THE PROGRESSIVE PRESIDENTS AND POLITICAL PROGRESSIVISM
Overwhelmingly, Progressives held an evangelical zeal (and many had backgrounds in evangelical movements) in their beliefs that not only were they able to identify problems but that they had the tools necessary to fix those problems. Progressives, however, differed on whom would lead the reform: reform from below (volunteer or community-led) or reform from above (government-led). Not surprisingly, some American presidents believed that problems were best identified and then corrected by themselves. Traditionally, the Progressive era American presidents were Theodore Roosevelt, his handpicked successor William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.
TEDDY ROOSEVELT: The First Progressive President
The Roosevelt family was one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the United States. Being able to trace his ancestry in this country back to the Mayflower, Roosevelt belonged to an elite group of American families. His aristocratic background propelled him through Harvard. After a brief career in the New York legislature he became the second in charge of the Department of the Navy in 1897.
Roosevelt was a bold, brash, and at times larger-than-life figure who lived what he called the “manly life” (daily exercise, engaging in sports, and being active on the world’s stage). Not without reservation, the Republican leadership offered the vice presidency to Roosevelt in 1898, following his brief yet wildly advertised stint in a private military unit during the Spanish-American War. Leon Czolgosz elevated Roosevelt to the presidency when, in 1901, he assassinated President William McKinley.
Roosevelt’s progressive ideas had their genesis while serving the people of New York. Roosevelt believed that he, as president, was best suited to both identify and then apply corrective measures. Thus he was not a fan of the new journalists who researched, wrote, and published exposes against abuses in American industries such as oil, alcohol, and dairy. One of these “muckrakers,” as Roosevelt called those who dug in the dirt of business practices, was a woman named Ida Tarbell. Tarbell worked for what was arguably the most well known investigative magazine of its time–McClure’s. The magazine published articles exposing problems in the dairy industry (thousands of infants and elderly people died each year of contaminated milk), but Tarbell’s work on Standard Oil set the bar for investigative reporting. Tarbell discovered that the Rockefeller family’s rise to the top had less to do with a Puritan work ethic and more to do with corruption, bullying, and outright monopolizing the industry. Tarbell’s work led the federal government’s dismantling of Standard Oil and winning the nickname “trust buster” for Roosevelt.
Roosevelt did not believe that all monopolies were inherently bad. Rather, and in step with many U.S. decision-makers and federal judges, if monopolies produced a good product at a fair price, Roosevelt et al tended to leave them alone. What Roosevelt did believe in was the inherent power of the federal government to even the playing field, thus he supported federal laws that regulated business, such as the Hepburn Bill.
Roosevelt also believed in the power of the president (or at least the power of himself as president) to become personally involved in regulating industry and he did so in the 1902 Anthracite coal strike and the Northern Securities investigation two years later.
WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT: Dollar DiplomacyDollar Diplomacy
Taft was Roosevelt’s handpicked successor to lead the Republican Party as well as the nation. As a president, Taft did not as much as continue Roosevelt’s policies in regards to the economy, business regulation, and foreign policy than he developed what was seen at that time as possibly something new. Taft supported the idea that American political, social, religious, and economic strategies would be most effectively spread throughout the world by American businesses as the tip of his spear.
Under the presidency of Taft, the U.S. began loaning large sums of money to Latin American countries, such as Nicaragua, in order to grease the wheels, so to speak, for American companies to control local production, such as the infamous American agriculture company United Fruit. Today Taft would fit in, philosophically, with Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer, Dick Chaney and others known as Neo-Cons in the early twenty-first century. On the domestic side of his presidency, Taft was involved with issues pertaining to alcohol, labor and business regulation, conservation, race and immigration.
Taft never officially identified his position on the government’s role regarding the regulation of the alcohol industry, however as president Taft did veto a congressional measure that prohibited interstate commerce of alcohol into states that had prohibited the consumption of alcohol within their borders, such as Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kansas. Known as the Webb Act, Congress overrode Taft’s veto. It is difficult to say with any certainty if Taft’s veto supported the idea that the federal government should not be involved in matters of the states or if he believed that the federal government should not be involved in regulating the liquor industry.
