Early Twentieth Century
"A great democracy will be neither great nor a
democracy if it is not progressive."
Former President Theodore Roosevelt, circa 1910
Agrarian Distress and the Rise of Populism
In spite of their remarkable progress, 19th-century American farmers experienced recurring periods of hardship. Several basic factors were involved -- soil exhaustion, the vagaries of nature, a decline in self-sufficiency, and the lack of adequate legislative protection and aid. Perhaps most important, however, was over-production.
Along with the mechanical improvements which greatly increased yield per hectare, the amount of land under cultivation grew rapidly throughout the second half of the century, as the railroads and the gradual displacement of the Plains Indians opened up new areas for western settlement. A similar expansion of agricultural lands in countries such as Canada, Argentina and Australia compounded these problems in the international market, where much of U.S. agricultural production was now sold.
The farther west the settlers went, the more dependent they became on the railroads to move their goods to market. At the same time, farmers paid high costs for manufactured goods as a result of the protective tariffs that Congress, backed by Eastern industrial interests, had long supported. Over time, the Midwestern and Western farmer fell ever more deeply in debt to the banks that held their mortgages.
In the South, the fall of the Confederacy brought major changes in agricultural practices. The most significant of these was sharecropping, where tenant farmers "shared" up to half of their crop with the landowners in exchange for seed and essential supplies. An estimated 80 percent of the South's black farmers and 40 percent of its white ones lived under this debilitating system following the Civil War.
Most sharecroppers were locked in a cycle of debt, from which the only hope of escape was increased planting. This led to the over-production of cotton and tobacco, and thus to declining prices and the further exhaustion of the soil.
The first organized effort to address general agricultural problems was the Granger movement. Launched in 1867 by employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Granges focused initially on social activities to counter the isolation most farm families encountered. Women's participation was actively encouraged. Spurred by the Panic of 1873, the Grange soon grew to 20,000 chapters and one-and-a-half million members.
Although most of them ultimately failed, the Granges set up their own marketing systems, stores, processing plants, factories and cooperatives. The movement also enjoyed some political success during the 1870s. A few states passed "Granger laws," limiting railroad and warehouse fees.
By 1880 the movement began to decline, replaced by the Farmers' Alliances. By 1890 the Alliance movements had members from New York to California totaling about 1.5 million. A parallel African-American organization, the Colored Farmers National Alliance, numbered over a million members.
From the beginning, the Farmers' Alliances were political organizations with elaborate economic programs. According to one early platform, its purpose was to "unite the farmers of America for their protection against class legislation and the encroachments of concentrated capital." Their program also called for the regulation -- if not the outright nationalization -- of the railroads; currency inflation to provide debt relief; the lowering of the tariff; and the establishment of government-owned storehouses and low-interest lending facilities.
During the late 1880s a series of droughts devastated the western Great Plains. Western Kansas lost half its population during a four-year span. To make matters worse, the McKinley Tariff of 1890 was one of the highest the country had ever seen.
By 1890 the level of agrarian distress was at an all-time high. Working with sympathetic Democrats in the South or small third parties in the West, the Farmer's Alliance made a push for political power. From these elements, a third political party, known as the Populist Party, emerged. Never before in American politics had there been anything like the Populist fervor that swept the prairies and cotton lands. The elections of 1890 brought the new party into power in a dozen Southern and Western states, and sent a score of Populist senators and representatives to Congress.
Its first convention was in 1892, when delegates from farm, labor and reform organizations met in Omaha, Nebraska, determined at last to make their mark on a U.S. political system they viewed as hopelessly corrupted by the monied interests of the industrial and commercial trusts. Their platform stated:
We are met, in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench [courts].... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes -- tramps and millionaires.
The pragmatic portion of their platform focused on issues of land, transportation and finance, including the unlimited coinage of silver.
