The progressives emerged as a political force in the 1890s. Although both political parties split into left and right wings, the progressives seized control of the Democratic Party in 1896. The movement targeted government corruption, corporate power, and banking malpractices. At the same time, they supported public education, women’s suffrage, medical and mental health reform, child labor laws, prohibition, labor rights, and many other causes. Progressive Era presidents initiated many reforms in government, industry, unionism, conservation, and consumerism. Depending on the historian, the era began with either William McKinley or Theodore Roosevelt. In reality, William McKinley served as a transition figure between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. The following are the Progressive Era presidents beginning with McKinley.
William McKinley (1897-1901)
The Panic of 1893 ended upon William McKinley’s presidential ascension. The economy grew unfettered for the first time in decades. McKinley backed the Dingley Tariff and Gold Standard Act. The gold standard and economic recover essentially ended the decades old debate over bimetalism.
As American economic power advanced, McKinley extended U.S. military strength. The president reluctantly led the country into the Spanish-American War. He attempted to negotiate a peaceful settlement in the Cuban insurrection, but Spain rebuffed his efforts. When the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, McKinley was forced into war. In the end, the United States acquired the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and retained functional control over Cuba. Around the same time, McKinley annexed Hawaii. The economic and military success guaranteed McKinley’s reelection in 1900. An assassin murdered the president in September 1901.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-08)
McKinley’s assassination catapulted Theodore Roosevelt to the White House. Roosevelt promised a “Square Deal” for the average citizen. Throughout his presidency, TR balanced the extremes to govern from the middle. For example, he prosecuted monopolies he considered against the public interest while allowing others to thrive. Also, the president championed consumerism without initiating socialism. During the Anthracite Coal Strike, Roosevelt worried for the average citizen and forced management and labor to compromise.
While steering a middle course domestically, TR proved a hard core conservative on the foreign stage. He initiated a coup to engineer the Panama Canal, authored the Big Stick Policy toward Latin America, and projected American naval strength by sailing the “Great White Fleet” around the world. In 1906, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. In the end, American national interests trumped everything on the world stage.
While a moderate on the domestic front and a conservative in foreign policy, TR proved progressive on conservation. He established the forest service, five national parks, 18 monuments, 51 bird reserves, and 150 national forests. His energy, enthusiasm, and practical nature endeared him to voters. Roosevelt won a smashing 1904 election victory and then stood down.
William Howard Taft (1909-13)
Roosevelt promised not to run for reelection in 1908. Instead, he supported William Howard Taft believing the portly judge best exemplified TR’s brand of governance. Taft continued many of Roosevelt’s policies, but TR grew bored in retirement. Over time, the former president found excuses to break with his successor.
Taft differed from Roosevelt on trust busting and conservation. While Roosevelt attacked only “bad” monopolies, Taft felt the need to enforce the law regardless of morality. In conservation, Taft mainly followed TR’s example. However, a dispute emerged with the head of the Forest Service Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot led Roosevelt to believe Taft betrayed the conservation movement.
While bungling the public relations battle with Pinchot, Taft demonstrated a lack of foreign policy finesse which further angered Roosevelt. The president negotiated a trade agreement with Canada which resulted in the defeat of the Canadian government. Taft initiated “Dollar Diplomacy” in Latin America to aid in economic growth. Unfortunately, the U.S. did not closely monitor the funds and the money landed in the pockets of corrupt officials.
Taft’s real and imagined bungling, combined with Roosevelt’s boredom, led the former president to enter the 1912 presidential race. Taft controlled the party and denied TR the nomination. An angry Roosevelt responded with a third party movement. The so-called Bull Moose Party split the Republican vote and allowed the Democrats to retake the White House.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-17)
Woodrow Wilson benefited from the Republican split. He won the 1912 election with just 42% of the vote. Despite losing 58% of ballots cast, Wilson governed as though he had a mandate. His administration passed the Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, created the income tax, lowered tariffs, and created the eight hour workday for the railroads. On top of this, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act forbid the government from using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against labor. In essence, Wilson liberated labor from government sanction.
While engaging in an energetic domestic policy, Wilson proved interventionist with Mexico. America’s southern neighbor experienced a major civil war, but previous administrations wisely chose to avoid direct engagement. Wilson changed U.S. policy by invading Mexico to hunt down the bandit Pancho Villa. The intervention proved farcical and embarrassing. The president withdrew the troops to redeploy to Europe to fight World War I.
Woodrow Wilson (1917-21)
President Wilson won reelection on the slogan “He kept us out of the war.” This was underhanded and somewhat dishonest. Wilson knew America would fight in Europe, but did not commit until after his reelection. In fairness, Germany engaged in a major submarine offensive against American shipping. American involvement turned the tide of the war against the Germans. Wilson went to Europe as a conquering hero. Despite this, the European powers and the U.S. Senate rejected his peace plan based on his Fourteen Points.
While the Wilson Administration promoted democracy abroad, it cracked down on dissent at home. The Espionage Act and Sedition Act suppressed the antiwar movement. Meanwhile, the government launched massive raids to capture radical aliens. The government overreaction combined with the Russian Revolution led to a full scale Red Scare. At the same time, a massive flu pandemic killed millions worldwide.
Wilson returned home to a nation paralyzed by fear. He immediately campaigned for the League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles, but refused to allow any alterations. His intransigence led to the treaty’s defeat. Worse, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke rendering him an invalid for almost two years. He should have been removed from office, but Vice President Thomas Marshall did not want to be president and his wife controlled access creating an illusion of health. In 1920, voters soundly rejected Wilson, the Democrats, and the progressive movement.