Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 10: The Progressive Era or, “No more thumbs in our meat, please!”

So we’ve reached the 20th century – finally! – and the U.S. overall is doing pretty well. Our economy is booming, we’ve got colonies now… the nation is doing well. But the people that live in the nation… most of them aren’t doing as great. Remember the Gilded Age? Uber capitalism on steroids with absolutely zero government regulation? Yeah. By the 1890s the shininess of the gold was wearing off and most people were starting to see the cracks underneath. Poverty, corruption, pollution, extreme inequality, you know the drill. 

And people around the country – around the world, really – start to wonder if there isn’t a better way to be an industrial nation? Is it possible to have a booming economy and happy workers who keep all their limbs? I don’t know… seems like a stretch.

Today we’re talking about the Progressive Era or, “No more thumbs in our meat, please!”. Muckrakers! Reforms! Teddy! It’s pretty great. But as always, it’s not quite that easy. We progress a lot during the Progressive Era – that makes sense. But we also leave out a lot of people. As usual. 

This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time.

Act 1: Activism

So where did the Progressive Era come from? It’s not like everyone woke up one day and simultaneously decided they didn’t want drunk children working in coal factories, or whatever they were doing. But by the 1890s it was becoming clear that the country being run by laissez-faire capitalism and a few rich dudes wasn’t a silver bullet. A financial panic hit after two major companies failed – it was the worst depression the country had ever seen. Meanwhile, the 1930s are like… “for now…”

The Panic of 1893 highlighted a lot of the inequality and political corruption of the Gilded Age. Frustrations rose and coalesced into the Progressive movement by 1900. Now, to be clear, the Progressive movement wasn’t a movement. It wasn’t unified in any way. It’s one of those things that historians do – go back and start labeling things. It makes it simpler for us to understand but it also makes it seem like the past was way more organized than it actually was. But, in general, people across the country started to advocate for various reforms at the local, state, and national level. Sometimes Progressive reformers were in synch; sometimes they were at odds with each other. But the key characteristic was that they all thought something should change to make our lives or our nation better. And in general, the solution was for the government to get more involved in regulating certain aspects of political and economic life to make sure that everyone was getting a relatively fair shake. 

On top of general ideas of what we might now call “social justice,” was a preference for science and “expertise” wherever applicable. A lot of Progressives believed the solution was to employ experts to run various aspects of cities and states. For example, the national education system was built around this time and it employed all of the newest methods of “scientific” production developed for factories. Previously, schools had mostly been one-room schoolhouses, with the equivalent of a “craftsman” teacher overseeing all aspects of their kids’ education. But we wanted to make things more efficient! So we created rigid structures, desks in straight rows, with everything broken down into manageable periods punctuated by a bell. When you think about it, the K-12 model of education is just an assembly line: the teachers are the workers and the students are the product. I do my very specialized job of convincing students that history is important and indoctrinating them into the Cult of Eleanor Roosevelt, and then I pass the kids along to the next teacher to input math or something stupid like that. 

In addition to education, the field of investigative journalism rose during this time to expose the problems created by the Gilded Age. These journalists earned the nickname “Muckrakers” (by Teddy Roosevelt?) because they were digging up all the “muck” that politicians had preferred to sweep under the rug. Magazines across the country published exposes and undercover reports. Arguably the first “muckraker” was Lincoln Steffens, a journalist who exposed corruption in St. Louis politics but he wasn’t the only one. Female journalist Ida Tarbell spent years investigating the rise of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. In a 19-part series for McClure Magazine she exposed underhanded business tactics and eventually had Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly broken up by the government! Nicely done, Ida. 

But as we’ve seen, investigative journalism to some degree has existed for a while. I mean, cartoonist Thomas Nast anyone? The guy who took down “Boss” Tweed? But there were a few elements that were new in 1900 that helped get the message across. For one, photography was now a full-blown industry. Photographers like Jacob Riis published his book How the Other Half Lives showing scenes of horror in the slums of New York: homeless children sleeping under newspapers, dozens of family members sleeping in a one-room tenement. And Lewis Hine photographed young children working factories. At this time, almost 2 million children under the age of 15 worked in factories – prized for their tiny hands that could reach delicate parts of the machinery and the fact that they could be paid way less than an adult.

In addition to photography and journalism, we had much more developed labor unions by 1900. Samuel Gompers had successfully organized skilled workers into his AFL and unskilled workers and immigrants followed suit by forming the radical socialist organization IWW – International Workers of the World. This paralleled rising socialist movements in Europe, especially in Karl Marx’s home state of Germany, and it empowered workers to push for their needs while simultaneously terrifying Gilded Age capitalists.

