Charles F. Bryan Jr.: With progressives in the White House, everything changed | Charles F. Bryan Jr.


This is the final installment in a four-part series on America’s Industrial Revolution and the political responses it sparked. Go to Richmond.com to read the entire series.

On Sept. 14, 1901, President William McKinley died from a gunshot wound delivered by a crazed assassin two weeks earlier. Republican Party leaders were stunned by the recent string of events. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, former Republican governor of New York and hero of the Spanish-American War, would now occupy the White House, something the party bosses viewed with grave concern.

They had put the popular Roosevelt on the ticket to help ensure McKinley’s re-election in 1900, despite the fact that many of them thought he was a reckless maverick.

Everything went according to plan after the election with a safe, traditional Republican in the White House. The assassin’s bullet, however, changed everything. While McKinley fit the profile of the non-activist presidents who had held office the previous half-century, Roosevelt was almost the opposite.

At age 42, he was the youngest man to hold the office, and unlike most of his predecessors, Roosevelt was anything but a hands-off president. The worst fears of traditional Republicans became reality when Roosevelt began using his office as a “bully pulpit” to promote an activist government to serve the interests of most Americans over those of the few masters of big business.

He called for a “Square Deal” for all Americans — businessmen, laborers, farmers, and consumers. He implemented stronger federal control of corporations by attacking the large trusts and monopolies that had squelched competition; by giving more authority to the Interstate Commerce Commission; and by protecting the country’s natural resources.

He received congressional support for the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act to protect consumers from hucksters and unscrupulous food producers. More than any previous president, he took bold steps to protect some 230 million acres of the country’s wilderness from unchecked development.

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The Progressive Movement clearly had an ally in President Roosevelt, and it did not end when he completed his next term, which he won in a landslide. Clearly, his activist presidency resonated well with the American public. For that matter his popularity helped ensure the election of his handpicked Republican successor, William Howard Taft, in 1908.

Although Taft continued breaking up monopolies and trusts, he seemed unable to control the Republican conservatives, who tried to reverse many of Roosevelt’s initiatives. He himself was more conservative than Roosevelt, and he took issue with many of the reformers and their demands for immediate action. A lawyer and judge by profession, he preferred a slower and more deliberate pace for reform legislation.

Taft’s less-than-vigorous pursuit of reform raised the ire of his predecessor to such an extent that it led to a civil war within the Republican Party. The conflict grew so intense that Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, splitting the party wide open.

Frustrated that the incumbent Taft had his re-nomination locked up, Roosevelt and his supporters walked out of the Republican convention and launched a third party, the Progressive Party, better known as the Bull Moose Party. Their platform advocated expanding the powers of the federal government to bring about more reform and regulations.

With the Republicans torn asunder, the Democratic Party, which had elected only one man as president since 1860, saw victory within its grasp. The native Virginian and strong reform governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, received the nomination and won the election by taking only 42 percent of the popular vote, but receiving 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s paltry 8.

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Once in office, Wilson pursued an aggressive reform agenda. He created the Federal Reserve, giving the country a regulated currency. He pushed legislation that established the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit unfair business practices. He supported the ratification of the 16th Amendment that resulted in a graduated income tax, requiring wealthy Americans to pay a higher percentage on their earnings. And he addressed a number of social issues, such as greatly restricting child labor and limiting the hours of railroad workers.

Despite these many reforms, some of his policies were backward-looking. Following the example of his native South, he implemented formal segregation in the federal government. For example, government buildings in Washington were required to have white and “colored” bathrooms. Appointments to federal jobs through civil service became increasingly difficult for African-Americans to obtain.

Perhaps the most controversial piece of legislation coming from Wilson’s administration was prohibition. Approval in 1919 of the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of intoxicating spirits, has been described as the greatest failure of a social experiment in American history. The amendment resulted in a huge illicit liquor enterprise and an explosion of organized crime. Within 14 years, it became the only amendment to be repealed in its entirety.

World War I and its aftermath dominated Wilson’s second term, as did a nearly fatal stroke, taking his attention away from continued domestic reforms.

The United States emerged from the war as the most powerful nation on Earth economically, but the American public had grown weary of Wilson’s activist government and reform in general.

A severe postwar recession contributed to a landslide victory in 1920 for Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, who ran on a ticket pledging a “Return to Normalcy” and a repudiation of the progressive agenda of political and social reform.

There would be no “bully pulpit” presidents for another 12 years, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in a landslide in the depths of the Great Depression.

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What can we learn from the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era? Some critics contend that we are experiencing a new Gilded Age. They argue that during the past few decades, corporations and elected officials (many representing safe gerrymandered districts) have rolled back many of the gains made by working and middle-class people during the Progressive Era.

They point out that despite its great wealth, the country now has the highest level of income inequality in 90 years. Most disturbing to these critics is that federal and state tax cuts benefited the wealthy at the expense of the poor and many in the middle class.

Advocates on the other side of the political spectrum, however, argue that government has become more intrusive than ever, thereby stifling the economic potential of the nation and interfering with our individual freedoms.

In his run for the White House, candidate Donald Trump pledged “to return America to greatness” by slashing regulations, easing government controls, and reforming the tax code, among other things. Once elected to office, much like Theodore Roosevelt, the president has used his own bully pulpit to implement his campaign pledges.

But a hundred-plus days into his presidency, little of his agenda has been carried out, despite having Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Why? Is it his political inexperience? Is it his confrontational style? No doubt those are factors, but I think it is something more fundamental.

A century ago, conditions in the country were as problematic, if not more so, than they are today; yet three successive presidents were able to bring about major reforms to address the issues. One of the keys then was that reform and progressive thinking crossed party lines. Two of the three progressive presidents were Republicans.

Through compromise, cooperation, and effective persuasion, they were able to work with Congress to bring about needed reform. They found viable solutions to the problems created by the painful transition from the 19th century to modern America.

Today, anyone who cooperates with members of the opposing party is an anathema. Cooperation within both parties also has become more difficult. The rhetoric has become increasingly confrontational. Fealty to party or faction within a party appears more important than loyalty to country. It is unfortunate that today’s monumental challenges are not being met by either side of the political spectrum.

Perhaps the time has come for introducing fundamental change in the way we govern ourselves, much as the American people did a century ago.

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