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The Progressive Era Presidents

It was the time of the huddled masses, of immigrants, slums and overcrowded cities, of long hours and deplorable working conditions in American factories, of child labor and unsanitary meatpacking plants, of trusts and monopolies that dwarfed the small independent businessman and threatened the economic basis of individualistic, middle-class democracy in America. The leaders, the men who ran the country, were not politicians but Captains of Industry—J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Philip D. Armour, James J. Hill, Leland Sanford, and Edward H. Harriman.

How did America get in such a state? By a federal government that had sat on its hands for 30 years. By both political parties putting up weak presidential candidates every four years. In turn these weak presidents appointed conservative Supreme Court justices who struck down legislation that threatened Big Business, that failed to uphold civil rights amendments, and that overturned state laws designed to protect worker rights. The only government body in Washington that showed the slightest leadership was Congress.

The antidote was a period of public activism since known as the Progressive Era. It did not begin with the presidency of Theodore Rosevelt—as so often is thought—but ten years earlier, with the emergence of the so-called muckraking press, with newspaper exposés of corporate greed, misdeeds, and worker exploitation, and with increasingly strident public outcries for change. The first national leader to answer the call was our 25th president.

WILLIAM McKINLEY (1897-1901) — William McKinley was an activist who spoke on behalf of the American people, and our nation’s most popular president since Abraham Lincoln. It was he, not Teddy Roosevelt, who created the bully pulpit on his frequent speaking tours across the country. He helped formulate and enforce decisions that ended 25 years of acrimony over the nation’s currency, money supply and tariffs. Writes one historian: “The Progressive Era is said to begin with Theodore Roosevelt, when in fact McKinley put in place the political organization, the anti-machine spirit, the critical party realignment, the cadre of skilled GOP statesmen who spanned a quarter of a century, the expert inquiries, the firm commitment to popular and economic democracy, and the leadership needed from 1896 through 1901 when TR was still maturing.”

Coming into office, McKinley had no experience in foreign affairs. But trouble with Spain, unresolved by his predecessor, became the consuming issue of his presidency. A Civil War veteran, McKinley was wary of war. That changed when the American battleship MAINE blew up in Havana harbor. McKinley proved to be a hands-on commander-in-chief who skillfully directed the war effort from the White House via the telegraph. The U.S. won quickly, first by destroying the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, then by capturing Cuba. At home, McKinley won congressional approval of two war resolutions that increased his authority; that coupled with ratification of a treaty, confirmed his paramount position as chief executive. Thereafter the role of Congress was minimized in foreign affairs. After the Spanish-American War, and under McKinley’s direction, America was no longer a backwater but a world power.

As a congressman, McKinley believed tariffs were the key to prosperity. But as America grew more productive he moved to open over-seas markets by promoting “reciprocity”—lower tariffs—with trading partners. His speech in Buffalo on September 5, 1901, made that point quite clear. In a review line the following day, he was shot by an anarchist. He succumbed from the bullet wound eight days later.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT (1901-1909) — Theodore Roosevelt had a tremendous need to be noticed. Most politicians do. But with Roosevelt the need seemed to border on obsession, which perhaps explains his colorful character, his charge up San Juan Hill, his assertiveness as a politician, and his considerable achievements as the 26th president of the United States. “Speak softy and carry a big stick,” he said, when in fact his much more common tact was to SPEAK LOUDLY and carry a big stick. Teddy Roosevelt was a larger-than-life character of unbounded energy and drive, a voracious reader, exceptional writer, formidable speaker, and something of a man-child. His wife Edith treated him as the oldest of her brood of six unruly children.

Roosevelt campaigned vigorously for William McKinley in the 1897 presidential election, which got him appointed as assistant secretary of the Navy. When war broke out with Spain, Roosevelt entered the army as a lieutenant colonel in a volunteer regiment the newspapers dubbed “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.” In Cuba, following a morning of intense fighting, TR led a victorious assault up San Juan Hill (a.k.a. Kettle Hill). Having seen action, he later lamented that, “the only trouble” in the war with Spain “was there was not enough war to go around.” Returning to New York he was elected governor. Two years later, after the death of vice president Garret Hobart, he was nominated by the Republican Party to be McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 election. Ten months after his reelection, McKinley was assassinated, making Theodore Roosevelt our nation’s youngest president ever, at age 42.

Roosevelt brought “a zest for governing and a sense of fun that enthralled the American public.” A friend called him “the meteor of the age.” He changed the official name of the residence from the Executive Mansion to the White House, oversaw construction of the West Wing, encouraged even wider coverage of the presidency than McKinley had, and spent much time on the road speaking to Americans. “I have got such a bully pulpit,” he said. On the domestic front, he introduced the Square Deal, with the three Cs as the centerpiece: Conservation, Control of corporations, and Consumer protection. Over the course of his presidency, he took 230 million acres of land into public trust. As a “trust buster,” he saw the power of big, monopolistic businesses as a threat to the well-being of the middle and working classes. Using the hammer of the Sherman Act, he broke up 44 corporations, including American Tobacco, Standard Oil, the DuPont Chemical Corporation, and the Northern Securities Trust (a corporation formed by the railroads that fixed rates throughout the Northwest). In consumer protection, he pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, bills intended to address the abuses in the meatpacking industry made famous by Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, “The Jungle” as well as the proliferation of so-called patent medicines, promoted by the advertising industry, but utterly lacking in medicinal value.

