The American voting public of the early 1900s was accustomed to the tenet that the best government was the least government. Progressive era politics changed that belief when government corruption became commonplace. Reformers like Teddy Roosevelt in Washington and Governor Hiram Johnson in California responded to an epidemic of political and civic corruption by expanding the role of government in regulating the economy and in giving citizens, for the first time, direct access to the legislative process.
Between 1910 and 1914, under Governor Hiram Johnson’s political leadership the California legislature expanded state government first by breaking the economic and political power of the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP). The reform legislature passed the Stetson-Eshelman Act, which increased the state Railroad Commission’s authority and power to fix passenger and freight rates; thus ending Southern Pacific Railroad’s (SP) crushing monopolistic practices. With the Public Utilities Act and the creation of the Public Utility Commission (PUC), the agency’s commissioners had the authority over the railroads as well as all public utilities.
The legislators also halted the political power of SP with the passage of reform mechanisms giving voters direct access to government and the legislative process. The initiative allowed voters to pass legislation; the referendum allowed the public’s veto of existing legislation; and the recall permitted the removal of elected officials. The direct primary, the popular election of U.S. senators, and cross-filing for Republican and Democratic candidates changed the control over who got elected from party bosses to the voters. In passing these measures, Governor Johnson and the legislature had achieved the political goal of engaging ordinary citizens in participatory democracy. The systemic power of SP was over, but the government’s role in shaping its citizens’ quality of life was still growing.
In order to address workers’ fears of losing their livelihood through sickness or job-related accidents, the legislature passed the Workmen’s Compensation, Insurance, and Safety Act in 1913, which in turn set up an Industrial Accident Commission and State Compensation Insurance Fund. This was ground-breaking work by government, which had only recently been in the business of protecting only business interests. Setting additional precedents, the legislature curtailed child labor, and also set an 8-hour day and minimum wage for female industrial workers.
In the field of education, Hiram Johnson’s reform government called for teacher pensions, free textbooks for public school children, the creation of a comprehensive curriculum, and mandatory kindergartens. The kindergarten movement, begun in Germany in the 1830s, found a ready American enthusiasm by women reformers who believed that kindergarten was as important an educational experience as college. By 1878, the first free public kindergarten was established in San Francisco. Enthusiastic financial support led to still more kindergartens, so that by 1894, 235 more of them were set up nationally and globally, based on the California model. Public university education also received the attention of reform initially through the generosity of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, mother of publisher William Randolph Hearst. In the 1890s her financial support of the University of California, Berkeley made possible the construction of the outdoor Greek Theater, a women’s gymnasium, a university museum and the Department of Anthropology. The University of California continued its academic growth through the appointment of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who, over a 19-year period, established twenty new departments.
Neither progressive politicians nor unions helped minority laborers in the nation and in California. Blacks were excluded from union membership. Chinese were excluded from immigrating to the U. S. In 1907 Japan agreed through a Gentlemen’s Agreement reached with President Roosevelt not to issue passports to Japanese workers, thus also eliminating Japanese from the American work force. Japanese in California, through the passage of the Alien Land Law, were prohibited from owning land in the state. Women, however, fared better. In addition to legislation improved their working conditions, they also received the right to vote. While Governor Johnson did not openly endorse the Amendment that would grant suffrage, he did help get it on the ballot. It passed by 3,587 votes.
Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson all promoted political, economic, social, and moral reforms on the national front. Passage of several acts expanded the Interstate Commerce Commission. Taft created the Department of Labor. Two economic regulatory agencies were created: the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. Four constitutional amendments were also ratified: the 16th introduced a federal income tax, the 17th allowed for the direct election of U.S. Senators. The 18th established prohibition, and the 19th allowed women the right to vote. Such economic and political reforms under the aegis of an expanded government were necessary, the progressives argued, to restore the values of the American dream for all Americans.