The Progressive Era

THE PROGRESSIVE ERA

 The late-nineteenth-century process of corporate consolidation that produced such behemoths as Carnegie Steel and the Standard Oil Trust accelerated in the early twentieth century. Indeed, this consolidation proceeded at such a mind-boggling rate that for a time around 1900, an average of more than 260 companies annually were swallowed up in mergers.

 

This era also gave rise to holding companies--giant conglomerates that owned a number of corporations engaged in the same kind of business. The most famous holding company was created in 1901 when, as we saw in Chapter 18, financiers led by J. P. Morgan bought Andrew Carnegie's steel business and combined it with others to form the United States Steel Company.

 

This corporate titan, initially capitalized at $1.4 billion, controlled 80 percent of all U.S. steel production.

 

Following the same pattern, Morgan in 1902 consolidated six competing companies into the International Harvester Company to gain control of 85 percent of the farm-implement business.

 

In the automotive field, William C. Durant in 1908 founded the General Motors Company, which, with financial backing from the Du Pont Corporation, bought up various independent automobile manufacturers, from the inexpensive Chevrolet to the luxury Cadillac.

 

Many workers benefited from the prevailing good times. Industrial workers' average annual real wages (defined, that is, in terms of actual purchasing power, after allowing for inflation) rose from $532 in the late nineteenth century to $687 by 1915.

 

In railroading and other unionized industries, wages climbed still higher. But even with the dollar's buying power many times greater than today (a loaf of bread cost seven cents in 1915), such wages could still barely support a family and left little cushion for emergencies.

 

To make ends meet, entire immigrant families went to work. Two-thirds of immigrant girls entered the labor force in the early 1900s, working at least for a time as factory help or domestics or in small establishments like laundries and bakeries.

 

Child-labor statistics are imprecise, but the available data suggest that in 1910 the nonfarm labor force included at least 1.6 million children aged ten to fifteen--15 percent of that age group--working in factories, mills, tenement sweatshops, and street trades such as shoe shining, flower selling, and newspaper vending.

 

The total may have been higher, since many of the "women workers" listed in the census were in fact young girls. One investigator found a girl of five working at night in a South Carolina textile mill.

 

For all laborers, the hours were long and the hazards great. Despite the 8-hour movement of the 1880s, the average worker in 1900 still toiled 9 1/2 hours a day, and much longer in certain industries. Some southern textile mills required workdays of 12 and even 13 hours.

 

The Triangle fire was a particularly gruesome reminder of the unsafe conditions in many industries. Few employers accepted responsibility for work-related accidents and illnesses. Vacations and retirement benefits were practically unheard of. With rare exceptions, American capitalism extracted the maximum of labor from its work force and gave a bare minimum in return.

 

For immigrants and other new industrial workers accustomed to a casual, task-oriented pattern of rural labor, the demands of the time clock and the machine forced major and often bitterly resented adjustments.

 

The routinization and speed up of factory work was promoted by a new specialist, the efficiency expert, who used time-and-motion studies to find the fastest way of performing each step in the production process.

 

The efficiency expert dreamed of making human workers as rational and predictable as machines. In Principles of Scientific Management (1911), Frederick W. Taylor explained his ideas for increasing efficiency by standardizing job routines and rewarding the fastest workers. In business circles and the larger culture, efficiency and Taylorism became popular catchwords.

 

The most sinister example of the perversion of "science" in the Progressive Era was the eugenics movement. Eugenics is the control of reproduction to alter the characteristics of a plant or animal species.

 

Some American eugenicists believed that society itself could be improved through controlled breeding. In 1904 the Carnegie Foundation funded a research center on Long Island to study heredity and genetic manipulation.

 

The director, Charles B. Davenport, was not only a well-known zoologist but also a racist, anti-Semite, and advocate of immigration restriction.

Inspired by Davenport and other eugenicists, certain states legalized the forced sterilization of criminals, sex offenders, and persons adjudged mentally deficient. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such laws.

 

This ugly underside of early-twentieth-century social thought emerged starkly in Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race (1916).

 

In many respects, Grant represented the best in progressivism. The patrician son of an old New York City family, he supported numerous civic causes.