The Populists showed impressive strength in the West and South in the 1892 elections, and their candidate for president polled more than a million votes. Yet it was the currency question, pitting advocates of silver, against those who favored gold, which soon overshadowed all other issues. Agrarian spokesmen in the West and South -- supported by labor groups in the Eastern industrial centers -- demanded a return to the unlimited coinage of silver. Convinced that their troubles stemmed from a shortage of money in circulation, they argued that increasing the volume of money would indirectly raise prices for farm products and drive up industrial wages, thus allowing debts to be paid with inflated currency. Conservative groups and the financial classes, on the other hand, believed that such a policy would be disastrous, and insisted that inflation, once begun, could not be stopped. Only the gold standard, they said, offered stability.
The financial panic of 1893 heightened the tension of this debate. Bank failures abounded in the South and Midwest; unemployment soared and crop prices fell badly. The crisis, and President Grover Cleveland's inability to solve it, nearly broke the Democratic Party. Democrats who were silver supporters went over to the Populists as the presidential elections of 1896 neared.
The Democratic convention that year was witness to one of the most famous speeches in U.S. political history. Pleading with the convention not to "crucify mankind on a cross of gold," William Jennings Bryan, the young Nebraskan champion of silver, won the Democrats' presidential nomination.
The Populists also endorsed Bryan. The moment was to prove their high-water mark. Despite carrying the South and all of the West except California and Oregon, Bryan lost the more populated, industrial North and East -- and the election -- to the Republican's William McKinley.
The following year the country's finances began to improve, in part due to the discovery of gold in Alaska and the Yukon. In 1898 the Spanish-American War drew the nation's attention further from Populist issues. If the movement was dead, however, its ideas were not. Many of them passed into law within the next two decades.
The Struggles of Labor
The life of a 19th-century American industrial worker was far from easy. Even in good times wages were low, hours long and working conditions hazardous. Little of the wealth which the growth of the nation had generated went to its workers. The situation was worse for women and children, who made up a high percentage of the work force in some industries and often received but a fraction of the wages a man could earn. Periodic economic crises swept the nation, further eroding industrial wages and producing high levels of unemployment.
At the same time, the technological improvements, which added so much to the nation's productivity, continually reduced the demand for skilled labor. Yet the unskilled labor pool was constantly growing, as unprecedented numbers of immigrants -- 18 million between 1880 and 1910 -- entered the country, eager for work.
Before 1874, when Massachusetts passed the nation's first legislation limiting the number of hours women and child factory workers could perform to 10 hours a day, virtually no labor legislation existed in the country. Indeed, it was not until the 1930s that the federal government would become actively involved. Until then, the field was left to the state and local authorities, few of whom were as responsive to the workers as they were to wealthy industrialists.
The laissez-faire capitalism, which dominated the second half of the 19th century and fostered huge concentrations of wealth and power, was backed by a judiciary which time and again ruled against those who challenged the system. In this, they were merely following the prevailing philosophy of the times. As John D. Rockefeller is reported to have said: "the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest." This "Social Darwinism," as it was known, had many proponents who argued that any attempt to regulate business was tantamount to impeding the natural evolution of the species.
Yet the costs of this indifference to the victims of capital were high. For millions, living and working conditions were poor, and the hope of escaping from a lifetime of poverty slight. As late as the year 1900, the United States had the highest job-related fatality rate of any industrialized nation in the world. Most industrial workers still worked a 10-hour day (12 hours in the steel industry), yet earned from 20 to 40 percent less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. The situation was only worse for children, whose numbers in the work force doubled between 1870 and 1900.
The first major effort to organize workers' groups on a nationwide basis appeared with The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor in 1869. Originally a secret, ritualistic society organized by Philadelphia garment workers, it was open to all workers, including blacks, women and farmers. The Knights grew slowly until they succeeded in facing down the great railroad baron, Jay Gould, in an 1885 strike. Within a year they added 500,000 workers to their rolls.
