Could democratic government solve, or even effectively address, the problems of a modern society? For decades, this question vexed Progressive reformers as they navigated the transformation of the United States from a country of small farms and rural communities to a nation of factories, corporations, and cities. Before the Civil War, Americans never doubted that they governed themselves and controlled their own lives. The mechanisms and practices of local democracy, such as the town meeting, enabled them to safeguard and exercise the prerogatives of self-government. Although they remembered the past as more tranquil and carefree than it was, the circumstances that crowded growing numbers of Americans into cities at the end of the century, and compelled them to mingle with an assortment of immigrants, severed them from their agrarian roots and isolated them in mind, body, and spirit. The urban political machines, which came to dominate so many immigrant neighborhoods, lacked authority among migrants from the American hinterland. To make matters worse, or at least to make them more complicated, corrupt party bosses eroded confidence in local government as the bastion of freedom and independence. As a consequence, efforts to expand democracy soon gave way to a movement focused on preserving it.

Some Progressives tried to reinvigorate a democratic politics by espousing the initiative, referendum, and recall, adopting the secret ballot, promoting the direct election of senators, and effecting civil service reform, all of which were designed to take power from party regulars and return it to the people. Acknowledging the revolutionary changes that had taken place in American society, others proved more willing to embrace radical solutions. They appealed to the federal government to eliminate, or at a minimum to diminish, the corruption rampant in local politics. Government oversight, they argued, promised a uniformity of national rules and standards that would ensure economic progress without incurring the social upheaval that had so often attended it. For there was also among the Progressives a rising awareness of the unequal distribution of wealth and resources on which they believed depended economic opportunity and social advancement for all. Only the federal government had the means to redress conditions that the Progressives had come to regard as dishonest and unjust.

Most Americans, by contrast, disdained the prospect of the national government exercising immense powers. The reasons for the gradual erosion of this preference for limited government are integral to understanding the history of the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Originally undertaken to cleanse municipal and state government, Progressivism in comparatively few years broadened its mission into a crusade to redeem the nation. The Progressives combined evangelical fervor with realistic proposals, trusting that God had uniquely favored the United States and that divine guidance would enable them to lead the American people to the Promised Land.

In a speech delivered at Osawatomie, Kansas on August 31, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt conveyed the religious enthusiasm that animated the Progressive coalition, while at the same time identifying a new role for the national government. Not until Roosevelt had been out of office for nearly four years and sought a return to the presidency in 1912 did he articulate the principles of the New Nationalism. Faced with staunch Republican opposition in Congress, Roosevelt, as president, had sponsored a program of moderate reform, which he hoped would forestall more radical change. Now, though, he called for exacting government regulation of the corporations, the market, and the economy. Social justice, Roosevelt asserted, was possible only through the vigorous efforts of the national government, with the president serving as the “steward of public welfare.” Those who extolled property rights and personal wealth, “the man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit,” Roosevelt declared, “must. . . give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.”[1]

Neither a communist nor a socialist, as his critics alleged, Roosevelt entertained not the slightest notion of abolishing private property and cultivating state ownership. Rather, his objective, as he explained, was to fashion a “public-service capitalism,” which, under the supervision of the national government, would both promote social justice and secure property rights. “At many stages in the advance of humanity,” Roosevelt told his audience at Osawatomie, “this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress:”

In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.[2]

Some years earlier, Roosevelt had observed that by endangering human rights, the growth of industry had quickened the threat of barbarism. If a civilized and humane social order were to prevail in the United States, he thought it imperative to restore the social conscience that possessive individualism had muted if not displaced. The accumulation of wealth at the expense of commonwealth was a devil’s bargain.