Roosevelt’s personal mediation of the Anthracite coal strike would not be repeated during Taft’s administration. Rather, Taft allowed courts to decide issues pertaining to labor yet he tended to use the power of the executive branch to enforce the Sherman Act. Ironically, this nation’s “Trust Buster” was Taft, who filed more suits against American monopolies than his predecessor, who was given that nickname as a result of his administration’s fight to break up Standard Oil. Standard Oil was to Roosevelt as U.S. Steel was to Taft. Taft’s attempts to break up U.S. Steel (a corporation established when Andrew Carnegie sold nearly all of his U.S. holdings to men such as Charles Schwab, John David Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan) were as successful as the break up of Standard Oil. While Taft won a few legal battles, Schwab, Rockefeller, and Morgan continued to enjoy nearly unchecked power, authority and wealth as Taft’s one-term administration came to a close in 1912.
Taft’s history in the Progressive conservation movement is even less effective than his dealings with labor or big business. The president fired Teddy Roosevelt’s right-hand man in the conservation movement, Gifford Pinchot, ultimately costing the Republicans needed votes among environmental and conservative-minded western voters. However, Taft tended to hold true to the notion that the federal government’s roles in regulating the environment must be severely limited, instead wanting states to take the lead in conservation.
Taft, adhering to a hands-off policy established by the Rutherford B. Hays in 1877 and possibly due to his belief in the inherent power of state governments, typically refused to get involved in racial matters such as segregation or lynchings. Although just before leaving office in 1913, Taft vetoed a resolution that would have allowed the federal government to prohibit entrance to the U.S. for any immigrant who failed to demonstrate a basic literacy in English. Taft’s record on progressive domestic affairs is scant, at best, in part due to his unpopularity at home. Typically, when American presidents are incapable of forwarding meaningful domestic agendas, they tend to become more involved in foreign ventures, where presidents wield more power and are outside of the direct control of the legislative branch of the government.
WOODROW WILSON: The Crusader President
The Progressive era president most closely associated with establishing the relationship between the federal government and the economy as well as creating the now widespread American belief in the necessity of the federal government to control the U.S. economy was Woodrow Wilson.
The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, as demonstrated in the Taft’s administration’s inability to effectively regulate monopolies, was narrowly applied by the court to the extent that only monopolies that were illegally established could be confronted by the federal government. To close this loophole, Congress passed and Wilson signed into law the Clayton Act. Wilson, when campaigning in 1912, promised Americans that as president he would more aggressively than his predecessors attack all constraint of trade in order to create an open market. (In 1917 Wilson called for the creation of an international economic system unconstrained by even tariffs.) The Clayton Act fell short of Wilson’s election-year promises. Instead of forging a stronger weapon, the Clayton Act merely enacted more harsh penalties for corporations that were found guilty of breaking the Sherman Act.
Wilson was successful, however, in getting legislation passed that would assist American workers. In 1914, and by the Progressive Wisconsin Republican “Fighting” Bob La Follette, the La Follette-Peters Act limited women garment workers in Washington D.C. to working eight hours per day. In 1915 La Follette’s Seaman’s Act tried to help American sailors by restricting their working hours and enhancing their working conditions. The Adamson Act prohibited American rail workers from working more than eight hours per day. The first measure was adopted in order to protect the traditionally-viewed job of women as caregivers and homemakers, while the other two acts were passed for safety reasons. Wilson supported the adoption of these measures.
Wilson also supported the expansion of the scope and depth of the federal government in very particular instances, such as when he signed into law the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. The piece of Progressive legislation, authored by Representative Carter Glass (D-VA) and Senator Robert Owen (D-OK), provided “for the establishment of Federal reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.” Interestingly enough, Wilson did not support the legislation on the idea that a singular, federally-regulated currency would help consumers, but rather the adoption of the act would benefit business. Unlike popular myth, the Federal Reserve was not under the complete control of the federal government but rather consisted of a coalition of federal and private banks. Private banks that joined the Federal Reserve system were granted certain perks, such as access to low-interest loans. The Act did have its critics, such as Representative (R-MN) Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr. who called the Federal Reserve “the most gigantic trust on earth . . . [and] . . . the worst legislative crime of the ages.” Lindbergh will be better known for being the father of the first person to cross the Atlantic by airplane: Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., who was also a supporter of Nazi Germany during the 1940s.
Finally, Wilson oversaw the passage of four amendments to the U.S. Constitution during his two terms. The Sixteenth Amendment authorized the federal government to adopt and collect a national income tax. The Seventeenth Amendment provided for the direct and popular election of U.S. Senators. The Eighteenth Amendment, aka Prohibition, made it illegal to do just about anything with alcohol, except to consume it. And, the Nineteenth Amendment allowed universal suffrage.