The Spirit Of Reform In America


Attacks on Abuses in American Life

The crisis precipitated by the

Progressive uprising was not a sudden and unexpected one. It had been

long in preparation. The revolt against corruption in politics which

produced the Liberal Republican outbreak in the seventies and the

Mugwump movement of the eighties was followed by continuous criticism of

American politica
and economic development. From 1880 until his death

in 1892, George William Curtis, as president of the Civil Service Reform

Association, kept up a running fire upon the abuses of the spoils

system. James Bryce, an observant English scholar and man of affairs, in

his great work, The American Commonwealth, published in 1888, by

picturing fearlessly the political rings and machines which dominated

the cities, gave the whole country a fresh shock. Six years later Henry

D. Lloyd, in a powerful book entitled Wealth against Commonwealth,

attacked in scathing language certain trusts which had destroyed their

rivals and bribed public officials. In 1903 Miss Ida Tarbell, an author

of established reputation in the historical field, gave to the public an

account of the Standard Oil Company, revealing the ruthless methods of

that corporation in crushing competition. About the same time Lincoln

Steffens exposed the sordid character of politics in several

municipalities in a series of articles bearing the painful heading: The

Shame of the Cities. The critical spirit appeared in almost every form;

in weekly and monthly magazines, in essays and pamphlets, in editorials

and news stories, in novels like Churchill's Coniston and Sinclair's

The Jungle. It became so savage and so wanton that the opening years

of the twentieth century were well named "the age of the muckrakers."

The Subjects of the Criticism

In this outburst of invective, nothing

was spared. It was charged that each of the political parties had fallen

into the hands of professional politicians who devoted their time to

managing conventions, making platforms, nominating candidates, and

dictating to officials; in return for their "services" they sold offices

and privileges. It was alleged that mayors and councils had bargained

away for private benefit street railway and other franchises. It was

asserted that many powerful labor unions were dominated by men who

blackmailed employers. Some critics specialized in descriptions of the

poverty, slums, and misery of great cities. Others took up "frenzied

finance" and accused financiers of selling worthless stocks and bonds to

an innocent public. Still others professed to see in the accumulations

of millionaires the downfall of our republic.

The Attack on "Invisible Government."--Some even maintained that the

control of public affairs had passed from the people to a sinister

minority called "the invisible government." So eminent and conservative

a statesman as the Hon. Elihu Root lent the weight of his great name to

such an imputation. Speaking of his native state, New York, he said:

"What is the government of this state? What has it been during the forty

years of my acquaintance with it? The government of the Constitution?

Oh, no; not half the time or half way.... From the days of Fenton and

Conkling and Arthur and Cornell and Platt, from the days of David B.

Hill down to the present time, the government of the state has presented

two different lines of activity: one, of the constitutional and

statutory officers of the state and the other of the party leaders; they

call them party bosses. They call the system--I don't coin the

phrase--the system they call 'invisible government.' For I don't know

how many years Mr. Conkling was the supreme ruler in this state. The

governor did not count, the legislature did not count, comptrollers and

secretaries of state and what not did not count. It was what Mr.

Conkling said, and in a great outburst of public rage he was pulled

down. Then Mr. Platt ruled the state; for nigh upon twenty years he

ruled it. It was not the governor; it was not the legislature; it was

Mr. Platt. And the capital was not here [in Albany]; it was at 49

Broadway; Mr. Platt and his lieutenants. It makes no difference what

name you give, whether you call it Fenton or Conkling or Cornell or

Arthur or Platt or by the names of men now living. The ruler of the

state during the greater part of the forty years of my acquaintance with

the state government has not been any man authorized by the constitution

or by law.... The party leader is elected by no one, accountable to no

one, bound by no oath of office, removable by no one."

The Nation Aroused

With the spirit of criticism came also the spirit

of reform. The charges were usually exaggerated; often wholly false; but

there was enough truth in them to warrant renewed vigilance on the part

of American democracy. President Roosevelt doubtless summed up the

sentiment of the great majority of citizens when he demanded the

punishment of wrong-doers in 1907, saying: "It makes not a particle of

difference whether these crimes are committed by a capitalist or by a

laborer, by a leading banker or manufacturer or railroad man or by a

leading representative of a labor union. Swindling in stocks, corrupting

legislatures, making fortunes by the inflation of securities, by

wrecking railroads, by destroying competitors through rebates--these

forms of wrong-doing in the capitalist are far more infamous than any

ordinary form of embezzlement or forgery." The time had come, he added,

to stop "muckraking" and proceed to the constructive work of removing

the abuses that had grown up.