To contemporaries inside and outside the Republican Party, Roosevelt’s program seemed ahead of its time. His speech certainly dismayed conservatives. But Roosevelt was concerned that terrible want in the midst of unimaginable plenty was encouraging antagonisms that would culminate in a series of worsening political disturbances and perhaps lead to revolution. It was to his mind untenable that approximately twelve percent of Americans controlled ninety percent of the national wealth. Only the systematic extension of governmental power, even if it came at the expense of traditional American commitments to individualism, democracy, and laissez-faire, could rectify the dangerous imbalance. “A simple and poor society,” Roosevelt affirmed:

can exist as a democracy on the basis of sheer individualism. But a rich and complex industrial society cannot so exist; for some individuals, and especially those artificial individuals called corporations, become so very big that the ordinary individual is utterly dwarfed beside them, and cannot deal with them on terms of equality.[3]

Although Roosevelt generally took an amiable view of corporations, he understood that free enterprise was not, and never had been, free. It entailed social costs. Unless restrained, the corporations would dominate American public life with impunity. Anarchy, the handmaiden of despotism, was sure to follow if government did not compel a haughty and yet inept business establishment to yield some of its prerogatives. “The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they themselves have called into being. . . . We must have complete and effective publicity of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public.” In addition, notwithstanding their flamboyantly patriotic rhetoric, Roosevelt discerned that big capitalists often cared little about the well being of the United States if it conflicted with corporate interests. For this reason, he resolved “that we must have government supervision of the capitalization.”[4] Like many other Americans wary of concentrated wealth and fearful of the impending crisis that it would likely spawn, Roosevelt had become willing to countenance extensive state intervention into American society.

Among the most influential critics of Roosevelt’s political and economic philosophy was William Howard Taft, whom Roosevelt had chosen to succeed him. However trustworthy, competent, and efficient, government, Taft objected, was limited in its ability to effect reform. The free market, on the contrary, was the most reliable agent of improvement and progress. Functioning in accord with rules and logic of its own, the market, without interference from government, would generate both economic prosperity and social justice. Sympathetic to remedying various abuses, Taft was nonetheless convinced that the free market, if left to operate with only nominal intrusion from the state, consistently rewarded virtue and talent and punished stupidity and vice. The government, in Taft’s view, would do well simply to remove unearned advantages and unfair privileges that, in fact, disrupted the performance of the free market.

By 1910, the discord between Roosevelt and Taft had exploded into an irreparable schism that divided the Republican Party, a rift from which there emerged a Progressive insurgency. For his part, Roosevelt steadfastly denied that he had any further political ambitions. Arriving in London in May 1910 on his way home from safari in Africa, Roosevelt had promised the Republican Senator from New York, Elihu Root, who was also in London en route to the continent, that he would eschew all “things political” upon his return to the states. It was not to be. Initially, Roosevelt demurred when called upon to challenge the incumbent Taft. But Taft’s seeming ineptitude annoyed and then angered him. On October 27, 1911, the Taft administration revealed that it had filed an anti-trust suit against U.S. Steel, alleging that its acquisition of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company in 1907 had been illegal, a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Roosevelt himself had approved the sale and was enraged at the implication that he had acted improperly, even if the impropriety was inadvertent, the product of misjudgment rather than chicanery or fraud.

Only in February 1912 did Roosevelt at last agree to enter the presidential contest, announcing his candidacy on February 22, the anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Since 1911, Progressive Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin had been maneuvering to seize the Republican nomination from Taft. When, exhausted and distraught about his daughter’s illness, LaFollette suffered a mental breakdown while giving a speech in Philadelphia, his supporters abandoned him with indecent haste, calling on Roosevelt, who this time heeded the summons.[5]

From the outset of his campaign, Roosevelt took up the self-appointed task of reviving public morality and saving American values. A menacing conspiracy intent on subverting the American way of life was already underway, the scheme of an “invisible government,” the early twentieth-century equivalent of the “deep state.” Made up of a cabal of party bosses, wealthy industrialists, and greedy financiers, this villainous elite positioned itself beyond the jurisdiction of the law. Six years earlier, the undeniable connection between wealth and power had induced the muckraking journalist David Graham Phillips to decry “the treason of the Senate.”[6] Progressive Republicans, under Roosevelt’s leadership, vowed to conduct a revolution of their own to purify their party, the government, and the nation. When delegates to the Republican convention rejected the dissidents and re-nominated Taft, the Progressives deserted the party and endorsed Roosevelt, who assured them that they stood at Armageddon and did battle for the Lord.[7]

Creation of an independent Progressive Party spoiled Republican hopes for electoral success in 1912. Yet, although the rewards were fleeting, Roosevelt’s candidacy did provide the Progressive movement with a political coherence and a national purpose that it had not formerly attained and that it would never again possess. Among other consequences, reformers discarded the belief that the poor were responsible for their poverty, extending the definition of justice to encompass not only the ownership of property but also the conditions under which men and women lived and worked and the opportunities and aspirations that they envisioned for themselves and for their children.

