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The State and the American Presidency during the Progressive Era

Recasting American Presidential History in the Classroom > The State and the American Presidency during the Progressive Era
Theodore Roosevelt Center, through CPC

At the turn of the twentieth century, policymakers grappled with the social, cultural, and economic changes brought about by industrialization, urbanization, the deepening of class divides, immigration, and the closing of the Western frontier. Reforms in the Civil Service Commission, changes in political parties—especially the Seventeenth Amendment, the direct primary, and the referendum—met with the expansion of social welfare policies to create the what historians have called “the administrative state.”1 The modern American presidency developed in conjunction with the modern liberal state.  The federal bureaucracy grew in size and authority to regulate an increasingly complex industrial economy.  As a result, as historian Michael Willrich argues, state and then federal institutions “carried out ‘executive justice’ in new fields of social and economic governance—from setting electricity rates to insuring working men and their families against industrial accidents.”2

Historians have debated how government institutions and public–private associations have fostered new relationships between the federal government, industry, and citizens. Broadly speaking, the progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century revolved around two basic questions: how should the United States adjust to the powerful new corporate enterprises that developed in the late nineteenth century, and how could democracy be maintained in the wake of economic concentration, urbanization, and immigration? As officials forged answers to these questions, they constructed government organizations—including the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission—that shifted regulatory authority from the courts and states to the federal government.3 University-trained professionals assumed managerial positions in government to administer these social and economic services, framing these reforms in the rhetoric of “good government.”

This section brings the presidency into these historiographical debates by examining the ways in which the expansion of the federal bureaucracy shaped the formation, function, and expectations of the modern American presidency. Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson all campaigned and governed during a time in which Gilded Age tycoons, progressive reformers, American workers, and new immigrants debated the role and function of the state in Americans’ lives and the economy. Their presidencies and the dramatic election of 1912 provide opportunities to understand the connection between the rise of the modern presidency and the rise of the modern state: two political developments intertwined and dependent upon one another.

The Rise of the Bully Pulpit:

Wikimedia Commons

Progressive reformers—though wide ranging in their contrasting visions of progress—advocated expanding administrative statecraft while simultaneously pursuing dramatic social intervention into the public and private lives of working-class and immigrant communities. While upper- and middle-class reformers, many of them college-educated women, sought to regulate the leisure activity of immigrants in the North, southern reformers worked to control public behaviors by regulating racial interactions through the establishment of a Jim Crow system. In the West, farmers and populists articulated an economic message, arguing that progress demanded limiting the power of monopolies and corporations and promoting the rights of labor. As Stephen Skowronek argues in his landmark book, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920, the legitimacy of the early American state came under attack by “populists, socialists, and corporate liberals.” Though these individuals had little in common with one another, they pushed government officials to make the “pivotal turn down the bureaucratic road.”4

Scholars in the field of American political development have examined how voluntary associations, corporations, the courts, and the expanding bureaucracy have created what historians and social scientists, from Ellis Hawley to Stephen Skowronek to Brian Balogh, call “associational patterns” of public–private organizational relationships. This field of American political development offers an opportunity to see ways in which the federal government, and the executive branch in particular, expanded as an institution during the turn of the twentieth century. For example, how did the progressive reformer-turned-president Theodore Roosevelt claim the presidency as a bully pulpit to promote legislative reform and state building? These readings and discussion activities bring up questions about how presidents themselves contributed to and respond to these broader debates about the function and responsibilities of “good government.”

Reading and Discussion Questions:

Secondary Source

  • Stephen Skowronek, “The Unsettled State of Presidential History,” in Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency ed. Brian Balogh and Bruce Schulman, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 13–33.

Discussion Questions

  • In his chapter, “The Unsettled State of Presidential History,” Stephen Skowronek argues that the progressive intellectual community proved essential in validating the shift of power and authority from the courts and Congress to the executive branch. “The presidency might never have attained the power and position it now holds in American government,” contends Skowronek, “without a broad and influential cadre of public intellectuals committed to its development and capable of lending legitimacy to its transformation.”
  • How did Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft contribute to these intellectual debates?
  • Do they articulate a “break from traditional practices” to justify an alternative values for future progress?
  • From where does the pressure for a more active executive come, in the view of Taft, Roosevelt, and Wilson?

Connecting Presidential Collections Research Activity

  • Suggested reading: Margaret O’Mara, “Part 1: 1912,” in Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections that Shaped the Twentieth Century, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 16–56.

Progressive intellectuals saw the presidency as central to popular government, hoping it would create a “more vibrant national politics and a more responsible democracy.” The 1912 election did just that, as four candidates faced off, offering four different definitions of “progress.” The 1912 election offered American voters an unprecedented choice for the presidency. The ballot listed three candidates: William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent; Theodore Roosevelt, the former president (Taft’s predecessor) and now candidate for the newly formed Progressive Party; and Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate. A fourth candidate, Eugene Debs, saw the possibilities of banding together radicals and labor activists to promote the socialist message. Debs received almost a million votes through a write-in campaign.

National Archives, through CPC

All candidates agreed that more government action and regulation over party politics and the economy were needed. But they disagreed on what these changes would look like. Moreover, regional, class, ethnic, and philosophical differences divided both the parties. This election provides insight into the debate about the meaning of “progressive”—a popularly used phrase that meant different things to different people. It also illuminates changes in electoral politics, as all the men took to the stump to promote their own candidacies. The political party still played a central role in turning out voters and delivering a message, but the personality of the candidate began to matter as well. For example, Theodore Roosevelt created an entirely new party centered on his celebrity appeal.

For this classroom research activity, divide the class into four sections and have each section research a particular candidate through the Connecting Presidential Collections database and the Library of Congress Election of 1912 database:

Provide an answer for the following questions:

  • How does each candidate propose to deal with the problem of economic concentration?
  • How does each candidate propose to fix the problem of political corruption?
  • What relationships between the state and the citizen does each candidate advocate?
  • How does each candidate position his vision for the presidency in the American economy and society more broadly?
  • How does each candidate sell his personality and policies to the electorate?

Legacy of the 1912 Election:

Historian Margaret O’Mara argues that the 1912 election constituted the first political “reckoning with the challenges of industrial capitalism.” This reckoning, she contends “changed the two major parties—but it didn’t destroy them. This was a moment when either the Democrats or the Republicans could have been the Progressive party, and the title went to the Democrats while the conservatives consolidated their power in the GOP.” What do you see as the defining legacy of the 1912 election and your candidate’s campaign in particular?

  1. Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920, (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  2. Michael Willrich, “A Case of the Courts: Law and Political Development in the Progressive Era,” in The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History,  ed. Julian Zelizer, Meg Jacobs, and William Novak,  (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 198–199.
  3. For an overview of the rise of the associational state and recent historiography on this, see Brian Balogh, The Associational State: American Governance in The Twentieth Century, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). He discusses recent scholarship in building the state during the Progressive Era on pages 109–115.
  4. Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920, (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 165.
  5. Skowronek, “The Unsettled State of Presidential History,” Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, ed. Brian Balogh and Bruce Schulman, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 18.
  6. Margaret O’Mara, Pivotal Tuesday: Four Elections That Shaped the Twentieth Century, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 55.

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