The Public Service

It was a wise comprehension of the needs of

American democracy that led the friends of reform to launch and to

sustain for more than half a century a movement to improve the public

service. On the one side they struck at the spoils system; at the right

of the politicians to use public offices as mere rewards for partisan

work. The federal civil service act of 1883 opened the way to reform by

establishing five vital principles in law: (1) admission to office, not

on the recommendation of party workers, but on the basis of competitive

examinations; (2) promotion for meritorious service of the government

rather than of parties; (3) no assessment of office holders for campaign

funds; (4) permanent tenure during good behavior; and (5) no dismissals

for political reasons. The act itself at first applied to only 14,000

federal offices, but under the constant pressure from the reformers it

was extended until in 1916 it covered nearly 300,000 employees out of an

executive force of approximately 414,000. While gaining steadily at

Washington, civil service reformers carried their agitation into the

states and cities. By 1920 they were able to report ten states with

civil service commissions and the merit system well intrenched in more

than three hundred municipalities.

In excluding spoilsmen from public office, the reformers were, in a

sense, engaged in a negative work: that of "keeping the rascals out."

But there was a second and larger phase to their movement, one

constructive in character: that of getting skilled, loyal, and efficient

servants into the places of responsibility. Everywhere on land and sea,

in town and country, new burdens were laid upon public officers. They

were called upon to supervise the ships sailing to and from our ports;

to inspect the water and milk supplies of our cities; to construct and

operate great public works, such as the Panama and Erie canals; to

regulate the complicated rates of railway companies; to safeguard health

and safety in a thousand ways; to climb the mountains to fight forest

fires; and to descend into the deeps of the earth to combat the deadly

coal gases that assail the miners. In a word, those who labored to

master the secrets and the powers of nature were summoned to the aid of

the government: chemists, engineers, architects, nurses, surgeons,

foresters--the skilled in all the sciences, arts, and crafts.

Keeping rascals out was no task at all compared with the problem of

finding competent people for all the technical offices. "Now," said the

reformers, "we must make attractive careers in the government work for

the best American talent; we must train those applying for admission and

increase the skill of those already in positions of trust; we must see

to it that those entering at the bottom have a chance to rise to the

top; in short, we must work for a government as skilled and efficient as

it is strong, one commanding all the wisdom and talent of America that

public welfare requires."

The Australian Ballot

A second line of attack on the political

machines was made in connection with the ballot. In the early days

elections were frequently held in the open air and the poll was taken by

a show of hands or by the enrollment of the voters under names of their

favorite candidates. When this ancient practice was abandoned in favor

of the printed ballot, there was still no secrecy about elections. Each

party prepared its own ballot, often of a distinctive color, containing

the names of its candidates. On election day, these papers were handed

out to the voters by party workers. Any one could tell from the color of

the ballot dropped into the box, or from some mark on the outside of the

folded ballot, just how each man voted. Those who bought votes were sure

that their purchases were "delivered." Those who intimidated voters

could know when their intimidation was effective. In this way the party

ballot strengthened the party machine.

As a remedy for such abuses, reformers, learning from the experience of

Australia, urged the adoption of the "Australian ballot." That ballot,

though it appeared in many forms, had certain constant features. It was

official, that is, furnished by the government, not by party workers; it

contained the names of all candidates of all parties; it was given out

only in the polling places; and it was marked in secret. The first state

to introduce it was Massachusetts. The year was 1888. Before the end of

the century it had been adopted by nearly all the states in the union.

The salutary effect of the reform in reducing the amount of cheating

and bribery in elections was beyond all question.

