The Progressives

Election Central

The Progressives and Direct Democracy

The 1890's are often viewed today as a happy time period when Americans lived uncomplicated lives with few problems to worry about. But, time has a way of covering up the negative and the ugly. Rather than being a "happy time," the 1890's may have been one of the worst times for Americans.

First of all, the 1890's was a time when a very few individuals and families made fantastic fortunes and lived the life of kings. By the turn of the century Andrew Carnegie, the steel tycoon, made over $20 million a year tax-free (there were no income taxes then). Yet, the vast majority of Americans were barely getting by. One of Carnegie's steelworkers would have earned about $450 a year working 12-hour shifts six days a week.

This was also a time when thousands of immigrants were flooding into the country from Europe. Many of these immigrants remained in the eastern industrial cities working for low wages in dirty and dangerous jobs. During the 1890's, the United States had one of the highest industrial accident rates in the world. Yet, workers who were severely injured or crippled could rarely collect any compensation.

Strikes were illegal at this time. Workers who attempted to go out on strike were often arrested or even beaten up by company thugs. A particularly ugly situation developed at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead steel works outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1892. Open warfare broke out between strikers and private guards hired by Carnegie to break the strike. Rifles and even cannons were used in a series of battles between the two sides that left 10 dead.

Times were tough for rural Americans, too. Farmers constantly complained that their lives were ruled by eastern bankers and railroad men. Farmers had to contend with high interest rates for loans in order to buy land, seed and farm equipment. They also had to pay outrageous freight rates set by the railroads in order to get their products to market. Many farm foreclosures resulted when crops failed or prices for farm products dropped.

All these economic problems increased in 1893 when a severe economic depression struck. Many thousands of Americans lost their jobs, farms and homes. The prevailing attitude of government, however, was to stay out of the way of private business. Little was done by the government, from Congress on down to city councils, to reduce the economic suffering of the people.

Corruption and Reform

During the early years of the new century, those individuals who tried to approach government with proposals to improve the lot of factory workers, farmers and small businessmen had little success. Especially at the local and state levels of government, lawmakers were often controlled by political machines and special interest groups. At this time, local and state government reached a low point in American history. Greed, corruption, and outright bribery were common among many politicians.

A New York Times editorial of July 3, 1911, complained that "Respectable and well-meaning men all over the State and especially in this city, are going about saying: 'What is the use? You only replace one lot of rascals by another, generally worse."' Across the country in California, the Southern Pacific Railroad controlled the state legislature and dictated how the state should be run. This was always to the benefit of the railroad. In many states at this time, railroads and other large corporations saw to it that legislatures did nothing to interfere with their profits, power and privilege.

By the early 1900's, reform minded individuals and groups spoke out increasingly against the "robber barons," as the big bankers, industrialists and railroad men were called. Farm, labor, and small business groups along with ministers and journalists charged that the enormous wealth of big business was secured by exploiting hardworking Americans. Political cartoonists portrayed big corporations like the Southern Pacific Railroad as grasping octopuses. A particular target of the reformers were city and state governments that often cooperated or were regularly paid off by the big business interests.

The period from 1890 to 1917 was a time of intense reform activity in the United States. Many different reform movements existed at this time, ranging from farmers who wanted to regulate railroad freight rates, to women fighting for the right to vote, to city social workers trying to improve the health of immigrant children. Generally, these advocates of reform were middle class professionals and small businessmen, both Republicans and Democrats. They wanted changes to take place in American society, but not radical or revolutionary changes. They wanted government to take a more active role in regulating big business. They also realized that before meaningful changes could take place, the stranglehold over local and state government by corrupt politicians and the huge corporations had to be broken. The reformers of this time called themselves "progressives."

The Progressive Movement

The first successes of the progressive reformers were achieved in city governments. Corrupt city officials were publicly exposed, voted out of office, and replaced by reform leaders. Under progressive administrations, cities like Toledo, Ohio, established the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, and paid vacations for workers.