Around the Western world the Enlightenment had spread away from just elite old white men and it reached the “common folk.” People started believing that governments themselves should expand what it means to be “Enlightened” and step in on behalf of its people to improve their daily life. Otto von Bismarck began this trend when he unified Germany and created the first modern welfare state, complete with health insurance, unemployment and retirement programs, and worker protections. And in the US, the Socialist Party saw success through local collective action: achieving public ownership of basic industries like gas, water, and other utilities. By 1912, 150,000 people were registered members of the Socialist Party and they had elected officials across the country. 

To that end, some industrialists determined that it was just a good business practice to treat workers better. To be clear, this usually isn’t out of the goodness of their hearts but rather fear of a socialist overthrow if they didn’t give them something to tide them over. Henry Ford is probably the most famous industrialist who took this route. At a time when comparable workers were making $2.34 a day, Ford paid his workers double that. He also reduced his work day to 8 hours, but that was so that he could have 3 shifts to keep his factories going 24 hours a day. But Ford’s approach to the auto industry was just totally different than his competition. Other companies believed that automobiles were a luxury item only for the wealthy. But Ford envisioned a car that his own workers could afford to buy. He focused on mass production, while streamlining his materials so that he controlled every material and part that went into making his cars. Every day, coal from his coal mines was brought in on Great Lakes freighters that he owned, while timber from his forests or glass from his glassworks were shipped in on his own rail line. And every day it was exactly the amount of each material he needed to produce his cars without any extra. Eventually, his factories turned out a Model T every 24 seconds and for the 19 years the Model T was made, that car made up half of all automobile output in the entire world. As the car took over the country, an agricultural revolution followed because farmers could now devote more land to growing food that it had used to grow hay for their horses. And urbanization led to massive infrastructure projects to build roads and bridges connecting cities together. 

So Ford’s fixation on scientific management and lowering costs helped him build an auto empire. But was still a full-blown capitalist. He ruled his company like a dictator, often causing rifts with stockholders that led to them breaking away and forming rival companies, like Cadillac and Dodge. He freely employed company police, labor spies, and used violence to prevent his workers from unionizing. 

Ford was just an enigma. He was a pacifist strongly opposed to World War I. In fact, in 1915 he chartered an ocean liner to bring himself and likeminded pacifists to Europe to… solve the war? He called it “continuous mediation” but the rest of the world was like… that’s now how war works. He was also a published anti-Semite; writing a series of editorials in his own newspaper about the “International Jew,” a conspiracy theory that Jews financed World War I (a theory that would also allow the Nazi Party to rise in Germany.) Although he later retracted his attacks, In Germany, Ford’s antisemitic articles from The Dearborn Independent were issued in four volumes, cumulatively titled The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem published by Theodor Fritsch, founder of several antisemitic parties and a member of the Reichstag. In a letter written in 1924, Heinrich Himmler described Ford as “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters”.[66] Ford is the only American mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf

And even though Ford was possibly the one person who did more to bring about the modern era in the US, he longed for the “good old days” and was sad to see how his invention had changed society. At his home he hosted old-school European dances like you read about in a Jane Austen novel; he financed single-room schoolhouses and collected 19th century antiques. He made no sense but he made good cars, I guess. 

Around the country, local and state governments were making themselves more democratic by introducing procedures like the initiative (where citizens could propose legislation to be voted on), referendum (where legislation could be opened up and voted on by the entire population), and the recall to remove officials from office. The 17th Amendment made it so that senators were directly elected, instead of being chosen by the state legislature, and parties began holding primaries to allow voters to choose the candidate rather than the party machine. 

But the most famous act of “muckraking” and Progressive activism goes to Upton Sinclair and his disgusting book The Jungle. Upton Sinclair went to college when he was 14 and soon started selling stories to magazines. He graduated from City College of New York and then continued his studies at Columbia, finishing his higher education when he was just 20. As a socialist author he was tasked by the Chicago socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason to write an expose on the mistreatment of workers in the meatpacking industry. The idea was to drum up support for the labor movement by showing just how bad it was. He spent weeks undercover in meatpacking factories and finished his manuscript when was just 28 years old. Helped out by fellow writer friends, like Call of the Wild’s Jack London, Sinclair’s book got picked up and it became an instant hit. Within months of its release, The Jungle had been translated into 17 languages and was read around the country.

Unfortunately, people were less concerned with the terrible working conditions because they were too distracted with how disgusting the meatpacking industry was. Sinclair wrote about workers’ hands getting cut off by the unsafe equipment and then falling into the meat grinder and readers just skipped past the whole “guy who got his hand cut off” and fixated on the whole “there may be a human hand in my meatloaf” aspect of the story. As Sinclair put it,

“I aimed for their heart but I ended up hitting them in the stomach.”

