Discontent and Reform

Following are the main points of Discontent and Reform taken from US History Book by State Department.

AGRARIAN DISTRESS AND THE RISE OF POPULISM

The first organized effort to address general agricultural problems was by the Patrons of Husbandry, a farmer’s group popularly known as the Grange Movement. Launched in 1867 by employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By 1890 the level of agrarian distress, fueled by years of hardship and hostility toward the McKinley tariff, was at an all-time high. Working with sympathetic Democrats in the South or small third parties in the West, the Farmers’ Alliances made a push for political power. A third political party, the People’s (or Populist) Party, emerged. Never before in American politics had there been anything like the Populist fervor that swept the prairies and cotton lands. The elections of 1890 brought the new party into power in a dozen Southern and Western states, and sent a score of Populist senators and representatives to Congress.

The first Populist convention was in 1892. Delegates from farm, labor, and reform organizations met in Omaha, Nebraska, determined to overturn a U.S. political system they viewed as hopelessly corrupted by the industrial and financial trusts.

In the elections of 1896 the Democrats William Jennings Bryan also endorsed by the populist, carried almost all the Southern and Western states. But he lost the more populated, industrial North and East — and the election — to Republican candidate William McKinley.

The following year the country’s finances began to improve, in part owing to the discovery of gold in Alaska and the Yukon. This provided a basis for a conservative expansion of the money supply. In 1898 the Spanish-American War drew the nation’s attention further from Populist issues. Populism and the silver issue were dead.

STRUGGLE OF LABOR

Before 1874, when Massachusetts passed the nation’s first legislation limiting the number of hours women and child factory workers could perform to 10 hours a day, virtually no labor legislation existed in the country. It was not until the 1930s that the federal government would become actively involved. Until then, the field was left to the state and local authorities, few of whom were as responsive to the workers as they were to wealthy industrialists.

–          As late as the year 1900, the United States had the highest job-related fatality rate of any industrialized nation in the world. Most industrial workers still worked a 10-hour day (12 hours in the steel industry), yet earned less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. The number of children in the work force doubled between 1870 and 1900.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), under former cigar union official Samuel Gompers, was a group of unions focused on skilled workers. Its objectives were “pure and simple” and apolitical: increasing wages, reducing hours, and improving working conditions.

THE REFORM IMPULSE

The presidential election of 1900 gave the American people a chance to pass judgment on the Republican administration of President McKinley, especially its foreign policy.

Meeting at Philadelphia, the Republicans expressed jubilation over the successful outcome of the war with Spain, the restoration of prosperity, and the effort to obtain new markets through the Open Door policy.

McKinley easily defeated his opponent, once again William Jennings Bryan. But the president did not live to enjoy his victory. In September 1901, while attending an exposition in Buffalo, New York, he was shot down by an assassin, the third president to be assassinated since the Civil War.

Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s vice president, assumed the presidency.

The hammering impact of uncompromising writers and an increasingly aroused public spurred political leaders to take practical measures. Many states enacted laws to improve the conditions under which people lived and worked. At the urging of such prominent social critics as Jane Addams, child labor laws were strengthened and new ones adopted, raising age limits, shortening work hours, restricting night work, and requiring school attendance.

ROOSEVELT’S REFORM

By the early 20th century, most of the larger cities and more than half the states had established an eight-hour day on public works. Equally important were the workman’s compensation laws, which made employers legally responsible for injuries sustained by employees at work. New revenue laws were also enacted, which, by taxing inheritances, incomes, and the property or earnings of corporations, sought to place the burden of government on those best able to pay.

The abounding prosperity of the country at Roosevelt’s time led people to feel satisfied with the party in office. He won an easy victory in the 1904 presidential election.

TAFT AND WILSON

In 1908 Elections, William Howard Taft, who had served under him as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, pledging to continue Roosevelt’s programs, defeated Bryan, who was running for the third and last time.

Taft sponsored the enactment of two amendments to the Constitution, both adopted in 1913.

The 16th Amendment, ratified just before Taft left office, authorized a federal income tax; the 17th Amendment, approved a few months later, mandated the direct election of senators by the people, instead of state legislatures.

By 1910 Taft’s party was bitterly divided. Democrats gained control of Congress in the midterm elections.

Two years later, Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic, progressive governor of the state of New Jersey, campaigned against Taft, the Republican candidate — and also against Roosevelt who ran as the candidate of a new Progressive Party. Wilson, in a spirited campaign, defeated both rivals.

During his first term, Wilson secured one of the most notable legislative programs in American history. The Underwood Tariff, signed on October 3, 1913, provided substantial rate reductions on imported raw materials and foodstuffs, cotton and woolen goods, iron and steel; it removed the duties from more than a hundred other items.

The Adamson Act of 1916 established an eight-hour day for railroad labor.

This record of achievement won Wilson a firm place in American history as one of the nation’s foremost progressive reformers. However, his domestic reputation would soon be overshadowed by his record as a wartime president who led his country to victory but could not hold the support of his people for the peace that followed.

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