By the dawn of the twentieth century, many Americans felt the need to change the relationship between government and society and address the growing social and political problems. Like the Populists before them, Progressives believed that unregulated capitalism and the urban boom required stronger government supervision and intervention. Specifically, Progressives wanted to regain control of the government from special interests like the railroads and trusts, while further protecting the rights of organized labor, women, blacks, and consumers in general.
Unlike the Populist movement, which rose from America’s minority groups, Progressives came primarily from the middle class and constituted a majority of Americans in the Republican and Democratic parties. As a result, reform dominated the first decade of the new century.
At the forefront of the reform movement were turn-of-the-century exposé writers dubbed “muckrakers.” These writers published the dirt on corporate and social injustices in books and magazines like McClure’s, Collier’s, and Cosmopolitan. Muckrakers had an unprecedented impact on public opinion and even on the president and Congress. For example, Upton Sinclair’s graphic description of the meatpacking industry in his 1906 novel The Jungle so deeply disgusted President Roosevelt and Congress that they passed the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act the same year, hoping to clean up the industry and protect American consumers. In 1890, Jacob Riis awakened middle-class Americans to the plight of the urban poor in his book How the Other Half Lives . Likewise, Lincoln Steffens published a series of articles titled “The Shame of the Cities” that further exposed big-business corruption.
In addition to operating in the federal government, Progressives also began to challenge industrial and political corruption at the state and local levels. Voters in many cities and states succeeded in their fight for direct primary elections and the secret ballot to eliminate bribes and reduce the power of political machines. Many states passed laws granting voters the power of initiative, or the right to directly propose legislation themselves; the referendum, allowing Americans to vote directly for or against specific laws; and the power to recall corrupt elected officials. Progressive governors like Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, Hiram Johnson of California, and Charles Evans Hughes of New York worked tirelessly to punish grafters, break up uncompetitive monopolies, and regulate public utilities.
An ardent Progressive himself, Roosevelt decided to use his powers to give Americans a “Square Deal” to protect the public interest. He focused his domestic efforts on regulating big business, helping organized labor, protecting consumers, and conserving the nation’s already-dwindling natural resources.
Roosevelt began by launching a campaign to tackle monopolistic trusts that hurt consumers. In 1902, under the auspices of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, he filed a lawsuit against James J. Hill’s and J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Railroad Company. In 1904, the Supreme Court upheld Roosevelt’s suit in the Northern Securities decision, forcing the giant railroad company to disband. Roosevelt subsequently filed similar suits against dozens of other trusts, including the beef trust, the sugar trust, and the harvester trust.
Roosevelt also persuaded Congress to pass the Elkins Act in 1903, to punish railroad companies that issued uncompetitive rebates and the merchants who accepted them. To further the reform cause, in 1906, Congress passed the Hepburn Act to strengthen the Interstate Commerce Commission and give it more power to control the railroads.
Roosevelt also earned the reputation of a friend to organized labor when he supported striking Pennsylvania coal miners in the 1902 Anthracite Strike. Fearing a coal shortage in the industrial eastern United States, the president offered to help mine owners and workers negotiate a settlement involving wages and work hours. When mine owners refused to negotiate, however, Roosevelt threatened to seize the mines and place them under the control of federal troops—the first time a U.S. president had ever sided with strikers against industrialists and forced them to compromise. The Supreme Court likewise sided with labor interests in its 1908 Muller v. Oregon ruling, which awarded some federal protection for female workers in factories.
During this era of reform, Roosevelt also pushed for environmental conservation. Fearing that Americans were on track to use up the country’s natural resources, he set aside several hundred million acres of forest reserves and ore-rich land. He also convinced Congress to fund the construction of several dozen dams in the West and to pass the 1902 Newlands Act, which sold federal lands in the West to fund irrigation projects.
Despite a brief financial panic in 1907, Roosevelt remained just as popular at the end of his second term as he was at the beginning of his first. However, after winning reelection in 1904, he had promised not to run again. Instead, he decided to endorse his vice president and close friend, William Howard Taft, a 350-pound giant of a man who Roosevelt believed would continue fighting for progressivism and the Square Deal. Meanwhile, Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan yet again on an anti-imperialist, progressive platform. Eugene V. Debs also entered the race on the Socialist Party ticket. In the end, Taft easily defeated Bryan by more than a million popular votes and 150 electoral votes.