One person who was particularly hit in the stomach was none other than President Teddy Roosevelt. He read the book and was so convinced that it couldn’t be true he sent investigators into the meatpacking plant. They came back and were like, “Yup. It’s gross in there” and so Teddy went to work. In 1906, the same year The Jungle was published, the Meat Inspection Act was passed. Soon after, the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, was established to oversee the stuff we put into our bodies to make sure, you know, it didn’t have a thumb in it. Meanwhile, Coca Cola is like, “Welp! I guess that’s the end of our cocaine miracle soda!”

Upton Sinclair went on to have a rollercoaster of a career. He built a utopian co-op in New Jersey with the money he made from The Jungle but it burned down within the year, possibly the result of arson targeting socialist movements. He was never able to get much traction with his works of fiction and he repeatedly ran for Congress as a Socialist but was never successful. He would later publish political nonfiction on the Sacco and Vanzetti case and the Teapot Dome Scandal (more on that in a few episodes). Titled Oil!, that book would later be adapted into the film There Will Be Blood, so that’s pretty cool. In 1943 Sinclair finally earned a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his work Dragon’s Teeth, exploring the rise of Hitler’s Nazism in Germany. When he died in 1968, he had written 90 books, 30 plays, and countless other works of journalism. But he’ll always be known as the guy who made people vomit through words alone… what a legacy. 

Act 2: Progressive Presidents

So, reformers and journalists helped things progress in the Progressive Era. But the real changes came once we elected presidents who also believed in a strong national government. The three Progressive Presidents – Teddy, Taft, and Woodrow Wilson – are really the first modern presidents. Before 1900, the federal government was mostly concerned with taxes, tariffs, and war. Most things that impacted peoples’ daily lives were left up to employers or local government. But all of that changed with Teddy Roosevelt.

First of all, I love Teddy Roosevelt. If you’re playing along at home, this is the third episode in a row that’s gotten a Teddy shoutout and I’m. Not. Done. But I love Teddy because he is a modern Renaissance man. He’s the Ron Swanson of history. He hunted and went on safaris and traipsed around Latin America telling them what to do. But then he also was basically the Bernie Sanders of the early 20th century, advocating for universal health care, social safety nets, and environmental activism. Oh yeah, and he was into women’s suffrage before it was cool. More on that next episode.

So who is Teddy Roosevelt? Well, for one, his nickname growing up was “Teedie,” apparently he hated the nickname “Teddy” but I refuse to say “Teedie” any more than I have to. So, sorry Teddy. He was born in New York City to wealthy Theodore “Thee” Roosevelt, Sr. – oh my gosh it’s like they refuse to accept normal nicknames for Theodore. And his mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch, was a Southern belle who was rumored to have been the inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. This family is legendary. 

He was incredibly bright, partly bolstered by the fact that illness and asthma kept him inside reading books most of the time. His doctor told him when he was young that to survive he needed to avoid a “strenuous” life and Teddy was like, “Sounds good!” and then ignored that advice. He graduated with honors from Harvard in 1880, spent some time in Columbia law school but then dropped out to join the New York State Assembly, you know, like you do. He became the youngest person to serve as a New York representative at age 24. But in 1884 he had the worst Valentine’s Day ever when his mother and his wife both died on the same day. He left New York behind and spent two years as a cowboy and cattle rancher in the Dakota territory. It’s like when Ron Swanson heard Tammy ___ was in town, grabbed his “go bag” and left for the woods. 

After his time out west, he came back, lost the race for mayor of New York City, remarried his childhood friend (they had apparently watched Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession out of the window of his grandfather’s house in New York Citty when they were little. Cute?) He rose up through the civil service in NYC, becoming police commissioner. Remember the Gilded Age episode? He was convinced by his friend photographer Jacob Riis to improve conditions for the poor! He then became Assistant US Navy Secretary under President McKinley. Remember the Imperialism episode? He micromanaged his boss who then gladly released him to join the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.

Fresh off of his self-imposed glory and fame, that same year he was nominated for the Medal of Honor and elected governor New York. 1898 was a bad year for Spain but a good year for Teddy. He was incredibly progressive as governor – so much so that the Republican party bosses, who were used to controlling city politics Gilded Age-style were like, “Get this guy out of here.” And what do you do with a politician so that he will have absolutely no power and nothing to do? Make him vice president of course! Absolutely nothing could go wrong with this plan!

And then, President McKinley was assassinated. Oops. So in 1901, at 42 he became the youngest ever president after McKinley was assassinated. 

