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Progressivism and Reform, Progressivism at the National Level

Underwood Tariff, Hepburn Act, Clayton Antitrust Act, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, interlocking directorates

When progressives began to work for reform at the national level, their major goal was government regulation of business. Seeking antitrust laws to eliminate monopolies, they also supported lower tariffs, a graduated income tax, and a system to control currency. They found a spokesperson in President Theodore Roosevelt.

Regulation, Roosevelt believed, was the only way to solve the problems caused by big business. A leading publicist for progressive ideals, Roosevelt became known as a trustbuster. He revived the Sherman Antitrust Act, vigorously enforcing it to break up large trusts that reduced competition and controlled prices. He also pursued a railroad monopoly, took on the meatpacking trust, and attacked oil, tobacco, and other monopolies. In 1906 Roosevelt helped push through a meat inspection act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Hepburn Act. This law expanded the regulatory powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the agency that regulated commercial activity crossing state lines.

Roosevelt was also a leading nature conservationist who wanted to preserve the nationís natural resources. He withdrew thousands of acres of forests, mineral lands, and waterpower sites from the public domain to protect them from exploitation by private interests. Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks and established many national monuments and wildlife refuges. He also supported a 1902 law to provide irrigation and hydroelectric development by building dams on some of the nationís rivers.

Rooseveltís successor, William Howard Taft, was more conservative, and domestic reforms slowed during his administration. He reluctantly signed a bill in 1909 that slightly raised tariffs, but he aggressively pursued twice as many antitrust proceedings. Taft won major victories against Standard Oil Company and American Tobacco Company, which were ordered by the Supreme Court to break into smaller, competing firms. Taft also signed laws for progressive measures such as raising corporation taxes.

Taft lost support in 1912, however, when Roosevelt, who disagreed with him on tariff policy and railroad regulation, entered the presidential race as head of the new Progressive Party. Rooseveltís program of New Nationalism sought state regulation of big business. New Jerseyís progressive governor, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, envisioned more limited federal power. Wilson supported an effort to destroy monopoly and aid small business through tariff reduction, banking reform, and tightening of antitrust laws. His program was known as the New Freedom.

Progressivism reached its peak during Wilsonís first term as president. In 1913 Wilson signed the Underwood Tariff, which reduced taxes on imported goods. The bill also included an income tax, permitted by the new 16th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Wilson supported the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which created a centralized banking system to act as a lender of last resort to forestall bank crises and to permit a more elastic currency, one that could be readily expanded or contracted to suit the national need.

To curb trusts, Wilson pushed through Congress the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914. The law established a commission with authority to prevent business practices that could lead to a monopoly. He also supported the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, a statute intended to bolster the poorly enforced Sherman Act. The new law banned interlocking directorates, in which a few people controlled an industry by serving simultaneously as directors of related corporations. It also exempted labor unions from the category of illegal combinations and gave workers the right to strike. Finally, Wilson appointed Louis Brandeis, a leading critic of big business, to the Supreme Court. Full of moral fervor, Wilson carried progressive goals into World War I, which the United States entered in 1917.

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