Progressive Presidents: Crash Course US History #29
Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse
U.S. History and today we’re going to finish our discussion of Progressivism, and indulge
in a bit of “great man” history. Mr. Green, Mr. Green! Great man history, huh?
Well I was born on a sunny, summer morning in 197–
Yeah you’re not great, Me from the Past. Also, you’re a boy not a man, and the only
historically significant thing you ever participated in was a brilliant senior prank that wasn’t
even your idea. However, 39 of our 43 presidents were, at
least arguably, great men and today we’ll be talking about three of them. It will be
kind of like a Jefferson vs. Hamilton for the 20th century, except not like that at
all. But there will be a canal, and TWO people get shot.
Intro So, as we saw in CrashCourse World History,
national governments were on the rise from the middle of the 19th century until basically
now. And in the U.S., Corporations became national
and then, by the twentieth century, international. Like, the British East India Company was kind
of an international corporation, but it wasn’t the same as Coca-Cola, although they did both
deal in narcotics. And this mania for nationalization even affected
sports. Like, in baseball, the National league and the American league were formed and in
1903 they played the first inaccurately named World Series.
I’m sorry, was Botswana invited? Then it’s not a World Series.
Anyway, the rise of a strong, national government was seen as an alternative to people’s lives
being controlled by provincial city and state governments or by ever-growing corporations.
Like, Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic, thought that to achieve the Jeffersonian democratic
self-determination ideal of individual freedom, the country needed to employ Hamiltonian government
intervention in the economy. And he wasn’t the only one who believed that.
Okay, so in 1901, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest American president ever
after William McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz. Czol–? Czolg–? Czol–? Hold
on. “Czolgosz. Polish.” Czolgosz? Czolgosz? His name was Leon Chuckles?
Man, Leon Chuckles was a real barrel of laughs for an anarchist. Usually they’re very serious.
Right, so Leon Chuckles paved the way for Teddy Roosevelt, who in many ways the model
of the 20th century president. He was very engaged in both domestic and foreign
policy and he set the political agenda for the whole country. His political program,
the Square Deal, aimed to distinguish good corporations that provided useful products
and services at fair prices from evil corporations that existed just to make money. That is hilarious.
A corporation that doesn’t exist just to make money. That’s fantastic, Teddy.
Everybody knows that corporations are just inherently greedy people, but they are people.
Roosevelt felt it was the federal government’s responsibility to regulate the economy directly
and to break up power of wealthy corporations, and he used the Sherman Act to prosecute bad
trusts such as the Northern Securities Company, which was a holding company created by J.P.
Morgan that directed three major railroads and monopolized transport.
And that did not make J.P. Morgan a happy bunny. Thank you for that, Stan. That’s,
that’s wonderful. Shockingly, the legislative and executive
branches managed to work together and Congress passed some actual legislation, including
the Hepburn Act of 1906, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to regulate
railroad rates and examine their company books. And Roosevelt was also a conservationist.
He wanted to preserve the environment from economic exploitation, probably so that there
would be plenty of animals for him to hunt with his big stick while he walked softly.
Having appointed noted progressive Gifford Pinchot head of the forest service, millions
of acres were set aside for new, highly managed national parks reflecting the progressive
idea that experts could manage the world. But then in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt decided
to go elephant hunting instead of running for re-election and he picked William Howard
Taft to be his successor, but the man who became our largest president massively disappointed
Roosevelt. When I say “our largest,” by the way,
I don’t mean our greatest. I mean our largest. Taft was a pretty hard-core trust-buster who
ordered the prosecution that broke up Standard Oil in 1911, but he didn’t see big business
as bad unless the corporations stifled competition. He also supported the 16th amendment, allowing
Congress to pass an income tax, and that paved the way for the 18th amendment, Prohibition,
because with an income tax, the federal government didn’t have to rely on liquor excise taxes.
So, why didn’t Roosevelt like Taft? Well, not only was Taft more conservative than most
progressives, he also fired Pinchot in 1910. And Roosevelt was so frustrated with Taft
that he actually challenged the incumbent president for the Republican nomination in
1912. Which Roosevelt lost, but he didn’t let
it drop. He founded his own Progressive Party, called the Bull Moose Party so that he could
run again. So, the election of 1912 featured four candidates:
Taft; Teddy Roosevelt for the Bull Moose Party; Eugene Debs, for the Socialist Party; and
Democrat Woodrow Wilson. It’s worth noting that in contemporary American
political discourse, all four of these people would have been seen as somewhere between
crazy liberals and actual communists. So Eugene Debs, from right here in my home
state of Indiana, did not support the Socialist Party’s goal of abolishing capitalism, but
he ran on a platform that included public ownership of railroads and banks, and laws
limiting work hours. And running on the socialist ticket, Debs
won 6% of the vote, which was, to quote another president, “not bad.”
