Chapter 10 The Progressive Era



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Chapter 10

The Progressive Era

Price V. Fishback

The period between the mid 1890s and the early 1920s has been enshrined as the Progressive Era. Robert Higgs (1987) describes the era as a “Bridge to Modern Times,” as attitudes toward the proper role of government were shifting from the limited role preferred in the 19th century to the increasingly expanded role chosen in the 20th century. Many general studies of the period and biographies of leading reformers emphasize the economic and political reform movements. The economic reforms included expanded regulation, increased antitrust activity, an income tax, and the development of social insurance programs. The shift toward “direct democracy” during the era gave women the vote, professionalized government, gave the voters more say in electing and recalling political officials, and even the right to vote in referenda on specific issues. America loves the underdog and these studies tell stirring tales of how muckraking journalists, reformers, and the leading progressive politicians overcame a corrupt system to reform the government and use the government to curb the worst excesses of the rise in industry.

Upon closer inspection the changes in the government’s role adopted during the Progressive Era were far more evolutionary than revolutionary. There was no unified program to which all Progressives subscribed. The people who called themselves progressives on at least one or more issues included the social reformers, workers, the middle class, farmers, big businessmen, and union leaders. In fact, the Progressive Era might better be described as interest group politics writ large. The old political regime and the large corporations did not just wither away. Successful adoption of new policies often required compromises and adjustments that attracted enough supporters to form a winning coalition. Thus, there were few major victories where social reformers routed Big Business. The actual impact of the grand sounding reforms shouted out in the policy debates were muted by compromise and the ultimate policies adopted sounded more like whispers. Eventually, many of these policies evolved into stronger policies and set precedents for more dramatic changes later in the century.1
The Dynamic Economic Background

When America came out of the Depths of the 1890s Depression, the economy embarked upon a period of relatively rapid growth. The growth was striking although marred by occasional downturns. The long-term expansion in industry continued to reduce the farm share of employment while attracting hundreds of thousands of new immigrants into the mines, factories, and shops of America. The rise in industry also was associated with a rapid expansion in the size of industrial enterprises.2 Economic growth and changes in the structure of the economy always create new problems. Each downturn engendered fears of the return to the harshness of the Depression of the 1890s and led to calls for methods to limit the downturns and help those harmed by the consequences.3

Employment relationships changed as the spread of large-scale enterprises meant that employers and workers no longer worked together in close quarters. The explosion of immigration from southern and eastern Europe created new frictions. Both served to loosen personal ties between employer and worker, which in turn made it less likely that employers would accept informal responsibility for their injured or unemployed workers. The rise of large businesses was accompanied by an expansion in union membership. The leading unions in mining, railroading, and construction were often relative conservative, focusing on shortening workdays, improving wages, and improving working conditions. However, the relatively small numbers in the more radical organizations, like the International Workers of the World (IWW) drew an outsized share of the attention with more extreme tactics and cries for more radical changes.4

New technologies, better health, and better education, among many factors, contributed to a higher standard of living and demands to expand the voting franchise. During the early days of the Republic, the founding fathers thought it important to limit the franchise to property holders and taxpayers on the grounds that they were responsible citizens with a stake in the system. The expansion of the nonagricultural sector throughout the 19th century had altered economic relationships, so that a large share of the populace was now working for wages. The foundations for wealth and income shifted so that the education and skills that make up human capital became more central. These economic changes contributed to expansions of the view of who should be considered responsible enough to vote. Further, voters were demanding a greater say in the political process, as governments at all levels were rocked by scandals during the late 19th century.



Major Policy Changes of the Progressive Era

During the Progressive Era governments introduced an impressive array of new policies at all levels. The federal government expanded its regulation of interstate commerce, established a central bank, and began to apply its antitrust policies to large-scale businesses. State governments expanded regulations of labor and product markets and established new forms of social insurance. Local governments expanded ownership and regulation of utilities and built a broad range of public health facilities. Table 1 lists the major policy initiatives, while this section lays out a broad outline of the Progressive Era using the reform rhetoric of the period. A complete picture of the reforms can only be drawn by a closer examination of the interest groups pressing for the policies and their ultimate income. The rest of the chapter examines several key reforms in this light.