The struggle to ease the often unforgiving conditions of modern life for workers and the poor was not exclusively an American initiative. Like the Progressive reformers, Pope Leo XIII also proposed the moral reorganization of industrial society. Since the Revolutions of 1848, the papacy had been the citadel of reaction. Reigning over the Church for thirty-two years, between 1846 and 1878, Pius IX looked upon all liberals as revolutionaries, all revolutionaries as fiends, and all liberal Catholics as heretics. In the encyclical Quanta Cura (1864), issued along with a Syllabus of Errors, Pius condemned freedom of conscience, of discussion, and of the press, religious toleration, the separation of church and state, rationalism, naturalism, socialism, communism, and a host of other ideologies that threatened the inviolability of the Roman Catholic Church. Reconciliation between the Church and the modern world was impossible.

Ascending to the papal throne in 1878, Leo XIII also condemned socialism and communism as diseases “tainting society to its very core and bringing it to a state of extreme peril.” (Quod Apostolici Muneris, 1878) Yet, ten years later, in 1888, Leo denied that the Catholic Church “looks unfavorably on most modern political systems and rejects all the discoveries of contemporary genius.” (Libertas Praestantissimum) He attempted to make common cause with moderate political movements throughout Europe, and he permitted the faithful to engage with current scholarship, going as far as to promote the resurgence of Thomistic learning in order to reconcile science and reason with theology and faith. Most important, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, which he published in 1891, Leo challenged various expressions of political dissent and class hostility by reaffirming the traditional Catholic devotion to the sanctity of all life.

With perhaps even more tenacity than American Progressives would exhibit, Leo XIII denounced the capitalist exploitation of human beings as if they were mere commodities. It was at once unjust and unchristian, he wrote, to permit so many workers to fall victim to “the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition” against which, in their political isolation from one another, they were defenseless.[8] It was the moral duty of the state, Leo insisted, to remedy such oppression. Although he was quick to add that the civil government must intervene in families and households only to protect and strengthen the rights of individuals and never to augment its own power. For the state to intrude itself into private arrangements at its own discretion was “a pernicious error.” It subjected people “to intolerable and hateful slavery” and exposed them “to misery and degradation.”[9] Unwarranted meddling from the state would invariably harm those whom it sought most to protect.

But the problem remained. To resolve it, Leo disavowed the essential premise of socialism and communism: the inevitability of class struggle. As an alternative, he proffered an organic theory of class relations in which, like the different parts of the human body, the distinct social classes lived in harmony with one another, working together to sustain the equilibrium and health of the body politic. “Capital cannot do without labor,” he proclaimed, “nor labor without capital.”[10] Christianity alone reminded the members of both classes that they were brothers and sisters in Christ, that they must, therefore, do no evil to one another, that they must recognize the dignity of all, and, finally, that no one had license to misuse another for profit. On the contrary, Leo warned “those whom fortune favors” that “riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness.”[11] Just as Roosevelt later suggested in delineating the principles of the New Nationalism, so in Rerum Novarum Leo determined that property and wealth must be held in trust and, when necessity required, were to be used not to benefit the individual but the community. Christians were obliged to apply the tenets of their faith to achieve economic and social justice, without eliminating the private ownership of property, which was a natural right. For Leo, such an admonition was no appeal to charity, but was instead the foundation of a civilized and humane social order that had the potential to alleviate the suffering and humiliation that poverty engendered:

Every one [sic] should put his hand to the work which falls to his share, and that at once and straightway, lest the evil which is already so great become through delay absolutely beyond remedy. Those who rule the commonwealth should avail themselves of the laws and institutions of the country; masters and wealthy owners must be mindful of their duty; the working class, whose interests are at stake, should make every lawful and proper effort; and since religion alone . . . can avail to destroy the evil at its root, all men should rest persuaded that the main thing needful is to re-establish Christian morals, apart from which all the plans and devices of the wisest will prove of little avail.[12]

The alternative, nothing less than a war of all against all, was intolerable.

