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         The Many Faces of Progressivism: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson


Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) The ―People‘s Lawyer.‖ Recruited by the National Consumer‘s
League, which had been founded in 1899, Brandeis presented the argument in Muller v. Oregon
(1908) that the Oregon law that limited the workday to ten hours for women workers should be
upheld. Brandeis used the League‘s research to show how long hours damaged women's health
and their ability to fulfill their roles in their families. The case represented a victory for
―sociological jurisprudence‖ - the effort to use the courts to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Woodrow Wilson drew on Brandeis‘s expertise in his treatment of anti-trust efforts. Brandeis
believed that smaller firms were more efficient and thus more able to engage in active
competition than major corporate trusts. Brandeis feared that an overly powerful regulatory
commission would quickly become separated from its original aim of protecting the interests of
the people. Public policy in his view should restrict the wrongful use of competition so that
competition exercised rightly would destroy monopolies. In Abrams v. United States (1919), by
then a Supreme Court justice, Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes represented the dissenting
votes in the Court‘s decision to uphold Jacob Abrams‘s conviction for sedition. Abrams was an
anarchist and Russian immigrant who had denounced United States military intervention in
Russia through English and Yiddish pamphlets. Holmes and Brandeis argued that there was no
clear threat to the conduct of the war.

Eugene V. Debs (1845-1926) Labor activist and Socialist candidate for President in
1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In the Campaign of 1908, Deb‘s ―Red Special‖ campaign
train visited every region of the United States. Debs organized the American Railway Union in
1893. The American Railway Union went on strike against the Great Northern Railroad in the
same year. After 18 days the railroad granted the union‘s demands. By contrast, the ARU‘s
efforts in the Pullman Strike were markedly unsuccessful; the strike was broken.

William McKinley (1843-1901) Elected President as a Republican in the election of 1896,
McKinley was promoted by Marcus Hanna as the candidate who would be the ―advance agent of
prosperity.‖ For Republicans in the election of 1896, being the ―agent of prosperity‖ meant
being in favor of high tariffs, big business, and sound money. The Democratic platform
supported the ―free coinage of both gold and silver,‖ a proposition that would have inflated the
currency, and which Hanna used as a means of attracting large contributions from eastern
Republican businessmen, who feared the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, a well-
known advocate of ―free silver.‖ Bryan had ensured his nomination by attacking the gold
standard in a speech that included such phrases as ―you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of
gold.‖ McKinley‘s first term was dominated not by economic issues, but by the 100-day
Spanish-American War. McKinley was assassinated by Leon F. Czolgosz, an anarchist, in 1901.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) Descendent of one of the seventeenth-century Dutch families
that had settled and prospered in New York. Roosevelt graduated from Harvard, studied in
Germany, and became a fierce proponent of what he called the ―strenuous life.‖ A complex
personality, he was a statesman, writer, charismatic orator, conservationist, reformer, and
consummate politician. He entered the New York Assembly while still in his twenties and
became known as a reformer, but left politics in 1884 to pursue the life of a rancher, hunter, and
outdoorsman in the West. He came back to New York, politics, and public service in 1886. He
became McKinley‘s Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897, and, attired in a Brooks‘ Brothers
uniform of his own design, distinguished himself with his Rough Riders in the Spanish-
American War. He was elected governor of the state in 1898, and managed to bring about civil
service reform and to institute a tax on corporate franchises during his brief tenure. He left office
to serve as McKinley‘s vice-president in 1901. After McKinley‘s assassination in 1901, he
became President. In 1902 the distinctive character of Roosevelt‘s view of the Presidency was
demonstrated in his handling of the anthracite coal strike by the United Mine Workers. Through
a combination of bullying and arbitration, the strike ended. Roosevelt appointed an arbitration
commission to decide the issues. Roosevelt‘s handling of the trusts was equally innovative. He
established the Bureau of Corporations in 1903, and gave it the power to investigate business
practices. Using the information gathered by the Bureau of Corporations, the Justice Department
could, in turn, file anti-trust suits, invoking the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Roosevelt did
not proceed through the courts entirely, however. In 1904, for example, he made a Gentleman‘s
Agreement with U.S. Steel. The company agreed to scrutiny by the Bureau of Corporations. In
turn, U.S. Steel was to be notified privately if there were difficulties and given a chance to take
care of any infringements. Roosevelt made similar agreements with International Harvester in
1905. The arrangement was agreeable to both Roosevelt, who was not opposed on principle to
big business, and to J.P. Morgan, who controlled both companies. Roosevelt‘s dealings with the
railroads, which were subject to public regulation already, were different. The Interstate
Commerce Commission had been established in 1887, and Roosevelt wanted to enforce its
provisions. Roosevelt saw to the passage of the Elkins Act (1903), which outlawed the practice
of granting favorable reductions on published rates to large or powerful customers. The
Hepburn Railway Act, which gave the ICC the right to set maximum rates and set up a system
for uniform bookkeeping, was passed in 1906. Roosevelt also began federal inspection of the
stockyards in the wake of the publication of Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle (1906) The Pure Food
and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were both passed in 1906. In the 1904 election
Roosevelt referred to his programs as the ―Square Deal.‖ This vision, fleshed out as the “New
Nationalism” later, evolved into a concept of a more powerful federal government, with the
capacity to regulate big business. Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his
efforts in mediating the end of the war between Russia and Japan. Roosevelt transformed the
office of the Presidency, extending the vision of its powers, and the concept of the President as
an activist. A selection from Roosevelt‘s diaries, housed in the Papers of Theodore Roosevelt
Collection at the Library of Congress, can be viewed at
William Howard Taft (1857-1930) Roosevelt‘s successor in the White House preferred to use
the courts and Congress to achieve his ends rather than extend the power of the presidency as
Roosevelt had. Taft found himself caught between the Progressive wing of the Republican Party
and its more traditional base in the business class, Taft alienated many Progressives by his
support of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act (1909) which protected United States industries in the
East from foreign competitors. Taft‘s actions in what came to be known as the Pinchot-
Ballinger Affair further marked him as the creature of business interests. Taft found himself at
the same time in the uneasy company of the conservative wing of his party. Led by Robert La
Follette of Wisconsin, Progressive Republicans formed the ―National Progressive Republican
Party‖ in 1911. Taft quarreled with his former mentor, Roosevelt, over the federal handling of
business trusts. Taft believed that action should depend on enforcing the Sherman Act rather than
on the presidential maneuvering and ―gentleman‘s agreements‖ that had marked Roosevelt‘s
public policy. The Supreme Court‘s Standard Oil decision (1911) set a precedent for the ―rule
of reason;‖ that is, for allowing the courts to distinguish between ―bad‖ and ―good‖ trusts. Taft‘s
Attorney General, George, W. Wickersham, accordingly began to pursue anti-trust action more
aggressively. The attack on U.S. Steel which followed was perceived as an attack on Roosevelt,
who had intervened to allow U.S. Steel to acquire the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company in 1907
in violation of the Sherman Act. Roosevelt‘s action had been predicated on the assumption that
he was protecting the interests of the United States economy. Roosevelt responded by giving a
speech in 1910 in which he articulated his vision of the relation between the common good and
the corporate good as the “New Nationalism.‖ In his prescient view, government should act as
the ―steward of the public welfare.‖