But the election of 1912 turned out to be a contest between Wilson and Roosevelt’s
competing views over the dangers of increasing government power and economic concentration.
Wilson claimed, “Freedom today is something more than being let alone. The program of
government must in these days be positive, not negative merely.” That’s just not
good grammar, sir. His program, called New Freedom, was supposed
to reinvigorate democracy by restoring market competition and preventing big business from
dominating government. It included stronger anti-trust laws and policies to encourage
small businesses. Roosevelt’s answer to New Freedom was a
program he called New Nationalism, because, of course, in election years all things are
new. Roosevelt recognized the inevitability of
big business and hoped to use government intervention to stop its abuses.
New Nationalism included heavy taxes on personal and corporate fortunes and greater federal
regulation of industries. So, the Bull Moose Party platform was in some
ways a vision of a modern welfare state, it called for: Women’s suffrage
Federal regulation National labor and health legislation for
women and children Eight hour days and living wage for all workers
National systems of social insurance for health, unemployment, and old age What are we, Canada?
God, I wish we were Canada…You weren’t recording that, were you, Stan?
Roosevelt thought his party’s platform was one of the most important documents in the
history of mankind, and Americans agreed, they supported him and elected him in a landslide.
Oh wait, no they didn’t. Instead, he lost. And also, a guy shot him
at one of his campaign stops, that’s shooting #2. Roosevelt however survived and even went
on to make the speech after being shot. What happened in the election is that Taft
and Roosevelt split the Republican vote, leaving Woodrow Wilson president with a mere 42% of
the popular vote, giving us our only democratic president between 1896 and 1932.
Oh, it’s time for the mystery document? The rules here are simple.
I guess the author of the mystery document. If I’m wrong, I get shocked by the shock
pen, which many of you insist is fictional, but I promise, it’s not.
“The two things we are fighting against, namely, excessive tariffs and almost universal
monopoly, are the very things that these two branches of the Republican party both decline
to combat. (…) They intend to accept these evils and stagger along under the burden of
excessive tariffs and intolerable monopolies as best they can through administrative commissions.
I say, therefore, that it is inconceivable that the people of the United States, whose
instinct is against special privilege and whose deepest convictions are against monopoly,
should turn to either of these parties for relief when these parties do not so much as
pretend to offer them relief.” Alright, it’s definitely about the 1912
election. It talks about the Republican party being split into two parts, so it’s by a
democrat. Or a socialist, but probably a democrat judging from the Mystery Document itself.
You always make it hard, Stan. So it’s not going to be Woodrow Wilson because that would
be obvious, but I do not know the names of any other prominent democrats, so I am going
to guess Woodrow Wilson. YES? Get in! So, with its stirring anti-tariff, anti-monopoly,
do not pass GO, do not collect $200 stance, New Freedom won out, and because the Democrats
also controlled Congress, Wilson was able to implement this program.
The Underwood Tariff reduced import duties and after the ratification of the 16th amendment,
Congress imposed a graduated income tax on the richest 5% of Americans.
Other legislation included the Clayton Act of 1914, which exempted unions from antitrust
laws and made it easier for them to strike; the Keating-Owen Act, which outlawed child
labor in manufacturing; and the Adamson Act which mandated an eight hour workday for railroad
workers. If Wilson’s New Freedom sounds a lot like
Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, that’s because they ended up being pretty similar.
Wilson engaged in less trust busting than expected, and more regulation of the economy.
Wilson didn’t institute a national system of health and unemployment insurance, but
he did expand the powers of the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and prohibit unfair
monopolistic practices. He also supported the founding of the Federal Reserve System
in 1913, which gave the government much more control over banks in response to the Panic
of 1907 where the U.S. had to be bailed out by J.P. Morgan.
Fear not, big banks, the government will bail you out in due time.
So, under Roosevelt, and Wilson, and to a lesser extent Taft, Progressivism flourished
domestically, but it also became an international phenomenon as presidents expanded national
government power outside the country’s border, mostly in the Western Hemisphere.