The Knights of Labor soon fell into decline, however, and their place in the labor movement was gradually taken by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Rather than open its membership to all, the AFL, under former cigar union official Samuel Gompers, focused on skilled workers. His objectives were "pure and simple" and apolitical: increasing wages, reducing hours and improving working conditions. As such, Gompers helped turn the labor movement away from the socialist views earlier labor leaders had espoused.
Still, labor's goals -- and the unwillingness of capital to grant them -- resulted in the most violent labor conflicts in the nation's history. The first of these occurred with the Great Rail Strike of 1877, when rail workers across the nation went out on strike in response to a 10-percent pay cut. Attempts to break the strike led to rioting and wide-scale destruction in several cities: Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Buffalo, New York; and San Francisco, California. Federal troops had to be sent in at several locations before the strike was ended.
The Haymarket Square incident took place nine years later, when someone threw a bomb into a meeting called to discuss an ongoing strike at the McCormick Harvester Company in Chicago. In the ensuing melee, nine people were killed and some 60 injured.
Next came the riots of 1892 at Carnegie's steel works in Homestead, Pennsylvania. A group of 300 Pinkerton detectives the company had hired to break a bitter strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers were fired upon and 10 were killed. The National Guard was called in as a result, non-union workers hired and the strike broken. Unions were not let back into the plant until 1937.
Two years later, wage cuts at the Pullman Palace Car Company just outside Chicago, led to a strike, which, with the support of the American Railway Union, soon tied up much of the country's rail system. As the situation deteriorated, U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, himself a former railroad lawyer, deputized over 3,000 men in an attempt to keep the rails open. This was followed by a federal court injunction against union interference with the trains. When rioting ensued, President Cleveland sent in federal troops, and the strike was eventually broken.
The most militant of the strike-prone unions was the International Workers of the World (IWW). Formed from an amalgam of unions fighting for better conditions in the West's mining industry, the IWW, or "Wobblies" as they were commonly known, gained particular prominence from the Colorado mine clashes of 1903 and the singularly brutal fashion in which they were put down. Openly calling for class warfare, the Wobblies gained many adherents after they won a difficult strike battle in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. Their call for work stoppages in the midst of World War I, however, led to a government crackdown in 1917, which virtually destroyed them.
The Reform Impulse
The presidential election of 1900 gave the American people a chance to pass judgment on the McKinley administration, especially its foreign policy. Meeting at Philadelphia, the Republicans expressed jubilation over the successful outcome of the war with Spain, the restoration of prosperity and the effort to obtain new markets through the Open Door policy. McKinley's election was a foregone conclusion. But the president did not live long enough to enjoy his victory. In September 1901, while attending an exposition in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot down by an assassin. (He was the third president to be assassinated since the Civil War.)
Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's vice president, assumed the presidency. In domestic as well as international affairs, Roosevelt's accession coincided with a new epoch in American political life. The continent was peopled; the frontier was disappearing. A small, former struggling republic had become a world power. The country's political foundations had endured the vicissitudes of foreign and civil war, the tides of prosperity and depression. Immense strides had been made in agriculture and industry. Free public education had been largely realized and a free press maintained. The ideal of religious freedom had been sustained. The influence of big business was now more firmly entrenched than ever, however, and local and municipal government often was in the hands of corrupt politicians.
In response to the excesses of 19th-century capitalism and political corruption, a reform movement arose called "progressivism," which gave American politics and thought its special character from approximately 1890 until the American entry into World War I in 1917. The Progressives saw their work as a democratic crusade against the abuses of urban political bosses and corrupt robber barons. Their goals were greater democracy and social justice, honest government, more effective regulation of business and a revived commitment to public service. In general, they believed that expanding the scope of government would ensure the progress of U.S. society and the welfare of its citizens. Almost all the notable figures of the period, whether in politics, philosophy, scholarship or literature, were connected, at least in part, with the reform movement.
