ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY

The Progressive Presidents


*In 1901, President William McKinley—the last Civil War veteran to be president, a conservative, gold-standard Republican—was assassinated by an anarchist.  His Vice-President was Theodore Roosevelt, and his presidency is sometimes seen as the beginning of a Fourth Two-Party System in America, in which both major political parties were split internally between progressive and conservative factions, with progressives and conservatives sometimes working across party lines to promote their worldviews, a system that would last, sometimes with progressives dominant and sometimes with conservatives dominant, from about 1901 to 1933.

 

*Theodore Roosevelt (known as Teddy (although he did not like that nickname) to the public, Thee to his family, and TR for short) was the youngest man ever to become president (aged 42).  He was a progressive: he had been police commissioner of New York City, where, inspired by Jacob Riis, he had cleaned up corruption and encouraged efficiency by walking all the beats himself to check on cops on the job.

 

*In his youth he had been a cattle rancher in South Dakota until the Great Die-Up of 1886-87 destroyed his herd, so he understood the needs of farmers and ranchers, and he had also developed a love of the wilderness—once, on a hunting trip, he refused to shoot a caged bear as a photo opportunity, saying it was unsporting (although he otherwise loved to hunt), and stuffed bears have been called Teddy Bears every since. 

 

*He had been assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, and when the Spanish-American War broke out, he raised a volunteer regiment of rich easterners and wild western cowboys (called the Rough Riders) and was part of the invasion of Cuba. 

 

*He then went home and was elected Governor of New York, where he tried to clean up the entire state until the Republican Party leaders made him vice-president, hoping that he would vanish in that thankless job. 

 

*Roosevelt was a genius:  he used to have two secretaries while he was Governor of New York, so he could dictate state business to one and dictate books he was writing to the other at the same time.

 

*He was full of energy—a foreign diplomat once told another diplomat that he must understand that the President of the United States was 8 years old.  He often took advisors, diplomats, and other visitors on half-day hikes through the woods and swamps around Washington, D.C. and once insisted they all go skinny-dipping in the Potomac.

 

*While most of Roosevelt's children were respectable, his oldest daughter, Alice, was scandalous.  She smoked cigars and married the infamously philandering senator Nick Longworth (although he never complained when, relatively late in life, she had a child that markedly resembled another member of Congress).  She was a famous gossip, telling people at parties that 'if you don't have anything nice to say, come sit by me.'

 

*Roosevelt expanded the power of the presidency, as he used it as a bully pulpit (a splendid position from which to present his views) to reform the nation.  He called his plan the Square Deal, based, he said, on giving everyone a fair chance.   

 

*Roosevelt was an upright and moral man, and used the power of the government to fulfill specific, positive goals without running up a big debt.  In the process, he made the presidency again the strongest office in the Federal Government and is often considered to have created the modern presidency.  

 

*He said a man should speak softly, but carry a big stick, although he himself rarely spoke softly. 

 

*TR took on both the trusts and the unions. 

 

*In 1902, anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania belonging to the United Mine Workers of America demanded an 8-hour work day and a 20% pay raise--they had not had a raise in years.  The bosses ignored them, knowing they had enough coal to last for months, and that as the supply dwindled, the price (and thus their profits) would go up.  In May, the miners went on strike, and in June, other workers in the area went on sympathy strikes.  Scabs, the police, the Pennsylvania National Guard, and detectives were all called in, a few people were killed, and it looked like violence might break out on a large scale, as had often happened when the Western Federation of Miners had gone on strike.

 

*TR knew people needed coal to keep warm in the winter, and factories always needed it, so the strike had to end quickly.  As Roosevelt told Mark Hanna (who had his own investments in Midwestern bituminous mines), "A coal famine in the winter is an ugly thing and I fear we shall see terrible suffering and grave disaster." 

 

*Whereas in the past, the government had always sided with the mine owners, TR first tried to get them to listen to the miners’ complaints.  When they would not, he threatened to send in the army to take over the mines and run them himself.  To avoid this, the mine owners and the unions agreed to allow a commission to find a solution, and the strike ended in October, 1902. 

 

*It took the commission three months to reach a conclusion, and in the end, it split the difference between the miners' demands and the owners' intransigence:  it gave the miners a 10% pay raise and a 9-hour working day.  The miners went back to work, feeling that this was a victory, but the mine owners were not required to officially recognise the union.

 

*In February, 1903, TR created a new cabinet department, Commerce and Labor (split into two cabinet posts in 1913), to deal with labour and business issues in the future.

