During the period known as the Progressive Era (1890s to about 1920) the U.S. government became increasingly activist in both domestic and foreign policy. Progressive, that is, reform-minded, political leaders sought to extend their vision of a just and rational order to all areas of society and some, indeed, to all reaches of the globe.
Progressivism at Home
- City governments were transformed, becoming relatively honest and efficient; social workers labored to improve slum housing, health, and education; and in many states reform movements democratized, purified, and humanized government.
- Under Roosevelt the national government strengthened or created regulatory agencies that exerted increasing influence over business enterprise: the Hepburn Act (1906) reinforced the Interstate Commerce Commission; the Forest Service, under Gifford Pinchot from 1898 to 1910, guided lumbering companies in the conservation of-and more rational and efficient exploitation of-woodland resources; the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) attempted to protect consumers from fraudulent (false) labeling and adulteration of products. Beginning in 1902, Roosevelt also used the Justice Department and lawsuits (or the threat of them) to attack monopoly under the Sherman Anti-Trust Law.
- Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the most famous work of muckraking (to search for and expose real or alleged corruption, scandal, or the like, especially in politics) fiction, exposed terrible health and labor conditions in meat-packing plants.
- William Howard Taft, his successor as president (1909-13), did less in his policies, continuing only the antitrust campaign. He approved passage of the Sixteenth Amendment (the income tax amendment, 1913), however; in time it would transform the federal government by giving it access to enormous revenues (money).
- Republicans were split in the election of 1912. The regular nomination went to Taft, and a short-lived Progressive party was formed to run Theodore Roosevelt. Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) was therefore able to win the presidency.
- Attacking corporate power, he won a drastic lowering of the tariff (tax on imports or exports, or a list of prices for such things as rail service, bus routes, and electrical usage) (1913) and establishment of a Tariff Commission (1916); creation of the Federal Reserve System (1913) to supervise banking and currency; a broadened anti-monopoly program under the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914); control over the hours of labor on the railroads (Adamson Act, 1916); and creation of a body to ensure fair and open competition in business (Fair Trade Commission, 1914).
- During the Progressive Era, southern governments imposed a wide range of Jim Crow laws on black people, using the rationale that such legalization of segregation resulted in a more orderly, systematic electoral system and society.
- Many of the steps that had been taken toward racial equality during the Reconstruction period were thus reversed. The federal government upheld the principle of racial segregation in the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), as long as blacks were provided with "separate but equal" facilities.
- In the face of the rigidly segregated society that confronted them, blacks themselves were divided concerning the appropriate course of action. Since 1895, Booker T. Washington had urged that blacks should not actively agitate for equality, but should acquire craft skills, work industriously, and convince whites of their abilities.
- W. E. B. Du Bois insisted instead (in The Souls of Black Folk, 1903) that black people ceaselessly protest Jim Crow laws, demand education in the highest professions as well as in crafts, and work for complete social integration. In 1910 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded to advance these ideals.
Intervention and World War
- President Taft continued to stress the economic aspects of Roosevelt's interventionist spirit. Under Taft's foreign policy (called dollar diplomacy) U.S. firms (companies) were encouraged to increase investments in countries bordering the Caribbean in the hope that the American economic presence would ensure political stability there.
- President Wilson went a step further, seeking not simply to maintain order, but to advance democracy and self-rule. In 1915 he sent troops into Haiti to put an end to the chaos of revolution-and to protect U.S. investments there-and in 1916 he did the same in the Dominican Republic; the two countries were made virtual protectorates of the United States.
- After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Wilson sought vainly to bring peace. In early 1917, however, Germany's unrestricted use of submarine attacks against neutral as well as Allied shipping inflamed American opinion for war.
- Wilson decided that if the United States was to have any hope of influencing world affairs, it was imperative (important) that it enter the war and fight to protect democracy against what he called German autocracy.