The years 1902 to 1908 marked the era of greatest reform activity, as writers and journalists, strongly protested practices and principles inherited from the 18th-century rural republic that were proving inadequate for a 20th-century urban state. Years before, in 1873, the celebrated author Mark Twain had exposed American society to critical scrutiny in The Gilded Age. Now, trenchant articles dealing with trusts, high finance, impure foods and abusive railroad practices began to appear in the daily newspapers and in such popular magazines as McClure's and Collier's. Their authors, such as the journalist Ida May Tarbell, who crusaded against the Standard Oil Trust, became known as "muckrakers."
In his sensational novel, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair exposed unsanitary conditions in the great Chicago meat packing houses and the grip of the beef trust on the nation's meat supply. Theodore Dreiser in The Financier and The Titan made it easy for laymen to understand the machinations of big business. Frank Norris' The Pit encouraged agrarian protest by revealing how secret manipulations affected the grain market in Chicago. Lincoln Steffens' The Shame of the Cities bared political corruption. This "literature of exposure" had a vital effect in rousing the people to action.
The hammering impact of uncompromising writers and an increasingly aroused public spurred political leaders to take practical measures. Many states enacted laws to improve the conditions under which people lived and worked. At the urging of such prominent social critics as Jane Addams, child labor laws, were strengthened and new ones adopted, raising age limits, shortening work hours, restricting night work and requiring school attendance.
By the early 20th century, most of the larger cities and more than half the states had established an eight-hour day on public works. Equally important were the workmen's compensation laws, which made employers legally responsible for injuries sustained by employees at work. New revenue laws were also enacted, which, by taxing inheritances, incomes and the property or earnings of corporations, sought to place the burden of government on those best able to pay.
It was clear to many people -- notably President Theodore Roosevelt and Progressive leaders in the Congress such as Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette -- that most of the problems reformers were concerned about could be solved only if dealt with on a national scale. Roosevelt, who was passionately interested in reform and determined to give the people what he called a "Square Deal," initiated a policy of increased government supervision in the enforcement of antitrust laws. Later, extension of government supervision over the railroads prompted the passage of major regulatory bills. One of the bills made published rates the lawful standard, and shippers equally liable with railroads for rebates.
Roosevelt's striking personality and his "trust-busting" activities captured the imagination of the ordinary individual, and approval of his progressive measures cut across party lines. In addition, the abounding prosperity of the country at this time led people to feel satisfied with the party in office. His victory in the 1904 election was assured.
Emboldened by a sweeping electoral triumph, Roosevelt applied fresh determination to the cause of reform. In his first annual message to Congress after his reelection, he called for still more drastic railroad regulation, and in June 1906 Congress passed the Hepburn Act. This gave the Interstate Commerce Commission real authority in regulating rates, extended the jurisdiction of the commission and forced the railroads to surrender their interlocking interests in steamship lines and coal companies.
Other congressional measures carried the principle of federal control still further. The pure-food law of 1906 prohibited the use of any "deleterious drug, chemical or preservative" in prepared medicines and foods. This was soon reinforced by an act requiring federal inspection of all concerns selling meats in interstate commerce.
Meanwhile, Congress had created a new Department of Commerce and Labor, with membership in the president's Cabinet. One bureau of the new department, empowered to investigate the affairs of large business aggregations, discovered in 1907 that the American Sugar Refining Company had defrauded the government of a large sum in import duties. Subsequent legal actions recovered more than $4 million and convicted several company officials. The Standard Oil Company of Indiana was indicted for receiving secret rebates on shipments over the Chicago and Alton Railroad. The fine imposed, amounting to $29,240,000 on 1,462 separate contracts, reflected the spirit of the time.
Conservation of the nation's natural resources, putting an end to wasteful exploitation of raw materials and the reclamation of wide stretches of neglected land were among the other major achievements of the Roosevelt era. The president had called for a far-reaching and integrated program of conservation, reclamation and irrigation as early as 1901 in his first annual message to Congress. Whereas his predecessors had set aside 18,800,000 hectares of timberland for preservation and parks, Roosevelt increased the area to 59,200,000 hectares and began systematic efforts to prevent forest fires and to retimber denuded tracts.
