The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Roosevelt and the Progressive Party

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ROOSEVELT AND THE PROGRESSIVE PARTY. The Progressive movement in the Republican party, like its counterpart in the Democratic party, laid emphasis on the need of freeing government, both State and Federal, from the domination of special interests and the prostitution of government to serve the needs of a small moneyed minority. The fight more especially developed into a struggle against corporations. This struggle has had three principal phases: first, the attempt to control and regulate corporate activities; second, to resist the efforts made by vested corporate interests to exploit the natural resources of the country in their own interest and, third, the revolt against the tariff revision of 1909 which was made in the interests of the same predatory classes. The Sherman Law was the effort made to accomplish the first end; it was not very successful and had a disastrous effect on business. When Roosevelt became President in 1901 he regarded this law as of doubtful efficacy. His chief objection to it was that it failed to discriminate between good corporations and bad corporations, assuming that all combinations were trusts and, therefore, dangerous and to be suppressed. Roosevelt in 1903 prevailed on Congress to establish a Bureau of Corporations in the Department of Commerce and Labor, through which “power and authority,” were granted, “to make . . . diligent investigation into the organization, conduct and management of the business of any corporation, joint-stock company or corporate combination engaged in commerce among the several states and with foreign nations.”

Roosevelt, however, before the bureau made its reports of the activities of “big business” determined to try out the Sherman Law in the cases of the Standard Oil Company and the American Tobacco Company. While nominally successful the punishment of the delinquent corporations was more apparent than real. The financial panic of 1907 further stayed the President's hand but it was clearly his intention and desire that Taft, his successor, should carry on the work of government control of corporations.

The conservation movement to protect the natural resources of the nation in the interest of all the people and from exploitation by private individuals and interests was the second great objective of the progressive forces during Mr. Roosevelt's incumbency of the White House. The President in March 1907 appointed the Interstate Waterways Commission to investigate conservation as far as the waterways of the country were concerned. A preliminary investigation by the commission caused it to recommend to the President the calling of a conference to discuss conservation from all angles. The result was the memorable conference at the White House on 13 May 1908 and the subsequent appointment of Gifford Pinchot as head of the National Conservation Commission. In the fight to conserve the natural resources of the country Mr. Roosevelt received no aid from the majority of the Congress. Everything possible was done to hamper him and the special private interests were sufficiently powerful to prevent him in his effort to put the conservation movement on a secure basis. The lasting benefit of his struggle was the awakening of public interest in the question which in later years put the movement beyond the power of the special interests and their subservient tools among the politicians.

In endorsing Taft as his successor, Mr. Roosevelt firmly believed that his favorite measures, “his policies,” would be carried out faithfully. Roosevelt's disappointment was keen, therefore, when the Payne-Aldrich tariff raised certain schedules upward instead of downward as had been promised by Taft and his political sponsors during the pre-election campaign. Taft's support of Ballinger, his advocacy of a sham reciprocity treaty with Canada and his yielding to the old conservative standpatters and reactionaries made it impossible for the progressive members of his party to support him for re-election in 1912. The tariff discussion of 1909 was the most potent factor in widening the breach between the Progressives and the reactionaries among the Republicans and helped define the progressive movement for the country. An open break with the Taft administration followed and the National Progressive Republican League was formed by the Progressive senators and members of the House of Representatives, pledged to these specific reforms: (1) election of United States senators by popular vote; (2) direct primaries; (3) direct election of delegates to national conventions; (4) initiative, referendum and recall clauses in all State constitutions; and (5) a corrupt practices law with adequate provision for its enforcement. The league grew rapidly and was sufficiently powerful to cause progress and reform legislation to be passed in the last year of the Taft administration. Its growth proved that the Republican party as then constituted had no room for real progressives and either a new party must be created or the old effectively regenerated.

