Boy Scouts organization. 

20.25 - Level 3

Match the part of Teddy Roosevelt’s policy agenda to the enemies that he made from implementing it.

Premise
Response
1

Trust-busting

A

The mining industry

2

Labor rights

B

The logging industry

3

Conservationism

C

The meat-packing industry

4

Consumer protections

D

The railroad industry


Figure 20.9: Wisconsin’s Progressive Maverick Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette had wanted to challenge the more conservative William Howard Taft in the primaries for the 1912 election, but party insurgents—as this cartoon makes clear—favored Roosevelt once he entered the race, much to LaFollette’s frustration. [9]

William Howard Taft’s Failed Presidency

As the end of his second term neared, Theodore Roosevelt recommended his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, since the two had collaborated on foreign as well as domestic affairs. Benefitting from Roosevelt's popularity, Taft easily won election against Democratic challenger William Jennings Bryan in 1908. However, Taft lacked Roosevelt's political sensitivity, and he had not held elective office since his time on Ohio's Superior Court in the 1880s. Nor could he muster Roosevelt's energy and courage for political change.

Taft's selection of predominantly corporate lawyers was an early indication that he lacked the progressive zeal of his political mentor. Unlike Roosevelt, who tried to convince and cajole big businesses towards self-reform, Taft approached the trust issue like a prosecutor. He initiated more anti-trust cases than Roosevelt, but with less success. In Congress, he soon found himself fighting Progressives' plans for tariff reduction. The compromise bill that Taft had promised was supposed to reduce tariffs and benefit consumers with increased international competition. An inheritance tax, in turn, was supposed to make up for the lost revenue. The watered down Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act passed in 1909 achieved little more than souring progressive Republicans toward their new president. And when Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger sold Alaskan coal deposits to a private syndicate, the Roosevelt-appointed Gifford Pinchot made public his superior's violation of the spirit of conservation. Taft's defense of his secretary alienated many reform-minded Republicans. Roosevelt publicly sided with Pinchot and then sidelined Taft with a speaking tour in 1910 in which he touted his "New Nationalism," demanding that the federal government balance the economy, assist the poor, and restore social harmony.

20.26 - Level 4

Who usually reaps the most benefits from high tariffs on imported products?

A

Foreign consumers

B

Domestic consumers

C

Foreign producers

D

Domestic producers


The Election of 1912

Democrats too had discovered the electoral appeal of reform, and in 1910, they earned their first house majority since 1894. Fully at odds with the conservatism of his successor, Roosevelt entered the Republican primaries in 1912 and won overwhelming support. The conservative party leadership was determined to deny him another nomination, however, prompting Roosevelt to form his own party and run as a third-party candidate. With California Governor Hiram Johnson as the vice president candidate, the new Progressive Party formed in August and campaigned with an ambitious platform: a graduated income tax, women's suffrage, protections for workers, and extensive regulations of large businesses. "Bull Moosers"—as Progressive Party members called themselves in reference to Roosevelt's stage prop and invocation of Western wilderness—most likely understood that they were splitting the Republican vote between Taft and Roosevelt, giving the Democratic challenger of 1912 a unique opportunity.

Woodrow Wilson and the New Freedom

Wilson developed his reputation as a reformer while governor of New Jersey. Like Roosevelt, he believed that the president should play an active role in developing policy and setting a legislative agenda for Congress. Overall, however, he had a more limited sense of the role of government in relation to economy and society. A strong advocate of small businesses and a competitive marketplace, the main target of Wilson’s reform package, which he labeled the New Freedom, was the economy. He pressed Congress to pass legislation that would reduce tariffs on foreign imports. He supported the introduction of the graduated income tax, which exempted those who earned less than $4,000 per year. In 1913, Congress and the states ratified the 16th Amendment, giving the federal government the explicit power to levy such a tax. Wilson worked with Congress to create the Federal Reserve System, meant to make the banking system less volatile by establishing a lender of last resort to prevent bank panics and failures. Wall Street bankers retained considerable power under the new system, but it also helped farmers by making the credit supply more flexible and responsive to their needs. Wilson also followed Theodore Roosevelt in taking on corporate excesses. He pressed Congress to establish the Federal Trade Commission to investigate “unfair” corporate activities. He supported the Clayton Antitrust law, which extended the Sherman Antitrust Act by banning overlapping membership on corporate boards and the practice of price-fixing. The law also exempted unions from prosecution under antitrust legislation, which the government had begun doing to break strikes. 

A Southerner who filled his cabinet with other Southerners, Wilson did not even make a token effort to appeal to black voters or address their concerns. Despite protests, Wilson held a White House screening of the film Birth of a Nation, which denigrated its African American characters and glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Worst of all, during his presidency Wilson segregated the federal government’s offices and dining facilities. As a result, black government employees lost their jobs in post offices and other federal departments. Wilson even argued that segregation was in the “best interests” of African Americans.