Some cities took over the ownership of gas, water and electric utilities. In many cities, employees were hired and promoted through a civil service system that eliminated the old method of paying off political debts with overpaid city jobs. City government itself was reformed. Party politics was removed in some cities when candidates for mayor, city council, and the school board ran in nonpartisan elections. In spite of their successes at the local level of government, progressives realized that it was at the state level that the most important changes had to take place.

The Progressive Movement won its first important victory at the state level of government with the election of Robert M. La Follette as governor of Wisconsin in 1900. A Republican, "Battling Bob" La Follette served three two-year terms as governor. From 1901 to 1906, La Follette spearheaded numerous progressive reforms. His leadership helped Wisconsin establish a railroad regulation commission to set fair freight rates. A graduated state income tax that taxed the rich at a higher rate was passed into law. A pure food law was voted in. A corrupt political practices act became law. A direct primary system was enacted allowing political party members rather than party bosses to nominate candidates. "Battling Bob" also modernized state government with the so-called "Wisconsin Idea." This involved participation in government by experts such as political scientists, economists and educators.

The astounding success of La Follette's progressivism in Wisconsin swept the country. Soon, other reform-minded leaders were adapting La Follette's ideas to their own states. When Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, became governor of New Jersey in 1911, he put into practice many of La Follette's reforms. In California, Hiram Johnson was elected governor in 1910 after attacking the domination of state government by the Southern Pacific Railroad. In a remarkable legislative session in 1911, Johnson pushed through many progressive changes inspired by La Follette's experience in Wisconsin. Johnson went even further when he successfully stumped the state for a state constitutional amendment providing for the initiative, referendum and recall.

The Progressive Movement also influenced national politics. When Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, became President after McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he promoted a number of reforms at the national level of government. Federal laws dealt with the regulation of corporations and railroads, government meat inspection, workmen's compensation for industrial accidents, and wilderness conservation. When Woodrow Wilson became president, he, too, transformed many of his progressive ideas into national legislation.

Perhaps the highpoint of the national Progressive Movement was the formation of the Progressive Party in 1912. This party was made up mainly of Republicans who felt that party leaders had turned their backs on progressive goals. The Progressive Party presidential candidate was Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that the man who had replaced him in the White House, Republican William Howard Taft, had failed to promote progressive reforms.

The 1912 platform of the Progressive Party contained most of the ideas that the progressives held dear to their hearts. The platform attacked the "unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics." It went on to support such reforms as the direct election of U.S. senators, women's suffrage, industrial safety laws, a minimum wage for women, the eight-hour day, unemployment insurance, an inheritance tax, collective bargaining for workers, a ban on child labor, and the initiative, referendum and recall. The platform was an agenda for needed legislation in the new century. Nearly all the ideas promoted by the Progressive Party in 1912 eventually became law. This was the Progressive Party legacy. It led the United States into modern times.

Despite widespread popularity, Teddy Roosevelt and his vice-presidential running mate, California's Hiram Johnson, lost to Woodrow Wilson. Over the next few years many Progressive Party candidates were defeated. By 1917, the party had ceased to exist. With the entrance of the U.S. into World War I in 1917, the interests of Americans were directed overseas. The Progressive Movement quietly disappeared, although La Follette and other progressives remained prominent in politics for many years.

The Swiss Connection

In 1909, George Judson King, an officer of the Ohio Direct Legislative League, visited Switzerland. A progressive, King was interested in studying the various forms of direct democracy practiced by the Swiss. He discovered that Switzerland had adopted a national referendum procedure in 1874 following a period of political corruption. The Swiss added a nationwide initiative for constitutional amendments in 1891. While in Switzerland, King interviewed several government leaders asking them what they thought about the referendum and initiative. One official told him, "The Swiss people recognize in the initiative and referendum their shield and sword. With the shield of the referendum they ward off legislation they do not desire; with the sword of the initiative they cut the way for the enactment of their own ideas into law."

Other Americans before and after King who visited Switzerland were also impressed with how the referendum and initiative worked. They returned to the U.S. with their favorable observations, and made the referendum and initiative an important part of the progressive agenda for reform. While Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson stated that the referendum and initiative were "the safeguard of politics." Direct democracy, Wilson said, "takes power from the boss and places it in the hands of the people."