 

Yet in The Passing he stirred together a rancid brew of pseudoscientific data and spewed out a vicious diatribe against Jews, blacks, and southern and eastern Europeans.

 

Jesus Christ, he insisted, was not really a Jew at all but an unrecognized "Nordic." Grant called for absolute racial segregation, immigration restriction, and the forced sterilization of "unfit" groups, including "worthless race types." Writing at the height of the Progressive Era, Grant chillingly previewed ideas that within a few years Adolf Hitler would bring to fruition.

If the immigrant city posed threats, some reformers concluded, the obvious answer lay in excluding immigrants. As one reformer declared, "All the great problems ... are tied up with the one great problem of foreign immigration." As early as 1894 prominent Bostonians formed the Immigration Restriction League to promote a literacy test for immigrants.

 

Such a test (which revealed nothing except a person's level of schooling) would have slashed immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The American Federation of Labor, fearing immigrant job competition, also endorsed restriction.

 

This reform also won support from many, though not all, progressives. Characteristically, they documented their case with a flourish of scientific expertise.

 

In 1911 a congressional commission produced a massive study bristling with statistical material allegedly proving the new immigrants' innate degeneracy. Sociologist Edward A. Ross, a prominent progressive, in 1914 described the typical recent immigrants as "hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality.

 

Led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Congress enacted literacy-test bills in 1896, 1913, and 1915, only to see them vetoed by a succession of presidents. In 1917, however, such a bill became law over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. This, too, was part of progressivism's ambiguous legacy.

 

Fearful of urban social disorder, some reformers sought to impose morality by law.

 

They campaigned against gambling, amusement parks, dance halls, and the newest moral menace, the movies.

 

The first commercial films were brief comic sequences like The Kiss or The Sneeze, but with The Great Train Robbery (1903), which lasted for eight minutes, the movies began to tell stories. In 1914 came Theda Bara in A Fool There Was, with its famous line "Kiss me, my fool!" (Bara, one of the first silent-movie stars, was actually Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati.)

 

Quaint as they seem today, these early movies struck many middle-class Americans as dangerously immoral. The fact that they were screened in shabby, immigrant-district five-cent halls called nickelodeons intensified such feelings. At the nickelodeon, immigrant youth could escape restrictive home environments.

 

As a New York City garment worker who lived with her Italian-immigrant parents later recalled, "The one place I was allowed to go by myself was the movies. My parents wouldn't let me go anywhere else, even when I was twenty-four.

 

This freedom from moral oversight was precisely what worried progressives. Warning of "nickel madness," they demanded film censorship. Several states and cities did, in fact, set up censorship boards. Chicago's police chief was empowered to ban movies that he considered immoral.

 

Targeting prostitution as well, the moral reformers, in true progressive fashion, investigated and quantified what they called "the social evil." The American Social Hygiene Association (1914), financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., sponsored medical research on venereal disease, underwrote "vice investigations" in various cities, and drafted model municipal statutes against prostitution.

 

Soon a "white slave" hysteria gripped the country. Sensationalized books, articles, and films warned that innocent farm girls were being kidnapped and forced into a life of sin in the city.

 

The Mann Act (1910) made it a federal crime to transport a woman across a state line "for immoral purposes." Amid much fanfare, the red-light districts of New Orleans, Chicago, and other cities were shut down or forced to operate more discreetly.

 

As Grant's work suggests, racism rose to an even higher pitch during the Progressive Era. Although individual progressives like settlement-house leader Lillian Wald and muckraker Ray Stannard Baker spoke out against racial injustice, the progressive movement as a whole did little as blacks were lynched, disfranchised, and discriminated against.

 

Like the immigrants, blacks represented for many progressives not potential reform allies but a source of social menace and danger to be studied, controlled, and kept out of public life.

 

In the South, progressive reformers often led the movement for black disfranchisement and segregation. Southern advocates of woman suffrage pointed out that with most blacks disfranchised in the region, granting women the franchise would strengthen white supremacy by doubling the white vote.

 

Numerous southern politicians--including Governor James K. Vardaman of Mississippi and Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina--supported a variety of progressive reforms while simultaneously pursuing viciously antiblack policies.

 

Progressive Era racism pervaded Washington during the presidential administration of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). Born in Virginia and reared in Georgia, Wilson displayed a patronizing attitude toward blacks throughout his life.