From a fundamentally different theological outlook, the Progressives agreed. Still, even the charismatic Roosevelt could do nothing to prevent the movement from splintering in the aftermath of defeat. The momentary sense of purpose that his campaign had afforded the Progressives quickly vanished in confusion and disagreement. Impressed by aggregates of economic power, Roosevelt accepted, and even welcomed, the existence of corporations. Combination was essential to the development of a sophisticated economy. The effect of “an imperative economic law,” conglomeration had become ineradicable and, Roosevelt speculated, might even be advantageous. In the New Nationalism, he thus embraced as “inevitable and necessary” the concentration of wealth and power. He wanted only to discipline and regulate the mammoth corporations in the interest of public welfare, countering “big business” with “big government.”[13] Woodrow Wilson, the victorious candidate in 1912, disagreed. In his Inaugural Address, Wilson emphasized that “our work is the work of restoration.”

Unlike Roosevelt, Wilson, while a candidate for the presidency, feared bigness as a threat to democracy, whether it surfaced in economics or in politics. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the United States had experienced a quiet but profound revolution. “We are in the presence of a new organization of society,” Wilson intoned. “The life of America is not the life that it was twenty years ago; it is not the life that it was ten years ago.” The country had slipped its traditional moorings and disconnected itself from the past. Adrift on the turbulent waters of the twentieth century, it was in need of a firm and steady hand to pilot the ship of state. “The old political formulas do not fit the present problems,” Wilson continued. “They read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.” Bluntly put, the revolution that had taken place did not originate among the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, or even among “the great body” of working people. The changes benefitted those who were already wealthy and powerful, and did not accommodate “the convenience or prosperity of the average man,” whom, Wilson maintained, had been left out and left behind.[14]

The New Freedom differed most conspicuously from the New Nationalism in the policy toward corporations. “What this country needs above everything else,” Wilson decreed, “is a body of laws that will look after the men who are on the make rather than the men who are already made.”[15] Initiating a provocative debate about the role of government in a modern, industrial, corporate society, Wilson had made it plain that he judged the political and legal systems, which constituted the very structure of social order, as designed to promote the interests of the wealthy at the expense of ordinary Americans, the proverbial common man. This neo-Jacksonian perspective inspired Wilson to assail large corporations. Yet, merely to regulate them, as Roosevelt had intended to do, was insufficient; laissez-faire no longer answered. Government could not content itself to remove the obstacles that hindered individual opportunity or to eliminate the unjust benefits that some few had cultivated. Gone forever were the simple days when the government had only “to put on a policeman’s uniform, and say, `Now don’t anybody hurt anybody else.’” Rather, Wilson’s objective was to use the vast powers of the national government to elevate the individual and to restore economic competition, which necessitated the destruction, not the restraint, of the trusts. “The present organization of business,” he contended:

was meant for the big fellows and was not meant for the little fellows; it was meant for those who are at the top, and was meant to exclude those who are at the bottom; it was meant to shut out beginners, to prevent new entries in the race, to prevent the building up of competitive enterprises that would interfere with the monopolies which the great trusts have built up.[16]

As Roosevelt had done, Wilson also testified that the United States could not afford to permit this small class of entrepreneurs, industrialists, and financiers to acquire such a huge proportion of the national wealth. To permit the accumulation of vast private fortunes and to tolerate unremitting public squalor was, in time, sure to render the country destitute and, Wilson feared, to lead to a far more destructive revolution.

The impetus of Wilson’s campaign in the presidential election of 1912 was his promise to dismantle the concentrated economic power that the corporations represented. But by 1914, his approach to the problem of monopoly had changed. Within two years, Wilson had retreated from his earlier insistence that government tear down corporate monopolies and committed instead to regulating them. In that essential characteristic, the New Freedom came increasingly to resemble the New Nationalism. Designed to provide information to businessmen, the Federal Trade Commission, for instance, established a partnership between business and government. The intent of the FTC was to assist businessmen in complying with the law, investigating and prosecuting companies only when they knowingly engaged in “unfair trade practices.” Although the agency enhanced the regulatory power of the state, it did so primarily to aid and govern the corporations, not to set them on the road to ultimate destruction.

Similarly, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914, at least in theory, outlawed any practice that inhibited economic competition. The legislation specifically prohibited price–fixing agreements, interlocking directorates whereby members of the board of directors of one company also sat on the boards of their competitors, and the corporate acquisition of stock in a rival enterprise. Signed into law with tremendous fanfare, the Clayton Act never delivered the vigorous legal assault on corporate monopolies that Wilson had pledged during the campaign. In the end, the Clayton Act was more the triumph of public relations than a substantive reform of the economy. Eventually, Wilson came to think that corporations themselves, with assistance from government, were in the best position to direct the economic life of the nation. To be sure, he wanted to monitor corporations so that they did not hinder or impair the quest for social justice. And although Wilson still preferred to augment competition whenever possible, he had decided that inhibiting the freedom of business was likely counterproductive. The best way to ensure continuous economic progress while preserving social peace was to foster the natural development of the corporation as a semi-autonomous entity. The prosperity sure to result, Wilson, like Roosevelt, came to believe, was the best alternative to, and most reliable antidote for, social and political unrest.

Woodrow Wilson had feared that government would become the adjunct of business, a convenient and effective instrument available to do the bidding of corporate magnates. Roosevelt dismissed Wilson and the advocates of the New Freedom as reactionaries, out of touch with the requirements, to say nothing of the potential, of a modern corporate economy. At first, Wilson meant to purge the land of corporations and other antidemocratic sources of power. Not government itself, it turned out, but the misuse of governmental authority, had imperiled American freedom. Ironically, when he became president, Wilson presided over the extraordinary growth of business and government alike. With whatever misgivings, he had enlarged the regulatory powers of the state while the wartime demand to increase production had enabled business to expand the scope of its operations, sometimes with the help and sometimes even with the blessings of government.

To realize the Progressive hope of introducing greater efficiency, candor, and justice into the conduct of public affairs, Wilson had to surrender the Progressive commitment to individualism and democracy. He had little choice in the matter, for he discovered that the application of federal power to the defense of capitalism was a necessary evil. Only a strong central government could impose cohesion, stability, and order on the capitalism system, a feat that the burgeoning corporate economy could not by itself accomplish.

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1 The “New Nationalism” can be found in Hermann Hagedorn, ed. The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, 20 vols. (New York, 1926) Vol. XVII, 5-22. It is conveniently reprinted in two more accessible editions: Daniel J. Boorstin, ed., An American Primer (New York, 1985), 735-49 and Richard D. Hefner, ed. A Documentary History of the United States, 5 th ed. (New York, 1991), 226-32. The quoted passage is from Boorstin, ed., 744.

2 Boorstin, ed.,738.

Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (New York, 1920), 472.

4 Boorstin, ed., 740.

5 Two classic studies continue to yield valuable insights into Roosevelt and his times. See George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Modern America, 1900-1912 (New York, 1958) and John Morton Blum, The Progressive Presidents (New York, 1982). For a brief but thoughtful introduction to the election of 1912, see Brett Flehinger, The Election of 1912 and the Power of Progressivism (Boston, 2003). A more recent history of Progressivism is Michael McGerr’s masterful A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (New York, 2003).

6 Originally published as a series of articles in Cosmopolitan between February and July, 1906, The Treason of the Senate appeared as a book in 1953.

7 See “A Case Against Reactionaries,” Roosevelt’s speech to the Progressive Party Convention, Chicago, Illinois, June 17, 1912, reprinted in Gordon Hutner, ed., Selected Speeches and Writings of Theodore Roosevelt (New York, 2014), 159-173.

8 Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, No. 3. For a distinctive approach to Rerum Novarum from an economic perspective, see A.M.C. Waterman’s challenging “Rerum Novarum and Economic Thought,” Faith & Economics 67 (Spring 2016), 29-56.

Rerum Novarum, Nos. 14-15.

10 Ibid., No. 19.

11 Ibid., No. 22.

12 Ibid., No. 62.

13 Boorstin, ed., 741.

14 Woodrow Wilson, “The Old Order Changeth” (1913), reprinted in Hefner, ed., 232-33.

15 Ibid., 236.

16 Ibid.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Polling” (1755) by William Hogarth (1697-1764), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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