Taft and Wilson
Roosevelt's popularity was at its peak as the campaign of 1908 neared, but he was unwilling to break the tradition by which no president had held office for more than two terms. Instead, he supported William Howard Taft, who won the election and sought to continue his predecessor's programs of reform. Taft, a former judge, governor of the Philippines and administrator of the Panama Canal, made some progress. He continued the prosecution of trusts, further strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission, established a postal savings bank and a parcel post system, expanded the civil service and sponsored the enactment of two amendments to the Constitution.
The 16th Amendment authorized a federal income tax; the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, mandated the direct election of senators by the people, replacing the system whereby they were selected by state legislatures. Yet balanced against these achievements was Taft's acceptance of a tariff with protective schedules that outraged liberal opinion; his opposition to the entry of the state of Arizona into the Union because of its liberal constitution; and his growing reliance on the conservative wing of his party.
By 1910 Taft's party was divided, and an overwhelming vote swept the Democrats back into control of Congress. Two years later, Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic, progressive governor of the state of New Jersey, campaigned against Taft, the Republican candidate, and against Roosevelt who, rejected as a candidate by the Republican convention, had organized a third party, the Progressives.
Wilson, in a spirited campaign, defeated both rivals. Under his leadership, the new Congress enacted one of the most notable legislative programs in American history. Its first task was tariff revision. "The tariff duties must be altered," Wilson said. "We must abolish everything that bears any semblance of privilege." The Underwood Tariff, signed on October 3, 1913, provided substantial rate reductions on imported raw materials and foodstuffs, cotton and woolen goods, iron and steel, and removed the duties from more than a hundred other items. Although the act retained many protective features, it was a genuine attempt to lower the cost of living.
The second item on the Democratic program was a long overdue, thorough reorganization of the inflexible banking and currency system. "Control," said Wilson, "must be public, not private, must be vested in the government itself, so that the banks may be the instruments, not the masters, of business and of individual enterprise and initiative."
The Federal Reserve Act of December 23, 1913, was one of Wilson's most enduring legislative accomplishments. It imposed upon the existing banking system a new organization that divided the country into 12 districts, with a Federal Reserve Bank in each, all supervised by a Federal Reserve Board. These banks were to serve as depositories for the cash reserves of those banks that joined the system. Until the Federal Reserve Act, the U.S. government had left control of its money supply largely to unregulated private banks. While the official medium of exchange was gold coins, most loans and payments were carried out with bank notes, backed by the promise of redemption in gold. The trouble with this system was that the banks were tempted to reach beyond their cash reserves, prompting periodic panics during which fearful depositors raced to turn their bank paper into coin. With the passage of the act, greater flexibility in the money supply was assured, and provision was made for issuing federal reserve notes to meet business demands.
The next important task was trust regulation and investigation of corporate abuses. Congress authorized a Federal Trade Commission to issue orders prohibiting "unfair methods of competition" by business concerns in interstate trade. A second law, the Clayton Antitrust Act, forbade many corporate practices that had thus far escaped specific condemnation -- interlocking directorates, price discrimination among purchasers, use of the injunction in labor disputes and ownership by one corporation of stock in similar enterprises.
Farmers and other workers were not forgotten. A federal loan act made credit available to farmers at low rates of interest. The Seamen's Act of 1915, improved living and working conditions on board ships. The Federal Workingman's Compensation Act in 1916 authorized allowances to civil service employees for disabilities incurred at work. The Adamson Act of the same year established an eight-hour day for railroad labor.
The record of achievement won Wilson a firm place in American history as one of the nation's foremost political reformers. However, his domestic reputation would soon be overshadowed by his record as a wartime president who led his country to victory but could not hold the support of his people for the peace that followed.