 

*Over the years, farmers and small businessmen had protested against the power of the railroads, but to little avail.  The Interstate Commerce Commission had been almost useless.  Roosevelt changed this with the Elkins Act of 1903 which outlawed rebates and fined those who tried to offer or accept them and with the Hepburn Act of 1906, which gave the ICC real power to limit prices on shipping costs for railroads, ferries, toll bridges, and oil pipelines, and also to investigate transport companies' records.  As this regulation grew more powerful, shipping began to shift to the largely unregulated trucking industry as the 20th Century progressed (although American freight railways remain among the most efficient and effective in the world).

 

*As part of his passion for regulating railroads, in 1904, Roosevelt even took on the Northern Securities Company, a cover for a railroad monopoly controlled by J P Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, James Hill, E. H. Harriman, and other businessmen.  The Supreme Court declared it to be an illegal trust, and TR forced it to split up into smaller companies.  The legal cases surrounding this formed the basis for many later anti-trust lawsuits.

 

*TR got a reputation as a trust-buster, but he made a distinction between ‘good trusts’ and ‘bad trusts.’  A trust that operated fairly and did not cheat customers was left alone, but those that did not were broken up--and TR got to judge which trusts were good or bad.

 

*For example, during the Panic of 1907, the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company was about to go under.  The failure of this large company would only make the depression worse.  However, J P Morgan was prepared to save much of the company by absorbing it into US Steel.  TR felt that this would be an example of a good trust that served the public's interest, and supported the merger, to the surprise of some people.

 

*Theodore Roosevelt was a voracious reader.  On a later safari across Africa he hauled a specially-made pigskin-bound 60-volume library along with him in an aluminium case.  After reading The Jungle, Roosevelt insisted on reform, helping to create the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both in 1906.

 

*Roosevelt was a great lover of the environment—he believed that hunting and camping and fishing kept a man healthy and masculine.  He also wanted to make sure that future generations could enjoy the outdoors and the nation’s natural resources as he had, so he greatly expanded the national park system.

 

*The first national park in the world was Yellowstone National Park, designated as such in 1872 by US Grant.  Yosemite, Sequoia, and Mount Ranier were also dedicated as national parks by the time TR became president.  He went on to create more national parks and 'national monuments' than all other presidents combined, protecting a total of 125 million acres.

 

*In doing this, he was following the ideas of John Muir and particularly Gifford Pinchot, who became one of his closest advisors on conservation and was made head of the Forest Service when TR created it in 1905.

 

*To deal with the problem of water use in the West, Roosevelt supported the Newlands [or National] Reclamation Act of 1902, which gave the government control of Western water rights and allowed it to improve irrigation and build dams to create reservoirs and electricity—Hoover Dam is part of its legacy.

 

*Under Theodore Roosevelt, America became more active in the Caribbean world.  This was often known as Big Stick diplomacy, as he was always willing to use force if necessary (as were subsequent presidents).

 

*Roosevelt saw himself as Latin America’s policeman.  This was not entirely a new idea—previous presidents had used the Monroe Doctrine to justify getting involved in the affairs of Latin American countries, usually to protect them from European powers.  Roosevelt took this further, in what was called the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine:  if any Latin American country had problems, America had a duty to step in and help them out—by physical force, if necessary. 

 

*Latin Americans needed this, said Roosevelt, because they could not take care of themselves and needed to be lifted up by a more civilised nation, and if America did not do it, some European country might.  It was common for European nations to begin taking over colonies by claiming that their governments owed them money or were simply incapable of managing their affairs.  To prevent this happening, the United States had to be prepared to intervene first.

 

*One of the first places American force was needed was in Panama, a region in Colombia where a French company had been working for years to build a canal (another possible site was Nicaragua, but volcanic activity in the area scared off American investors).  America bought that company, but still needed permission from the Columbian government to work on the canal. 

 

*When Columbia’s government refused, Roosevelt sent warships to support a Panamanian revolution.  In the Hay--Bunau-Varilla treaty, the new government of Panama gave America a ten-mile-wide canal zone for $10 million plus $250,000 a year in rent (Philippe Bunau-Varilla was a French businessmen who had invested in the canal, sponsored the revolution, wrote Panama's constitution, and even offered to pay Panama's budget out of his own pocket; Panama made him its first ambassador to the US, but later regretted this, as Panamanians felt he gave up too much to the US and never even came back to Panama after signing the treaty).  The United States controlled the Canal Zone from 1903 to 1979.

