Allan Powell: Progressive movements improve America

January 06, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

It was a great pleasure to discover "Woodrow Wilson And The Progressive Era" authored by Arthur S. Link. I wanted to get a more complete understanding of what "progressive" meant in the context of its historical setting. The formal definition, however, means "favoring or advocating progress, improvement or reform, or making progress toward better conditions."

While Link gives emphasis to the high tide of progressive thought from 1910 to 1917, there have been progressive surges both before and after the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The Progressive Party was actually formed by a Republican — Theodore Roosevelt — who favored many progressive ideas.

The advances in industry and the development of huge cities gave impetus to meeting the needs of workers, unemployed, immigrants, cleanliness in food processing and the increase of monopolies in corporate structure. Some early attempts at reform began in the early 20th century. In 1902, Maryland passed the first workers' compensation law. In 1903, Oregon passed a law limiting the work day to 10 hours for women. Soon thereafter, states began the move to an eight-hour work day for men. In 1912, Massachusetts passed the first minimum wage law.

The present interest is the role played by Wilson in progressive reforms of his era. Wilson first attracted attention as the governor of New Jersey when he prodded the legislature to pass laws for the direct primary, corrupt business practices, workers' compensation and state control of railroads and public utilities. One news editor went so far as to declare that Wilson was the "most hopeful figure in American politics."

Wilson set the tone for reform in his inaugural address. "This is not a day of triumph; it is a day of dedication. Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity. Men's hearts wait upon us; men's lives hang in the balance; men's hopes call upon us to say what we will do. ... I summon all honest men, all patriots, all forward-looking men to my side." It is to be noticed that Wilson was very attentive to men (who could vote), but silent about women (who could not vote).

While Wilson's progressive agenda ranged from child labor to farm credit assistance, he gave considerable time to legislation regulating objectionable practices of big business. To bring about such reform, Wilson and his advisers created the Federal Trade Commission. In doing so, he faced conflicting views about how to restrain big corporate power abuses without restraining trade. The Chamber of Commerce pressured for "self regulation" — labor and consumers feared the trend toward monopoly and expected controls.

At this point, Louis Brandeis, later to be appointed to the Supreme Court, carried the day with a plan for a strong trade commission. The Federal Trade Commission would monitor unfair trade practices and issue cease and desist orders for those involved in restraint of trade. Almost from its inception, the commission was weak and ineffective. Its chief architect, Brandeis, complained that Wilson had ruined the commission by his choice of commissioners.

Several officers lacked competence and interpreted their duty to be a staunch friend of business and to avoid projecting the image of being watchdogs. To reinforce the point, Wilson appointed a Chicago industrialist to head the new commission. Weak and ineffective regulation is, for all practical reasons, the equivalent of nonregulation. For this — and other reasons — Wilson was seen by many as a cautious and reluctant progressive.

Progressive ideas and policies are not always viewed as reforms. Reformers learn quickly that one person's "reform" is the invasion of what another person regards as their territorial domain. It is an error to suppose that the world is anxiously waiting for more humane legislation such as child labor laws, the eight-hour work day or minimum-wage laws. Every piece of progressive legislation has provoked very heated opposition.

One constant in the history of progressive legislation is the resistance to reform. It is as though a version of Newton's third law of motion has left the physical world to work its way into social events. You might recall that Newton declared that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. However, this might not be quite the case in society, where the reaction sometimes exceeds the original action.

If we lived in a perfect world, there would be no need for pesky and obnoxious do-gooders to constantly prod us to improve living conditions. Unfortunately, we forever face misfortunes, natural disasters, manmade evil, inequalities of talents, decline in physical powers and lowly social status. We should be thankful that the world is gifted with the progressive impulses of empathy and charity to strive to make the world a better place for all.


Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

The Herald-Mail Articles