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American History II


The Dawn of Liberalism: Progressivism

            The Progressive movement is often viewed as the urban counterpart to Populism. Although the two movements shared some characteristics, there were also very important differences. For one, "Progressivism" found its support among middle class and white collar groups rather than blue collar workers and farmers. Its base was largely small businessmen, well educated professionals, and relatively successful middle class urban dwellers.  A "Progressive" movement is difficult to define. "Progressivism" is something of an umbrella label for a variety of reform groups and liberally minded individuals gathered.  So any discussion of "Progressivism" must begin with the meaning of "liberalism" at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Progressivism was to have about a 40 year run, roughly from the mid-1870s to the end of  World War I.

            Twentieth century liberalism is somewhat different from liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. The earlier liberalism emphasized individual liberty and self-reliance. But as the economy became large in scale and national in scope, and as economic and political forces developed which individuals could not control, problems were created for individuals that they could not solve through individual action. Twentieth century liberals believe that social problems, that is problems rooted in the structure or operation of the society as a whole or a major segment of society, can be affected by government legislation and action. Believing that if problems were rooted in the society, then social institutions rather than individuals would have to solve them, twentieth century liberals thus began to argue that government should be more active in solving society's problems.

            The body of liberals who became known as "Progressives" were not a unified group seeking a single objective or a single set of objectives. Various subgroups had different, even contradictory goals, including ending "white slavery," prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol, restricting future immigration, assimilating existing ethnic subcultures into the dominant (i.e., white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture, passing anti-trust legislation, regulating public utilities if not adopting government ownership of utilities, suffrage for women, child labor laws, destruction of the urban political machines, and reforming other political practices that contributed to election fraud. An unstated, but nonetheless very real goal of the Progressivism was to increase the political power of the middle and upper middle classes in government, particularly the political power of middle- and upper-middle class Republicans.

            Even though they were not a unified group, Progressives appear to have shared five basic characteristics or beliefs.  First, they were moralists believing that certain kinds of practices were wrong in themselves while others were clearly right.  Second, they believed that the weakest elements of the society must be protected from exploitation.  Third, they believed that those with knowledge and material resources had a moral duty to participate in the protection of those who could not protect or provide for themselves.  Fourth, they believed that once corruption and fraud were eradicated from government, government had an affirmative duty to act in behalf of the weaker elements of the society.  Finally, however, unlike many of the radical groups of the same period who looked to Marxist ideology for solutions, American Progressives never questioned the basic tenets of capitalism or questioned that capitalism could, with some economic and political reforms, serve the nation well.

            Progressives carried out their activities primarily on six fronts. Poverty was one of the major areas of concern.  Of course poverty had always existed in American society, but in the late 1870s and early 1880s a number of urban reformers called for new legislation to help the poor.  For most of U. S. history up to that time, taking care of the poor had been left to private charitable enterprises and to local communities.  There were varying kinds of responses to the problem of poverty when dealt with at the local level and/or by private initiatives.  For example, in New Hampshire some counties held "pauper's auctions" in which a poor family was auctioned off  to work for the person who would accept the least from the county for providing their room and board and clothing for the next year.  Workhouses were established in some places in which the poor were housed and fed at the workhouse and contracted out for work.  Private efforts were often quite inadequate, amounting to irregular handouts often given only to those whom the charities deemed to be "worthy" of help.  In 1877 in Buffalo, New York, a citywide coordination of charitable organizations was begun. This type of system eventually spread to other U. S. cities.  While Progressives supported private charitable efforts and believed that those who had sufficient resources for their own needs ought to contribute to charities, they also came to believe that far greater resources, resources on a scale that only governments could afford, needed to be devoted to the considerable poverty problems of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

            Up until the 1880s, most Protestant ministers had concerned themselves with interpreting scripture and encouraging right conduct.  Many had involved themselves in preaching about the rightness of one side in the Civil War and the evil of the other side.  Few, however, had dealt from the pulpit with the problems arising from the emerging industrial society.  But rapid urbanization and industrialization convinced many Protestant clergymen that they needed to begin to address issues of social justice.  The goal of the Social Gospel movement was to make Protestant churches more responsive to social problems such as poverty and prostitution.  The dominant technique used was to extrapolate from the teachings of Jesus general principles of behavior toward others which were then applied to addressing contemporary social issues.  Some ministers, including Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, became known nationally as spokesmen for Social Gospel, which emphasized the moral duty of Christians to work toward the solution to social problems.  The Social Gospel would continue to be a major feature of mainstream American Protestantism with particular importance in the more liberal Protestant denominations through the 20th century.  It also served as a divisive issue in Protestantism, with some denominations moving away from the Social Gospel toward a return to a more fundamentalist, Bible-focused religion.