The Direct Primary

In connection with the uprising against machine

politics, came a call for the abolition of the old method of nominating

candidates by conventions. These time-honored party assemblies, which

had come down from the days of Andrew Jackson, were, it was said, merely

conclaves of party workers, sustained by the spoils system, and

dominated by an inner circle of bosses. The remedy offered in this case

was again "more democracy," namely, the abolition of the party

convention and the adoption of the direct primary. Candidates were no

longer to be chosen by secret conferences. Any member of a party was to

be allowed to run for any office, to present his name to his party by

securing signatures to a petition, and to submit his candidacy to his

fellow partisans at a direct primary--an election within the party. In

this movement Governor La Follette of Wisconsin took the lead and his

state was the first in the union to adopt the direct primary for

state-wide purposes. The idea spread, rapidly in the West, more slowly

in the East. The public, already angered against "the bosses," grasped

eagerly at it. Governor Hughes in New York pressed it upon the unwilling

legislature. State after state accepted it until by 1918 Rhode Island,

Delaware, Connecticut, and New Mexico were the only states that had not

bowed to the storm. Still the results were disappointing and at that

very time the pendulum was beginning to swing backward.

Popular Election of Federal Senators

While the movement for direct

primaries was still advancing everywhere, a demand for the popular

election of Senators, usually associated with it, swept forward to

victory. Under the original Constitution, it had been expressly provided

that Senators should be chosen by the legislatures of the states. In

practice this rule transferred the selection of Senators to secret

caucuses of party members in the state legislatures. In connection with

these caucuses there had been many scandals, some direct proofs of

brazen bribery and corruption, and dark hints besides. The Senate was

called by its detractors "a millionaires' club" and it was looked upon

as the "citadel of conservatism." The prescription in this case was

likewise "more democracy"--direct election of Senators by popular vote.

This reform was not a new idea. It had been proposed in Congress as

early as 1826. President Johnson, an ardent advocate, made it the

subject of a special message in 1868 Not long afterward it appeared in

Congress. At last in 1893, the year after the great Populist upheaval,

the House of Representatives by the requisite two-thirds vote

incorporated it in an amendment to the federal Constitution. Again and

again it passed the House; but the Senate itself was obdurate. Able

Senators leveled their batteries against it. Mr. Hoar of Massachusetts

declared that it would transfer the seat of power to the "great cities

and masses of population"; that it would "overthrow the whole scheme of

the Senate and in the end the whole scheme of the national Constitution

as designed and established by the framers of the Constitution and the

people who adopted it."

Failing in the Senate, advocates of popular election made a rear assault

through the states. They induced state legislatures to enact laws

requiring the nomination of candidates for the Senate by the direct

primary, and then they bound the legislatures to abide by the popular

choice. Nevada took the lead in 1899. Shortly afterward Oregon, by the

use of the initiative and referendum, practically bound legislators to

accept the popular nominee and the country witnessed the spectacle of a

Republican legislature "electing" a Democrat to represent the state in

the Senate at Washington. By 1910 three-fourths of the states had

applied the direct primary in some form to the choice of Senators. Men

selected by that method began to pour in upon the floors of Congress;

finally in 1912 the two-thirds majority was secured for an amendment to

the federal Constitution providing for the popular election of Senators.

It was quickly ratified by the states. The following year it was

proclaimed in effect.

The Initiative and Referendum

As a corrective for the evils which

had grown up in state legislatures there arose a demand for the

introduction of a Swiss device known as the initiative and referendum.

The initiative permits any one to draw up a proposed bill; and, on

securing a certain number of signatures among the voters, to require the

submission of the measure to the people at an election. If the bill thus

initiated receives a sufficient majority, it becomes a law. The

referendum allows citizens who disapprove any act passed by the

legislature to get up a petition against it and thus bring about a

reference of the measure to the voters at the polls for approval or

rejection. These two practices constitute a form of "direct government."

These devices were prescribed "to restore the government to the people."

The Populists favored them in their platform of 1896. Mr. Bryan, two

years later, made them a part of his program, and in the same year South

Dakota adopted them. In 1902 Oregon, after a strenuous campaign, added a

direct legislation amendment to the state constitution. Within ten years

all the Southwestern, Mountain, and Pacific states, except Texas and

Wyoming, had followed this example. To the east of the Mississippi,

however, direct legislation met a chilly reception. By 1920 only five

states in this section had accepted it: Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio,

Michigan, and Maryland, the last approving the referendum only.

The Recall

Executive officers and judges, as well as legislatures,

had come in for their share of criticism, and it was proposed that they

should likewise be subjected to a closer scrutiny by the public. For

this purpose there was advanced a scheme known as the recall--which

permitted a certain percentage of the voters to compel any officer, at

any time during his term, to go before the people at a new election.

