When I watched some of the speeches in this week’s Republican Convention, I think about how much the GOP has changed since I first was interested in politics in the late 1970s. Rather than focus on the state of the Republican Party today, I’d rather think about aspects of the history of the Republican Party that I generally respect. One of the things that I respect is the brief period in the early twentieth century when Progressive Republicans were an important faction within the Republican Party.
This Progressive Republican faction was influential from the late 1890s to the mid 1910s. These Progressive Republicans believed that the federal government had a responsibility to regulate big corporations and break up trusts and monopolies so they didn’t have too much power over the political landscape. They believed in acting as a fair referee between big business and labor groups. They felt that the government has a role in protecting consumers from unfair and unsafe business practices. Progressive Republicans still felt a responsibility as the Party of Lincoln to defend minority rights. And they felt the government must be good stewards of the environment and must preserve the natural beauty of the nation.
Among the most influential Progressive Republicans were Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette, Charles Evans Hughes, Hiram Johnson, William Borah, George W. Norris and Fiorello La Guardia. Probably the high point of the Progressive Republican influence was the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt and his Square Deal program. The Square Deal had 3 goals: conservation of natural resources, control of corporations, and consumer protection.
Among the legislation of the Square Deal are The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 to insure that the public had safe food. There was The Hepburn Act of 1906 which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the necessary funds to perform its duties effectively. Roosevelt set up the federal Reclamation Service in 1902 that created arable land in areas that had been too dry to farm through the use of dams and irrigation. The Federal Employee’s Compensation Act of 1908 provided workers’ compensation for a number of federal employees. The National Forest Service was enacted in 1905 and 16 million additional acres of Western forest were signed into federal protection. Roosevelt worked with Gifford Pinchot to safeguard millions of acres of wilderness from commercial exploitation.
Roosevelt used the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act to regulate trusts that restrained trade and charged unfair prices. He brought 44 antitrust suits, breaking up the Northern Securities Company, the largest railroad monopoly; and regulating Standard Oil, the largest oil and refinery company.
I generally liked Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, but he was not perfect. One of Roosevelt’s flaws was his ambition to make the United States an imperial power like England, France and Germany. Roosevelt’s pursuit of American imperialism led the United States into an unnecessary war of conquest in the Philippines that led to unneeded deaths of Filipinos. When leftists complain about American imperialism, they can rightfully blame Teddy Roosevelt.
During the 1912 presidential elections, Progressive Republicans revolted from the Republican President William Howard Taft and threw their support to Teddy Roosevelt’s third party presidential run. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bullmoose Party called for restrictions on campaign finance contributions, the establishment of a social insurance system, universal health care, an eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage, a minimum wage law for women, workers’ compensation for work-related injuries, an inheritance tax, and the direct election of Senators. Both Roosevelt and Taft lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the November elections.
After the 1912 elections, the Progressive Republicans began to wane in influence in the Republican Party. The more conservative, corporate Republicans became the most powerful faction within the Republican Party by the 1920s. Progressive Republicans and their ideas were eventually absorbed into the New Deal in the 1930s.
In this video, history teacher Steve Heimler gives an overview of Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal.