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Old January 14th, 2013, 10:36 AM   #1

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Cool Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft and Woodrow Wilson: The Progressive Era


I have a fascination with this particular period of US history. What are your thoughts on this political period (1901-1921) commonly referred to as the Progressive Era? What legacy, both on domestic and foreign issues, do you believe was most relevant? Which social issues do you believe got the most attention at that time?

So many questions could be asked of one of the most exciting periods of US history. Let's get started!!!
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Old January 14th, 2013, 10:44 AM   #2

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Quote:
Originally Posted by purpleguy89 View Post
I have a fascination with this particular period of US history. What are your thoughts on this political period (1901-1921) commonly referred to as the Progressive Era? What legacy, both on domestic and foreign issues, do you believe was most relevant? Which social issues do you believe got the most attention at that time?

So many questions could be asked of one of the most exciting periods of US history. Let's get started!!!
Whew, yeah, Purpleguy! A lot of potential territory to cover on this one!

I agree that this is one of the most important periods in American history. It demonstrated that capitalism could be constrained and be a viable economic system, benefitting everyone.

Anyway, I'll leave it at that for now. That alone could draw all kinds of INCOMING from certain factions!
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Old January 14th, 2013, 11:50 AM   #3

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Yes! Yes! Yes! This is my favorite era of history too. There is a lot I can and will say about this era, but let me start out with an interesting revisionist interpretation of the conventional understanding of that time.

Conventionally, the progressive era is understood as a middle class revolt against the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism. The second industrial revolution of the late-nineteenth century created a new class of professions who were saturated in Victorian moral ethos and therefore uneasy over the stability of capitalism. Within a coherent vision they sought to remake society in their own image, to subject it to rational, harmonious principles. They wanted to reign in the abuses of capitalists through regulation and to infuse the working class with middle class virtues of sobriety and thrift and industriousnes sthrough instruction but also legislation (prohibition being the most prominent example).

There is a lot of truth to this view of the Progressive ERa, but one of the driving impulses for reform came from businessmen. A number of firms practiced "corporate welfare capitalism." They introduced worker's compensation, supported educational reforms, built model towns and recreational facilities, sponsored research for public health and new social methods for reducing poverty, and funded the construction of a variety of parks, museums, and foundations.

In Triumph of Conservatism, historian Gabriel Kolko agrues that the reality of the progressive era was expansion of business and conservative (by conservative, he means maintainence of existing power relations) interests over the government. Kolko calls this expansion of business control over government "political capitalism." As Kolko defines it, "political capitalism is the utilization of political outlets to attain conditions of stability, predictability, and security to attain rationalization in the economy." Stability is the elimination of internecine conflict, predictability is the ability to plan future economic action on the basis of fairly calculable expectations, and security is protection from political attacks.

Kolko gives numerous expamples of how it was business interests that drove reform rather than progressive reformers. For example, food inspection and regulation is often attributed to the depiction of unsanitary meat production in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle. But major meat packers had been pushing for Federal meat regulation since the 1880s to eliminate smaller competion and to ensure universal standards that would make it easier to sell in European markets after European countries had starting banning the importation of American meat products. In other words, major meat packers wanted Federal Regulation, partly to avoid to mess of individual local and state regulations, and also to make it more difficult for smaller competitors to emerge. Indeed, by Upton Sinclair pointed out that "the Federal inspection of meat was, historically, estabilished at the packer's request...men wearing blue uniforms and brass buttons of the United States service are employed for the purpose of certifying to the nations of the civilized world that all the diseased and tained meat which happens to come into existence in the United States of America is carefully sifted out and consumed by the American people." Sinclair's intention of writing the Jungle was not to expose the unsanitary conditions of meat production, but the plight of workers: "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Another example is in finance. Contrary to popular understanding, Wall Street's dominance in finance had actually been waning in the early twentieth century, with financial marketshare shifting from the northeast to the midwest. Part of the problem was that local and state regulations made it very difficult for Wall Street to do business efficiently in other states. So Wall Street wanted Federal financial regulations that would naturally enable New York to maintain its dominance in finance.

Kolko also argues against the notion that industrial consolidation and centralization was the characteristic feature of the progressive age that reformers such as Taft and Roosevelt needed to fight against. The merger movement of the late nineteenth century, which had been interpreted by politicians, pundits, and intellectuals as a trend towards the inevitable centralization and consolidation of industry, was in fact very brief, with most of the mergers being unable to effectively compete for long as they were often too conservative, slow to innovate and to adopt new innovations, and too big to flexibility adapt to rapidly changing market conditions and practices. From 1904 to 1909 the number of manufacturing firms in the United States increased 24.2 percent. Of the nine manufacturing industries with production of over 500 million dollars in 1909, only one, the iron and steel industry, had less than 1,000 establishments. Kolko also gives examples of several industries, including electricity and the telephone, where local competition was able to consistently whittle away market share from the major players such as the Bell Telephone Company. But in the speeches of presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, it was reiterated that economic concentration was inevitable and good. The only relevant distinction was between good and bad big companies. For instance, Roosevelt considered Standard Oil to be a bad big company, but even the breakup of Standard Oil came at a time when it was losing marketshare. The myth of inevitable centralization became a self-perpetuating reality, with government regulation for big companies inimical to smaller competitors.

One modern example of this I found in Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan's spends a week with an unorthodox local meat producer, who notes that
Quote:
The problem with current food-safety regulations, in Joel's view, is that they are one-sieze-fits all rules designed to regulate giant slaughterhouses that are mindlessly applied to small farmers in such a way that "before I can sell my neighbor a T-bone steak I've got to wrap it up in a million dollars' worht of quintuple-permitted processing plant..." The fact that Polyface can prove its chickens have much lower bacteria counts than supermarket chickens (Salatin's had them both tested by an independent lab) doesn't cut any mustard with the inspectors...USDA regulations spell out precisely what sort of facility and system is permissible, but they don't set threshholds for food-borne pathogens.
I find Kolko's revisionism very compelling and informative. I still think, however, that middle class reformers had a much impact on the period that Kolko gives them credit for.
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Old January 14th, 2013, 12:00 PM   #4

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Interesting post, as always SB. Good to see you back!
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Old January 15th, 2013, 09:03 AM   #5

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Originally Posted by spellbanisher View Post
Yes! Yes! Yes! This is my favorite era of history too. There is a lot I can and will say about this era, but let me start out with an interesting revisionist interpretation of the conventional understanding of that time.

Conventionally, the progressive era is understood as a middle class revolt against the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism. The second industrial revolution of the late-nineteenth century created a new class of professions who were saturated in Victorian moral ethos and therefore uneasy over the stability of capitalism. Within a coherent vision they sought to remake society in their own image, to subject it to rational, harmonious principles. They wanted to reign in the abuses of capitalists through regulation and to infuse the working class with middle class virtues of sobriety and thrift and industriousnes sthrough instruction but also legislation (prohibition being the most prominent example).

There is a lot of truth to this view of the Progressive ERa, but one of the driving impulses for reform came from businessmen. A number of firms practiced "corporate welfare capitalism." They introduced worker's compensation, supported educational reforms, built model towns and recreational facilities, sponsored research for public health and new social methods for reducing poverty, and funded the construction of a variety of parks, museums, and foundations.

In Triumph of Conservatism, historian Gabriel Kolko agrues that the reality of the progressive era was expansion of business and conservative (by conservative, he means maintainence of existing power relations) interests over the government. Kolko calls this expansion of business control over government "political capitalism." As Kolko defines it, "political capitalism is the utilization of political outlets to attain conditions of stability, predictability, and security to attain rationalization in the economy." Stability is the elimination of internecine conflict, predictability is the ability to plan future economic action on the basis of fairly calculable expectations, and security is protection from political attacks.

Kolko gives numerous expamples of how it was business interests that drove reform rather than progressive reformers. For example, food inspection and regulation is often attributed to the depiction of unsanitary meat production in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle. But major meat packers had been pushing for Federal meat regulation since the 1880s to eliminate smaller competion and to ensure universal standards that would make it easier to sell in European markets after European countries had starting banning the importation of American meat products. In other words, major meat packers wanted Federal Regulation, partly to avoid to mess of individual local and state regulations, and also to make it more difficult for smaller competitors to emerge. Indeed, by Upton Sinclair pointed out that "the Federal inspection of meat was, historically, estabilished at the packer's request...men wearing blue uniforms and brass buttons of the United States service are employed for the purpose of certifying to the nations of the civilized world that all the diseased and tained meat which happens to come into existence in the United States of America is carefully sifted out and consumed by the American people." Sinclair's intention of writing the Jungle was not to expose the unsanitary conditions of meat production, but the plight of workers: "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Another example is in finance. Contrary to popular understanding, Wall Street's dominance in finance had actually been waning in the early twentieth century, with financial marketshare shifting from the northeast to the midwest. Part of the problem was that local and state regulations made it very difficult for Wall Street to do business efficiently in other states. So Wall Street wanted Federal financial regulations that would naturally enable New York to maintain its dominance in finance.

Kolko also argues against the notion that industrial consolidation and centralization was the characteristic feature of the progressive age that reformers such as Taft and Roosevelt needed to fight against. The merger movement of the late nineteenth century, which had been interpreted by politicians, pundits, and intellectuals as a trend towards the inevitable centralization and consolidation of industry, was in fact very brief, with most of the mergers being unable to effectively compete for long as they were often too conservative, slow to innovate and to adopt new innovations, and too big to flexibility adapt to rapidly changing market conditions and practices. From 1904 to 1909 the number of manufacturing firms in the United States increased 24.2 percent. Of the nine manufacturing industries with production of over 500 million dollars in 1909, only one, the iron and steel industry, had less than 1,000 establishments. Kolko also gives examples of several industries, including electricity and the telephone, where local competition was able to consistently whittle away market share from the major players such as the Bell Telephone Company. But in the speeches of presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, it was reiterated that economic concentration was inevitable and good. The only relevant distinction was between good and bad big companies. For instance, Roosevelt considered Standard Oil to be a bad big company, but even the breakup of Standard Oil came at a time when it was losing marketshare. The myth of inevitable centralization became a self-perpetuating reality, with government regulation for big companies inimical to smaller competitors.

One modern example of this I found in Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan's spends a week with an unorthodox local meat producer, who notes that
I find Kolko's revisionism very compelling and informative. I still think, however, that middle class reformers had a much impact on the period that Kolko gives them credit for.
Interesting info. As you suggest, one would have to at least fit in the labor movements of the period in order to have a more complete perspective. I've reason to believe that the AFL in particular had mustered enough strength to lobby in favor of labor rights by this time. But yes, what you are saying fits in well with the general picture of things, and would find progressive politicians of the period being as complacent of big business as their predecessors and successors were.

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Old January 21st, 2013, 05:58 AM   #6

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Has anybody here read anything on the labor unions that were active in this period?
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Old February 17th, 2013, 01:20 PM   #7

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Originally Posted by purpleguy89 View Post
Has anybody here read anything on the labor unions that were active in this period?
At the beginning of this era there was a massive strike in the anthracite regions. In 1900 the Morgan-Hill-Vanderbilt-Pennsylvania group of railroads that controlled the anthracite regions agreed to allow coal strikers a ten percent raise. When that agreement expired in April of 1902 the United Mine Workers Union demanded a 20 percent increase in wages, an eight hour day, and recognition of their union. George Baer (dubbed "Divine Right Baer" by Randolph Hearst) refused to bargain with the miners. In May of 1902 150,000 miners went on strike. Coal prices rose from $5 per ton to $14 per ton in the summer and by September $20 per ton.

Enter Roosevelt, who worried that a coal famine would be politically damaging. Along with the UMW, Roosevelt tried to negotiate with the mineowners, who insisted they would not deal with "a set of outlaws." Baers proclaimed that "the duty of the hour is not to waste time negotiating with the fomenters of this anarchy and insolent defiance of law, but to do as was done in [the Civil War], restore the majesty of law." Roosevelt accused the mine owners of provoking anarchy and "socialistic action."