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) Like Roosevelt, Wilson believed that the President was
empowered to represent the interests of the American people. Wilson is perhaps most famous for
his declaration that the United States entrance into World War I was to ―make the world safe for
democracy.‖ Prior to becoming President, Wilson was a political science professor and
eventually President of Princeton. He became Governor of New Jersey, where he managed to
have reform legislation on worker‘s compensation and regulation of utilities and railroads
passed. During his tenure, a direct primary system was instituted in the state, and Wilson took on
the powerful ―boss‖ system. As the Democratic candidate in the election of 1912, he
campaigned on a platform called the ―New Freedom.” Using the rhetoric of slavery and
freedom, he emphasized principles of states‘ rights and individual freedom. Freedom for Wilson
began with free enterprise – a cornerstone, in his view, of economic liberty. Major pieces of
domestic legislation included the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act (1913), which lowered
tariffs, the Federal Reserve Act (1913) which gave the United States a more elastic and stable
money supply, and an act which established the Federal Trade Commission (1914) to deal with
unfair business practices. Legislation in 1915 and 1916 included the Adamson Act’s eight-hour
day for railroad workers, child labor laws, a federal workers‘ compensation law, and the
Seaman’s Act which moved to protect the individual rights of sailors. Wilson also approved the
Federal Farm Loan Act (1916), which provided for a low-interest, rural credit system for
assisting the financial needs of farmers. Despite a slogan that proclaimed ―he kept us out of war‖
in the 1916 re-election campaign, Wilson moved toward war with Germany in 1917. In January,
1918, he articulated his aims for the war in his famous ―Fourteen Points.‖ The fourteenth point
was to establish a ―general association of nations…affording mutual guarantees of political
independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.‖ This provision, embodied
in a covenant for the League of Nations, proved to be the most problematic for Wilson. The
United States did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson had helped engineer, and it
did not join the League of Nations. Wilson‘s papers are, for the most part, housed in a massive
collection at Princeton University. See
Progressive Legislation under Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson

Adamson Act (1916) Named for William Charles Adamson, a Georgia judge, lawyer, and
congressman, the Adamson Act established an eight-hour day for railway workers at a ten-hour
rate and made provisions for time and a half compensation for overtime. These would eventually
become the standard for all workers.

Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914) Passed during Wilson‘s first administration, this Act amended
the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The definition of what constituted ―unlawful practices‖ was
non-specific. Violations had to pass the test of ―substantially‖ lessening competition or tending
to ―create monopoly in any line of commerce.‖

Bureau of Corporations (1903) Established during Theodore Roosevelt‘s first administration,
the Bureau of Corporations was granted the power to investigate unfair business practices.

Elkins Act (1903) Outlawed the railroads‘ practice of granting favorable reductions on published
rates to large or powerful customers.

Federal Reserve Act (1913) Established during Wilson‘s first term, the Federal Reserve Act
made the banking system more resistant to the panics that had been the bane of the United States
economy. The Act created a system of twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks, which controlled
member banks in their areas. In addition, a Federal Reserve Board was appointed to oversee and
regulate the Federal Reserve Banks.

 Federal Trade Commission (1914) Established in 1914 in Wilson‘s first term, with broad
investigatory powers for enforcing the Sherman and Clayton Anti-trust Acts. The FTC could
issue ―cease and desist‖ orders when the antitrust laws were found to have been violated. Its
decisions were nevertheless subject to review by the courts. The courts continued to be in charge
of making final judgments on what represented illegal business practices.

Hepburn Railway Act (1906) The Interstate Commerce Commission was given the authority to
set maximum rates and to prescribe a standardized form of bookkeeping for all the railroads.

Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) Named for Francis Newlands, a land speculator, who had
hired engineers to study the feasibility of building dams and other means of irrigation to bring
water to land in some of the more arid areas of the West. Proceeds from the sale of public lands
were designated for use in irrigating land in arid areas

Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and Meat Inspection Act (1906) Passed in response to
exposés on the patent medicine business and in response to Upton Sinclair‘s novel The Jungle
(1906) which had offered graphic descriptions of the horrors of the meat-packing plants in
Chicago and the living conditions of the laborers who worked there. The Food and Drug
Administration grew out of this legislation.
Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act (1909) Protectionist tariff that kept rates high and foreign competition
at bay. The legislation favored industries in the eastern United States. President Taft‘s support of
the tariff helped widen the gap between Progressive reformers and conservative business
interests in the Republican Party.

Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act (1913) Brought tariff rates down to an average 25 percent.
The Act targeted trust-dominated industries. Its Democratic proponents hoped that the reduction
in the tariff would stimulate competition and result in lower prices for consumers by opening the
United States to foreign products.
International Events

Panama Canal No aspect of the Progressive Era illustrates its multi-faceted nature better than
the events surrounding the building of the Panama Canal, one of Theodore Roosevelt‘s pet
projects. Roosevelt was a proponent of the theories of Alfred T. Mahan, and believed in the
necessity of naval supremacy and of strategically placed naval bases. This vision also
necessitated ease of movement. Under Roosevelt, the United States Navy ranked third in the
world by 1907. The Spanish-American War had demonstrated the need for a canal through
Central America. Britain had given up its rights to joint participation in any Central American
canal project under the Hay-Paunceforte Agreement of 1901. Roosevelt attempted to negotiate
leasing rights from Colombia for the strip of land that crossed Panama. The Colombian
legislature turned down the proposition, principally because the old French lease was about to
expire, and could be renegotiated under more favorable terms. Roosevelt took advantage of the
independence movement in Panama. A bloodless revolution ensued, despite a series of mix-ups.
The United States recognized Panama on November 7, 1903, received the rights to a perpetually
renewable lease on a canal zone, and proceeded over the next eight years to build the canal. The
United States paid Colombia $22 million for its loss in 1922. Roosevelt never regretted his
move. The Canal opened in 1914, and gave the United States a pre-eminent strategic and
commercial position in the Western Hemisphere.

