Progressive Presidents: Crash Course US History #29


In which John Green teaches you about the Progressive Presidents, who are not a super-group of former presidents who create complicated, symphonic, rock soundscapes that transport you into a fantasy fugue state. Although that would be awesome. The presidents most associated with the Progressive Era are Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. During the times these guys held office, trusts were busted, national parks were founded, social programs were enacted, and tariffs were lowered. It wasn’t all positive though, as their collective tenure also saw Latin America invaded A LOT, a split in the Republican party that resulted in a Bull Moose, all kinds of other international intervention, and the end of the Progressive Era saw the United States involved in World War. If all this isn’t enough to entice, I will point out that two people get shot in this video. Violence sells, they say.

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse U.S. History and today we’re going to finish
00:03
our discussion of Progressivism, and indulge in a bit of “great man” history.
00:07
Mr. Green, Mr. Green! Great man history, huh? Well I was born on a sunny, summer morning
00:12
in 197– Yeah you’re not great, Me from the Past.
00:15
Also, you’re a boy not a man, and the only historically significant thing you ever participated
00:19
in was a brilliant senior prank that wasn’t even your idea.
00:23
However, 39 of our 43 presidents were, at least arguably, great men and today we’ll
00:28
be talking about three of them. It will be kind of like a Jefferson vs. Hamilton for
00:32
the 20th century, except not like that at all. But there will be a canal, and TWO people
00:37
get shot. Intro
00:42
So, as we saw in CrashCourse World History, national governments were on the rise from
00:51
the middle of the 19th century until basically now.
00:54
And in the U.S., Corporations became national and then, by the twentieth century, international.
00:58
Like, the British East India Company was kind of an international corporation, but it wasn’t
01:01
the same as Coca-Cola, although they did both deal in narcotics.
01:04
And this mania for nationalization even affected sports. Like, in baseball, the National league
01:10
and the American league were formed and in 1903 they played the first inaccurately named
01:15
World Series. I’m sorry, was Botswana invited? Then it’s
01:18
not a World Series. Anyway, the rise of a strong, national government
01:22
was seen as an alternative to people’s lives being controlled by provincial city and state
01:26
governments or by ever-growing corporations. Like, Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic,
01:31
thought that to achieve the Jeffersonian democratic self-determination ideal of individual freedom,
01:36
the country needed to employ Hamiltonian government intervention in the economy. And he wasn’t
01:41
the only one who believed that. Okay, so in 1901, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt
01:46
became the youngest American president ever after William McKinley was assassinated by
01:50
Leon Czolgosz. Czol–? Czolg–? Czol–? Hold on.
01:56
“Czolgosz. Polish.”
01:57
Czolgosz? Czolgosz? His name was Leon Chuckles? Man, Leon Chuckles was a real barrel of laughs
02:03
for an anarchist. Usually they’re very serious. Right, so Leon Chuckles paved the way for
02:07
Teddy Roosevelt, who in many ways the model of the 20th century president.
02:11
He was very engaged in both domestic and foreign policy and he set the political agenda for
02:15
the whole country. His political program, the Square Deal, aimed to distinguish good
02:20
corporations that provided useful products and services at fair prices from evil corporations
02:25
that existed just to make money. That is hilarious. A corporation that doesn’t exist just to
02:30
make money. That’s fantastic, Teddy. Everybody knows that corporations are just
02:34
inherently greedy people, but they are people. Roosevelt felt it was the federal government’s
02:39
responsibility to regulate the economy directly and to break up power of wealthy corporations,
02:44
and he used the Sherman Act to prosecute bad trusts such as the Northern Securities Company,
02:48
which was a holding company created by J.P. Morgan that directed three major railroads
02:53
and monopolized transport. And that did not make J.P. Morgan a happy
02:56
bunny. Thank you for that, Stan. That’s, that’s wonderful.
02:59
Shockingly, the legislative and executive branches managed to work together and Congress
03:03
passed some actual legislation, including the Hepburn Act of 1906, which gave the Interstate
03:08
Commerce Commission the power to regulate railroad rates and examine their company books.
