The Progressive Era in the United States Essay
During the Era of Progressivism, which lasted approximately from 1890s to1920s, some reforms were made to deal with the socio-economic crisis which the United States faced at that time. Among the most prominent political figures of that period are the two presidents, Theodore Roosevelt of the Republicans and Woodrow Wilson of the Democrats. In our paper, we will consider the situation that America was in and elaborate why those reforms were needed. After that, we will compare the policies of the named two presidents.
The United States of America faced numerous problems related to poverty, social injustice, and corruption in the government. The degree of social injustice was despicable; workers had to labor in terrible conditions, enclosed in small, dark factories. The fire in one of the factories of the Shirtwaist Company in 1911 and the resulting deaths of ≈150 workers were symptomatic (Foner 681). Major political and grassroots movements such as the Knights of Labor, populists, feminists, anarchists’ IWW, and socialists emerged to fight the inequality and promote social progress (Foner 627, 632, 642, 662, 693, 695, 702). The inequity and the deep class conflict were a result of monopolization, total domination of major businesses in the political life of the country, and their interpenetration with the government (corruption) (Foner 708).
The political representatives of the Era of Progressivism were forced, therefore, to deal with the economic issues of monopolization and corruption in order to alleviate the social tension and address the newly emerged political ideas.
Theodore Roosevelt, the president in 1901-1909, as it was stated at his time, “didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government” (qtd. in Foner 709). Fortunately, he was able to address the adverse situation of social inequity. He attempted to implement progressive reforms via strengthening the influence of the government. It is interesting that Roosevelt believed that two types of corporations existed: the good ones, which “served the public interest”, and the bad ones, which only cared about profit (Foner 715). His fighting with monopolies brought many victorious moments to the antitrust movement (Foner 715).
Noteworthy, President Roosevelt was perhaps the first president not to side automatically with employers in labor conflicts (Foner 715). During his presidency, a number of progressive laws that e.g. forced businesses to control the quality of their products were also adopted; for instance, the Pure Food and Drug Act or the Meat Inspection Act (Foner 716); these were a direct influence of the journalists (dubbed by Roosevelt as “muckrakers”) who exposed the corruption and the terrible conditions of workers and industrial production (Foner 685-686).
Woodrow Wilson of the Democrats, the president in 1913-1921, on the other hand, did not like the idea of a powerful government, and attempted to strengthen the democracy by promoting free market economy and stimulating small companies, at the same time eliminating the influence of big businesses on the government (Foner 720). His version of free market economy, however, included antitrust views, and did not perceive labor unions as a hindrance to the “market freedom”, allowing for the right to create such unions and fight for laborers’ rights (Foner 720). Among notable documents adopted during his presidency are the Underwood Tariff Act, which lowered import duties and “imposed a graduated income tax on the richest 5 percent of Americans”, and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which gave workers more rights to protect themselves (Foner 721).
To compare the two presidents, some of the events that took place during their presidency could be discussed. We have already mentioned Roosevelt’s fighting against monopolies; the Northern Securities Company was one of them. This major railroad company established by J. P. Morgan controlled three large western railroads, monopolizing the means of transport between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Lakes. Roosevelt prosecuted the Northern Securities under the Sherman Antitrust Act, and, as a result, the company was dissolved in 1904 by the Supreme Court (Foner 716).
Furthermore, in 1906 the Hepburn Act was adopted by the Congress. It allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to control railroads’ rates and set the maximum prices on transportation, which was a step for the government to influencing the market economy (Foner 717). The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, as well as the Meat Inspection Act, also adopted during Roosevelt’s presidency, were the result of the activity of the “muckrakers” (Foner 685-686, 716).
On the other hand, Wilson’s Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914) “exempted labor unions from antitrust laws” and gave them more rights to strike (Foner 721). Further, the 1916 Keating-Owen Act prohibited child labor in some areas of economy (the Supreme Court later decided the law was contradictory to the Constitution); the Adamson Act introduced the workday of 8 hours for railroad workers; the Warehouse Act gave some privileges to farmers who kept their crops in warehouses licensed by the federal government (Foner 721).
It is also noteworthy that Wilson, despite having initially been against the initiative, referendum, and recall, the three powers given to the voters that allow them to make petitions, influence the adoption of some laws, or remove elected officials from their position, later changed his position. During the 1912 presidential campaign, he favored these powers and stated that they should be given to the population.
As it can be seen, both presidents had to deal with the adverse socio-economic situation, political corruption, and acute class conflict. However, their methods were different; Roosevelt made stress on the governmental intervention into business, focusing on anti-trust initiatives and controlling business activities, whereas Wilson did not believe in the strong government, also attempting to make the influence of big corporations on the government impossible, to stimulate small companies, to give more freedoms to people and to provide them with some rights to fend for themselves.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. Vol. 2. 4th ed. 2013. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. Print.
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