Spanish-American War (1898) America‘s Caribbean adventure in late nineteenth-century
imperialism. Cuban freedom fighters, inspired by Jose Marti, the poet, rebelled against Spanish
rule in 1895. The insurgents gained control of the countryside; the Spanish retained control in
the cities. In 1896 the Spanish captain general Valeriano Weyler developed a policy of
reconcentration in which whole populations were herded into camps. As many as 200,000
Cuban civilians may have died from the squalid conditions in the camps. American newspapers,
particularly William Randolph Hearst‘s newly acquired New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer‘s
New York World, sensationalized the story. The super patriotism that was generated was called
jingoism. The McKinley administration, which inherited the problem from the Cleveland
administration, had to deal with a jingoistic Republican campaign platform of 1896 that had
called for Cuban independence. The pro-war contingent, led by Henry Cabot Lodge and
Theodore Roosevelt, may have influenced McKinley, but McKinley‘s primary concern was the
protection of business interests and a developing national consensus for war. Though Weyler was
withdrawn, and a new liberal government took office in Spain in 1897 after the United States
minister formally protested conditions in Cuba, an inflammatory letter from Dupuy de Lome, the
Spanish minister to the United States, referred to McKinley as playing to the crowd and as a
weakling. He also suggested that the Spanish government was not taking United States threats of
intervention seriously. The U.S.S. Maine was blown up a week later. The cause of the explosion
remains unknown, but a board of inquiry at the time suggested that the cause of the explosion
had been a mine. Thus, fueled by jingoistic journalism, Western Democrats, and some
Republicans, the 100-day war began. Theodore Roosevelt resigned as Assistant Secretary of the
Navy, and, as a commissioned lieutenant colonel, organized a cavalry regiment that came to be
known as the Rough Riders. The little war dramatized the end of Spain‘s claims to empire in the
Western hemisphere and catapulted the United States onto the international stage. Commodore
George Dewey‗s fleet was easily victorious at Manila Bay in the Philippines. The strategic
possibilities immediately became apparent with the Philippines becoming a critical part of a
version of Alfred T. Mahan‘s theoretical blueprint for naval supremacy. The 1898 annexation of
Hawaii further supported this aim. In the Treaty of Paris (1898) Spain ceded the Philippines,
Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States. In return, Spain received a payment of $20 million.
Spain also gave up its claim to Cuba. For further information on the Treaty of Paris of 1898, see
Other Terms

Laissez-faire The concept, first developed by the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704)
in his Second Treatise on Government, argued that ―that government governs best which governs
least.‖ Locke‘s ideas were expanded and applied to international economic theory by Adam
Smith (1723-1790) in his The Wealth of Nations (1776). The principle of laissez-faire in
economic theory supported free trade and manufacture and enjoyed new currency in the
ideologies of individualism and Social Darwinism that colored the thinking of the late nineteenth

New Freedom Woodrow Wilson‘s campaign platform, which emphasized states‘ rights and free
enterprise as the cornerstones of individual freedom. The text of one of Wilson‘s 1912 campaign
speeches, in which he developed the concept of the ―New Freedom,‖ is located online at

New Nationalism Theodore Roosevelt‘s revised vision of his first term‘s ―Square Deal.‖
Roosevelt had moved increasingly toward a belief that government should serve to protect the
interests of the people. His evolving vision received concrete direction from his reading of
Herbert Croly‘s The Promise of American Life (1909). Croly‘s premise was that there were two
tendencies in American political history. One was the Hamiltonian—which had become
identified with strong central government and elite constituencies. The other was Jeffersonian
and tended toward weak government, strong individual rights, and equality of opportunity.
Croly‘s thesis was that the two tendencies had to be combined. In other words, Hamiltonian
means should be used to realize a Jeffersonian vision. Roosevelt‘s reading of Croly crystallized
his thinking, and in a speech given in Kansas in August, 1910, he argued that in a new industrial
world, with its inevitable concentrations of economic power in corporations, a new brand of
nationalism was necessary. In Roosevelt‘s vision, the federal government should act to protect
individual interests against corporate ones by placing corporations under federal control and
regulation. Roosevelt‘s 1910 speech in Ossowatomie, Kansas is the best articulation of the vision
that would pervade his 1912 Presidential campaign. It is located online at

Pinchot-Ballinger Affair One of the indicators of the increasing divide within the Republican
Party between the conservative business interests and the Progressive reformers, the Pinchot-
Ballinger affair marked President William Howard Taft as the creature of the business interests.
Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forest Ranger of the United States, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt‘s, and
a conservationist accused Richard Ballinger, who was Secretary of the Interior, of attempting to
transfer public lands in Alaska (which was rich then and now in natural resources) to a private
concern. Pinchot went public with his charges in 1910, and Taft, always the advocate of protocol
and orderliness, fined him for insubordination, finding himself at the same time in the uneasy
company of the conservative wing of his party. Led by Robert La Follette of Wisconsin,
Progressive Republicans formed the ―National Progressive Republican Party‖ in 1911.

Square Deal During his campaign for re-election in 1903-1904, Roosevelt came to refer to his
program as the ―Square Deal.‖ Roosevelt believed that when corporate interests collided with
those of individuals, it was the responsibility of government to intervene in the interest of its
unprotected constituents. The text of Roosevelt‘s ―Square Deal‖ speech to the New York State
Agricultural Association (September, 1903) is available at http://www.theodore-

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