The progressive reforms swelled upward from cities to state governments to the federal government. During the late 19th century many cities were infamous for haphazard, amateurish, and at times corrupt operations. The Tweed Ring in New York in the 1860s became synonymous with corruption but was thought to be just one of many examples of petty corruption. The reform movements of the Gilded Age had focused on putting the right people in office to clean up the problems. By the Depression of the 1890s these reforms seemed to have been inadequate. Taxes continued to rise and the reformers were discovering how difficult it was to clean up the administrative problems. The Progressive solutions focused not only on moral inadequacies of city politicians and administrators but also on restructuring city governments. Cities were chartered by state governments, which continued to exercise oversight over city affairs. Reformers therefore had to push for change not only locally but also in state legislatures. Victories seemingly won over local bosses were dashed in the state legislature at the hands of the local boss’s cronies in the state machine. Progressives therefore pressed for home rule to give cities more independence in their administration and fiscal affairs.5

Convinced that the ward system of geographic representation was inadequate, Good Government reformers sought to reduce the number of elected officials and pressed for city-wide elections of council members. Many of the reforms were designed to separate politics from administration. More offices became appointive and subject to civil service rules.6 Reformers, who were often backed by business leaders, adopted the language and practices of business. “Economical and efficient” government administered by “professionals” became the watchwords. Municipal research bureaus imported and disseminated municipal versions of “Taylorism” and other scientific management methods, including new accounting and budgeting techniques, time and motion studies and inventory controls. Between 1901 and 1911 over 150 cities had adopted a commission plan of government that instituted non-partisan elections, abandoned the separation of powers and gave full authority to a small body of commissioners to make policy and administer the city. Critics of commission government argued that spreading administrative authority across several commissioners gave too many cooks opportunities to spoil the broth. Their solution was to hire a professional city manager. After success in Dayton, Ohio in the mid-1910s, the movement expanded among small and medium-sized cities. By 1970 roughly half of American cities with populations between 10,000 and 500,000 had hired city managers.7

An alternative group of social reformers focused less on applying business practices to city governments and more on improving the quality of life in cities and lowering the costs of public utilities like gas, light, and transportation. The Progressive Era saw a rapid expansion in the building of parks, high schools, and new ways to aid the unfortunate. The building of sewers, water treatment facilities and the introduction of public health departments (along with higher incomes) contributed to reductions in death and disease rates. This class of urban reformers considered that the businesses and utilities that dealt with the city through franchises and contracts and benefited from tax breaks and city services were a prime source of corruption. The ownership and regulation of local utilities—water, sewer, electric, and gas—became a hot-button issue in many cities. Many utilities provided services where there were economies of scale, i.e. where the long run average costs of providing the service fell as the size of the operation increased. Often the provision of service required the building of facilities and pipelines to snake through the cities. A desire to save by not building multiple pipelines to the same houses meant that it was economically optimal from a cost standpoint to have a single provider. But a single firm has every incentive to charge monopoly prices. Cities experimented with various ways of dealing with this problem. Some regulated the utilities, others sought public ownership of utilities, and some bounced back and forth between regimes. Eventually, regulation of utilities in many states was taken over by the states.8

By the early 1900s the progressive movement had expanded into state governments and the federal government. A major theme of reform rhetoric was the fear of “trusts.” Large corporate enterprises were said to be dominating not just the economy but having undue influence on the political process as they developed cozy relationships with political bosses through political contributions and corrupt practices. In its first decade of operation, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 did little more than had been done by the state antitrust acts and prior court decisions to control the anti-competitive actions of these large organizations. In fact, the Sherman Act was applied more consistently against labor unions as combination in restraint of trade than it had been against large enterprises until the early 1900s. Theodore Roosevelt developed a reputation as a trust buster when his Justice Department began challenging mergers and pressing for the disintegration of large firms. His attorney general successfully challenged the use of a holding company designed to merge control of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads in the Northern Securities Supreme Court decision of 1904. Attempts to break up Standard Oil and the American Tobacco Company begun under the Roosevelt administration were eventually won by the Taft Justice Department in Supreme Court decisions in 1911. Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the promise to expand antitrust enforcement to new areas and to add a powerful oversight body to join the Justice Department in overseeing antitrust. He kept this promise with the passage of the Clayton Act and the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission in 1914.9

In the 1912 presidential campaign Wilson railed against the tariff, particularly the Payne-Aldrich Tariff increase in 1909, as another symbol of corporate greed aided and abetted by political bosses.10 Economists are in nearly uniform agreement that taxes on imports harm consumers by leading to higher prices on both imports and domestic products. These losses tend to exceed the gains in profits and wages going to owners and workers within the industry. Wilson was able to deliver on his promise to reduce tariffs with the passage of the Underwood Act of 1913.