20.27 - Level 1

Sort the following American populist/progressive organizations chronologically by the date of their founding.

A

Patrons of Husbandry

B

People's Party

C

Progressive Party

D

National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union


Conclusion

In the end, Wilson’s presidency embodied many of the conflicts that had beleaguered Progressives since the turn of the century. Self-righteous moralism and utter lack of empathy for the plight of African Americans was paired with concern over the power of trusts, political corruption, and the dangers posed by the capital labor conflict. Constitutional amendments and reforms expanded Democratic practice as experts and business insiders were put in charge of regulatory commissions, the nation’s financial system, and the crafting of policy. These tensions would become apparent again in Woodrow Wilson’s approach toward the war in Europe, which would also bring the era of progressivism to an ignoble end.

20.28 - Level 1

Which of the following pieces of legislation was passed during the Roosevelt administration?

A

The Kern-McGillicuddy Act

B

The Keating-Owens Act

C

The Clayton-Antitrust Act

D

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act

E

The Elkins Act


20.29 - Level 1

Roosevelt was an ardent believer that American men could only demonstrate manly citizenship if they lived a ______\_\_\_\_\_\_ life.


20.30 - Level 2

Wilson sought to handle the problem of trusts by doing which of the following?

A

Prosecuting big business aggressively

B

Using the bully pulpit

C

Nationalizing large nationwide monopolies

D

Establishing the Federal Trade Commission

E

Urging Congress to pass the Interstate Commerce Act


Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 20.01

Class Discussion 20.01- Level 2

Explain how improved technology in both crop production and transportation ended up hurting smaller farmers in the end.

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 20.01.

Class Discussion 20.02


Class Discussion 20.02 - Level 4

Today, monetary policy is the preserve of economists. But in the days of Populists and Progressives, regular Americans debated openly how to administer the nation’s currency. Write an essay that traces this national debate from the Civil War to the Progressive period. What marked the official end of popular participation in monetary politics?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 20.02.

Class Discussion 20.03


Class Discussion 20.03 - Level 2

List and discuss three progressive reforms to the political system.

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 20.03.

Class Discussion 20.04


Class Discussion 20.04 - Level 2

Explain why Theodore Roosevelt made natural resource conservation and preservation one of his top priorities. Why did he think natural resources needed protection?

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Class Discussion 20.05


Class Discussion 20.05 - Level 5

Explain why some women did not support the suffrage movement. Consider their arguments and discuss your opinion about their positions.

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Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 20.01

A number of regional and global forces conspired to make life very difficult for farmers in this period. First, globalization increased competition, forcing down the prices for their products. Credit was tight and they had to pay high interest rates on the loans they needed to survive most of the year. They also suffered from the railroad monopoly, which charged them high prices to ship their commodities to the cities.  

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Answer to Question 20.05

Some of the ascendant policy concerns in the late 19th century revolved around populism, as broadly defined. This included small farmers in the South and Midwest, who felt exploited by the financial elite, as well as the urban working classes (especially factory workers) who also began to demand greater power and voice in government. The challenges include uniting a very diverse constituency, both black/white and urban/rural. While all united against moneyed interests, they did not always align on political or social issues, and there was a deep seated distrust among these various components of the emergent populist party.

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Answer to Question 20.06

Cleveland took what we might think of today as a “supply-side” view of economics. He would likely have justified his actions based on the argument that the welfare of big business was linked to the welfare of the entire nation. After all, if businesses suffered, then so would employees. To help individual employees, or even worse, labor unions, was simply not the function of the federal government. Such beliefs were largely in-line with other Gilded Age presidents like Benjamin Harrison, Chester A. Arthur, and William McKinley (all of whom were Republican, although Cleveland was a pro-business Democrat). Today, in retrospect, his response to the Panic of 1893 seems tone-deaf and out-of-touch. However, it wasn’t until the subsequent Progressive Era that federal policies began to favor workers over owners.    

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Answer to Question 20.16

1) The central monetary dispute in the 19th century was whether U.S.currency should be measured against precious metals (gold and/or silver), or whether the government should be allowed to just print as much money as deemed necessary. The fear of printing too much money would be inflation, meaning that the underlying value of money would decrease. On the other hand, printing too little money can dry up the liquidity and credit markets necessary for driving economic growth, especially during recessions. Generally speaking, the wealthy prefer a strict monetary policy because they fear inflation more than deflation, while the middle and lower classes generally benefit from (modest) increase of currency in circulation because it raises wages and increases their purchasing power.   

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Answer to Question 20.17

Student answers to this question will largely depend on their personal political preferences, but many will likely favor some of the reforms that Progressives sought to institute, such as reigning in big business and improving public health. Perhaps the main problem with their strategy for reform at this stage was eschewing the political parties, which allowed them to remain “untainted” by the political process, but significantly limited their influence in the halls of power. They also proved to be quite patronizing to the people that they claimed to help, and had an unfounded faith that technology could solve all social problems.  