Already in April 1911 the Progressive wing of the Republicans made preparation to ensure the nomination of one of their members in 1912. For a time it appeared that Senator La Follette would be the Progressive leader against reaction in the Republican National Convention of 1912. Certain interests, however, were able to cause his candidacy to be dropped and his followers at once transferred their allegiance to Roosevelt. The latter was less uncompromising than La Follette, having yielded to the special interests whenever he could make an advance by so doing. Good government had no more doughty champion than he and popular rights no advocate more sincere. The contest for the Republican nomination by the spring of 1912 dwindled to a struggle between the followers of Taft and Roosevelt. The contest was one of the most bitter in our political history because of the former close relations existing between the two candidates. The issues, however, were sharply defined. Taft stood forth the champion of privilege while Roosevelt as throughout his career espoused the cause of democracy, or government by the people.

The crisis came at the Chicago Convention of the Republican party, 18-22 June 1912. The delegates to that convention were of three classes according to mode of selection: Those elected by State conventions, those chosen directly by the people and those chosen directly under pledge to vote for designated candidates. The reactionaries under Taft controlled the first or “machine” group; the two other groups were largely controlled by Roosevelt. It was soon observed that the contest would be close and the fight was soon centred on those delegates whose seats were contested, neither candidate having a clear majority of uncontested seats. The reactionary National Committee, appointed four years before, now proceeded to award the contested seats and adjusted matters so that Taft was ensured a majority. The Progressives claimed that these decisions were made in bad faith, that the nomination was stolen, and they withdrew from the convention. They held a rump convention to discuss future plans. Roosevelt told the delegates to return to their homes, sound the popular sentiment and return to Chicago on 5 August, when if the popular demand should be sufficiently strong, a third party would be established. On 5 August the Progressive delegates met again in Chicago and reported an overwhelming popular demand for a new party opposed to boss rule and machine politics. On 6 August Mr. Roosevelt in what he called his “Confession of Faith” outlined the purposes of the new party, stating that: “the old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, each a jumble of incongruous elements, and neither daring to speak out wisely and fearlessly what should be said on the vital issues of the day.” The new Progressive movement he characterised as “a movement of truth, sincerity and wisdom, a movement which proposes to put at the service of all our people the collective power of the people, through their governmental agencies, alike in the Nation and in the several States. . . . We propose to raise aloft a standard to which all honest men can repair, and under which all can fight, no matter what their political differences, if they are content to face the future and no longer to dwell among the dead issues of the past.” Roosevelt was nominated for the Presidency and Hiram Johnson of California for Vice-President. The platform of the new party promised the five reforms outlined above as the demands of the National Progressive League and also outlined a program of social and industrial justice, to correct or mitigate the injurious effects incident to our modern industry. Within the three months following the convention the Progressive party organized itself from the national committee down to the local election district and at the November election polled more than 4,000,000 votes — a feat unparalleled in all political history. When the Presidential campaign of 1916 arrived and Mr. Hughes became the Republican candidate, old animosities were laid aside and Mr. Roosevelt and nearly all of his Progressive followers supported the old party, believing rightly that a division would again make for a Democratic victory and four more years of Wilson and Democratic administration. Tactless blunders by a few campaign managers nullified Mr. Roosevelt's efforts and Wilson secured a second term. In October 1919 an intimate friend of Mr. Roosevelt disclosed the fact that the latter was preparing to secure the nomination for the Presidency in 1920, when he prophesied that the standpatters would have to take him and “with a larger dose” of reform than in 1904. His untimely death removed America's most progressive and most earnest leader; perhaps, the only man who was able to place a strong government in Washington instead of a cabal of theorists and impractical idealists. Consult La Follette, R. M., ‘Autobiography’ (1918); Roosevelt, Theodore, ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ (in the Outlook of 12 July 1913); id. ‘Progressive Principles,’ edited by Elmer H. Youngman (New York 1913); De Witt, B. P., ‘The Progressive Movement’ (ib. 1915); Walling, W. E., ‘Progressivism — and After’ (ib. 1914); New York Times of 17 Oct. 1919; Literary Digest of 18 Oct. 1919.