The Progressives who distrusted the correctives imposed by product market discipline argued that consumers needed protection on product quality and safety. They argued that companies too easily succumbed to the temptation to cut corners on quality, sometimes with disastrous health consequences. Muckraking novels like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle buttressed these claims with his grisly descriptions of the processes in the meat packing industry. Their pressures for laws to give the federal government the power to monitor and promote the quality of food contributed to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Acts of 1906.

As one means of shifting some of the burdens of industrialization onto large corporations and the wealthy, Progressives pushed for the federal government to introduce the first peace-time income taxes. Congress had passed legislation establishing a federal income tax in 1894, but it was struck down as an unconstitutional direct tax by the Supreme Court in 1895.11 In 1909 a tax of one percent on corporate profits greater than $5,000 and a progressive tax on household incomes were passed. The adoption of the household income tax required the states to ratify the amendment, a process that culminated in the 16th Amendment in 1913. Until the 1940s the income tax was paid by only a small share of the public. The original tax passed in 1913 was paid by less than 2 percent of households, and the maximum rate of 7 percent was imposed on households earning more than 500 times the average annual income of workers in 1913. This compares with a top rate in 2002 of 35 percent on incomes that are roughly 8 times the average household income.

Fears of the trusts extended to the intermittent downturns, which were associated with bank panics that many thought were spurred by unseemly speculations by large corporations. After the harsh but short downturn associated with the panic in 1907-08, a National Monetary Commission was formed to find new ways to solve the problems. In 1913 the Federal Reserve System was established as our first full-scale central bank. Fears of dominance by large corporate interests led to an unusual structure with 12 regional banks and a relatively weak governing board. The Fed was given the hazy charge of working to provide an elastic currency to help limit problems with panics and downturns. As the events of 1930s in the next chapter suggest, the Fed was not always successful in this regard.12

Labor reformers were convinced that the increasingly industrial economy left workers more vulnerable to unemployment and injury. Throughout the 19th century the candidates for poor relief and almshouses were often seen as personally responsible for their plight. The rising scale of enterprise, the expansion of workplace machinery, and the increasing impersonality of employment relations helped shift attitudes toward beliefs that unemployment and injuries were not always under the workers’ control. Increases in their standard and living led workers to demand better working conditions, and the exercise of voice by more and more workers through strikes and union representatives put additional pressure on employers to take steps to improve conditions.

Progressive Era changes in the legal relationships between employers and workers were largely dealt with at the state level. To help workers harmed in industrial accidents, many states passed employer liability laws, soon to be followed by workers’ compensation. Circa 1900 workers in dangerous jobs typically were paid higher wages, but typically could only purchase only limited amounts of accident and life insurance.13 Once injured, workers injured could obtain compensation for their injuries if they could show the accident was caused by the employers’ negligence. The employer could avoid liability if the worker knew of the risk in advance and had accepted it (assumption of risk), if the workers’ negligence had contributed to the accident (contributory negligence), or a fellow workers’ negligence had caused the accident (fellow-servant). The initial employer liability laws expanded the employers’ liability by eliminating all or a subset of these additional defenses. Yet the continued emphasis on fault under the common law meant that many injured workers and their families would receive nothing. The shift to workers’ compensation provided that all workers on the job would receive compensation of up to two-thirds of their lost wages plus medical expenses. The workers’ compensation legislation was supplemented by expansions in workplace safety regulations in mines and factories. The legislation passed during the Gilded Age was often designed to collect information and suggesting basic practices for mines and some factories. As the Gilded Age blended into the Progressive Era, states passed more specific legislation, introduced inspectors to enforce the laws, and increased the administrative loads.

The federal government enacted safety legislation for its own employees and those on the railroads. Federal employees were among the first in the nation to receive workers’ compensation protection in 1908, and the benefits enacted in the revision of 1916 gave them among the most generous benefit packages available. Federal employees began receiving generous retirement benefits under the Civil Service Act of 1920. Despite the presence of many state laws concerning railroads, the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887 had opened the door for federal involvement in all aspects of railroading, particularly because so many workers and passengers were constantly crossing state lines. A series of federal regulations required the railroads to adopt safety technologies. With the Federal Employers Liability Act of 1908, the federal government had removed the fellow-servant defense and weakened the contributory negligence defenses that employers could invoke in workplace accident suits.14

As workers and labor leaders negotiated for higher wages and reduced hours, they joined forces with reformers to press for legislation to impose maximum hours and minimum wages. Court decisions, like the Supreme Court’s Lochner decision of 1905 struck down attempts to regulate the hours and wages of men on the grounds that these were interferences with the right to contract freely.15 Governments, however, were free to establish limits on the hours of their own employees. Eventually, the Wilson Administration successfully imposed the 8-hour day on the railroad industry in the Adamson Act of 1916.