This feature of direct government, tried out first in the city of Los

Angeles, was extended to state-wide uses in Oregon in 1908. It failed,

however, to capture popular imagination to the same degree as the

initiative and referendum. At the end of ten years' agitation, only ten

states, mainly in the West, had adopted it for general purposes, and

four of them did not apply it to the judges of the courts. Still it was

extensively acclaimed in cities and incorporated into hundreds of

municipal laws and charters.

As a general proposition, direct government in all its forms was

bitterly opposed by men of a conservative cast of mind. It was denounced

by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge as "nothing less than a complete revolution

in the fabric of our government and in the fundamental principles upon

which that government rests." In his opinion, it promised to break down

the representative principle and "undermine and overthrow the bulwarks

of ordered liberty and individual freedom." Mr. Taft shared Mr. Lodge's

views and spoke of direct government with scorn. "Votes," he exclaimed,

"are not bread ... referendums do not pay rent or furnish houses,

recalls do not furnish clothes, initiatives do not supply employment or

relieve inequalities of condition or of opportunity."

Commission Government for Cities

In the restless searching out of

evils, the management of cities early came under critical scrutiny. City

government, Mr. Bryce had remarked, was the one conspicuous failure in

America. This sharp thrust, though resented by some, was accepted as a

warning by others. Many prescriptions were offered by doctors of the

body politic. Chief among them was the idea of simplifying the city

government so that the light of public scrutiny could shine through it.

"Let us elect only a few men and make them clearly responsible for the

city government!" was the new cry in municipal reform. So, many city

councils were reduced in size; one of the two houses, which several

cities had adopted in imitation of the federal government, was

abolished; and in order that the mayor could be held to account, he was

given the power to appoint all the chief officials. This made the mayor,

in some cases, the only elective city official and gave the voters a

"short ballot" containing only a few names--an idea which some proposed

to apply also to the state government.

A further step in the concentration of authority was taken in Galveston,

Texas, where the people, looking upon the ruin of their city wrought by

the devastating storm of 1901, and confronted by the difficult problems

of reconstruction, felt the necessity for a more businesslike management

of city affairs and instituted a new form of local administration. They

abolished the old scheme of mayor and council and vested all power in

five commissioners, one of whom, without any special prerogatives, was

assigned to the office of "mayor president." In 1908, the commission

form of government, as it was soon characterized, was adopted by Des

Moines, Iowa. The attention of all municipal reformers was drawn to it

and it was hailed as the guarantee of a better day. By 1920, more than

four hundred cities, including Memphis, Spokane, Birmingham, Newark, and

Buffalo, had adopted it. Still the larger cities like New York and

Chicago kept their boards of aldermen.

The City Manager Plan

A few years' experience with commission

government revealed certain patent defects. The division of the work

among five men was frequently found to introduce dissensions and

irresponsibility. Commissioners were often lacking in the technical

ability required to manage such difficult matters as fire and police

protection, public health, public works, and public utilities. Some one

then proposed to carry over into city government an idea from the

business world. In that sphere the stockholders of each corporation

elect the directors and the directors, in turn, choose a business

manager to conduct the affairs of the company. It was suggested that the

city commissioners, instead of attempting to supervise the details of

the city administration, should select a manager to do this. The scheme

was put into effect in Sumter, South Carolina, in 1912. Like the

commission plan, it became popular. Within eight years more than one

hundred and fifty towns and cities had adopted it. Among the larger

municipalities were Dayton, Springfield (Ohio), Akron, Kalamazoo, and

Phoenix. It promised to create a new public service profession, that of

city manager.


The Spirit of American Reform

The purification of the ballot, the

restriction of the spoils system, the enlargement of direct popular

control over the organs of government were not the sole answers made by

the reformers to the critics of American institutions. Nor were they the

most important. In fact, they were regarded not as ends in themselves,

but as means to serve a wider purpose. That purpose was the promotion of

the "general welfare." The concrete objects covered by that broad term

were many and varied; but they included the prevention of extortion by

railway and other corporations, the protection of public health, the

extension of education, the improvement of living conditions in the

cities, the elimination of undeserved poverty, the removal of gross

inequalities in wealth, and more equality of opportunity.

