History of the Progressive Party

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    1. Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin was a leader of insurgent Republican senators, and organizer of the National Progressive Republican League. These senators were opposed to the ‘Old Guard’ views of many Republican senators, alarmed at TR’s “radicalism” and strenuously opposed his nomination in 1908. TR kept the promise that he had made in 1904 to step down and supported Secretary of War William Howard Taft whom he trusted to continue his progressive programs. UNIT VI

    2. Progressivism as an idea had arisen in the 1880’s, when America was transforming from a largely agricultural country into a burgeoning urban one. But many Americans who had emigrated prior to the Civil War retained a certain moral nostalgia for their American past. While they enjoyed modernization, and wanted to share in the profits of industrial American, and the benefits of city life, they, somewhat paradoxically, yearned for the albeit mythological decency of a rural America.

    a. The Progressive movement at first was made up of consumers and taxpayers who were challenging the accumulated wealth and power of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Morgans, etc. But by 1912, it had become largely farmers and industrial workers seeking relief from the onerous power of the great monopolies. James Chace, “1912,” p.100

    3. While LaFollette was not at home with the businessman-politician that was coming to dominate the Republican Party, he could not abide the Democrats, whose stronghold was the South, where they now engaged in depriving black citizens of the right to vote. African-Americans would have progressed beyond the new immigrants, LaFollette declared, if they “had been fairly treated, if they had received kindly recognition, if they had been given the opportunity to make homes for themselves, if their labor had been properly rewarded.” David P. Thelen, “Robert LaFollette and the Insurgent Spirit,” p. 10-11.

    a. LaFollette was disturbed by TR’s willingness to live with monopolies, rather than the National Progressive Republican League’s desire to smash them.

    4. At the same time, TR was moving more to the left, due to pressure from LaFollette, and disagreement with the implementation of his reforms by Taft, and to halt the rising tide of radicalism of Eugene Victor Debs and his Socialist followers. Perhaps the most influential thinker in terms of his effect on both Wilson and TR, was Herbert Croly. He was the intellectual bridge between the two Presidents. All three were devotees of Bismarck, whose top-down socialism made the middle class dependent on the state.

    a. Croly wrote “The Promise of American Life,” about which TR wrote “I do not know when I have read a book that profited me so much. All I wish is hat I were better able to get my advice to my fellow-countrymen in practical shape according to the principles you set forth.” Charles Forcey, “The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Wehl, Lippmann, and the Progressive Era, 1900-1925,” p. 124-125 This book guided TR’s thinking as seen in his ‘New Nationalism” speech.

    b. LaFollette was doomed as a serious candidate after exhaustion resulted in a disjointed, rambling speech on February 2, 1912, during which he passed out. In 1924, LaFollette formed the League of Progressive Political Action, better known as the Progressive Party. In 1934, La Follette’s sons organized a progressive party in Wisconsin. Robert La Follette, Jr. was elected to the Senate but was beaten in 1946 by Joseph McCarthy.

    c. Yet another progressive party was formed in 1948. Former New Deal Democrats had become dissatisfied with the policies of Harry Truman and wanted their own party. They nominated Henry A. Wallace for president and Glen H. Taylor for vice president, but support given them by the Communist Party was used against them by both major parties.

    d. Since the end of the Civil War, the Republican Party had been the traditional party of conservativism. But the primaries leading up to the elections of 1912 indicated that the great mass of Republican voters had moved into the Progressive column: for each vote in the primaries that Taft received, Roosevelt and LaFollette together had received two. This was a clear explanation for TR’s “New Nationalism” speech.

    e. In 1910, TR had proposed the New Nationalism. He said that social justice could be achieved only by a vigorous president who served as steward of the public welfare and that he was the only one who could save the country. In the interest of the public welfare, property rights and profit should be regulated. He called for an income tax, a child labor law, minimum wage, social security, and tariff reduction. Gone was the cautiousness of his early years as president. But the Old Guard controlled the delegates, and the GOP convention nominated Taft. UNIT VI

    5. At 2 o’clock in the morning on June 20, 1912, Roosevelt supporters bolted from the credentials committee meeting. Roosevelt: “As far as I am concerned, I am through.” NYTimes, June 20, 1912

    a. Governor Hiram Johnson of California declared that a new political party would be born later that day. Once financial backing was obtained, the Progressive Party was born. Mowry, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement,” p. 149.

    6. The Progressive Party convention opened August 5 in the Coliseum, which had just housed the Republican convention. “It was an assemblage of religious enthusiasts. It was such a convention as [the crusader] Peter the Hermit held. It was a Methodist camp meeting done over into political terms.” NYTimes, August 6, 1912. They sang “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and a play on the revival hymns, as “Follow, follow, we will follow Roosevelt.”

    a. It was the first convention by a major political party with women delegates; Roosevelt fully embraced woman suffrage. Jane Addams became the first woman to give a nominating speech at a major convention.

    b. The Bull Moose platform, one based on social justice, included labor’s right to organize, limits on campaign spending, conservation, woman’s suffrage, the 8-hour day, the 6-day work week, insurance for unemployment, old age and sickness.

    c. There was no mention of equal rights for African-Americans.

    d. Eugene V. Debs claimed that the Progressives’ bandana had replace the red flag of socialism. NYTimes, August 14, 1912 Debs: “My prediction that Roosevelt would steal our platform bodily has been fulfilled.”
     

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