Overseas, he was just as aggressive, particularly in South America where he helped to foment insurrection in Panama so the United States could acquire a route to span a relatively short distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This resulted in “The Big Dig,” the building of the Panama Canal. He was also a deft and subtle diplomat. He prevented Germany from invading Venezuela, mediated the Russo-Japanese War, and helped resolve a brewing European conflict over Morocco. In 1904, he ran for reelection and won by a margin of 19 percentage points over his Democratic Party opponent. He gave up the presidency at the end of his second term, but four years later wanted it back from the man he had hand-picked as his successor, William Howard Taft.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT (1909-1913) — William Taft and Teddy Roosevelt constituted a mutual admiration society which, it turned out, was based more on assumptions than reality. Taft wasn’t nearly as progressive as TR assumed he was, and while he didn’t show it, Taft was uneasy with TR’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later presidential style. A conservative at heart, as president, Taft would drift away from TR’s decidedly progressive policies. As a decision maker, President Taft relied on his knowledge of the law and his years as a federal appeals court judge in Ohio in 1892 to 1900. “On issue after issue, whether it was the tariff, conservation, antitrust, or foreign affairs, Taft brought a judicial temperament to the Oval Office,” writes an historian. “He consulted few people, weighed his options in isolation, and rendered political judgements as he had once delivered verdicts.” In the early stages of his presidency, Taft continued Roosevelt’s progressive policies, and actually busted more trusts than TR had. Taft also did much to advance the cause of conservation, and he strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission’s ability to regulate railroad rates. On his watch, Congress passed the Sixteenth and Seventeenth amendments, providing for a federal income tax and the direct election of senators, which Taft duly signed and sent to the states for ratification. But as his term progressed, his belief in limited government and his innate caution pushed him further and further to the conservative right. By 1912, the ideological divide in the Republican party and the differences between Taft and TR had become too great and split the party, thus ensuring the next president would be a Democrat—Woodrow Wilson.

WOODROW WILSON (1913-1921) — The Democratic Party as we know it today begins here—with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Until the 1912 presidential election, the Democrats had been the party of Jefferson and Jackson, of small government, states’ rights, opposed to a centralized bank and organized labor, and, when it came to business monopolies and trusts, comfortably laissez faire. The Progressive Era policies inaugurated by William McKinley and advanced by Theodore Roosevelt were embraced and expanded by our 28th president.

Woodrow Wilson was a man of exceptional intellect, and the first and (so far) only president with a doctorate degree. While stiff and humorless, he had charisma and loads of ambition, and moved up quickly through the ranks of college professors. From 1902 to 1910 he served as president of Princeton University, establishing a reputation as a reform-minded thinker. Recruited by the Democratic Party of New Jersey, he won election as a reform governor of the state in 1910. In 1912, a political novice just two years removed from academia, Wilson was nominated for president by the Democrats. In a three-way race with Roosevelt and incumbent William Taft, Wilson ascended to the presidency in only the second election of his life.

Among the progressive bills passed by the Wilson administration: the Federal Reserve Act, which greatly enhanced the government’s ability to control the nation’s money supply; the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, designed to guarantee fairness in the way the nation’s goods and services were bought and sold; and a law limiting child labor (which the Supreme Court heartlessly struck down as unconstitutional). Another new law mandated an eight-hour work day for railway workers and another (Underwood Simmons) reduced the tariffs on imports and established the first graduated federal income tax. On top of that, Wilson pushed through legislation to outlaw deceptive business practices and to provide low-cost long-term mortgages to farmers. Wilson was an outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage, a position that helped ratify the 20th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Wilson instituted the first regular White House press conferences, and he inaugurated the tradition of presidents addressing Congress in person, rather than by the time-honored tradition of issuing a written statement.

Wilson’ second term was dominated by the conduct of World War I and his efforts to bring lasting world peace. America’s entrance into the war helped turn the tide against Germany, which surrendered in November 1918. Wilson was nearly alone among European allies in opposition to the punitive reparations that the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany. A part of the treaty included Wilson’s plan for the formation of a League of Nations to adjudicate future international conflicts. In the end, the French and British allies refused to yield on the issue of punitive reparations and the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the treaty, dooming Wilson’s League of Nations. Despite the warnings of his doctors, Wilson embarked on a national tour to rally support for his foreign policies. Exhausted, he suffered a debilitating stroke from which he never fully recovered. He died three years after leaving office.

There is a dark side to Wilson’s presidency. A Southerner, he never overcame racial prejudice, which led to his unconscionable re-segregation of several federal agencies, an act that destroyed the careers of a number of African American civil servants.

Next: The boom-to-bust presidents: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

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