All these things involved the use of the powers of government. Although

a few clung to the ancient doctrine that the government should not

interfere with private business at all, the American people at large

rejected that theory as vigorously as they rejected the doctrines of an

extreme socialism which exalts the state above the individual. Leaders

representing every shade of opinion proclaimed the government an

instrument of common welfare to be used in the public interest. "We must

abandon definitely," said Roosevelt, "the laissez-faire theory of

political economy and fearlessly champion a system of increased

governmental control, paying no attention to the cries of worthy people

who denounce this as socialistic." This view was shared by Mr. Taft, who

observed: "Undoubtedly the government can wisely do much more ... to

relieve the oppressed, to create greater equality of opportunity, to

make reasonable terms for labor in employment, and to furnish vocational

education." He was quick to add his caution that "there is a line beyond

which the government cannot go with any good practical results in

seeking to make men and society better."

The Regulation of Railways

The first attempts to use the government

in a large way to control private enterprise in the public interest were

made by the Northwestern states in the decade between 1870 and 1880.

Charges were advanced by the farmers, particularly those organized into

Granges, that the railways extorted the highest possible rates for

freight and passengers, that favoritism was shown to large shippers,

that fraudulent stocks and bonds were sold to the innocent public. It

was claimed that railways were not like other enterprises, but were

"quasi-public" concerns, like the roads and ferries, and thus subject to

government control. Accordingly laws were enacted bringing the railroads

under state supervision. In some cases the state legislature fixed the

maximum rates to be charged by common carriers, and in other cases

commissions were created with the power to establish the rates after an

investigation. This legislation was at first denounced in the East as

nothing less than the "confiscation" of the railways in the interest of

the farmers. Attempts to have the Supreme Court of the United States

declare it unconstitutional were made without avail; still a principle

was finally laid down to the effect that in fixing rates state

legislatures and commissions must permit railway companies to earn a

"fair" return on the capital invested.

In a few years the Granger spirit appeared in Congress. An investigation

revealed a long list of abuses committed by the railways against

shippers and travelers. The result was the interstate commerce act of

1887, which created the Interstate Commerce Commission, forbade

discriminations in rates, and prohibited other objectionable practices

on the part of railways. This measure was loosely enforced and the

abuses against which it was directed continued almost unabated. A demand

for stricter control grew louder and louder. Congress was forced to

heed. In 1903 it enacted the Elkins law, forbidding railways to charge

rates other than those published, and laid penalties upon the officers

and agents of companies, who granted secret favors to shippers, and upon

shippers who accepted them. Three years later a still more drastic step

was taken by the passage of the Hepburn act. The Interstate Commerce

Commission was authorized, upon complaint of some party aggrieved, and

after a public hearing, to determine whether just and reasonable rates

had been charged by the companies. In effect, the right to fix freight

and passenger rates was taken out of the hands of the owners of the

railways engaged in interstate commerce and vested in the hands of the

Interstate Commerce Commission. Thus private property to the value of

$20,000,000,000 or more was declared to be a matter of public concern

and subject to government regulation in the common interest.

Municipal Utilities

Similar problems arose in connection with the

street railways, electric light plants, and other utilities in the great

cities. In the beginning the right to construct such undertakings was

freely, and often corruptly, granted to private companies by city

councils. Distressing abuses arose in connection with such practices.

Many grants or franchises were made perpetual, or perhaps for a term of

999 years. The rates charged and services rendered were left largely to

the will of the companies holding the franchises. Mergers or unions of

companies were common and the public was deluged with stocks and bonds

of doubtful value; bankruptcies were frequent. The connection between

the utility companies and the politicians was, to say the least, not

always in the public interest.

American ingenuity was quick to devise methods for eliminating such

evils. Three lines of progress were laid out by the reformers. One group

proposed that such utilities should be subject to municipal or state

regulation, that the formation of utility companies should be under

public control, and that the issue of stocks and bonds must be approved

by public authority. In some cases state, and in other cases municipal,

commissions were created to exercise this great power over "quasi-public

corporations." Wisconsin, by laws enacted in 1907, put all heat, light,

water works, telephone, and street railway companies under the

supervision of a single railway commission. Other states followed this

example rapidly. By 1920 the principle of public control over municipal

utilities was accepted in nearly every section of the union.