Women and children, on the other hand, were treated differently on the grounds that they needed more protection in labor market negotiations. A significant number of states passed maximum hours legislation for women. A few passed women’s minimum wage legislation, but some were not mandatory, others set very low minimums, and enforcement efforts were often limited by fears of court challenges to the minimum. Nearly all states passed some form of legislation that limited child labor and the laws were regularly expanded and updated to reduce the number of children in the workforce. Complementary legislation that compelled children to attend school was a response to the demands for more and better education for children as standards of living rose. The children were not just required to go to school but were given opportunities for more advanced schooling as the high school movement swept the country.16

Finally, state governments began legislating to provide payments to people struck by misfortune or temporarily down on their luck. By 1900 many state governments had long been providing institutions for orphans, the deaf, the blind, and insane. An indeterminant number of local and state governments had been providing shelters (indoor relief) and temporary payments (outdoor relief) as outgrowths of the old British poor law system.17 The Progressive Era innovation was the beginning of state government legislation to make direct payments to disadvantaged people that would allow them live on their own. Nearly every state passed mothers’ pension laws that provided for payments to widows with children during the 1910s. In the late teens a few states gave counties the option to provide payments to the low-income elderly to allow them to live outside old-age homes. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the states began making county programs for the elderly mandatory, so that by 1932 18 states were paying old-age benefits. By the early 1930s about half of the states were making direct payments to aid the blind living outside of institutions.18 These state programs became the forerunners of the modern state/federal welfare programs legislated by the Social Security Act of 1935.

The economic changes in society, the rise in the breadth and level of education, and the dissatisfactions with the operations of government and the stench of corruption all contributed to political movements to expand the accountability of governments to voters. In a short span of time many states passed legislation or amended their constitutions to establish direct popular elections of U.S. Senators, opportunities for recall elections for state officials, initiatives and referenda that allowed direct popular votes on issues, and to give the vote to women. The federal government followed by establishing women’s suffrage in 1919.
Interest Groups during the Progressive Era

The range of Progressive Era policies is so broad and the supporters of different policies so varied that there is no single group that supported them all. Generally, the policies were forged through clashes and compromises that arose from the interest group struggles envisioned by James Madison in his Federalist Paper Number 10 (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 1961). The term Progressive referred to a kaleidoscope of interests, ranging from muckraking journalists to social reformers to crusading politicians to leading businessmen.

Most attention is paid to the muckraking journalists and the social reformers of the early 1900s. Upton Sinclair vividly portrayed the horrors of meat packing plants in The Jungle, Ida Tarbell wrote exposes of Standard Oil’s business practices in McClures, Lincoln Steffens uncovered the shame of the cities, and there were many more. Social reformers like Jane Hull Adams pressed for new ways of dealing with the unfortunate.19 Many future New Dealers played significant roles in administering agencies for the poor or in government positions, including Harold Ickes (future head of the Public Works Administration and Secretary of Interior), Frances Perkins (future Secretary of Labor), and Harry Hopkins (future head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civil Works Administration, and Works Progress Administration). Leading academic economists also pressed for reforms both in their writings and by taking active roles in commissions, including John L. Commons, Edwin Witte, Richard Ely, Isador Lubin, and John C. Andrews.20 The social reformers and muckrakers had outsized clout relative to their numbers. They often helped frame the debate by highlighting new issues, keeping issues alive before the press and the government, proposing new policies, and pressing strongly for their passage. Often specific groups of reformers focused on one or two issues and at times the reformers themselves clashed over such issues as the appropriate role for unions. The success of their efforts was often determined by the alignments of interest groups in the lobbying process.

At the state and local levels there were thousands of reform-minded progressive politicians and there were no clear divisions along party lines. Among the most famous was Robert LaFollette, who pushed through a broad set of reforms as a reform Republican governor of Wisconsin from 1900 to 1906. He was a leading force for progressivism at the national level in the Senate and continued to press the progressive platform long after the 1912 Roosevelt candidacy, as he ran for President on the Progressive ticket in 1924. His son Robert Jr. replaced him in the Senate in 1925 and carried on the progressive cause through the New Deal and beyond.