            The social settlement movement was begun as a ministry to immigrants and the urban poor. University educated men and women (such as Jane Addams) would settle in working class neighborhoods where they could both help the poor and learn something about the world of the poor in American cities. Others, including a young Eleanor Roosevelt, spent their days working in the inner city but returned to their middle class and upper class homes at night. Most settlement houses started with social clubs, activities for non-working children, and classes for both children and adults. As they aided people, settlement houses also tried to instill middle class values, often betraying a paternalistic attitude toward the poor. The settlement house movement capitalized on ideas being taught in universities as a part of the emerging curriculum of professional social work. But at that time, the knowledge and techniques of the field of social work were heavily culture biased and likely to present scenarios based on the values and norms of white, middle class American society as the outcome goals to be achieved. From educational and assimilation oriented programs for residents of the immediate neighborhood, the focus of settlement house activities then moved outside the neighborhood to more generalized campaigns for housing and labor reform.

            The settlement house movement owed a considerable debt to the (often free) efforts of women. The cause of women's rights before the Civil War had been closely linked to the abolition movement. After the Civil War, most leaders of the abolition movement pressured women's rights advocates to soft pedal that issue until voting rights were secured for freedmen. They realized that pushing both Black and women's suffrage at the same time would make support for changes in voting rights for either group more difficult because including Black women would at least double the size of the potential Black vote. Although they were angry and felt abandoned by those whom they had done so much to support, for the most part, women did back off on demands for suffrage for about a decade. The 1880s saw the first generation of women to graduate from college in large numbers. Most of these women were from white and mostly from middle class or upper class backgrounds. While these women graduated from college full of enlightenment and enthusiasm, and while they had both knowledge and talent, for the most part they were still shut out of professions in medicine, law, science, and business. So they used their energies to battle social injustices including poverty and women's lack of voting rights. While the methods and objectives of early settlement house movement were somewhat ethnocentric, the movement did contribute considerably to the creation of social work as a profession and also laid an important foundation and precedent for the programs created later in the New Deal.

            Women's suffrage also emerged cause in its own right rather than as an adjunct to some other movement in the 1880s. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) had become convinced in the 1850s that women would essentially remain slaves to men unless and until they could achieve political power. In 1872, Anthony had voted in an election in Rochester, New York, an act for which she was arrested, convicted, and fined $100 (which she never paid). With Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who along with Lucretia Mott had sponsored the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights in 1848, Anthony founded and presided over the National Women's Suffrage Association. Stanton edited a newspaper devoted to women's issues and authored a number of articles and a book on the history of women's attempts to secure their rights. The women's suffrage movement drew many of its supporters from the emerging group of well educated women who found themselves locked out of opportunities commensurate with their knowledge and skills. Eventually, the suffragists did succeed in securing the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

            The Temperance movement was another Progressive cause. In the 19th century as in the 20th, the abuse of alcohol was very prevalent and was associated with domestic violence and with poverty for women and children. Like the captains of industry and the social Darwinists, Progressives tended to see the poor and working class as somewhat weak in character and thus in need of regulation of their drinking habits.  Groups seeking to regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol had begun to appear in the United States as early as 1806, and a Prohibition Party even ran a presidential candidate in 1872.  The early Temperance movement was a men's movement. New groups, primarily led by women, appeared in the Progressive era, most notably the Women's Christian Temperance Union (founded in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1874) and the Anti-Saloon League (1893).  Under the leadership of Frances Willard (1839-1898) who was president of the WCTU from 1879 to her death in 1898, the WCTU became a very large national organization that published its own magazine, fought for mandatory education in public schools on the dangers of alcohol, and backed a wide range of women's issues (workplace legislation, women's suffrage, etc.) in addition to its primary focus of pushing prohibition legislation in state legislatures and local communities. The Anti-Saloon League got its start in Oberlin, Ohio, where it succeeded in getting communities and counties in northern Ohio to go "dry" (i.e., to prohibit the sale of alcohol to the general public in bars) by local option.  Both groups were tremendously successful in getting support for their legislative initiatives, so much so that Congress passed and the states legislatures approved the Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution.  In the long run, however, Prohibition proved to be a huge mistake that allowed organized crime to get a much bigger foothold in the United States than it had and to gain enough power to further corrupt government.