Oh yeah – and before we get into his presidency some of you might have been wondering “Roosevelt?” That’s a pretty famous politicky name. And you’re right, fictional listener who I think asks questions like that! Teddy was Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle (Oh hello, Eleanor. I can’t wait to talk about you in a few episodes.) As president he walked her down the aisle when she married Franklin Roosevelt (her 5th cousin once removed.) Those Roosevelts like to keep it in the family. 

It’s fitting that Teddy became president in 1901, the beginning of a new century, because Teddy really became the model of a 20th century president. Remember that up until this point, most people – presidents included – believed the federal government was meant to stay out of peoples’ lives and stick to taxes, tariffs, and wars. But a new batch of presidents, known as the Progressive Presidents, believed that the president was the “steward of the people” and he should take action for the public good, whatever that meant to him. 

For Teddy, that meant that the American people deserved a “Square Deal” that included “fair play” in the economy, protections for consumers from big corporations, and conservation of natural resources. And boy did he deliver. He earned the nickname of a “trustbuster” for actually enforcing the Sherman Antitrust Law and investigating and holding accountable corporations through his new Department of Commerce and Labor. The Expedition Act, well, expedited this process by allowing his attorney general to quickly bring antitrust lawsuits on behalf of the federal government. And the ICC began setting railroad rates to make sure they were fair for consumers. 

After reading Upton Sinclair’s book, he passed the Meat Inspection Act, which, inspects meat, I assume? I’ve never looked into it but the title seems pretty self explanatory. And he also passed the Pure Food and Drug Act which, among other things, established the FDA – the people who regulate what we put in our bodies and make sure that food marked “Gluten Free” doesn’t secretly have gluten floating around in there, or whatever. 

President Roosevelt and John Muir
Underwood & Underwood [Public domain]

Teddy is probably most known for his environmental conservation. In 1906 he signed the National Monuments Act, protecting sites like the Grand Canyon, preserving wildlife sanctuaries, national forests, and game reserves. He creaetd the US Forest Service protecting 100 million acres of national forest and he improved federal irrigation. 

But Teddy was way more than a trustbusting outdoorsman. He was also progressive on topics related to social justice and civil rights. Now, could he have done more to support African Americans as president? Sure. But compared to every other president who came before, besides Lincoln, Teddy did use his position to make headway for the rights of black Americans. 

For example, Minnie Cox had been postmaster of a small town in Mississippi on-and-off for decades, the first African American woman to be postmaster anywhere in the country. And this was a really desirable civil service job. But as Reconstruction-era protections faded away in the South, white residents signed a petition calling on her to resign. In the fall of 1902, future Mississippi governor and US Senator James Vardaman wrote editorials condemning white residents for “tolerating a negro wench as a postmaster.” He argued that if necessary, “every Negro in the state will be lynched… to maintain white supremacy.” Facing increasing threats with no protection from local law enforcement, she stepped down. After hearing about her mistreatment, Teddy Roosevelt refused to accept her resignation and ordered that all mail service in the city be halted until she was allowed back on the job to finish out her term. Fearing for her safety, Minnie Cox moved away but Teddy stuck to his guns and the Indianola post office was closed until Minnie’s term expired the following year. She eventually moved back to the town where she and her husband opened one of the earliest black-owned banks in the state of Mississippi.

Side note: in 2008, the modern US Post Office in that town was renamed the “Minnie Cox Post Office Building in tribute to all that she accomplished by breaking barriers.” Cool.

TR was also the first president to entertain an African American as a guest at the White House – which is insane when you think about it. So, Lincoln never had an black guests? Not even Frederick Douglass? Whoa. But, after he met with Booker T. Washington in the White House the backlash was so severe that he never invited him back again. And so, yeah. He wasn’t perfect. 

Some of his reactions to civil rights abuses were muddled at best. In 1906, a group of black troops in Brownsville, Texas were accused of killing a white person. The War Department recommended they be dismissed because none of them would confess but Teddy seemed to support the black troops. That is, until after the November election. Yep. Republican candidates got hundreds of thousands of black votes, then Teddy dismissed all 167 black soldiers with no pensions. So that wasn’t great.

But in general, Teddy was ahead of his time. He was also a strong supporter of a woman’s right to vote, leading to one historian calling him “the great male feminist of his period.” Ooh I love me a male feminist. More on that next episode.

Now, after almost two full terms (his first was taking over for McKinley) Teddy thought he would step out of the limelight and let someone else lead, as long as he could personally choose who that person would be. His VP Taft became the Republican Party’s next candidate and he won thanks mostly to Teddy’s popularity. And Taft really gets the short end of the stick, historically speaking. Because he actually did a ton of stuff. He took on more trusts than Teddy did: bringing twice as many antitrust lawsuits in four years than Teddy did in seven. He established the Children’s Bureau that investigated child labor; the Bureau of Mines to expand national forests, monitor mining companies, and protect waterpower sites from private development. The 16th Amendment was added during his presidency, allowing the federal government to collect an income tax for the first time, greatly expanding government revenue.

But Taft was never nearly as popular as Teddy. For one, he was very overweight (he eventually weighed 350 pounds.) Now, should that matter? No. But does it matter? Unfortunately it did for Taft, especially coming right after strapping Rough Rider Teddy. But more than his appearance, Taft did not view himself as a politician so he didn’t do much politicking. He came to the office as a federal judge and then a civil administrator of hte newly-acquired Phillippines. He was popular there because he governed fairly: he improved the economy, built roads and schools, and gave the Filipino people at least some voice in their territorial government. So he didn’t feel to concerned with what the Republican party, or anyone really, thought of him as president. And he did some things that went against the party – and Teddy – like firing famed environmentalist Gifford Pinchot from his post at the Forest Service and pushing for high tariffs, something progressives did not want. Why? I don’t know but I don’t have the energy to talk about tariffs this episode. 

He lost the election of 1912 to Wilson – more on that in a second – and he went on to secure his dream job: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He’s the only person to ever serve as head of the Executive and Judicial branches. Nicely done, Taft! He held the position until just before his death in 1930 and considered that to be his true legacy, writing “I don’t remember that I ever was President.” What a badass. 

The Election of 1912 was a mess, mostly thanks to Teddy. Yes! We’re still talking about him! He didn’t think Taft was being progressive enough so he decided to run again on a third party Progressive ticket. Nicknamed the Bull Moose Party, Teddy split Republican voters between moderates who supported Taft and progressives who supported Teddy. In the end, another progressive – this time a Democrat – won and Woodrow Wilson became the only Democrat to serve as president between 1896 and 1932. The Party of Lincoln reigned supreme until *spoiler alert* they maybe cause the Great Depression? 

Just a quick note about party names – just ignore them. At this point in time, the bigger distinction is between progressives and moderates and they both exist in both major parties. And really, all four candidates who ran for president in 1912 would be considered liberal by today’s standards. Heck, Eugene Debs earned 6% of the national vote as the candidate for the Socialist Party. If the Gilded Age was the heydey for conservative politics, then the Progressive Era was for the liberals. 

And we can see this clearly if we compare Woodrow Wilson’s domestic plan, New Freedom, with competitor Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose plan, New Nationalism. And by compare, I mean just notice that they’re basically exactly the same. Both were increidbly progressive and called for the government to step in to restore market competition by reducing huge monopolies and lowering tariffs. Teddy went even further in 1912 and called for women suffrage, national labor and health legislation, an 8 hour work day, a living wage, and social security systems for health, unemployment, and old age. Seriously: when Bernie ran in 2016 I was like, “Please. Teddy was talking about this stuff 104 years ago.”

Now, we’ve got to move on to Wilson but before we do let’s finish out Teddy’s story… for now. He lost the election in 1912, but not before he was shot in the chest at a campaign event. He still went on stage, gave a 90 minute speech, and then went to the doctor. Come on Teddy. Leave something for the rest of us. 

Although his doctor had advised him to get a desk job and not strain himself, Teddy lived a legendary life. Outside of his political achievements, he published more than 25 books on various subjects, including history, biology, geography and philosophy. He published an autobiography and his four volume The Winning of the West. He died in his sleep in 1919 at his Long Island home at the age of 60. Although he had been denied the Medal of Honor after the Spanish-American war, he posthumously received it over a century later, in 2001, from President Bill Clinton. He’s the first and only president to receive the highest award for military service in the United States. Thanks Teddy. 

So, we’re going to talk a lot more about Woodrow Wilson in our episode about World War I. So for now, let’s just look at what he accomplished domestically as a Progressive Democrat. Similar to Taft, he came to politics somewhat reluctantly. His original career was as a political science professor and president of Princeton. The Democratic party convinced him to run for Governor of New Jersey, and similar to Teddy, he asserted his independence from the party machine. He went against the Democrats conservatism and pushed for a more progressive platform. 

As president, he instituted an income tax on the richest 5% of Americans – man, Bernie would have loved the 1910s. He passed an even stricter antitrust law that clearly exempted labor unions. Before, employers had been able to argue that labor unions were a “monopoly of workers” that needed to be broken up like a trust but Wilson was like, “Yeah no.” Samuel Gompers called it the “Magna Carta for labor unions” because it established them as a protected group. 

