From Dana's Guests

Wisconsin: The Progressive Era 1895-1925

Wisconsin History

The Progressive Era: 1895-1925
Wisconsin Historical Society

The genesis of political and social change reputedly occurred on September 17, 1891, when Republican leader Philetus Sawyer offered 35-year-old attorney Robert M. La Follette (1855-1925) a bribe to fix a court case. Furious, La Follette refused it, later saying, "Nothing else ever came into my life that exerted such a powerful influence upon me." For the rest of the decade he traveled around the state speaking out against crooked politicians, powerful lumber barons, and corrupt railroad interests. Elected governor in 1900, La Follette pledged to institute reforms. Those who followed him called themselves "Progressive" Republicans; they believed that the proper business of government was not business, but service to the common people.

Elected to state, local and national offices, Progressives crafted a broad spectrum of reforms by enlisting faculty from the University of Wisconsin to help draft laws and serve on commissions. The "Wisconsin Idea," as this relationship was called, held that an effective and accountable government worked best with the help of academic experts; it was sometimes expressed as, "the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state." Scholars John R. Commons (1862-1945) and Edwin Witte (1887-1960) worked closely with Progressive politicians to create programs that benefited workers, consumers and the disadvantaged. A new Legislative Reference Library led by Charles McCarthy (1873-1921) provided lawmakers with fast service from trained researchers, including a bill-drafting office that was emulated around the globe.

What did the Progressive Movement accomplish? During La Follette's governorship (1900-1905), the Legislature established direct primary elections (giving voters, rather than party officials, the right to choose primary candidates), doubled the taxes on railroads, broke up monopolies, preserved the state's forests and defended small farmers. During the term of his successor, James Davidson (1854-1922; governor 1906-1911), new laws provided for state control of how corporations issued stock and stricter regulation of railroad and insurance companies. The most important Progressive legislation, passed during the 1911 session under Governor Francis McGovern (1866-1946), instituted the nation's first workers compensation program, passed laws to regulate factory safety, encouraged cooperatives, established a state income tax, and limited work hours for women and children. Progressive officials also founded the state's first system of state parks and investigated conditions on Wisconsin Indian reservations.

In Milwaukee reform followed a different model often called "sewer socialism." Socialists in that city rejected the progressive idea of government regulation of business. Instead, they wanted to entirely replace the capitalist system with government-owned industries that would protect workers and consumers. This viewpoint gained widespread popularity through the work of Victor Berger (1860-1929), who published German, English and Polish Socialist newspapers. Berger was first elected congressman in 1910 and, though indicted for anti-war activities during World War I, was elected to Congress again in 1918. Most Milwaukee Socialists did not advocate violent revolution but rather were confident that Socialism would come through the ballot box. The city's first Socialist mayor was elected in 1910, and for the next three decades city government improved living conditions for common people by providing new sanitation systems, municipally owned water and power, community parks and improved schools. Most of this occurred between 1917 and 1941 under the long tenure of Socialist mayor Daniel Hoan (1881-1961).

World War I interrupted the Progressive Era, straining Wisconsin's democratic traditions and perhaps costing La Follette the presidency. Between 1914 and 1917, Wisconsin's sizable German-American population, as well as the Progressive and Socialist parties, generally opposed American entry into the war. In 1917, however, public sentiment shifted toward support for Britain when Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. Nevertheless, when the U.S. officially entered the war on April 6, 1917, nine of Wisconsin's 11 Congressmen, plus Senator La Follette, voted against it, for which they were vilified.

Despite the stance of their elected officials, more than 118,000 Wisconsin citizens went into military service. In France the Wisconsin National Guardsmen of the Red Arrow Division gained a reputation for fearless and effective fighting. In all, 1,800 Wisconsin soldiers died in the war. At home, with U.S. support for Britain, German culture became suspect. Patriotic organizations urged that every German American, "unless known by years of association to be absolutely loyal, should be treated as a potential spy." Some Wisconsin towns refused to teach German in their schools, German-language books burned in Wisconsin streets, and anyone with a German name became a potential target for harassment.

One issue on which Wisconsin was not progressive during these years was the right of women to vote. Progressive leaders who endorsed worker and consumer rights were reluctant to grant women suffrage because they knew their male supporters opposed it. On November 4, 1912, Wisconsin men voted suffrage down two-to-one. When politicians blocked new suffrage referenda in 1913 and 1915, Wisconsin women threw their energy into the national cause instead. A suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally passed in 1919 and the Wisconsin Legislature became the first to ratify it, giving women the right to vote in federal elections.

Two innovations in everyday life - electric power and automobiles - had as much impact on Wisconsin as political, military and legal events. Wisconsin was a national leader in new technology: the first electricity offered for sale anywhere in the world came from an Appleton power plant in 1882, and by 1920 electricity was powering streetcars, city lights, home appliances and factory equipment in most Wisconsin cities. Automobiles became common at the turn of the 20th century. Thomas L. Jeffery started an automobile company in Kenosha in 1900 that two years later produced 1,500 new "Ramblers." By 1916 his successor, Charles W. Nash, had made Kenosha the largest producer of automobiles outside Detroit. In Milwaukee William Harley and the Davidson brothers designed a motorized bicycle and produced 18,000 of them for the military. In 1916 the system of state highways began, fueling the tourism industry. The most popular 1920s vacation route was Highway 13, which ran from the Illinois border near Beloit to the Bayfield Peninsula. Resort owners called it "Lucky 13" and promised drivers they could find anything they wanted along its path - except a cold beer.

Since the 1830s many English-speaking immigrants had viewed alcohol as a cause of crime, poverty, domestic violence and other tragedies. Their German neighbors, on the other hand, considered social drinking in beer gardens part of their culture and resisted being "reformed" by Yankees. These tensions culminated during World War I, and anti-German sentiment contributed to the passage of national liquor prohibition, the Volstead Act, in 1919. Prohibition had a dramatic impact on Wisconsin's breweries, many of which tried to produce soda, ice cream and even cheese to make ends meet. In 1926 Wisconsin voters approved a referendum allowing the sale of beer with only 2.75 percent alcohol ("near beer"), and in 1929 they repealed Wisconsin's prohibition enforcement law. Finally, on December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified and Prohibition ended. By then, policymakers had more important things to worry about.

Head back to the top.