Viewing the United States as a society replete with political and economic injustices that required eradication, the Progressive Era was the age of “muckrakers” – journalists and authors who sought to expose the corrupt underbelly of industrial-age America and, by extension, of capitalism itself. For instance, investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens was commissioned by McClure’s magazine to investigate malfeasance in the municipal governments of several cities including St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Steffens later reflected candidly on his aims as a writer in this genre: “I did not want to preserve, I wanted to destroy the facts. My purpose was no more scientific than the spirit of my investigation reports; it was, as I have said before, to see that if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, would not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.” Notwithstanding his criticisms of government on a local level, Steffens, like his fellow progressives, proposed an expansion of the federal government as the antidote.
Another high-profile muckraker was Upton Sinclair, who wrote his 1906 novel The Jungle with revolutionary aims. Set in Chicago’s Packingtown (the heart of a horribly unsanitary meatpacking industry), the book depicts the American capitalist dream as an illusion that is unreachable for most people, a chimera that invariably leads to misery, poverty, and moral bankruptcy for those who pursue it. The Jungle portrays American society generally as a place where men of integrity are exploited by greedy profiteers, while corrupt schemers are rewarded with repute and fortune. The unmistakable subtext of Sinclair’s book is that capitalism is incompatible with both human virtue and an enlightened society. Late in Sinclair’s story, the protagonist finally discovers in socialism a “message of salvation” — “the new religion of humanity” embodying “the literal application of all the teachings of Christ.”
Though Sinclair had hoped that his novel would spark a popular crusade to replace capitalism with socialism, the book instead enlisted foot soldiers for a more targeted campaign to rid the meatpacking industry of its objectionable practices. As Sinclair lamented, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Partly as a result of the controversy generated by The Jungle, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 became law – empowering the federal government to inspect food, mandating truthful labeling, and specifying penalties for offenders.
The Jungle played an important role in cultivating the view that legislation ought to play a greater role in business affairs. Other influential books included Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894) and Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), both of which excoriated John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Tarbell later conceded that the works of the muckrakers tended to appeal chiefly to audiences that “had little interest in balanced findings.”
Working collaboratively with the muckrakers, progressives of all stripes worked to implement a host of economic, political, social, and moral reforms aimed at curing the ills of American society. Major progressive projects included the elimination of red-light districts from American cities; the enactment of minimum-wage laws; the provision of industrial-accident insurance; restrictions on child labor; legislation to regulate the meat-packing, drug, and railroad industries; laws to improve working conditions; the stregthening of anti-trust laws; and the formation of a vibrant conservation movement.
A number of progressive reforms also made their influence felt in the political process. For instance:
- Direct primaries were instituted, where citizens could select the candidates who ultimately would represent their party in the general elections.
- The secret ballot was implemented, whereby citizens were assured of privacy when voting in any election.
- Citizens in numerous states were granted the rights of initiative (empowering the people to draft laws and constitutional amendments and place them on the ballot for a popular vote); referendum (providing for a popular vote on laws passed by the legislature); and recall (allowing citizens to remove elected officials from office if the latter fail to fulfill their obgations).
The Progressive Movement was typified by government’s steadily expanding involvement in the realm of private industry. A harbinger of this trend was the 1887 passage of the Interstate Commerce Act (ICA), which established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and authorized the latter to outlaw “unjust and unreasonable” pricing by private railroad companies. This marked the first instance of a federal bureaucracy regulating private business in the United States. Over the next two-plus decades, the ICC gradually grew in power and size – its workforce multiplied five-fold between 1890 and 1909 – and fostered a mindset that readily accepted federal intrusion into all manner of business activities. For example, the Hepburn Act of 1906 placed a cap on railroad shipping rates and stipulated that corporations accused of violating this edict would be presumed guilty-until-proven-innocent. In 1917, under Woodrow Wilson, the federal government completely took over the railroad industry, placing all 2,905 private companies under its umbrella.
The Sherman Antitrust act of 1890 was another piece of progressive legislation that expanded government’s influence over private business, outlawing competition and price-cutting below a certain level – thereby punishing companies that had enlarged their market shares by lowering prices.