 

*The biggest problem facing workers was disease, particularly malaria and yellow fever.  Eventually the US Army found ways to prevent infection by these diseases, particularly by draining swamps and wetlands to reduce mosquito breeding grounds, and the canal was finished in 1914, at last giving the world an all-water route to Asia through the Americas.

 

*During and after Roosevelt's presidency, the US would intervene in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic in the name of stability and security.

 

*Roosevelt even felt forced to intervene in world affairs outside the Americas.  In 1904 Japan had staged a sneak attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet one morning, catching it off guard and destroying it, beginning the Russo-Japanese War.  Japanese troops had then moved into Russian-occupied Manchuria and other Russian territories in the Far East, defeating the Russian forces there, while the Russian Baltic Fleet began to sail around the world, only to be destroyed off the coast of Korea.

 

*The Russian people were terrified and infuriated, and rebelled against their government in 1905, and were only barely contained after the Tsar promised them reforms.  Fearful of the rise of Japanese power and the destablisation of the Russian Empire, Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate between the two warring powers, and in 1905 helped negotiate the Treaty of Portsmouth in New Hampshire, which brought the war to a close.  

 

*Japan got control of two Chinese port cities that had been in Russia's sphere of influence as well as the southern portion of Sakhalin Island and control of all railroads in Manchuria, but the Japanese had hoped for much more.  Russia got to concentrate on internal problems and got to avoid losing any more land or men (but its misfortunes convinced Germany and Austria-Hungary that Russia was weak).  Theodore Roosevelt got the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

*To show off America’s might, Roosevelt had sixteen of the Navy’s modern battleships and a number of escort ships painted gleaming white, and then sent that Great White Fleet on a world-wide goodwill tour from December of 1907 to February, 1909.

 

*In 1908, Roosevelt chose not to run for a third term, but encouraged Americans to vote for his Secretary of War and former governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft—and they did, defeating William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1908.

 

*To give Taft room to work, Roosevelt went on an African safari followed by a tour of Europe from March, 1909 to June, 1910.

 

*Taft at first did the same things Roosevelt had, but eventually took his own course.  He kept on many of Roosevelt's former advisors, but later argued with and fired some of them.  He lowered tariffs, but not as much as Roosevelt wanted; the main tariff of his presidency was the Payne-Aldrich Tariff (which was too high for progressives and too low for big business). 

 

*He busted trusts, but did not just try to break up bad trusts, but sometimes good ones, too—in fact, he busted twice as many trusts as Roosevelt, including Standard Oil.  He also tried to stop US Steel from buying Tennessee Coal and Iron, which TR had given them permission to purchase, and TR viewed this as a great betrayal.  However, Taft allowed other monopolies to continue, giving him a reputation for being soft on the rich and big business, even though the XVI Amendment was ratified in February, 1913, while he was president, after which Congress placed an income tax between 1% and 7% on the wealthiest 1% of Americans (and created the lower Underwood Tariff of 1913).

 

*In foreign policy, Taft also put the big stick away, or at least held it in reserve.  He preferred to speak softly through what he called Dollar Diplomacy, encouraging American companies to invest in Latin American businesses (like oil in Mexico and Venezuela and sugar and banana plantations in the Caribbean Islands and Central America).  If these businesses had problems (at least problems they could not sort out for themselves, such as Cuyamel Fruit's 1911 revolution in Honduras), though, the Taft was willing to pull the big stick back out.

 

*Soon TR began to criticise Taft, eventually going on a speaking tour to promote the New Nationalism, a programme to make the government more powerful so that it could bust more trusts and enact other Progressive reforms.

 

*In 1912, Roosevelt tried to get the Republican nomination for president, but Taft was chosen to run again.  Soon afterwards, TR and many other Republican and some Democratic reformers formed the Progressive Party.  However, when Theodore Roosevelt wanted people to think he was still healthy (despite having broken a leg when his carriage was hit by a trolley in 1902 and being blind in one eye after a bad boxing match in the White House) he told them he was as fit as a bull moose, and soon people called his party the Bull Moose Party.

 

*Progressives went on to found a new magazine of their own The New Republic, in 1914, to promote progressive views.


*While running for president, Roosevelt was shot just before giving a speech by a man who had dreams in which President McKinley told him to avenge his death.  The bullet went through his coat, through a 50-page speech folded double (which slowed it down), through his steel spectacle case, through his shirt, and into his chest.  As his aides examined him and saw the blood flowing from his wound, they told him to go to the doctor, but he refused, until after he gave his speech.  Nonetheless, this forced him to spend over a week in the hospital right before the election.