            What the Progressive movement is perhaps best known for was its "good government" activities. In the 1880s, clubs focusing on political reform were organized in several American cities in an effort to streamline government, clean up corruption, and convert city governments into model corporations. Congress had passed the Civil Service Act in 1878 to require that federal government employees demonstrate that they were competent to perform the jobs for which they were hired. But there had been little reform in the old patronage systems at the state and local levels. The National Conference for Good City Government took place in Philadelphia in 1894. This conference marked a sort of starting point for many reformers who identified themselves with the Progressive movement. The keynote speaker at this conference was future President Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time was Chief of Police for New York City. In his speech, Roosevelt preached both ethics and efficiency in city government. The founding of the National Municipal League was one important result of the National Conference for Good City Government. The Municipal League was to become a sort of training ground for Progressives. It became network for exchange of information among various reform movements. The League still exists today.

            Progressives did have an agenda for reforming more than just local governments. During most of the 19th century, political parties had extensive and permanent organizations of precinct workers and local leaders who not only saw to it that people turned out at the polls, but also provided them with information via party dominated newspapers in a pre-mass media era, provided them with social services in a pre-welfare state environment, and provided them with jobs in a pre-civil service government. Party leaders at the local and state levels chose the party's candidates for local, state, and national offices. Those elected depended on their party to provide the money it took to campaign and to turn out the voters they needed to keep their jobs. Thus, their behavior in office was characterized by a great deal of loyalty to their party's leaders in legislatures and the executive branches of the various governmental units in which they held office. Loyalty over time was the chief route to advancing in a political career from a local to a state to a national office. For their part, most voters voted straight party tickets. (Until early in this century, they had very little choice because the parties, not the government provided ballots, and one would literally have to cut and paste to vote a split ticket.)  The world of politics was a highly partisan world.

            All of that began to change at the turn of the century as a result of  "reforms" advocated by Progressives (and continued to change as new forms of media made it possible for people to get information independently of parties and local political leaders and as the nation was transformed from a group of regional interests sharing a nation to a nation with very significant national interests). In order to try to clean up political corruption by such groups as the urban political machines and by public officials such as those involved in the Grant era scandals, Progressives advocated a number of political reforms including direct primary elections, personal registration of voters, civil service at all levels of government, and "official" ballots.

            While it was probably not an unreasonable practice that the leaders of a party chose the
party's nominees rather than the party having to settle for self-nominated candidates who happened to win a primary, the Progressives were concerned about what they saw as the corruption of the "smoke-filled room" and the compromising of officials who might make deals in order to get nominations that could lead to corrupt practices while in office. Certainly there was some corruption, and in some areas it was rampant; but the actual extent of the problem is not really known. The Progressives saw primary elections as a means of taking the control of the nominating process away from the hierarchy of party leaders and putting it into the hands of the voters themselves. And that is exactly what primaries did, with the consequence that they eroded the strength and power of party leadership.

            Before voters had to register, people voted wherever they happened to be on election day. They could vote in their home precincts if that were where they happened to be or in some other
precinct if that is where they happened to be. But this looseness led to situations in which those
running the polls did not know who was actually voting. Often precinct workers walked with
groups of voters to the polls, presumably telling them on the way who to vote for. Some people
voted more than once. Progressives were not just concerned with the corruption, however. The primarily Republican Progressives also wanted to diminish the influence of newly immigrated and working class voters, who generally voted Democratic, in order to improve the chances of their own candidates being elected. Under a personal registration system, an individual has to go to a designated place well before election day, show proof of his/her identity, demonstrate proof of eligibility to vote, etc. In recent years we have made a number of efforts to try to make it easier for people to register, but in the early years of registration, it was very difficult. New York City, for example, had voter registration one day per year during daytime city business hours. Those who lacked transportation, poor people, and those who worked day shift were seriously disadvantaged when it came to registering.  If a registered voter failed to vote in one election, he had to re-register on the next registration day.  Voter turn out for elections dropped from somewhere above 90 percent to less than 50 percent very shortly after personal registration was introduced, and the demographic profile of voters changed markedly as lower income, working class, and less educated people were eliminated from the process.