The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 continued the progressives’ war against free-market competition, making it illegal for companies to offer the same goods or services for different prices; presuming alleged violators to be guilty-until-proven-innocent; and empowering a governmental commission to adjudicate disputes over these matters. Moreover, Woodrow Wilson’s administration created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce the Clayton Antitrust Act. But the Commission soon went beyond its initial mandate. As Daniel Flynn writes in his book, A Conservative History of the American Left: “In addition to acting as a quasi-judiciary, the FTC acted as a quasi-legislature by making rules and investigating alleged infractions, and as a quasi-executive by enforcing the rules it created.”
None of this expansion by the federal government and its agencies was bothersome to President Wilson, who said: “[T]here is one principle of [Thomas] Jefferson’s which no longer can obtain in the practical politics of America. You know that it was Jefferson who said that the best government is the one that does as little governing as possible … But that time is passed. America is not now, and cannot in the future be, a place for unrestricted individual enterprise.”
Progressives, convinced that capitalism and industry were inherently destructive of the natural environment, also engaged in efforts to decree large swaths of land in the Western United States off-limits to all forms of development and industry – construction, mining, logging, farming, and oil and gas exploration. A key figure behind this initiative was Sierra Club founder John Muir, who in 1903 persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside tens of millions of Western acres as national parks and monuments.
By 1912, progressivism had become a powerful force in American politics. The Progressive Party, as a formal political entity, was created by a split in the Republican Party when Theodore Roosevelt lost the 1912 Republican presidential nomination to the incumbent President, William Howard Taft, and pulled his delegates out of the national convention. Roosevelt’s newly formed Progressive Party was alternately dubbed the Bull Moose Party, after Roosevelt’s boast that he was “as strong as a bull moose” – the animal that became the party’s emblem.
During his acceptance speech for the Progressive Party’s nomination as its candidate for U.S. President, Roosevelt expressed his belief that government regulation was necessary to closely monitor American business practices:
“Whenever in any business the prosperity of the businessman is obtained by lowering the wages of his workmen and charging an excessive price to the consumers, we wish to interfere and stop such practices. We will not submit to that kind of prosperity any more than we will submit to prosperity obtained by swindling investors or getting unfair advantages over business rivals.”
Roosevelt finished second in the 1912 presidential election, but so far behind Taft as to make it evident that the Progressive Party would never have a legitimate chance of winning the White House. By 1916, the party was disintegrating. When Roosevelt refused to accept the party’s presidential nomination that year – and instead endorsed Charles Evans Hughes for the post – the national party promptly folded. Democrat Woodrow Wilson defeated Taft in the general election.
Notwithstanding the Progressive Party’s failure to win the White House, the Progressive Movement remained a viable feature of America’s political landscape. When the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was passed during the Wilson administration, it shifted the responsibility for coining money from Congress (which was authorized for that task by the Constitution) to a panel of banking experts led by a chairman whom the President appointed. During the 125 years prior to the establishment of the Federal Reserve, the U.S. dollar had inflated less than 10 percent – in total. Between 1914 and 2008, the currency would inflate by more than 2,000 percent.
Also in 1913, Congress ratified the 16th Amendment, which instituted an income tax whose top rate was 7 percent. In 1917 and 1918, tax rates were increased dramatically at all income levels; by the end of World War I, the top rate stood at 77 percent. Some progressives thought that even this rate was too low, as evidenced by a New Republic article titled “The Conscription of Income,” which proposed that all of a person’s income above $100,000 should go to the federal government, so as to “check positively indecent extravagance.” The writer understood that such a policy would necessarily cripple charitable giving, but he argued that this would be a positive development because that “which is now left to private benevolence is properly a government function and could be far more effectively handled through its agency.”
Just as progressivism greatly influenced industry and politics, so did it influence the world of education. Led by the educational reformer and democratic socialist John Dewey in the late 1890s, progressives helped popularize kindergartens throughout the United States. Adhering to the principles of Friedrich Froebel (the “inventor” of kindergarten), Dewey declared that schools had a duty to condition children for life in the desired “social order.” Teachers, said Dewey, must stress “mutually helpful living” in order to indoctrinate youngsters in the philosophy of collectivism. Dewey called for a diminished emphasis on facts, knowledge, and real-world skills — and for replacing the “whole conception of school discipline” with “a spirit of social cooperation and community life.”
President Woodrow Wilson, the standard-bearer of progressivism during his eight years (1913-1921) in the White House, once told a Princeton audience: “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life … [but] to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”
– Sources: A Conservative History of the American Left, by Daniel Flynn; Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg.
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