03:12
And Roosevelt was also a conservationist. He wanted to preserve the environment from
03:16
economic exploitation, probably so that there would be plenty of animals for him to hunt
03:20
with his big stick while he walked softly. Having appointed noted progressive Gifford
03:24
Pinchot head of the forest service, millions of acres were set aside for new, highly managed
03:28
national parks reflecting the progressive idea that experts could manage the world.
03:33
But then in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt decided to go elephant hunting instead of running
03:37
for re-election and he picked William Howard Taft to be his successor, but the man who
03:41
became our largest president massively disappointed Roosevelt.
03:45
When I say “our largest,” by the way, I don’t mean our greatest. I mean our largest.
03:50
Taft was a pretty hard-core trust-buster who ordered the prosecution that broke up Standard
03:54
Oil in 1911, but he didn’t see big business as bad unless the corporations stifled competition.
04:00
He also supported the 16th amendment, allowing Congress to pass an income tax, and that paved
04:04
the way for the 18th amendment, Prohibition, because with an income tax, the federal government
04:09
didn’t have to rely on liquor excise taxes. So, why didn’t Roosevelt like Taft? Well,
04:13
not only was Taft more conservative than most progressives, he also fired Pinchot in 1910.
04:18
And Roosevelt was so frustrated with Taft that he actually challenged the incumbent
04:22
president for the Republican nomination in 1912.
04:24
Which Roosevelt lost, but he didn’t let it drop. He founded his own Progressive Party,
04:28
called the Bull Moose Party so that he could run again.
04:31
So, the election of 1912 featured four candidates: Taft; Teddy Roosevelt for the Bull Moose Party;
04:36
Eugene Debs, for the Socialist Party; and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
04:40
It’s worth noting that in contemporary American political discourse, all four of these people
04:44
would have been seen as somewhere between crazy liberals and actual communists.
04:49
So Eugene Debs, from right here in my home state of Indiana, did not support the Socialist
04:53
Party’s goal of abolishing capitalism, but he ran on a platform that included public
04:57
ownership of railroads and banks, and laws limiting work hours.
05:01
And running on the socialist ticket, Debs won 6% of the vote, which was, to quote another
05:06
president, “not bad.” But the election of 1912 turned out to be
05:08
a contest between Wilson and Roosevelt’s competing views over the dangers of increasing
05:13
government power and economic concentration. Wilson claimed, “Freedom today is something
05:17
more than being let alone. The program of government must in these days be positive,
05:22
not negative merely.” That’s just not good grammar, sir.
05:25
His program, called New Freedom, was supposed to reinvigorate democracy by restoring market
05:30
competition and preventing big business from dominating government. It included stronger
05:35
anti-trust laws and policies to encourage small businesses.
05:38
Roosevelt’s answer to New Freedom was a program he called New Nationalism, because,
05:42
of course, in election years all things are new.
05:44
Roosevelt recognized the inevitability of big business and hoped to use government intervention
05:48
to stop its abuses. New Nationalism included heavy taxes on personal
05:53
and corporate fortunes and greater federal regulation of industries.
05:56
So, the Bull Moose Party platform was in some ways a vision of a modern welfare state, it
06:01
called for:
06:01
Women’s suffrage Federal regulation
06:04
National labor and health legislation for women and children
06:07
Eight hour days and living wage for all workers National systems of social insurance for health,
06:13
unemployment, and old age
06:15
What are we, Canada? God, I wish we were Canada…You weren’t
06:18
recording that, were you, Stan? Roosevelt thought his party’s platform was
06:21
one of the most important documents in the history of mankind, and Americans agreed,
06:26
they supported him and elected him in a landslide. Oh wait, no they didn’t.
06:30
Instead, he lost. And also, a guy shot him at one of his campaign stops, that’s shooting
06:35
#2. Roosevelt however survived and even went on to make the speech after being shot.
06:40
What happened in the election is that Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote, leaving
06:44
Woodrow Wilson president with a mere 42% of the popular vote, giving us our only democratic
06:49
president between 1896 and 1932. Oh, it’s time for the mystery document?
06:54
The rules here are simple. I guess the author of the mystery document.
