The 1900s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview
The 1900s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview
American society was rapidly transforming at the dawn of the new century. The country as a whole was moving away from a rural agriculture-based lifestyle to an urban industrial economy. During the years 1900 to 1909, over eight million immigrants poured into the United States in search of jobs and opportunity. Less than fifty years before the turn of the century, five out of six Americans lived on a farm. By 1910, almost 50 percent of Americans resided in cities. These great cultural shifts provided the nation with many economic and political challenges throughout the 1900s.
As the nation became increasingly industrialized, the economy came under greater control of large corporations, which were overseen by a relatively few powerful executives. For example, by 1906 seven men controlled 85 percent of America's railroads. The federal government of this era favored a "laissez-faire" ("hands-off") economic policy that stated business should not be overly regulated by the state. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, corporations started to organize "trusts," or holding companies. Trusts were formed by businesses joining together to acquire stock and ultimately control their entire sector of the economy. Among the period's strongest trusts were those in the oil, gas, railroad, and meat-packing industries. Since they were largely free of government interference, trusts often treated their workers poorly, demanding that they labor for long hours at meager wages.
The push for reforming both the economic and political spheres grew during the 1900s, as citizens from all walks of life—farmers, factory workers, businessmen, settlement house workers, populists, socialists, and anarchists—began to demand changes in the manner in which the nation was operated. There were many calls to end government corruption at the local, state, and federal levels. Major American corporations were also targets for the reformers, who publicly complained about poor working conditions and child labor. More than five hundred thousand Americans were injured on the job each year and thirty thousand died in unsafe factories and mines. The workers' dissatisfaction was spread throughout the nation by "muckraking" journalists (reporters who wrote colorful stories about problems in the world of business), who saw it as their duty to expose the harsh treatment of American labor at the hands of corporate leaders. The government responded to these investigations by enacting numerous laws guaranteeing better treatment of employees and increasing product safety to protect the public. It was not only journalists who exposed the plight of industrial laborers, but also unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which organized to demand better treatment from their employers. Strikes became more common, and violence often erupted as business leaders and government officials sent in troops to forcefully end work stoppages. The clashes between labor and management were fierce, as labor grew more radical due to the influences of socialist members who saw the capitalist system as corrupt. (Socialists believed that workers should control all elements of the workplace and that every worker should benefit equally.)
The Supreme Court was slow to interfere in labor disputes at first. Gradually, however, the Court began to exert its power by reexamining the idea of interstate commerce. Throughout the decade the Court struggled with how to resolve the demands of business, which wanted to remain free of regulation to ensure economic progress, and labor, which sought to relieve the exploitation of the working class.
In many ways, America was a divided nation during the 1900s. Workers felt used and unappreciated by corporate executives. Immigrants often did not find the United States to be welcoming of their traditional customs, and they were told they must conform to the "American Way." The races were segregated in almost all respects. Blacks and whites did not attend the same schools or churches, and they rarely had any meaningful contact with one another. Many concerned citizens were aware of America's problems and were determined to reform much of the society. They worked to improve the nation's economic, political, and social ills.
The most significant political force of the century's first decade was President Theodore Roosevelt, who entered the White House in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley. During the late nineteenth century, the American presidency was a relatively weak office occupied by a number of bland politicians. Roosevelt was a dynamic figure who captured the nation's imagination with his vigorous physical presence and reforming spirit. He thrust himself into national and international issues and expanded American influence around the world. One of Roosevelt's most important policies was advocacy of environmental issues. As industry exploited America's land for its coal, iron ore, timber, and other raw materials, Roosevelt and fellow conservationists recognized that the environment was not abundantly plentiful and that the nation must protect its natural resources.