By the end of fall a conference of mayors and governors passed resolutions for the government operation of mines, which represented the kind of "socialistic action" that Roosevelt wanted to avoid.

So Roosevelt had his secretary of war, Elihu Root, send a letter to J.P. Morgan telling him that Roosevelt intended to send troops into the mines if the owners would refuse to negotiate.

To make a long story short, Morgan intervened, the owners agreed to arbitration, the miners returned to work in October, a private coal commission was appointed to investigate conditions in the collieries, and by 1903 the commission awarded a 10 percent wage increase to some workers and reduced working hours to others, and owners were not to discriminate against union men in rehiring.

This is a remarkable event, because it was the first time in US history that a president intervened on behalf of labor. In previous decades businesses could always count on the national guard or state militia to put down strikes, union leaders would be thrown in jail, and the courts issued hundreds of injunctions against strikers and unions.

For the most part, however, unions were conservative in their orientation. Samuel Gompers, the most powerful union leader of the time and the head of the American Federation of Labor, generally opposed economic legislation, as he believed that economic legislation would just be interpreted by the courts in favor of business (such as how the Sherman Antitrust Act had always been used to break unions rather than trusts). Gompers also was supportive of big business and was an advocate of harmony between labor and capitalists.

In opposition to the AFL was the International Workers of the World (the IWW), who wanted to supplant capitalism with workers commonwealths. Gompers often worked with capitalists and government against the AFL.

To undermine labor organization, many businessmen implemented corporate welfare (things such as health insurance, leisurely facilities, better working conditions, company unions, etc). One of the reasons Henry Ford implemented his five dollar day profit sharing plan was to prevent unionization in his factories.

The heyday of the progressive era was during World War I. The Clayton Antitrust Act replaced the Sherman Antitrust Act, and it explicitly exempted unions from antitrust injunctions, declaring that that

The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce. Nothing contained in the antitrust laws shall be construed to forbid the existence and operation of labor, agricultural, or horticultural organizations, instituted for the purposes of mutual help, and not having capital stock or conducted for profit, or to forbid or restrain individual members of such organizations from lawfully carrying out the legitimate objects thereof; nor shall such organizations, or the members thereof, be held or construed to be illegal combinations or conspiracies in restraint of trade, under the antitrust laws.

Unionization reached an all-time high of 5 million members. A national war labor board guaranteed collective bargaining and mediated laor disputes. Wages also rapidly rose.

At the end of the war, however, labor would be broken. Following the war inflation resulted in the cost of living rising 105% above the prewar. In 1919 more than 4 million workers walked out on their jobs. In January, Seattle was crippled by a region-wide strike that saw streetcars ceasing to run, schools closed down, and businesses at a standstill. By April that year homemade bombs were being mailed to prominent politicians and capitalists, and on June 2, a series of bombs exploded in eight different cities. In the summer the Boston police went on strike. In September of that year steel workers issued a strike.

The terrorist attacks(which actually were unrelated to labor), the mass labor unrest,the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communists Third International, and Communist uprisings in Bavaria and Hungary created the appearance of a mass communist conspiracy to overthrow capitalism. The middle class turned against the labor movement, and industrialists responded by declaring any labor organization as "sovietism in disguise." Even modest demands such as overtime pay on sundays and holidays and a twenty minute lunch break were denounced as Bolsheviki. In August of 1919 the antiradical division in the department of Justice under J. Edgar Hoover was set up, and by November the Palmer raids began. On a single day in January of 1920, over 4,000 communists were arrested in raids across 33 cities.

Though the Red Scare was brief, it did signal a nationwide turn against organized labor. Unionization would fall from 5 million members to 3.6 million members by the end of the decade, and Supreme Court rulings were repeatedly against labor.
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Old February 17th, 2013, 06:47 PM   #8

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Impressive read. I'd have to look through these posts a few times over to get the full gist of your message, but you make a fine case.

Quote:
In opposition to the AFL was the International Workers of the World (the IWW), who wanted to supplant capitalism with workers commonwealths. Gompers often worked with capitalists and government against the AFL.
I believe you meant to say "against the IWW". Just a detail I noticed.
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