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Answer to Question 20.19

1) Many of the arguments that were used to support women’s suffrage were instrumentalist in nature; for example, Progressives believed that women would support their agenda of social reforms, while nativists and white supremacists believed that allowing more white women to vote would help to counteract the influence of blacks, immigrants, or other new “undesirable” voters. Some also argued that women’s suffrage fulfilled their “natural” duties as mothers and homemakers. 2) These reasons are obviously quite different than how we justify a women’s right to vote today, which rests on their equal status as American citizens with men.   

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Answer to Question 20.20

The debate over the two approaches on how to best advance African-Americans during this period might be understood as boiling down to pragmatism vs. idealism. One could argue that Washington’s approach was more realistic, in that he wanted African-Americans to follow the path to success laid out by the dominant white society. He thought that if black people could show white people that they possessed core “American values” like industriousness, self-reliance, and business acumen, then that would give them the best chance to eventually be accepted as social equals. In contrast, Du Bois argued that the “onus” should really be on the dominant white society to accept African-Americans as equals, rather than making black people “prove” they were worthy. Du Bois argued that Washington’s approach was unlikely to succeed because African-Americans already faced insurmountable structural and social barriers in becoming successful small businessmen and entrepreneurs. Only after social reform happens will African-American be on a “level” playing field.

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 20.01

Improving technology allowed larger farms to produce greater yields of agricultural commodities more efficiently, which small farms had difficulty competing with, since they generally did not have the capital to benefit from new technologies. Better transportation increased their competition with farmers from other nations, which shifted the global market dynamics against local producers.   

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Answer to Class Discussion 20.02

From roughly the Civil War until World War I, monetary policy was a recurrent, important, and highly contentious political issue. The debate basically came down to two opposing positions: those who advocated for a “strict” monetary policy that tightly restricted the amount of currency in circulation, and those who advocated for a “loose” policy that gave greater monetary flexibility depending on the economic circumstances. The notion of a “gold standard” – that all US currency would be backed by, and potentially exchanged for, equivalent value in gold – was popular amongst the first group. They argued that it was a stabilizing force that checked runaway inflation and gave confidence to investors, both domestic and foreign. Needless to say, this kind of policy generally favored the wealthy (who could better weather economic downturns) and the financial elite who owned the vast majority of property and capital.

On the other side, figures like William Jennings Bryan and Populists favored extending such “representative money” to less valuable, but more plentiful, natural resources like silver. This shift would still peg US currency to some “real” value, but allow banks to print more money, especially in times of recession when the monetary supply tended to dry up. This policy was generally favored by the middle and working classes, and especially farmers who were heavily reliant on bank loans that would be much easier to get under this more flexible approach. Finally, on the other extreme were “Greenbackers” and other supporters of “fiat” money, which was not tied to any particular resource. This system would give the federal government the greatest amount of control over the amount of current in circulation, but also risked devaluing American dollars if people began to believe that they were not “worth” anything. These debates largely died with the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913, which was given the job of establishing monetary policy for the nation. This took monetary policy out of the hands of politicians and gave it to financial experts and economists appointed by the President.

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Answer to Class Discussion 20.03

Some of the important progressive reforms to the political system included: 1) women’s suffrage, which would eventually be won in the 19th Amendment; 2) direct democracy measures, such as ballot initiatives and the direct election of Senators; and 3) reform boards designed to ensure good governance, regulation of big business, and conservation of natural resources, which was most thoroughly enacted in Wisconsin.

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Answer to Class Discussion 20.04

Roosevelt was an important pioneer in federal conservation policy. Having spent a number of years living in the West, he was a great admirer of nature and wanted to make sure that America’s natural beauty and resources were protected for future generations. He wasn’t entirely opposed to exploitation of the environment, as long as it was undertaken in what he considered to be a responsible fashion. Another important psychological component of his conservation policies was his belief that masculinity was tied to “the strenuous life,” which could only be found in rural areas. His views reflected broader anxieties of the age that urbanization and industrialism was sapping the vigor and purpose of American men. 

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Answer to Class Discussion 20.05

It seems odd to think that some women didn’t support their own right to vote, but this was a common position in the late 19th century. Some women simply accepted the gender norms of that era, which considered women and children subservient to their husbands, and asserted that the wife’s place was an exclusively domestic one. Other women viewed politics as a dirty business that women were too morally virtuous to engage in. (Most students will likely find such arguments silly, if not offensive. However, it is a good exercise to get them to recognize the power and pervasiveness of cultural beliefs.)

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Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of USC Libraries in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of Antique Banknotes in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of Ineuw in the Public Domain.

[6] Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration ARC#523065 in the Public Domain.

[7] Image courtesy of The White House in the Public Domain.

[8] Image courtesy of the Yellowstone National Park Service with the U.S. Department of the Interior in the Public Domain.

[9] Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration ARC#306096 in the Public Domain.