A second line of reform appeared in the "model franchise" for utility

corporations. An illustration of this tendency was afforded by the

Chicago street railway settlement of 1906. The total capital of the

company was fixed at a definite sum, its earnings were agreed upon, and

the city was given the right to buy and operate the system if it desired

to do so. In many states, about the same time, it was provided that no

franchises to utility companies could run more than twenty-five years.

A third group of reformers were satisfied with nothing short of

municipal ownership. They proposed to drive private companies entirely

out of the field and vest the ownership and management of municipal

plants in the city itself. This idea was extensively applied to electric

light and water works plants, but to street railways in only a few

cities, including San Francisco and Seattle. In New York the subways are

owned by the city but leased for operation.

Tenement House Control

Among the other pressing problems of the

cities was the overcrowding in houses unfit for habitation. An inquiry

in New York City made under the authority of the state in 1902 revealed

poverty, misery, slums, dirt, and disease almost beyond imagination. The

immediate answer was the enactment of a tenement house law prescribing

in great detail the size of the rooms, the air space, the light and the

sanitary arrangement for all new buildings. An immense improvement

followed and the idea was quickly taken up in other states having large

industrial centers. In 1920 New York made a further invasion of the

rights of landlords by assuring to the public "reasonable rents" for

flats and apartments.

Workmen's Compensation

No small part of the poverty in cities was

due to the injury of wage-earners while at their trade. Every year the

number of men and women killed or wounded in industry mounted higher.

Under the old law, the workman or his family had to bear the loss unless

the employer had been guilty of some extraordinary negligence. Even in

that case an expensive lawsuit was usually necessary to recover

"damages." In short, although employers insured their buildings and

machinery against necessary risks from fire and storm, they allowed

their employees to assume the heavy losses due to accidents. The

injustice of this, though apparent enough now, was once not generally

recognized. It was said to be unfair to make the employer pay for

injuries for which he was not personally responsible; but the argument

was overborne.

About 1910 there set in a decided movement in the direction of lifting

the burden of accidents from the unfortunate victims. In the first

place, laws were enacted requiring employers to pay damages in certain

amounts according to the nature of the case, no matter how the accident

occurred, as long as the injured person was not guilty of willful

negligence. By 1914 more than one-half the states had such laws. In the

second place, there developed schemes of industrial insurance in the

form of automatic grants made by state commissions to persons injured in

industries, the funds to be provided by the employers or the state or by

both. By 1917 thirty-six states had legislation of this type.

Minimum Wages and Mothers' Pensions

Another source of poverty,

especially among women and children, was found to be the low wages paid

for their labor. Report after report showed this. In 1912 Massachusetts

took a significant step in the direction of declaring the minimum wages

which might be paid to women and children. Oregon, the following year,

created a commission with power to prescribe minimum wages in certain

industries, based on the cost of living, and to enforce the rates fixed.

Within a short time one-third of the states had legislation of this

character. To cut away some of the evils of poverty and enable widows to

keep their homes intact and bring up their children, a device known as

mothers' pensions became popular during the second decade of the

twentieth century. At the opening of 1913 two states, Colorado and

Illinois, had laws authorizing the payment from public funds of definite

sums to widows with children. Within four years, thirty-five states had

similar legislation.

Taxation and Great Fortunes

As a part of the campaign waged against

poverty by reformers there came a demand for heavy taxes upon great

fortunes, particularly taxes upon inheritances or estates passing to

heirs on the decease of the owners. Roosevelt was an ardent champion of

this type of taxation and dwelt upon it at length in his message to

Congress in 1907. "Such a tax," he said, "would help to preserve a

measurable equality of opportunity for the people of the generations

growing to manhood.... Our aim is to recognize what Lincoln pointed out:

the fact that there are some respects in which men are obviously not

equal; but also to insist that there should be equality of self-respect

and of mutual respect, an equality of rights before the law, and at

least an approximate equality in the conditions under which each man

obtains the chance to show the stuff that is in him when compared with

his fellows."

The spirit of the new age was, therefore, one of reform, not of

revolution. It called for no evolutionary or utopian experiments, but

for the steady and progressive enactment of measures aimed at admitted

abuses and designed to accomplish tangible results in the name of public