 

*Eugene V. Debs also ran for the fourth time with the Socialist Party.

 

*In the end, neither Taft nor Roosevelt won.  Instead, they split the Republican vote more than they did the Democratic vote, and America elected Woodrow Wilson.

 

*Following this campaign, Theodore Roosevelt went to Brazil, where he explored a previously unexplored 800 mile long tributary of the Amazon River known as the River of Doubt.

 

*Woodrow Wilson had been president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey (originally chosen by the machines to be their puppet while giving the appearance of being honest; he surprised them by actually governing honestly and trying to clean up machine corruption), but he had been born in the South and was the first Southern president since Andrew Johnson (and the first one elected since James K Polk).  He was also a Progressive, and called his plan the New Freedom.

 

*Wilson wanted to bust trusts in order to give small businessmen a chance to compete (or even start businesses at all).  He created the Federal Trade Commission in 1914 to regulate competition and advertising (mostly for the benefit of consumers). 

 

*The Clayton Antitrust Act (also in 1914) gave even more power to anti-trust regulators--Samuel Gompers called the Clayton Antitrust Act 'Labour's Magna Carta,' partly because it specifically stated that unions were not trusts and could not be attacked by the Clayton Anti-Trust Act.

 

*The Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916 let farmers borrow federal money.

 

*The Workingman's Compensation Act of 1916 created disability insurance plans for federal employees.  Later it would be the basis for other disability benefits.

 

*The Adamson Act of 1916 established an 8-hour day and overtime pay for interstate railway workers.

 

*He outlawed flogging on US Merchant Marine vessels in 1915.

 

*He appointed the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, in 1916.

 

*Wilson lowered tariffs even more than Roosevelt or Taft.

 

*Wilson created the Federal Reserve System in 1913.  This placed national banks under the control of a Federal Reserve Board which set up regional banks to hold reserves for other banks.  This kept any one bank from holding too much money (thus placing it at risk if the bank failed or its owner tried to skim off the top).

 

*Wilson usually sided with workers in labour disputes.  However, when coal miners in Colorado went on strike, the Colorado National Guard and eventually the US Army were sent in to break up the strike (the Colorado National Guard even shot into the tents the strikers lived in and set them on fire, killing 26 people).

 

*While Wilson was president, the United States ratified the XVII, XVIII, and XIX Amendments to the Constitution

 

*When Woodrow Wilson became president, he planned to use Moral Diplomacy to convince Latin American countries to live up to American standards.

 

*In fact, Wilson used military force fairly often as well.   In 1915 when he was worried that France or Germany might invade Haiti (because both of whom had economic interests there), he sent US Marines in first. 

 

*In Mexico in 1913, Victoriano Huerta overthrew the old government (itself just two years old, having forced out Porfirio Diaz after he had ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1911) and set himself up as president after executing the last one.  He promised to protect American investments, but Wilson felt it was immoral to murder presidents, so he invaded Mexico to punish Huerta--he said 'I am going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men.' 

 

*In 1914 the US Marine Corps occupied Tampico after nine American sailors were arrested after wandering into the wrong part of town and not understanding police instructions.  The Marines occupied Vera Cruz, partly to prevent Germany from selling arms to Huerta.

 

*At first Wilson worked with a revolutionary leader named Pancho Villa (who controlled much of northern Mexico) to fight against Huerta, but later changed his mind when a new Mexican president whom Wilson liked (and had supplied weapons to) named Venustiano Caranza turned against the Revolutionaries who had helped him come to power.  Pancho Villa then raided the US, killing 24 Americans (18 of them civilians) in three different attacks.

 

*10,000 US troops under Black Jack Pershing were sent into northern Mexico in the Punitive Expedition.  He never captured Pancho Villa, who was assassinated in 1923 by enemies in Mexico.

 

*Eventually the ABC powers of Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile) negotiated an agreement, and in February 1917 the US government pulled troops out of Mexico, largely in order to prepare for the US entry into World War I.

 

*In the same year, the United States bought some of the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million (partly out of fear that Germany might buy them or just take them over).

 

*Today, the Federal Reserve System governs our economy.  The government oversees many aspects of trade, business, and unions.  Food safety laws, workplace safety laws, and other laws meant to protect workers and consumers date to the Progressive period.  On the other hand, the government is much larger, much more expensive, and much more involved in people’s lives than it was in the 1800s.  For good and bad we live in a world created by the Progressives.



This page last updated 24 October, 2018.
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