Modern history

Good Government Progressivism

In an effort to diminish the power of corrupt urban political machines and unregulated corporations, progressives pushed for good government reforms, promoting initiatives they claimed would produce greater efficiency, openness, and accountability in government. Many of the progressives’ proposed reforms appeared, at least on the surface, to give citizens more direct say in their government; however, a closer look reveals a more complicated picture.

Municipal and State Reform

Cities were at the forefront of government reform during the Progressive Era. Antiquated systems of municipal rule failed to keep up with the problems ushered in by immigration and accelerated urban growth. Political machines distributed city services to meet skyrocketing demands within a system bloated by corruption and graft (see chapter 18). Upper-middle-class businessmen and professionals fed up with wasteful and inefficient political machines sought to institute new forms of government that functioned more rationally and cost less.

The adoption of the commission form of government was a hallmark of urban reform. The idea originally came from the South in response to a hurricane in 1900 that destroyed the Texas Gulf coast city of Galveston and disabled its local government. Municipal leaders faced the crisis by establishing a commission composed of five men to operate the government. They replaced the old form of a mayor and city council with elected commissioners, each of whom ran a municipal department as if it were a business. By 1917 the commission form of government had spread to more than four hundred cities throughout the country. Governments with a mayor and city council also began to appoint city managers, who functioned as chief operating officers, to foster businesslike efficiency. The head of the National Cash Register Company, who helped bring the city manager system to Dayton, Ohio, praised it for resembling “a great business enterprise whose stockholders are the people.”

To help overturn political machines, reformers adopted direct primaries so that voters could select candidates rather than allowing a handful of politicians to decide elections behind closed doors. Urban bosses had thrived on decentralized ward elections. To reverse the influence of immigrants clustered in ghettos who supported their own ethnic candidates and to topple the machines that catered to them, municipal reformers replaced district elections with citywide “at-large” elections. Ethnic enclaves lost not only their ward representatives but also a good deal of their influence because citywide election campaigns were expensive, shifting power to those who could afford to run. Good government progressives equated efficiency and honesty with democracy; however, rather than extending democracy to immigrant groups and racial minorities, these changes had the opposite effect. Working- and lower-class residents of cities still retained the right to vote, but their power was diluted.

In the South, where fewer immigrants lived, white supremacists employed these tactics to build on steps taken in the late nineteenth century to disfranchise African Americans. Southern lawmakers diminished whatever black political power remained by adopting at-large elections and commission governments. Throughout the South, direct primary contests (or “white primaries”) were closed to blacks.

If urban progressivism fell short of putting democratic ideals into practice, it did produce a number of mayors who carried out genuine reforms. As Frederic C. Howe, a key adviser to Cleveland mayor Tom L. Johnson, observed, “The challenge of the city has become one of decent human existence.” Elected in 1901, Johnson implemented measures to assess taxes more equitably, regulate utility companies, and reduce public transportation fares. Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones, who served as Toledo’s mayor from 1897 to 1903, supported social justice measures by establishing an eight-hour workday for municipal employees, granting them paid vacations, and prohibiting child labor. Under Mayor Hazen Pingree, who served from 1889 to 1896, Detroit constructed additional schools and recreational facilities and put the unemployed to work on municipal projects during economic hard times.

Progressives also took action at the state level. Robert M. La Follette, Republican governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906, led the way by initiating a range of reforms to improve the performance of state government and increase its accountability to constituents. During his tenure as governor, La Follette dismantled the statewide political machine by instituting direct party primaries, an expanded civil service, a law forbidding direct corporate contributions to political parties, a strengthened railroad regulatory commission, and a graduated income tax. In 1906 La Follette entered the U.S. Senate, where he battled for further reform.

Governors in other states picked up and expanded La Follette’s progressive agenda. In New York, Governor Charles Evans Hughes implemented measures to regulate insurance companies and public utilities. In New Jersey, Governor Woodrow Wilson sought reforms similar to those in Wisconsin. On the West Coast, California’s reform governor Hiram Johnson challenged the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1913 three- quarters of the states ratified the Seventeenth Amendment, which mandated that U.S. senators would be elected by popular vote, instead of being chosen by state legislatures. This constituted another effort to remove the influence of money from politics.

Conservation and Preservation of the Environment

The penchant for efficiency that characterized good government progressivism also shaped progressive efforts to conserve natural resources. As chief forester in the Department of Agriculture, Gifford Pinchot emphasized the efficient use of resources and sought ways to reconcile the public interest with private profit motives. His approach often won support from large lumber companies, which had a long-term interest in sustainable forests. Large companies also saw conservation as a way to drive their smaller competitors out of business, as large companies could better afford the additional costs associated with managing healthy forests.

This gospel of efficiency faced a stiff test in California. After the devastating earthquake of1906, San Francisco officials, coping with water and power shortages, asked the federal government to approve construction of a hydroelectric dam and reservoir in Hetch Hetchy valley, located in Yosemite National Park. The pragmatic Pinchot supported the project because he saw it as the best use of the land for the greatest number of people. The famed naturalist John Muir, who had spearheaded the establishment of Yosemite, strongly disagreed. He campaigned to save Hetch Hetchy from “ravaging commercialism” and warned against choosing economic gains over spiritual values. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” Muir exclaimed. “As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” After a bruising seven- year battle, Pinchot (by this time a private citizen) triumphed. Still, this incursion into a national park, the first since the system was initiated in 1872 with Yellowstone National Park, helped spur the development of environmentalism as a political movement.

Besides the clash with preservationists, the Hetch Hetchy Dam project reveals another aspect of the progressive conservation movement. Like progressives who focused on urban and political issues, progressive conservationists had a racial bias. Conservationists such as Pinchot may have seen themselves as acting in the public interest, but their definition of “the public” did not include all Americans. In planning for the Hetch Hetchy Dam, progressives did not consult with the Mono Lake Paiutes who lived in Yosemite and who were most directly affected by the project. Conservation was meant to serve the interests of white San Franciscans and not those of the Indian inhabitants of Yosemite.


• Who gained and who lost political influence as a result of progressive reforms?

• How did a commitment to greater efficiency shape progressives' political and environmental initiatives?

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