06:59
If I’m wrong, I get shocked by the shock pen, which many of you insist is fictional,
07:02
but I promise, it’s not. “The two things we are fighting against,
07:05
namely, excessive tariffs and almost universal monopoly, are the very things that these two
07:10
branches of the Republican party both decline to combat. (…) They intend to accept these
07:15
evils and stagger along under the burden of excessive tariffs and intolerable monopolies
07:20
as best they can through administrative commissions. I say, therefore, that it is inconceivable
07:26
that the people of the United States, whose instinct is against special privilege and
07:30
whose deepest convictions are against monopoly, should turn to either of these parties for
07:35
relief when these parties do not so much as pretend to offer them relief.”
07:39
Alright, it’s definitely about the 1912 election. It talks about the Republican party
07:45
being split into two parts, so it’s by a democrat. Or a socialist, but probably a democrat
07:50
judging from the Mystery Document itself. You always make it hard, Stan. So it’s not
07:55
going to be Woodrow Wilson because that would be obvious, but I do not know the names of
07:59
any other prominent democrats, so I am going to guess Woodrow Wilson. YES? Get in!
08:06
So, with its stirring anti-tariff, anti-monopoly, do not pass GO, do not collect $200 stance,
08:12
New Freedom won out, and because the Democrats also controlled Congress, Wilson was able
08:16
to implement this program. The Underwood Tariff reduced import duties
08:19
and after the ratification of the 16th amendment, Congress imposed a graduated income tax on
08:23
the richest 5% of Americans. Other legislation included the Clayton Act
08:27
of 1914, which exempted unions from antitrust laws and made it easier for them to strike;
08:32
the Keating-Owen Act, which outlawed child labor in manufacturing; and the Adamson Act
08:37
which mandated an eight hour workday for railroad workers.
08:41
If Wilson’s New Freedom sounds a lot like Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, that’s because
08:45
they ended up being pretty similar. Wilson engaged in less trust busting than
08:49
expected, and more regulation of the economy. Wilson didn’t institute a national system
08:52
of health and unemployment insurance, but he did expand the powers of the Federal Trade
08:56
Commission to investigate and prohibit unfair monopolistic practices. He also supported
09:01
the founding of the Federal Reserve System in 1913, which gave the government much more
09:05
control over banks in response to the Panic of 1907 where the U.S. had to be bailed out
09:10
by J.P. Morgan. Fear not, big banks, the government will bail
09:13
you out in due time. So, under Roosevelt, and Wilson, and to a
09:16
lesser extent Taft, Progressivism flourished domestically, but it also became an international
09:21
phenomenon as presidents expanded national government power outside the country’s border,
09:26
mostly in the Western Hemisphere. Like, between 1901 and 1920, U.S. marines
09:30
landed in Caribbean countries over 20 times, usually to create a more friendly environment
09:35
for American businesses, but sometimes just to hang out on the beach.
09:38
And this points to an interesting contradiction, Progressive presidents were very concerned
09:42
about big business as a threat to freedom in the United States, but in Latin America
09:47
and the Caribbean, they weren’t that concerned about freedom at all.
09:50
Teddy Roosevelt especially was much more active in international diplomacy than his predecessors.
09:54
He was the first president to win the Nobel Peace prize, for instance, for helping to
09:58
negotiate the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo Japanese War in 1905.
10:02
You may be familiar with his motto, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” – which
10:06
essentially meant “the U.S. will intervene in Latin America whenever we want.”
10:10
And probably the most famous such intervention was the building of the Panama Canal. It featured
10:15
feats of engineering and succeeding where the French had failed…Stan, these are my
10:20
favourite things! Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
10:21
The way we got the 10 mile wide canal zone wasn’t so awesome. In 1903, Panama was part
10:26
of Colombia but the U.S. encouraged Philippe Bunau-Varilla to lead an uprising. Bunau-Varilla,
10:31
a representative of the Panama Canal Company, was so grateful after the U.S. sent a gunboat
10:36
to ensure that the Colombian army couldn’t stop him that he signed a treaty giving the
10:40
U.S. the right to build and operate the canal and sovereignty over newly independent Panama’s
10:45
Canal Zone, which we gave up in 2000 after enjoying nearly 100 Years of sovereignty thanks
10:51
to Carter’s stupid altruism. Roosevelt also added the Roosevelt Corollary
10:55
to the Monroe Doctrine, the 1823 statement that the U.S. would defend independent Latin
11:00
American states from European intervention. Now, according to Roosevelt, we would wield
11:04
our big stick like a policeman waving around a nightstick exercising an “international
11:09
police power” over the western hemisphere. In practice, this meant using American troops
11:13
to ensure that Latin American countries were stable enough for Americans to invest there.
