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Progressives in America – No Place at the Inn

Joe Hill Ashes - flickr

In every American community, there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects, ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. -Phil Ochs

Progressivism in The United States has had a very rocky road historically, never with a place to actually call home. The history of Progressivism is also the political history of this country and the political history has as many twists and turns as the back roads of Northern PA. and just about as many different kinds of characters.

First one has to accept that unlike Europe or Asia this country from the first has been made up of a conglomeration of different cultures, ethnics, religious followers and economic and social classes. All of whom came here either to escape religious and/or political persecution, poverty, legal issues or famine. A good number could only be described as malcontents, trouble makers, ne’er do wells and out right crooks.

The Federalist Party was the first political party followed closely by the Democratic Republicans. They pretty much ran things until 1800 when they fell out of power and popularity. They were the party of the monied and financiers. Wanted a strong union, a strong federal government, fiscal responsibility, good relations with Briton and high tariffs. Their champion was Alexander Hamilton.

Their opposition was the Democratic Republican Party whose head was Thomas Jefferson. They were against every thing the Federalist implemented and wanted. Primarily the party of the southern farmers and plantation owns as wells as the small merchants, they liked small government, low tariffs, states rights, yeoman farmers. They feared what they felt were the authoritarian policies of the Federalists and giving too much power to the bankers and financiers. In a highly contested election of 1800 that resulted in a tie – only to be broken by Alexander Hamilton – Thomas Jefferson became president and the Democratic Republican Party took both houses of congress. This also spelled the end of the Federalist Party.

Out of the ashes of all of this came the first real progressive cause. Slavery. And the first political party to embrace such a cause, The Whig Party.

Established in 1834, the Whig Party was a reaction to the authoritarian policies of Andrew Jackson. “King Andrew,” as his critics labeled him, had enraged his political opponents by his actions regarding the Bank of the United States, Native Americans, the Supreme Court and his use of presidential war powers. The term Whig was taken from English politics, the name of a faction that opposed royal tyranny.


Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were the unquestioned luminaries of the Whig Party. Neither was able to overcome sectional jealousies and gain the coveted presidency.

The Whigs’ efforts to unify were slow and ultimately unsuccessful.

But all was not rosy with this new party and they soon split over the issue of slavery. With the spit over slavery and the deaths of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, the Whig Party soon fell apart.

The issue of slavery, however did not die and in fact gained momentum and became the main issue and leading cause of the newly formed Republican Party. Slavery was opposed for moral reasons by the religious northerners but mostly for economic reasons by western farmers and ranchers as well as the newly emerging northern industrialists – who believed it gave the south with it’s free labor an unfair advantage.

The ranks of the emerging Republican Party were filled by the following:

  • Northern Whigs united in their opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but leaderless following the deaths of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, both in 1852
  • The Free-Soil Party, which had played a spoiler role in several presidential elections, but now was bereft of effective leadership
  • The Know-Nothing movement, whose roots lay in the fear of immigrants in general and Roman Catholics in particular
  • Northern Democrats who deserted their Southern cousins over the slavery issue.

The party was strongly influenced in its early years towards the idea of liberal capitalism, in opposition to the monopoly capitalism of the National Republican wing of the Whig party. Among the supporters of this position were Whigs like William Seward and Horace Greeley and Democrats like William Cullen Bryant and Preston King.

And they had overnight success. Winning control of The House in the 1854 elections and the election of Lincoln in 1860. The Democratic Party – made up of mostly southern democrats and those who still supported slavery, especially the merchants in New York City and a few other areas in the north east – did not gain the presidency again until 1884 and then in 1912.

The first real progressive leader was republican Theodore Roosevelt. He created the first National Park, went after trusts, supported the elimination of child labor. A real go-getter.

But his successor William Howard Taft was more conservative and the “Taft conservatives” ruled the republican party after that. The Progressive movement did not entirely die though. They pushed to expose corruption, promoted modernization, education, economic policy…. And the progressives had a champion in Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

The first Progressive Party was formed under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt after his spit with the republicans. Though he lost his bid for the presidency to Woodrow Wilson, they did elect a few representatives and a couple of governors. The Progressive part under Roosevelt had an extensive platform. The bull work of being business and it’s influence in politics.

However, the main theme of the platform was an attack on the domination of politics by business interests, which allegedly controlled both established parties. The platform asserted that

To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.[12]

To that end, the platform called for

Besides these measures, the platform called for reductions in the tariff, limitations on navalarmaments by international agreement and improvements to inland waterways.

The biggest controversy at the convention was over the platform section dealing with trusts and monopolies such as Standard Oil. The convention approved a strong “trust-busting” plank, but Roosevelt had it replaced with language that spoke only of “strong National regulation” and “permanent active [Federal] supervision” of major corporations. This retreat shocked reformers like Pinchot, who blamed it on Perkins (a director of U.S. Steel). The result was a deep split in the new party that was never resolved.[9]

As you can see, business interests were very difficult to dissuade then as well. But if you look at the list you can see that a large number of these became enacted over time. The party lasted until 1919 and was gone after that.

There have been other parties that called themselves progressive such as the one in Wisconsin lead by Robert M. La Follette, Sr who ran for president in 1924 but lost. The party did continue on in Wisconsin though into the 1930s. Aligning with the Railroad brotherhoods and supported by the Socialists. There was also one in California as well.

Though not aligned with any formal progressive movement, a big supporter of progressive ideals was Huey P. Long.

The last party to call itself progressive was in 1948 headed by former Vice President Henry A. Wallace of Iowa who ran for president that year. They got the endorsement of the communist party but with the growing anti-communist sentiment and the cold war, this proved their death sentence.

The cold war policies and attitudes of Harry Truman and the Truman Doctrine killed any hope of a progressive movement for the next 20 years or so. Though there had been a number of movements since then, most were single issue movements such as civil rights and the anti-war protests and women’s rights, their supporters were in every other way far from progressive. Hubert Humphrey who help push for a civil rights plank in the 1948 democratic convention, was an ardent anti-communist and strong supporter of the war in Vietnam. And LBJ even though he pushed for the civil rights acts did so only because he was pushed into it by the growing tensions and the anti-war movements.

Economic progressivism – at least on the federal level – was dead.

You can see here though that even though we had a few shining moments with people like FDR and LBJ, the democratic party itself is and has always been the party of business first and for most. And though started as a progressive force, the corporate interests and those of the monied elite quickly took control of the republican party as well.

Progressives have never really had a place to hang their hats for any period of time and the old fights of the elites vs the bourgeoisie vs the rest vs the landed gentry and on and on still run through our political system. One item that seems to be a pattern is that this country is most likely to support progressive positions when it is feeling pretty good about itself and less likely when it is not.

The (where will it all) End

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