The Bull Moose’s Legacy: A Lasting Progressive Party, Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

The end of World War I ushered in an economic boom to the United States during the early years of the 1920s. American manufacturing benefited from the rebuilding of the areas of Europe torn apart by the war. New technological innovations such as the assembly line and electricity brought unprecedented productivity to American industry, and coincided with enormous growth of American standard of living. During these early years of the 1920s, President Frank Orren Lowden, a political protege of Theodore Roosevelt, worked with both the Republicans and Progressives in Congress to pass progressive legislation. Among these, Lowden’s administration extended economic protections for farmers.

Meanwhile, the Progressive Party consolidated its base in the rural Midwest and incorporated many of the smaller political parties in the region. The most successful of these was the Farmer-Labor Party. The Farmer-Labor movement was intended as an American counterpart to the Labour Party in Britain, but it only gained any real traction in Minnesota. During the 1920s, however, the efforts by many Progressives brought the Farmer-Laborites as well as smaller parties including the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota. The Progressive Party continued to achieve greater electoral success in Congress and the presidency through the 1920s, solidifying its support in the rural west. In addition, the Progressives soon grew to be the main opposition to the Democratic Party in the South. While the Solid South remained in place for the Democrats for decades, the Progressives began to poke holes, winning a few House seats in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

With all three major parties at such a nearly even support in the 1920s, it seemed inevitable that a repeat of the 1824 election would come eventually. However, what was unexpected was that it would be exactly a century later. During the 1924 election, the country settled into a largely regional pattern of voting blocs between the Republican Herbert Hoover, the Democrat Joseph Taylor Robinson, and Robert La Follette for the Progressives. The Republicans swept much of the Northeast in the electoral college, while the Democrats kept a hold on the Solid South and the Progressives took the West. However, the performance of the Progressives and Democrats denied the Republicans a majority in the electoral college, having only 241 of the 266 electoral votes needed for a majority. As such, the election went to Congress.

The Republicans had a majority of the Senate delegations, so the confirmation of Boies Penrose as Vice President was swift. The presidential election, however, went to the House in accordance with the Twelfth Amendment. Under the amendment, the House delegations voted for one of the top three candidates; in this case Hoover, Robinson, and La Follette. Unlike in 1824, however, the 1924 election went beyond the first ballot. Hoover carried 20 of the House delegations on the first ballot, with Robinson receiving 11 from the South and La Follette receiving 17. On the second ballot, Hoover gained the support of the Oregonian and Nevadan delegations, increasing his number of states to 22. On the third ballot on January 25, 1925, Commerce Secretary Hoover finally received 26 delegations and the presidency. Had the balloting continued to inauguration day on March 3 without a victor, Vice President Irvine Lenroot would have been sworn in as acting President.

While the Progressives failed to reach the presidency in 1924, they continued to largely cooperate with the Hoover administration in domestic affairs. This strategy worked well for gaining the party more widespread support, and paid off in the 1928 presidential election. With the nomination of Catholic New York governor Al Smith by the Democrats, the party alienated much of the nativist wing in the rural Northern states. However, this support, instead of going to the Republicans, went in large part to Progressive candidate George Norris of Nebraska. Norris had gained notoriety as a senator in pushing both for social programs and for his vehement crusades against what he deemed the social ills of society. This included advocating for Prohibition as well as against participation in the League of Nations. Norris won the 1928 election defeating Hoover and Smith in a landslide. Norris benefited from the controversy surrounding the 1924 election, additionally campaigning for broad electoral reform to prevent the debacle of four years earlier.

The presidency of George Norris was a turning point in the history of the United States. While Wilson had proposed some lasting government institutions, Lowden and Hoover had for the most part refrained from expanding federal programs during the boom of the 1920s. However, in October 1930, eighteen months into Norris’ first term, the stock market crashed beginning the Great Depression. The Depression was brought about by several causes. First, the boom in the 1920s coincided with the beginning of mass consumption and participation in the stock market. Mass consumption as well as mass consumption created a boom in the productive capacity, but in durable goods such as home appliances and applications of new technologies. The end of the decade saw a drop in consumption in these sectors, contributing to the overall drop in production. Meanwhile, the stock market bubble of the 1920s finally burst at the end of the decade, and this crash created the immediate cause of the Depression.

The Great Depression would define George Norris’ presidency. In the year and a half before the Depression began, Norris had already pushed through a couple federal programs that would prove useful in easing the effects of the Depression. The first was the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public works project to encourage broad economic development along the Tennessee River. The main portion of the system was a series of dams and locks to provide navigation, flood control, and electricity generation to the poorest region in the United States. The TVA had been advocated by Norris for years while he was still a Senator, but was only passed through Congress in June of 1929 once he was elected President. It was created as a federally owned corporation, and over the next decade constructed several factories and dams in the Tennessee Valley that helped create jobs and improve the standard of living of one of the most destitute regions of the country. Along with the TVA, President Norris signed one other piece of major legislation before the Depression hit. In 1930, Congress passed the first Agricultural Adjustment Act. The act, a revival of the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill, authorized the federal government to purchase surplus agricultural products and “dump” them on foreign markets in order to stop the deflation of farm prices. To oversee this, the Farm Relief Board was established under the Department of Agriculture and was under the purview of Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Both these programs would foreshadow the Norris administrations response to the Great Depression.

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One Response to The Bull Moose’s Legacy: A Lasting Progressive Party, Part 3

  1. Pingback: The Bull Moose’s Legacy: A Lasting Progressive Party, Part 4 | The Time Stream

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