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The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Party

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

US political cartoon 1912 comparing corrupt leaders of GOP and reformers in Progressive party

US political cartoon 1912 comparing corrupt leaders of GOP and reformers in Progressive party

At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century Americans were experiencing the rapid growth of industry, corruption in the political system, and chaos in the social structure of the country. These effects of modernization saw the rise in reform movements that would ultimately lead to the creation of a third-party system called the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party would reach its high point during the 1912 United States Presidential election, with tenets that although considered controversial and by some to be too radical, would ultimately lead to programs and policies still in existence today. The Progressive Party would be the focal point of the political climate during the early part of the century but would eventually disappear completely by the middle portion of the 20th century.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865 and not long after the reconstruction period, America saw a rapid growth in industry, and more specifically in the growth of large corporations and railroads. Along with this growth came corruption and waste not only within the corporations but within the federal government as well. In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt stated that he would not seek another term as President and had hand-picked his successor in the Republican Party, William Howard Taft, to carry on Roosevelt’s progressive ideals. Progressivism was in full swing by 1908 on both sides of the political spectrum as well as within the independent sector. Taft easily won the 1908 presidential election over William Jennings Bryan, but problems immediately arose when Taft found that he could not appease both the progressives and the conservatives of the Republican Party. He eventually would begin to favor the conservative arm of the Republican Party.

During this time, Theodore Roosevelt was on safari in Africa and on his return maintained that he had no interest in reentering politics despite the obvious climate of unrest associated with Taft and the Republican Party. Ultimately, Taft’s conservative policies, and his opposition to the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill, would lead Roosevelt to embark on a speaking tour in which he spoke of his progressive philosophy. His philosophy was called New Nationalism, and the central issues addressed were human welfare, property rights and social justice. As the divide within the Republican Party continued to grow, Roosevelt eventually announced that he would indeed seek the Republican nomination for president in the 1912 election despite his original assertion that he would not re-enter the political realm. However, Roosevelt lost his nomination to the incumbent Taft so he, along with most of his delegates, walked out of the Republican Convention, left the Republican Party and created a new party dubbed the Progressive Party. The newly formed party was also referred to as the “Bull Moose Party” in reference to Roosevelt’s response to journalists asking him if he was still fit to hold office. Roosevelt replied, “I’m as fit as a bull moose”. The party nominated Roosevelt for President and Governor Hiram W. Johnson of California for Vice President. Johnson remained a member of the Republican Party because his supporters had control of the California Republican Party. The Progressive Party included such notables as Frank A. Munsey, George W. Perkins, Jane Addams and activists Gifford Pinchot and his brother Amos Pinchot. “The conscience of the people, in a time of grave national problems, has called into being a new party, born of the nation’s sense of justice”. So began the platform on which the Progressive Party would base its existence.

My Hat Is Still In The Ring, 1912 (Theodore Roosevelt) - Springtail Postcard

My Hat Is Still In The Ring, 1912 (Theodore Roosevelt) - Springtail Postcard

The Progressive Party saw the nation as being in crucial need of saving and believed that justice to the people as a whole was not being served by those currently in office. The Progressive Platform of 1912specifically laid out the problems that they believed faced the nation at this time. They then addressed each issue with a statement correcting the issue in a very general manner thus laying out the major tenets of the platform. The overarching premise was that the government had a responsibility to enact the will of the people and a duty to see that the general interest and welfare of the people were put first. It was stated with the idea that “Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people”. The two exiting parties were criticized equally as being corrupt and ineffective to meet the needs of the American people.

Directly tied to the two party system was the government and corporations and their parallel role in the perceived corruption. Theodore Roosevelt is attributed with the quote from the Progressive platform that solidified this position by stating, “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. 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”. The members of Progressive Party believed that they, and in particular Roosevelt, were responsible for setting the nation back on the proper course.

Businesses and corporations were also some of the biggest platform tenets that the Progressive Party sought to address. National regulation of corporations as opposed to a corporate system they felt “placed in the hands of a few men enormous, secret, irresponsible power over the daily life of the citizen a power insufferable in a free Government and certain of abuse”. They saw the federal government as the only means to ensure the nations’ businesses performed and were ran in way that was in the best interest of the American people and not just in the best interest of a select few in the corporate environment.

Progressive Covenant with the People 1912

Further Reading

With former US Forest Service chief and activist Gifford Pinchot, a prime mover within the Progressive Party, it is little wonder that conservation was another major tenet of the Progressive Party platform. Many of the other tenets of the Progressive platform set in motion ideals and policies that later administrations adopted and some that are still in effect today. One of the biggest of these policies was the view of equal suffrage. Roosevelt carried two states (California and Washington) based on women’s suffrage and many of the progressives of the time were instrumental in the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920 allowing women to vote. Other lasting contributions of the Progressive Party were the prohibition of child labor, minimum wage standards, and the national highway system.