 

He much admired the racist movie The Birth of a Nation and acquiesced as southerners in his cabinet and in the Congress (some of them powerful committee chairmen) imposed rigid segregation on all levels of the government.

 

Some progressives, however, eloquently spoke up for immigrants and blacks. Settlement-house worker Mary White Ovington, for example, helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and wrote Half a Man (1911), an important study of the effects of racial prejudice on New York City's blacks.

 

Yet progressive social thought included a number of disturbing ingredients--an assurance of moral and intellectual superiority, an exaggerated confidence in the social applications of science, a readiness to use state power to coerce individual behavior--that all too readily could turn repressive and destructive.

 

By around 1905 these separate and localized reform activities were coalescing into a national movement. Symbolically, in 1906 Robert La Follette left the Wisconsin state house to go to Washington as a U.S. senator. He arrived just as progressivism found its first national leader, Theodore Roosevelt.

Bombastic, self-righteous, and jingoistic--but also brilliant, politically masterful, and endlessly interesting--Roosevelt, "TR," became president in 1901 and, for the next 7 1/2 years, made the White House a volcano of political activism far different from the rather somnolent days of Rutherford B. Hayes or Benjamin Harrison.

 

Skillfully orchestrating public opinion as an instrument of political power, the popular young president pursued his goals: labor mediation, consumer protection, conservation, business virtue, and activism abroad. TR's hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, lacked the master's political genius, however, and his administration was marked by sniping among former allies.

  In the 1912 election, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, together with Socialist Eugene Debs, offered competing visions of reform. Wilson won, and over the next four years, he played a pivotal leadership role as Congress enacted an imposing array of reform measures.

Progressivism--Woodrow Wilson

 

Wilson and his congressional allies turned next to that quintessential progressive cause, business regulation. Although candidate Wilson had shown little sympathy for the regulatory approach (with its implicit acknowledgment that giant corporations were here to stay), as president he shepherded through Congress two important regulatory measures.

 

These embodied somewhat different strategies. The first, the Federal Trade Commission Act (1914), reflected an administrative approach. This law created a five-member federal "watchdog" agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC),

 

with power to investigate suspected violations of federal regulatory statutes, to require regular reports from corporations, and to issue "cease and desist" orders (subject to court review) when it found unfair methods of business competition. (The Federal Trade Commission replaced an earlier agency, the Bureau of Corporations, set up in 1903.)

 

The second of these measures, the Clayton Antitrust Act (1914), took the more traditional approach of listing specific illegal activities. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, although outlawing business practices "in restraint of trade," had remained vague about details.

 

The Clayton Act spelled out a series of such illegal practices, such as selling at a loss to monopolize a market.

 

Because some of the "watchdogs" Wilson appointed to the FTC were conservatives with big-business links, this agency did not play the active role reformers had hoped. But with the added clout of the Clayton Act, the Wilson administration filed antitrust suits against nearly a hundred corporations.

 

Corporate Regulation

 

Sympathetic to labor, and leading a party historically identified with working people, Wilson supported the American Federation of Labor, defended workers' right to organize, and endorsed a Clayton Act clause that exempted strikes, boycotts, and peaceful picketing from the antitrust laws' prohibition of actions "in restraint of trade."

 

During the 1916 presidential campaign, Wilson and the Democratic congressional leadership pushed through three important worker-protection laws: the Keating-Owen Act, barring from interstate commerce products manufactured by child labor, the Adamson Act, establishing an eight-hour workday for interstate railway workers; and the Workmen's Compensation Act, providing accident and injury protection to federal workers. (The Keating-Owen Act was declared unconstitutional in 1918.

 

Later a 1919 law that placed a special tax on all goods manufactured by child labor was also ruled unconstitutional. But these laws paved the way for the final abolition of child labor by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.)

 

Candidate Wilson also strongly supported the Federal Farm Loan Act and the Federal Warehouse Act (1916), which made it possible for farmers, using land or crops as security, to secure long-term, low-interest federal loans. The Federal Highway Act (1916), which matched federal funds with state appropriations for highway construction, benefited not only the new automobile industry but also farmers plagued by bad roads.