11:18
Like, in 1904 we seized the customs house in the Dominican Republic to make sure that
11:22
they paid their debts to investors, then by “executive agreement” American banks got
11:27
control of the DR’s finances. Roosevelt also encouraged investment by the United Fruit
11:31
Company in Honduras and Costa Rica, helping to turn those nations into Banana Republics.
11:36
No, not the store, Thought Bubble. Yes. Taft, on the other hand, maybe because of
11:40
his experiences as governor of the Philippines, was less eager to wave America’s Big Stick.
11:44
He emphasized loans and economic investment as the best way to spread American influence
11:49
in a policy that came to be known as Dollar Diplomacy. Ultimately, Dollar Diplomacy was
11:54
probably more effective, but it seemed weak to many people in contrast to Roosevelt’s
11:58
strategy of SEND ALL THE TROOPS RIGHT NOW. Thanks, Thought Bubble. I wore my Banana Republic
12:02
shirt just for this occasion. So, we’ve discussed Roosevelt and Taft’s
12:05
foreign policy. Let’s move on to Wilson, who was, of course, an isolationist. No. Woodrow
12:11
Wilson. Okay. Woodrow Wilson was not a volleyball. He was
12:14
the son of a Presbyterian Minister, a former American history professor and once had been
12:19
governor of New Jersey, so he understood moral indecency.
12:23
Wilson thought the best way to teach other countries about the greatness of America was
12:27
to export colossal amounts of American products. Like, in 1916, he instructed a group of businessmen,
12:32
“Sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and happy, and convert them to
12:37
the principles of America.” In short, Woodrow Wilson believed correctly
12:41
that the the essence of democracy is the freedom to choose among hundreds of brightly coloured
12:46
breakfast cereals. Still, Wilson intervened in Latin America
12:49
more than any other U.S. President and his greatest moral triumph was in Mexico, where
12:53
he wanted to teach the Mexicans “to elect good men”.
12:57
To do this, Wilson sent troops to stop weapons from flowing to the military dictator Victoriano
13:02
Huerta but the Americans, who landed at Veracruz were not welcomed with open arms, and 100
13:07
Mexicans and 19 Americans were killed. And then in 1916, having learned his lesson
13:11
(just kidding), Wilson sent 10,000 troops into northern Mexico to chase after revolutionary
13:15
bandit Pancho Villa. Villa had killed 17 Americans in New Mexico.
13:19
And everyone knows that the proper response to such a criminal act is to send 10,000 troops
13:23
into a foreign country. Pershing’s expedition was a smashing success fortunately…except
13:28
that he actually did not capture Pancho Villa. But all of that was a prelude to Wilson’s
13:32
leading America to our first international moral crusade, our involvement in the Great
13:37
War. So, this period of American history is important
13:39
because Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson oversaw the expansion of the power of the federal
13:44
government both at home and abroad, and in doing so they became the first modern American
13:49
presidents. I mean, these days, we may talk about small
13:51
government and large government, but really, we’re always talking about large government.
13:56
Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson recognized that the national government was going to have
13:59
to deal with big business, and that it would have to get big to do that. And also that
14:03
it had a role to play in ensuring that Americans would retain some freedom in this new industrial
14:09
era. And they also built neo-imperialistic foreign
14:11
policies around the idea that the safer the world was for American business, the better
14:15
it was for Americans. As our old friend Eric Foner wrote: “The
14:19
presidents who spoke the most about freedom were likely to intervene most frequently in
14:23
the affairs of other countries.” Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill,
14:27
we’ll see an extreme and ambiguous case of that next week when we look at America
14:31
in World War I. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you then.
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Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith
14:39
Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson. Our show is written by my high school history
14:43
teacher, Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café.
14:47
Every week, there’s a new caption for the libertage. If you’d like to suggest one,
14:50
you can do so in comments where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will
14:53
be answered by our team of historians. Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we
14:56
say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video

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