Ultimately, Woodrow Wilson, representing the Democratic Party, would end up winning the 1912 presidential election with 6.3 million votes that garnered 435 electoral votes while Roosevelt came in second with 88 electoral votes. This was due in large part to the Democratic Party becoming increasingly united in their support and nomination of Wilson and his progressive ideas. With the Republican Party split between those who would end up supporting Roosevelt and those who remained true to the Republican Party and voting for Taft, independent progressives would cast their ballots for the Democrat Wilson, sealing the Democratic victory. The defeat was one of the many setbacks for the Progressive Party. Board member George W. Perkins would get blamed for blocking an anti-trust portion of the platform, which shocked those in the party who saw Roosevelt as a “trust buster”. Many in the Progressive Party placed their beliefs in progressive reform and the party’s ideals squarely around the persona of Theodore Roosevelt. Robert LaFollette, a critic of Theodore Roosevelt and one of the leaders of the progressive movement of the time, stated that “No party successfully organized around a man. Principles and issues must constitute the basis of this great movement”. LaFollette believed that those who were placing Roosevelt at the center of the party were dooming it to failure.

With Roosevelt’s loss at the polls, only seventeen members of the Progressive Party being elected to Congress, and a small number of its progressive members being elected to local offices, many supporters began leaving the party. By 1914 the party had literally no national representation but retained a fairly strong support base at the state level. Roosevelt was asked again in 1916 to accept the Progressive Party’s nomination for president, but he refused to do so, instead endorsing Republican Charles Evans Hughes. The Progressive Party would not be of prominence again until 1924, when progressive Robert LaFollette ran for president under the American Progressive Party. With decisive losses at the polls, and very little national support, the Progressive Party would ultimately fade away from the national view while still remaining fairly active at the state level for a few more years. After LaFollette was defeated, he returned to the Republican Party, where he served until his death in 1925. His son, Robert LaFollette Jr. continued with his father’s progressive ideals in Wisconsin. The 1912 Progressive Party Vice President nominee, Hiram Johnson, also continued to promote progressive ideals in California while maintaining his position in the Republican Party. By World War II, the Progressive Party had disappeared altogether. In 1948 Henry Wallace of Iowa ran for president under the United States Progressive Party. This version of the Progressive Party however had no direct alignment with the Progressive Party of 1912 or of 1924.

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1912 National Progressive Convention at the Chicago Coliseum.

1912 National Progressive Convention at the Chicago Coliseum.

The current political climate in the United States has brought the Progressive Party and its tenets back into the conscience of the American people. Many of the current trends in the actions of the government could arguably be traced back to Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of a government that had the American people’s best interest and welfare in mind as it took control of policies, businesses, and initiatives. Ultimately, Roosevelt and other progressives believed it was the duty of the government to exercise this control as it would better serve the people. The argument today is that this control is perceived as being intrusive to the individuals personal and civil liberties. Conversely, the other side of the argument is that the original principles of progressive reform in relation to the alliances between corporations and the government put the power that the American citizen has in government back into the hands of the citizen, using the government as a tool to enact the will of the people.

The Progressive Party has had a major impact on politics in the 20th century. It not only introduced the concept of a viable third party political system, it introduced initiatives that changed the face of the political parties, the federal government and people’s role in both. It shaped the view Americans had of their natural resources and paved the way for conservation reform and initiatives that are still in use to this day. It also played a major role in promoting and expanding women’s role in society, government and politics. Arguably, the Progressive Party, while becoming nonexistent in its own right, would continue and does continue to be a driving force in the American political system.


Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on December 31, 2012:

Great Hub, Nick. I agree that the effects of the Progressive party are still being felt. I wish they were resurrected more strongly considering the economic mess we are in. The middle and lower class economic problems are not being addressed.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on November 16, 2012:

It is interesting how third parties fade away or are absorbed by the two major parties. I'd read a little about Teddy Roosevelt and knew he was very progressive in terms of workers rights and busting up corporations' control in politics. That is fascinating that he was instrumental in the suffragist movement. The early part of the 20th century was a time of radical political movements and a certain amount of reform (which we take for granted today) and what is currently happening in the world today is comparable; with mass political movements calling to tackle our economic environment in a way that does away with elite control and exploitation of people and politics, and with many people looking to alternatives to mainstream politics. Very good read, fascinating material!

Wondergirl on June 03, 2011:

I like it...

merrellm on November 20, 2010:

I notice recently that modern liberalism is trying to adopt the label of proggresivism. It is interested to read about the origins of the term.

TeaPartyCrasher from Camp Hill, PA on July 09, 2010:

And is it just me, or has little changed since. . .

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