Progressivism was such a big tent that all three Presidential candidates in the 1912 election were supporters of progressive causes. Theodore Roosevelt, dissatisfied with the policies of his successor William Howard Taft, broke away from the Republican party and ran as a Progressive in 1912. His platform was seen as the ultimate expression of progressive values.21 Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson also ran on a platform of progressive reforms, many of which were established during his presidency. Roosevelt and Wilson were progressives of different stripes. Roosevelt believed that the rise of big business was natural and that larger businesses were often the “most efficient units of industrial organization.” Regulation was needed to limit the excesses and control the influence of businesses. Wilson, on the other hand believed that “Monopoly developed amid conditions of unregulated competition. ‘We can prevent these processes through remedial legislation, and so restrict the wrong use of competition that the right use of competition will destroy monopoly’.”22 Even Republican candidate Taft supported a number of progressive policies. While Roosevelt was considered the “trust buster,” Taft’s Justice Department pressed the breakups of Standard Oil and American Tobacco Company cases breakups to their successful conclusion and prosecuted substantially more antitrust cases than did the Roosevelt administration. The Taft Administration also supported the income tax amendment, which passed Congress in 1909.

The “Trusts” were often the target of attacks for wielding so much power. Yet, many owners and executives in large-scale business enterprises actively supported subsets of Progressive policies.23 Large enterprises were often in the forefront in reducing their dependence on child labor and supporting educational reforms. Many employers supported the introduction of workers’ compensation. A number of large firms and some small ones practiced “welfare capitalism.” They provided funds for workers who were injured or fell sick, built model towns, recreational facilities, and training facilities.24 Larger firms tended to pay higher wages and offer better working conditions. The very wealthy practiced philanthropy: building libraries, supporting research into new social methods, and funding a variety of parks, museums, and foundations. Many of these practices were just good business. Welfare capitalism was designed to reduce turnover in the workforce, which allowed companies to raise productivity by devoting fewer resources to training new workers. It was also a method to stave off the expansion of unions into their workforces and to eliminate criticisms that might lead to more regulation of their activities. Most leading businessmen had a strong antipathy against unions. To combat the spread of unionization, they improved wages and working conditions, some pressed state governments for injunctions and legal methods to slow unionization, while others resorted to violence and illegal means. The extremes are best illustrated with an example. The housing and working conditions at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Mines owned by John D. Rockefeller were among the best in the coal industry in the 1910s. Yet the company is most infamous in labor history for its role in the long violent strike of 1913-1914 that culminated in the horrible Ludlow tragedy when a number of women and children lost their lives during a pitched battle between state militia, company police, and striking miners.25

The unions held complex and changing views about the reform movements. In the early 1900s they distrusted many attempts to regulate workplaces on the grounds that employers held sway in most state legislatures and thus would have too much influence in the laws to be passed. Their experiences with legislation that treated unions as unlawful combinations and the continued application of the Sherman Act and injunctions that limited union activity unions certainly contributed to this view. The unions argued instead that more success would come from the expansion of union recognition, which would allow workers to negotiate improvements themselves. On the other hand, unions pressed strongly for limitations on hours worked as they continued their campaign for shorter work days. As their political clout grew with expanded membership, the American Federation of Labor and other conservative unions began to press for more regulatory activity.

Given the wide range of progressive policies and the Big Tent, it is hard to find anybody who was not considered a progressive on at least a subset of issues. Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathon (pp. 114-116) suggests that there was a significant shift in American ideology toward the role of government, particularly among businessmen. He notes that businessmen had always sought to use the government to protect their own interests, but that the scope of government authority that businessmen found acceptable expanded dramatically. Businessmen wanted to shape the situation or at least cut their losses. That Bigger Government had come to be seen as irresistible—only its precise form remained to be worked out—signaled a profound transformation of the ideological environment. It is still not clear what caused this shift in ideology. Higgs’ suggests the development of universities and the expansions in the number of economists and sociologists who studied social issues was important. Many of these experts had studied the social insurance and regulatory policies adopted by European countries in the 1880s and 1890s. Ready and anxious to apply their knowledge, many social scientists and their students became reformers who wrote for leading publications, formed associations to lobby for their prescriptions, worked on government commissions and sometimes became government administrators.26


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