He outlawed child labor for kids under 14… although this was hilariously declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. I guess they argued that it violated kids’ right to work? I don’t know. Child labor wouldn’t be outlawed until 1938 and that was just because kids were taking away jobs during the Depression.

Wilson’s Adamson Act established an 8-hour workday for railroad employees, and many other companies followed suit. And, possibly most importantly, Wilson established the Federal Reserve. This is sort of like the Frankenstein-style revival of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States that had been killed by Jackson. The Federal Reserve was a system of 12 banks that would hold money from all banks in reserve for safekeeping. The “Fed” could also set interest rates which gave the federal government a lot more indirect control over the economy.

This is the moment in my lessons when a kid would ask, “How do interest rates help control the economy?” and then I would sigh and wonder why I got into teaching. Let me give it a shot: if the Fed sets interest rates low, then… people will want to borrow more money. So… more money is flowing from banks to businesses to people and the economy grows? But… if they raise interest rates, people will borrow… less. This would slow the flow of money but could also reduce inflation? Why does it reduce inflation? Because I said so! Let’s move on…

Act 3: Was the Progressive Era really that “progressive?”

Now’s the moment in our episode when I annoyingly unravel everthing I just talked about by questioned whether the Progressive Era was actually progressive at all. Ugh historians and their “gray areas.” So, the simple answer is yes. Hey that was easy! From 1900 to 1920, huge Gilded-Age companies were regulated by the federal government, workers earned more rights and representation, environmental conservation became a focus for the country, consumers were increasingly protected, and women got the right to vote (you didn’t think I’d skip over that did you? I’ve got a whole episode on the Women’s Movement coming up next.) All of these would be considered successes by most “liberals” today, and “progressive” back then.

But there are two areas in which the country wasn’t as progressive, or at least, the country did not act the way a modern “liberal” would hope. Because while we were super concerned with the daily life, working conditions, and rights of white American citizens, we weren’t especially bothered by the experience of African Americans and people of color anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, really.

In the wake of the Spanish-American War, Teddy, Taft, and Wilson all viewed Latin America as our own personal playground. Teddy famously argued that we should “speak softly and carry a big stick,” a philosophy that led us to incite and support a Panamanian rebellion against Colombia, then get the new tiny country of Panama to sign a treaty with us letting us build a canal, control the canal, and make money off the canal for the next 100 years or so. It was a pretty sweet deal. 

Teddy also expanded on the Monroe Doctrine – you know, when Monroe in the early 19th century was like, “Hey Europe! Stay out of Latin America!” I believe that’s a direct quote. Well, TR went one step further adding, “… yeah! And if anyone needs to intervene in Latin America, it’s going to be us!” The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was basically our new policy that it was our duty to step into any Latin American country when “democracy was threatened.” But really, this just meant that we would intervene whenever our capitalist business interests were threatened. But those of you who listened to Season 1 already know about this… 

Throughout the Progressive Era, “banana republics” were established across Central America as US-owned corporations like the United Fruit Company. bought up so much land that they basically controlled the governments of Honduras and Costa Rica. And from 1901 to 1920, US marines landed in Caribbean countries over 20 times under the guise of establishing “more friendly environments” for democracy and American business. 

But of course, Teddy didn’t stop at Latin America. He set his sights on Asia as well, negotiating a “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan. You see, Japanese immigrants were becoming more numerous along the West Coast and I think you know how the West Coast felt about Asian immigrants (see: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884.) And Japan wasn’t too happy about losing its labor force to the US – its growing rival in the Pacific. Remember that Japan was Meiji Restoration-ing and trying to catch up to the industrial west. These tensions flared up in 1906 when the San Francisco school board declared that they would segregate students by race, placing Asian students in their own “separate but equal” schools. Oh hey, San Francisco! You thought you were all open-minded and loving and so much better than Mississippi? Sorry. Y’all were racist too. 

So Teddy negotiated an informal deal, a “gentleman’s agreement,” with the Japanese government: Teddy would personally see to it that San Francisco revoked its segregation order if Japan would stop giving its citizens visas to emigrate to the US. And everything was resolved and the US and Japan would never have tensions again! Yay!

This agreement came on the heels of Teddy’s greatest international achievement, negotiating a peace treaty to end the Russo-Japanese War. What? What’s Teddy doing acting as a therapist for Russia and Japan? Doesn’t he know we’re going to hate them later in the 20th century! Well, he saw that if the war kept going on (they were fighting over land in Manchuria, by the way) that Japan would demolish Russia, leading to a massive imbalance of power in the Pacific. And we had just gotten some territory in the Pacific (Oh hey Philippines!) and if there was going to be an imbalance of power, we wanted to be the ones in power. So he invited the Tsar and the Emperor to New Hampshire, as you do, helped them sign a treaty and then received the Nobel Peace Prize! Man this guy just doesn’t quit.