The first state to adopt the initiative idea into its constitution was South Dakota in 1898. Utah followed in 1900, and Oregon did the same in 1902. Sixteen more states provided for the initiative process between 1906 and 1918 during the heyday of the Progressive Movement. The remaining four states with the initiative (Alaska, Wyoming, Illinois and Florida) did not adopt this form of direct democracy until after 1950. The

District of Columbia got the initiative last in 1977. Seventeen of the twenty-three initiative states lie west of the Mississippi River.

Getting The "I and R" In Oregon

Oregon was not the first state to get the initiative and referendum. But, the story of how the "I and R" were finally added to its state constitution illustrates how the progressives fought for their reforms in many states around the turn of the century.

Like many states in the 1890's, Oregon was largely in the hands of the wealthy corporations, particularly the railroads. The state government had become inefficient and corrupt. One journalist of the time described the Oregon state legislature as being filled with "briefless lawyers, farmless farmers, business failures, bar-room loafers, Fourth-of-July-orators, and political thugs." The majority of the lawmakers were ignorant, illiterate and lazy. Legislative sessions at Salem, the state capital, took place along with public drunkenness and flocks of prostitutes ready to offer their services to the lawmakers.

The economic depression of 1893 ruined many Oregon farmers. The farmers blamed Wall Street, the railroads, and their own corrupt state government. Into this situation stepped a man with a strange name: William Simon U'Ren.

Born in Wisconsin and educated in Colorado, U'Ren was a wanderer. Over the years he had worked as a blacksmith, bookkeeper, and lawyer. When he arrived in Oregon in 1892, U'Ren joined a group of reform minded farmers in Clackamas County. After reading about the Swiss experience with direct democracy, U'Ren launched a ten year crusade for an initiative and referendum, the "I and R," in Oregon.

U'Ren organized a petition drive calling for an amendment to the state constitution that would provide for the "I and R." Many women working for the right to vote aided U'Ren. Female teachers frequently spoke in favor of the "I and R" at meetings and social gatherings held in schoolhouses all over the state. When the legislative session met at Salem in 1895 (it met every two years), U'Ren had 15,000 signatures on petitions calling for the "I and R." However, the Republican political machine that controlled the legislature at that time opposed the reforms. So, the lawmakers ignored U'Ren and his petitions.

U'Ren decided to change his tactics. He later said, "I now decided to get the reforms by using our enemies' own methods-by fighting the devil with fire." First, U'Ren ran for a seat in the state legislature in 1896. After winning the election, he organized a revolt in the legislative session of 1897. U'Ren managed to put together a group of lawmakers who for one reason or another opposed the political leaders of the legislature. Although U'Ren's group was in the minority, it refused to participate in any legislative business. The rebels even refused to take their oath of office. These actions effectively prevented a quorum, so lawmaking came to a standstill. Absolutely nothing happened during the entire legislative session of 1897.

During the next regularly scheduled session of the state legislature, U'Ren again threatened to stop all official business unless the political bosses agreed to support his "I and R" constitutional amendment. The politicians gave in and the legislature approved the amendment. However, constitutional amendments had to be passed by two succeeding legislative sessions before being submitted to the people for ratification. So, U'Ren had to wait until 1902 before the "I and R" finally became part of the state constitution. However, by this time the initiative and referendum were so popular in the state that almost everyone was behind it. In the words of one journalist, it was a "quiet revolution." William Simon U'Ren later became a progressive governor of Oregon.

For Discussion

  1. Who actually controlled many of the state legislatures at the turn of the century?
  2. What do you think was the single most important reform promoted by the progressives?
  3. Where did the progressives get the idea for the initiative? Research the different forms of direct democracy used in this country.
  4. List two facts about each of the following progressive leaders discussed in the article: Robert La Follette, Woodrow Wilson, Hiram Johnson, William U'Ren, and Theodore Roosevelt.
  5. List any similarities you see between the Progressive Era (1890-1917) and today? How are the two time periods similar?