Like, between 1901 and 1920, U.S. marines landed in Caribbean countries over 20 times,
usually to create a more friendly environment for American businesses, but sometimes just
to hang out on the beach. And this points to an interesting contradiction,
Progressive presidents were very concerned about big business as a threat to freedom
in the United States, but in Latin America and the Caribbean, they weren’t that concerned
about freedom at all. Teddy Roosevelt especially was much more active
in international diplomacy than his predecessors. He was the first president to win the Nobel
Peace prize, for instance, for helping to negotiate the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended
the Russo Japanese War in 1905. You may be familiar with his motto, “Speak
Softly and Carry a Big Stick” – which essentially meant “the U.S. will intervene
in Latin America whenever we want.” And probably the most famous such intervention
was the building of the Panama Canal. It featured feats of engineering and succeeding where
the French had failed…Stan, these are my favourite things! Let’s go to the Thought
Bubble. The way we got the 10 mile wide canal zone
wasn’t so awesome. In 1903, Panama was part of Colombia but the U.S. encouraged Philippe
Bunau-Varilla to lead an uprising. Bunau-Varilla, a representative of the Panama Canal Company,
was so grateful after the U.S. sent a gunboat to ensure that the Colombian army couldn’t
stop him that he signed a treaty giving the U.S. the right to build and operate the canal
and sovereignty over newly independent Panama’s Canal Zone, which we gave up in 2000 after
enjoying nearly 100 Years of sovereignty thanks to Carter’s stupid altruism.
Roosevelt also added the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, the 1823 statement
that the U.S. would defend independent Latin American states from European intervention.
Now, according to Roosevelt, we would wield our big stick like a policeman waving around
a nightstick exercising an “international police power” over the western hemisphere.
In practice, this meant using American troops to ensure that Latin American countries were
stable enough for Americans to invest there. Like, in 1904 we seized the customs house
in the Dominican Republic to make sure that they paid their debts to investors, then by
“executive agreement” American banks got control of the DR’s finances. Roosevelt
also encouraged investment by the United Fruit Company in Honduras and Costa Rica, helping
to turn those nations into Banana Republics. No, not the store, Thought Bubble. Yes.
Taft, on the other hand, maybe because of his experiences as governor of the Philippines,
was less eager to wave America’s Big Stick. He emphasized loans and economic investment
as the best way to spread American influence in a policy that came to be known as Dollar
Diplomacy. Ultimately, Dollar Diplomacy was probably more effective, but it seemed weak
to many people in contrast to Roosevelt’s strategy of SEND ALL THE TROOPS RIGHT NOW.
Thanks, Thought Bubble. I wore my Banana Republic shirt just for this occasion.
So, we’ve discussed Roosevelt and Taft’s foreign policy. Let’s move on to Wilson,
who was, of course, an isolationist. No. Woodrow Wilson. Okay.
Woodrow Wilson was not a volleyball. He was the son of a Presbyterian Minister, a former
American history professor and once had been governor of New Jersey, so he understood moral
indecency. Wilson thought the best way to teach other
countries about the greatness of America was to export colossal amounts of American products.
Like, in 1916, he instructed a group of businessmen, “Sell goods that will make the world more
comfortable and happy, and convert them to the principles of America.”
In short, Woodrow Wilson believed correctly that the the essence of democracy is the freedom
to choose among hundreds of brightly coloured breakfast cereals.
Still, Wilson intervened in Latin America more than any other U.S. President and his
greatest moral triumph was in Mexico, where he wanted to teach the Mexicans “to elect
good men”. To do this, Wilson sent troops to stop weapons
from flowing to the military dictator Victoriano Huerta but the Americans, who landed at Veracruz
were not welcomed with open arms, and 100 Mexicans and 19 Americans were killed.
And then in 1916, having learned his lesson (just kidding), Wilson sent 10,000 troops
into northern Mexico to chase after revolutionary bandit Pancho Villa.
Villa had killed 17 Americans in New Mexico. And everyone knows that the proper response
to such a criminal act is to send 10,000 troops into a foreign country. Pershing’s expedition
was a smashing success fortunately…except that he actually did not capture Pancho Villa.
But all of that was a prelude to Wilson’s leading America to our first international
moral crusade, our involvement in the Great War.
So, this period of American history is important because Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson oversaw
the expansion of the power of the federal government both at home and abroad, and in
doing so they became the first modern American presidents.
I mean, these days, we may talk about small government and large government, but really,
we’re always talking about large government. Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson recognized that
the national government was going to have to deal with big business, and that it would
have to get big to do that. And also that it had a role to play in ensuring that Americans
would retain some freedom in this new industrial era.
And they also built neo-imperialistic foreign policies around the idea that the safer the
world was for American business, the better it was for Americans.
As our old friend Eric Foner wrote: “The presidents who spoke the most about freedom
were likely to intervene most frequently in the affairs of other countries.”
Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, we’ll see an extreme and ambiguous case
of that next week when we look at America in World War I. Thanks for watching. I’ll
see you then. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
Our show is written by my high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and
myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café. Every week, there’s a new caption for the
libertage. If you’d like to suggest one, you can do so in comments where you can also
ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of historians.
Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.