Diplomacy (or lack thereof) under Taft and Wilson

For the most part, Taft and Wilson followed Teddy’s lead in Latin America although Taft went the more “economic imperialism” approach. He pushed loans to support other economies across the Americas in a much more stable and probably long-term successful approach he called “Dollar Diplomacy.”

And Wilson’s strategy in the Americas was…. Well, I’ll say it. It was a hot mess. He was a professor with zero foreign policy experience and he had no idea what he was doing. He intervened in the ongoing Mexican Civil War after the 1911 Revolution, sending the military to “teach Mexicans to elect good men.” What? You don’t teach people about democracy by sending in a military, Woodrow. (And, many other US presidents…) But then he was surprised that the Mexicans weren’t super happy about the US intervening in their Revolution so he left? But then he sent 10,000 troops to chase after Pancho Villa, who was raiding along the US-Mexico border. But they never found him? Like I said, it was a hot mess.

But that’s OK, because Woodrow Wilson is really good at domestic policy and peacetime diplomacy. Sure, he’s terrible at foreign policy but it’s not like there’s going to be, like, a massive war that envelops the entire world during his presidency, right? That would be crazy!

So the Progressive Presidents weren’t super concerned about progress for the people of Latin America as much as they were concerned about the progress of American business in Latin America. But even more stark is the contrast between the lofty ideals of the Progressive Era and the reality for African Americans around the country.

Not much “progress” for African Americans

I mean, the Progressive Era is happening simultaneously alongside the solidification of the Jim Crow South. And sure, Teddy tried to highlight some individual African Americans doing good work – like Minnie Cox and Booker T. Washington – but overall, the federal government really abandoned black Americans. As progressives are pushing to expand white peoples’ voice in the government, states across the country, but mostly in the south, are also putting in place barriers to voting like literacy tests and complicated voter registration laws. These were intended to keep out all “undesirable” voters, basically anyone who wasn’t a white middle class Protestant and they were effective: in the 1890s 80% of white men voted but that number steadily declined beginning in the early 1900s. 

But obviously, the restrictions disproportionately harmed African Americans and other citizens of color. Just five years before Teddy became president, the Supreme Court issued arguably its worst ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding the constitutionality of the South’s “separate but equal” policy of racial segregation. From 1900 to 1920, on average 75 African Americans were lynched each year. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson screened the first film ever shown in the White House. Cool! Unfortunately, it was Birth of a Nation (dang!), a film that glorified the Confederacy and the KKK while perpetuating stereotypes of African Americans as lazy, incompetent, and childlike. After its release, membership in the KKK surged and they would experience a revival in the 1920s, expanding its hatred to encompass Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, in addition to African Americans. 

Booker T. and W.E.B.

But there were notable efforts to improve the lives of African Americans happening in the Progressive Era, but these efforts had to be taken on mostly by black Americans themselves, with little support from the white majority. Booker T. Washington, the guy Teddy invited to the White House once, led the Tuskegee Institute and advocated for vocational education to lift African Americans out of poverty. His “Atlanta Compromise,” a speech given in 1895, argued that African Americans should earn the respect of white people by demonstrating their usefulness through skilled labor and economic success first. Then political and civil rights would come later. 

Not everyone agreed with this “baby step” argument. Enter: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. More commonly known as W.E.B. Du Bois (and yes, he wanted it pronounced “Du Boys,” in the English fashion.) He disagreed with Washington’s approach, believing African Americans had waited long enough and deserved full equality immediately. He also emphasized education but he believed it was important to foster a “Talented Tenth,” a small portion of the black population who could earn prestigious degrees and lead the movement for political equality. 

And to understand why these two black thinkers had such different approaches to the issue of racial equality, we just need to look at their own upbringings. Booker T. Washington was born in Virginia in 1856, part of the last generation of African Americans born into slavery. He came of age during Reconstruction and became the leading voice for newly emancipated black people in the Jim Crow South. After witnessing lynchings and other acts of violence against African Americans, he came to the conclusion that directly confronting racism would only endanger black people further. That’s why he proposed his “Atlanta Compromise.” He believed that moderate whites, who may be wary of the idea of complete equality of the races, might be more willing to help black people go to vocational schools and get steady jobs. And, this “slow but steady” approach might get fewer African Americans killed in the process. And for someone born into slavery, the idea of economic freedom was incredibly compelling.

