Resurging interest in Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Movement

Biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. As she looked to a new project, she realized that she had tremendous interest in the progressive movement at the turn of the 19th century. She thereupon wrote her widely-acclaimed book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.

For contemporary progressives, the book is a remarkable refresher course on what the original progressives in our country were like. Unlike those of a century ago, many current progressives are very tentative in stepping forward. With individuals like Barack Obama, this is certainly understandable; the political climate is rather forbidding for anyone who wants to advance a real progressive agenda. There are obvious exceptions, most particularly Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But in the early 1900s, American citizens elected Theodore Roosevelt as president, a charismatic long-time practitioner of progressive politics and the William Howard Taft, a more subdued man, but still progressive in his beliefs. Mind you, America did this just prior to women’s suffrage (1920), which certainly would have provided far more votes in favor of a liberal agenda.

One of the key pieces of legislation in the progressive era was the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC was actually passed in 1887 during the first term of President Glover Cleveland. The Commission’s mandate and its rulings have been key to a number of progressive laws including civil rights, transportation, safe food, and licensing for safe pharmaceuticals.

The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was a regulatory agency in the United States created by the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. The agency’s original purpose was to regulate railroads (and later trucking) to ensure fair rates, to eliminate rate discrimination, and to regulate other aspects of common carriers, including interstate bus lines and telephone companies. The Commission was the first independent regulatory body (or so-called Fourth Branch), as well as the first agency to regulate big business in the U.S.

The ICC served as a model for later regulatory efforts. Unlike, for example, state medical boards, the Interstate Commerce Commissioners and their staffs were full-time regulators who could have no economic ties to the industries they regulated. At the federal level, agencies patterned after the ICC included the Federal Trade Commission (1914), the Federal Communications Commission (1934), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (1934), the National Labor Relations Board (1935), the Civil Aeronautics Board (1940), Postal Regulatory Commission (1970) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (1975). In recent decades

Unfortunately, Congress dissolved the Interstate Commerce Commission, effective the first day of 1996, but its legacy includes a number of other regulatory authorities. Most importantly, it clarified the meaning of Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that the United States Congress shall have power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States.” The “among the several states” is the key wording that permits the federal government to implement and enforce civil rights laws such as banning discrimination in hotels and restaurants (because they engage in interstate commerce in getting their supplies, etc.). It is one of the key clauses in allowing the federal government to monitor and adjust state voting laws that discriminate against individual or classes of individuals.

There are so many things that we can learn from the Interstate Commerce Commission of 1887 and the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps the most important lesson is that progressive ideas can become the norm. If there had not been a break between Teddy Roosevelt and W.H. Taft in 1912, it’s quite possible that (a) the Great Depression might have not have been so severe in the U.S., and (b) more needed progressive legislation could have been passed. We in the present can work to keep what President Obama has started and follow it with more bold progressive ideas. Perhaps the key point is to minimize internal disagreements. Unfortunately that’s difficult for the more cerebral of the two parties. But we can try.