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Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era, 1901-1908

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, who was Vice President, a job that was political exile, suddenly became President with the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.

The Mature Economy

By 1900, the economy was relatively mature. It was no longer necessary to concentrate all resources on increasing productive capacity.

The period 1900-1914 was one of relative prosperity. Progressivism took place in this period and was aided by it. The Progressives and others had confidence in the United States.

Not all was well, however. There was urban poverty, poor working conditions, and high accident rates. The rich were getting richer faster than poor got richer. Big business consolidation increased and got bigger. Bankers became very important because they were able to float big loans. To protect investments, they wanted control of enterprises. J.P. Morgan is a good example. Bigness has advantages but bankers are not always innovative, receptive to new ideas. They were not concerned with working conditions, etc. Reform started with the exposure of evil. Muckrakers, journalists and novelists, conducted investigations and published their findings. The crusade began outside of politics but the solutions had to be political.

The Progressive Mind

In some ways, Progressivism was not new. Prior to this period, Americans had had antimonopoly feelings. Settlement workers had begun to discover urban poverty; theologians were developing social reform Christianity; the Populists had demanded economic and political reforms.

This movement led by a cheerful middle class. The leaders were fairly prosperous professionals or businessmen in their early forties, usually WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), often motivated by personal ambition as well as moral indignation. Middle class reformers stressed the importance of virtue and efficiency in all areas of government, the economy, and society.

A new urban middle class of the 1890s was angry at the ability of corporations to corrupt politics, charge outrageous prices for their products, sell shoddy and unsafe goods (especially food) and to avoid taxes by shifting them to average taxpayers. They wanted responsible corporations.

Progressives saw the corporations corrupting politics and proposed various means of stopping it. They wanted to break up the urban political machines that were based on lower-class immigrant votes. They argued for the adoption of the Australian [secret] ballot. They wanted the printing of the ballots taken out of the hands of the political parties. They wanted voter registration made more difficult. These measures, when passed, reduced voter participation in northern cities. To make city government more honest and efficient as well as to enhance the possibility that they or their children would get the city leadership jobs, they advocated at-large elections of city councilmen and school boards for they wanted to discourage people being elected by their ethnic group and wanted to play off various ethnic groups against each other, thus increasing the possibility of WASPs being elected. Citywide elections would end ward control. They would cost more, an advantage to those who had money. Cities would be run by professional city managers and city commissions, thus reducing the power of mayors and city councils.

State Level Progressives sought a number of measures to democratize state politics. They supported the direct primary to take the nomination of candidates out of the hands of political bosses. Voting was to be done by the secret ballot. The initiative and referendum would allow the people to legislate without a state legislature or to force legislatures to have some laws approved by the electorate. They advocated female suffrage, believing that women were more moral than men. They wanted drug prohibition (alcohol and cocaine were the main targets) because political machines used them to bribe voters and because they believed that the lower classes had to be protected from themselves. State governments under Progressive rule practiced close regulation of railroads, utilities and trusts. Passed progressive taxation measures to redistribute wealth. Tried to conserve of natural resources. Passed laws to aid labor. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin in 1900 created an alliance of farmers, workers, and some of the urban middle class. The Wisconsin Idea was that government could be a positive force if people's lives. The Wisconsin legislature taxed railroads; outlawed rebates; and forced lower shipping costs. It regulated public utilities and authorized municipal ownership of utilities, "gas and water socialism," as it was called. It passed a corrupt practices act. To finance increased government activity as well as to make those who got more pay more, it passed a state income tax. A number of social welfare measures were passed. Minimum housing codes were designed to eliminate slums. Police and fire protection were instituted or increased. They expanded the school system and reduced parental control by attendance laws, In part, they were hoping to reduce crime by sending children to school rather than work. Progressives tried to mandate adequate working conditions for lower class women believing that this would keep them out of prostitution. Minimum wage laws for women were passed as well as laws to prevent children from earning a living. The urban middle class gained control of schools and their curricula. School attendance was made compulsory until age 16. Teaching was defined as a profession. US history was taught as the history of WASP men, thus ignoring Hispanics, blacks, early immigrants such as the people called "American Indians," Catholics, Jews, southern white evangelical Protestants, midwestern Lutherans, and the poor.

What they wanted to do
1. End corruption, throw out crooks and return power to "good citizens"
2. Control big business in interest of free enterprise.
3. Preserve the promise of American life for the future.

Progressives were pragmatic optimists but real radicalism also flourished. The Socialists, led by Eugene Debs, won 6% of the presidential vote in 1912. In the West, the International Workers of the World (IWW) was strong in some areas until crushed by public forces.

Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Hero

Theodore Roosevelt (TR) was popular, robust, and young. Her expanded the power of the presidency, ending decades of rule by Congress. He was a consummate politician.

He shared the views of the new urban middle class in wanting an efficient government modeled after the management of the new large corporations. They disliked the ideas behind constitutional checks and balances. Disorganized legislative bodies could foul up careful planning. Courts could disrupt the establishment of effective policy. Unlike Populists and some Progressives, TR saw the large corporations as necessary even though they represented the concentration of economic power in a few hands. Between 1896 and 1904, the 300 largest corporations gained control of 40% of all manufacturing. Men from the Morgan and Rockefeller banks directors of 122 of the largest corporation in the country. TR wanted these larger corporations to learn to depend on the President and national government experts to oversee the entire national economy. Since giant corporations were here to stay, only a strong national government could prevent them from doing harm, in his view. Thus, in his presidency, the Department of Commerce and Labor with a Bureau of Corporations to collect information on abuses was created in 1901. In 1902, he had his government prosecute the Northern Securities Trust, thus gaining an undue reputation as a trustbuster and he forced mine owners to negotiate with their workers in the anthracite coal strike. The Elkins Act of 1903 was an anti-rebate measure, one supported not only by Progressives but also by the railroads who had come to see the practice as akin to extortion. In 1906, the Hepburn Act gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to set reasonable rates and require standard bookkeeping practices. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, measures necessitated by the fact that urban populations were too far from food producers and processors to know if the food was safe. The large food corporations supported these measures because the costs of enforcement would drive their smaller competitors out of business. TR was also an ardent tree hugger or conservationist but large corporations supported conservation measures because it restricted competition.

Foreign Policy

TR was an expansionist who believed that the world had to be benevolently but firmly supervised by the enlightened powers. They had to keep the peace. He expanded the US influence in Caribbean and Central America and acquired the Panama Canal. He supported, in 1907, the creation of the Central American Permanent Court of Justice.

The US under TR wanted China open to all commercial exploitation and, thus the end of European and Japanese spheres of influence there. He backed Japan in the Russo- Japanese war and negotiated the treaty of Portsmouth, N.H that ended it. He opposed discrimination against Japanese in San Francisco, in particular, and California in general but could do little since it was a state and local issue. In 1907, he obtained a Gentlemen's Agreement whereby the Japanese government would discourage emigration to the US. In 1908, the Root-Takahira Agreement said that both would have equal opportunity for commerce in China, would respect Chinese territorial integrity, and respect each other's possessions.

Although he was not as active in European foreign affairs, he fostered the Algeciras (Morocco) conference in 1906 to end a serious dispute.