Du Bois, on the other hand, was 12 years younger and he did not experience the same kinds of hardships that Washington had. He grew up in an integrated community in Massachusetts as the son of a distinguished landowning free black family. He spent his summers teaching in rural Tennessee before graduating from Harvard in 1890, where he was selected to be one of six commencement speakers. He went on to study history and economics at the prestigious University of Berlin in Germany, where just a few decades later a professor by the name of Albert Einstein would start making some waves.

Du Bois went on to teach Greek and Latin at a university in Ohio before earning his PhD in 1895, the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. His doctoral thesis, entitled “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870,” was published as No. 1 in Harvard Historical Series. So… a slightly different upbringing than Washington. And it’s easy to understand why Du Bois would have been offended by Washington’s call for a “compromise” with white people to put their political equality on the backburner in favor of trade jobs and vocational schooling. Du Bois was proof that African Americans could do more than that! But many southern blacks viewed Du Bois as out of touch, considering he hadn’t grown up in and experienced the brutality of the Jim Crow South. 

The point of all of this was that one generation after emancipation, African Americans were developing their own leaders. And while these leaders didn’t always agree, they had the same end goal: true equality for black Americans. Washington worked as principal at the Tuskegee Institute, building the new school from the ground up so that by 1906, it had 156 faculty members, 1590 students and owned 2,300 acres of land where students could experiment with scientific agricultural methods and learn other trades from black experts.

At the same time, Du Bois was becoming active in the growing black civil rights movement, founding the Niagara Movement in 1905 and then the NAACP in 1909. As a prolific writer himself (seriously, go read The Souls of Black Folk. It will change you.) Du Bois encouraged other black writers through his magazine The Crisis. We’ll come back to this in a few episodes when we talk about the Harlem Renaissance. 

Marcus Garvey

Other black leaders would come along in the tail end of the Progressive Era advocating for more extreme measures. Most famously, Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey argued in favor of racial separation as long as black people had their own government where they were in control. He eventually proposed a “Back to Africa” movement that would ironically gain support from groups like the KKK who were like, “Hey wait. We want black people to go back to Africa, too!” 

Side note about Marcus Garvey: when he was kicked out of the US on some trumped-up charge, like mail fraud, by the FBI, he had this to say:

“Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life…

“Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is near!”

Now, a lot of supporters, especially in his home Jamaica saw that as a prophecy because just a few years later in 1930, Haile Selassie I was crowned the Ethiopian Emperor, the first black king in Africa in centuries. They built a movement around Selassie as the Second Coming of Christ, with Marcus Garvey as a prophet. And they named their movement after Selassie’s pre-coronation name: Ras Tafari. 

One other story about Garvey: in 1940 he was 52 and living in London. As he was reading a Chicago newspaper he came across his own obituary that reported that Garvey died “broke, alone, and unpopular.” He became so upset and enraged by this that… he had a stroke… and he died. He died from reading his own obituary. 

OK back to the Progressive Era. Which of these approaches worked in the end? Well, I would argue all of them did. I’ll come back to this in way more detail later but if you think about an event like the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks and led by Dr. King – a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement – you can see the influence of all of these thinkers.

If African Americans in Montgomery hadn’t had blue collar jobs, they wouldn’t have had any economic power and their boycott of the city buses wouldn’t have made much of an impact. But if they didn’t have highly educated elite leadership from people like Martin Luther King, Jr. they might not have been able to spread their message outside of Montgomery. And finally, many moderate whites looked on this nonviolent form of protest more favorably than those groups who were advocating for more extreme measures, like Malcolm X, who himself was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Marcus Garvey.

So although not much material progress occurred for African Americans during the Progressive Era, the foundation was being laid for advancement in the coming decades. 

In Conclusion

So the Progressive Era did some pretty great stuff, assuming you think regulating big business, protecting workers, letting women vote, and allowing for more democracy are good things. The progress will be halted, or at least on hold, as we enter the “war to end all wars that actually caused many more wars.”

But a lot of these Progressive programs laid the groundwork for massive federal programs that we’ll see under FDR and future Democratic presidents. Because Teddy, Taft and Wilson set the model that would be followed by most presidents up until today – presidents that see it as their job to represent the American people and use the federal government to improve their lives, as they see fit.

Sure, we’ll see a reversion back to Gilded Age-style politics in the 1920s that will go back to letting the economy run wild and do whatever it wants but honestly, what’s the worst that could happen?

To be continued.

Sources

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ida-b-wells-barnett

https://www.biography.com/writer/upton-sinclair

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Ford/

https://study.com/academy/lesson/african-americans-in-the-progressive-era-issues-leaders.html

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/theodore-roosevelt/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/william-howard-taft/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/woodrow-wilson/

https://www.biography.com/us-president/theodore-roosevelt

https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/tuskegee/btwtusk.htm

https://millercenter.org/president/wilson/foreign-affairs