            The civil service system was the Progressive solution to party control of government jobs.
Prior to the creation of the civil service system, the political party which won the top executive
position in a governmental unit also won the right to fill all appointed positions within the span of control of that executive position. All non-elected public positions were filled by appointment. Thus, virtually all city, state, and federal jobs were at stake every election in which the executive position was at stake. The filling of government positions with appointments given to supporters and party loyalists was called the "patronage" system; the mayor or governor or president became, in effect, the "patron" of a whole host of party loyalists who sought to benefit from their work for the party by obtaining a government job.

            Most people saw the "rotation in office" that accompanied a change in which party held a top office as perfectly appropriate. Again, Progressives tended to see problems, however. Most people in the 18th and 19th centuries saw it as a simple fact of life that some people benefited from their social position and/or connections while others did not. They thought of it as an "aristocratic principle."  Progressives argued for a principle of  "merit" in which testing would determine the "best person for a job" on the basis of qualifications rather than social position and social networks. The Progressives hoped by this move to gain for the middle- and upper-middle classes jobs that had traditionally gone to the upper class and to party loyalists. The second problem Progressives had with the system was that patronage was an important source of political power. A large percentage of the precinct workers who went into the field each election day to see to it that voters turned out were lower level government employees. Progressives sought to wreck this important source of party power. The third problem Progressives had was with some corruption and incompetence that they saw "extensive"; and certainly there were some incompetent and some corrupt political hacks appointed at all levels of government. The problem was much worse in some places than in others. The actual extent to which there were really problems, however, cannot be known.

            The fourth reform that Progressives wanted was "official ballots." Until government took on
the responsibility of printing ballots and distributing them to polling places, voters picked up their ballots from party workers outside the polling place, and each party's ballot listed only its own candidates. Voters were virtually forced to vote a straight party ticket although there were no laws to prevent their cutting and pasting ballots of several parties. Progressives saw developing split ticket voting as the final key to breaking the power of the political parties. They set about to engender the idea that people should vote for "the best person" for the office rather than for the party.  But people could hardly do that if their ballots virtually required straight ticket voting. Replacement of the party ballot with an "official" ballot that listed all candidates made split ticket voting possible and encouraged it by making it easy to do. This reform, coupled with an emerging mass media that was independent of political parties, contributed to breaking down people's partisan world views, their tendency to see the world in partisan terms.

            Over a period of several decades, Progressive reforms seriously weakened political
machines in all but a handful of major cities. Even before radio, television, and other mass media
became a major force in shaping public opinion, party leaders' control over their organizations was seriously damaged, but political parties remained important because they were the major source of funding for candidates for elections.

            Two men are perhaps more than any others identified with Progressivism. One is Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919); the other , Robert La Follette (1855-1925). La Follette began his career as a conservative Republican involved in state politics in Wisconsin, a state in which Populism had much support. La Follette was appalled at the corruption he found among his fellow legislators and became a convert to Progressive ideas about political reform. As a legislator and then as three term governor of Wisconsin, he succeeded in pushing through a good many political reforms on the Progressive agenda. He then began a 19 year tenure as a U. S. Senator where he worked to try to get some of the same reforms at the national level. Roosevelt, a member of an upper class New York family, also became committed to the Progressive agenda. Roosevelt's long and varied political career included terms as a state legislator, New York City police commissioner, United States Civil Service Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Vice-President of the United States before he became President in 1901 upon the assassination of President William McKinley. In addition to his commitment to Progressive ideas, Roosevelt was also known for his commitments to U. S. imperialism and to conservation.

            Both La Follette and Theodore Roosevelt were supporters of William Howard Taft as successor to Roosevelt as president in the 1908 presidential elections. Taft began his first term with a commitment to Progressive principles, but soon took a sharp turn to the right advocating high tariffs and other conservative measures. La Follette challenged Taft for the Republican nomination but lost. Roosevelt went so far as to form a third party, the Progressive, or "Bull Moose," Party. What Roosevelt's third party effort succeeded in doing was splitting the Republican vote between himself and Taft, thus handing the election to Woodrow Wilson. Taft, grandfather of former Ohio Senator Robert Taft and great-grandfather of present Ohio Governor Robert Taft, went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. La Follette continued in the United States Senate until his death in 1925. Roosevelt pretty much retired, but clashed with Wilson for not getting involved in World War I earlier. When Roosevelt's offer to organize and lead an American force into the war in 1914, he retired form politics and died five years later.

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