A Nation of Nations
No country's history has been more closely bound to immigration than that of the United States. During the first 15 years of the 20th century alone, over 13 million people came to the United States, many passing through Ellis Island, the federal immigration center that opened in New York harbor in 1892. Though no longer in service, Ellis Island reopened in 1992 as a monument to the millions who crossed America's threshold there.
The first official census in 1790 numbered Americans at 3,929,214. Approximately half of the population of the original 13 states were of English origin; the rest were Scots-Irish, German, Dutch, French, Swedish, Welsh and Finnish. These white Europeans were mostly Protestants. A fifth of the population was enslaved Africans.
From early on, Americans viewed immigrants as a cheap source of labor. As a result, few official restrictions were placed upon immigration into the United States until the 1920s. As more and more immigrants arrived, however, some Americans became fearful that their culture was threatened.
The Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, were ambivalent over whether or not the United States ought to welcome arrivals from every corner of the globe. The author of America's Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wondered whether democracy could ever rest safely in the hands of men from countries that revered monarchs or replaced royalty with mob rule. However, few supported closing the gates to newcomers in a country desperate for labor.
Immigration lagged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as wars disrupted trans-Atlantic travel and European governments restricted immigration to retain young men of military age. After 1750 European mortality rates declined in response to improved medical care and sanitation. Food supplies increased as crop rotation and systematic fertilization became standard. Still, more people on the same land constricted the size of farming lots to a point where families could barely survive. Moreover, cottage industries were falling victim to an Industrial Revolution that was mechanizing production. Thousands of artisans unwilling or unable to find jobs in factories were out of work.
By the mid-1840s millions more immigrants made their way to America as a result of a potato blight in Ireland and continual revolution in the German homelands. Meanwhile, a trickle of Chinese immigrants, most from impoverished Southeastern China, began to immigrate to the American West Coast.
Almost 19 million people arrived in the United States between 1890 and 1921, the year Congress first passed severe restrictions. Most of these immigrants were from Italy, Russia, Poland, Greece and the Balkans. Non-Europeans came, too: east from Japan, south from Canada and north from Mexico.
By the early 1920s, however, an alliance was forged between wage-conscious organized labor and those who called for restricted immigration on racial or religious grounds, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Immigration Restriction League. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 permanently curtailed the influx of newcomers with quotas calculated on nation of origin.
The Great Depression of the 1930s dramatically slowed immigration still further. With public opinion generally opposed to immigration, even for persecuted European minorities, relatively few refugees found sanctuary in the United States after Adolf Hitler's ascent to power in 1933.
Throughout the postwar decades, the United States continued to cling to nationally based quotas. Supporters of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 argued that quota relaxation might inundate the United States with Marxist subversives from Eastern Europe.
In 1965 Congress replaced national quotas with hemispheric ones. Relatives of U.S. citizens received preference, as did immigrants with job skills in short supply in the United States. In 1978 the hemispheric quotas were replaced by a worldwide ceiling of 290,000, a limit reduced to 270,000 after passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.
Since the mid-1970s, the United States has experienced a fresh wave of immigration, with arrivals from Asia and Latin America, in particular, transforming communities throughout the country. Current estimates suggest a total annual arrival of approximately 600,000 legal newcomers to the United States.
Because immigrant and refugee quotas remain well under demand, however, illegal immigration is still a major problem. Mexicans and other Latin Americans daily cross the southwestern U.S. borders to find work, higher wages, and improved education and health care for their families. Likewise, there is a substantial illegal migration from countries such as Ireland, China and other Asian nations. Estimates vary, but some suggest that as many as 600,000 illegals per year arrive in the United States.
An old immigrant saying is that "America beckons, but Americans repel." As the current wave of immigration spills into the American mainstream economically, politically and culturally, the debate over immigration has sharpened. Deeply ingrained in most Americans, however, is the conviction that the Statue of Liberty does, indeed, stand as a symbol for the United States as she lifts her lamp before the "golden door," welcoming those "yearning to breathe free." This belief, and the sure knowledge that their forebears were once immigrants, has kept the United States a nation of nations.