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President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) speaks to a crowd during a Western tour The second series of America charts the development of the United States, exploring three key themes: Empire, Liberty and Faith. (In three series)

Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 2 - 19 January - 27 February 2009

Week 10 - Reform & Expansion

Politics and Progress

From the time America won independence from Britain, national government was deliberately kept weak. By 1900 rapid industrialisation and urbanisation had generated huge economic and social challenges. The 'Progressives' believed that America's eighteenth-century institutions must be updated for the modern era and that government should take a more active role in American life.

Progressivism was a broad church and its targets were multiple and varied. In the cities they included corrupt political machines, most notoriously New York's Tammany Hall, and monopolies in utilities like electricity and gas. At state level, Progressives campaigned successfully for senators to be elected by the people, rather than by state legislatures, which were often dominated by big businesses; this was adopted in 1913 as the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

Yet progressivism was not simply a battle between idealists and big business and urban political machines. The latter were often first to promote workers' welfare, notably after the deaths of 148 workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in Manhattan in 1911.

Roosevelt and Reform

In 1901, President McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt became President. He revolutionised an office which, since Lincoln, had been filled by mediocrities, and used it as an instrument for progressive reform. The Justice Department was tasked with prosecuting the most notorious monopolies. Congress passed legislation which represented the first serious government attempt to regulate the railroads, and which was the precursor of dozens more regulatory commissions.

Roosevelt was re-elected in 1904 but stood down at the end of his term. He then tried to run as a candidate against his hand-picked presidential successor, William Howard Taft, in the 1912 presidential election. He split the Republican vote, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected. Wilson continued Republican efforts to regulate big business, establishing the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumers against anti-competitive business practices and introducing the Federal Reserve Act to stabilise the banking system.


'The Taste of Empire'

For years, America had been watching events in nearby Cuba with concern. By 1895, the Spanish colonial rulers were fighting against the island's independence movement. In 1898, the US battleship Maine, sent to Cuba to protect US citizens, mysteriously exploded in Havana. The Americans blamed the Spanish and in April 1898 the two countries went to war. The USA won a swift victory along with Spain's empire, which also included the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Cuba became an American protectorate as did the Philippines, but only after a brutal two-year war against the national independence movement, resulting in up to 250,000 Filipinos deaths.

The Spanish-American War made America a colonial power and set the country on a new course of self-assertion on the world stage.

The Wild West

In 1889, Oklahoma was opened up for settlement and tens of thousands of people flooded out across 2 million acres declared 'free land' by the government. In the 1830s, the area had in fact been set aside as reservations for Indian tribes evicted from their lands east of the Mississippi; now they were moved on again.

Further north on the Great Plains, the Sioux and Apaches resisted the settlers, most famously in 1876 when they annihilated Custer's 7th US Cavalry on Montana's Little Bighorn River. Outrage at 'Custer's Last Stand' intensified the corralling of the remaining Indians on reservations. By 1890 Indian resistance had been crushed and, as far as most Americans were concerned, the Indian 'problem' was 'solved'.

Once the West was conquered it was commercialised. No-one was more responsible for this than William F Cody - his 'Buffalo Bill's Wild West' toured America and Europe for three decades, helping to create the myth of a heroic western past that never existed.

A different, though equally wild, image of the West was also emerging as President Roosevelt put 'conservation' on the national agenda. Until then, government doled out western lands for development with no thought for the ecological consequences. Against business opposition, Roosevelt created millions of acres of national forest and saved prehistoric Indian remains and sites of natural beauty like the Grand Canyon.

Fun and God

Two great symbols of America came of age in this period. Baseball boomed - annual attendances at major league games doubled to seven million a year, the World Series was inaugurated and new ballparks built. America was also entering the automobile age. In 1908 Henry Ford introduced his Model T, the first affordable motor car. His revolutionary assembly-line methods enabled his Detroit factory to produce half a million cars annually.

In the progressive era, Christian faith still remained a powerful influence on American society - even though it was, as ever, interpreted in many different ways. The 'Social Gospel' movement, the most influential advocate of which was Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch, called for a fundamental shift away from the values of competitive capitalism to a Christianity which permeated the whole of society. The movement influenced later Christian reformers including Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many evangelical Protestants believed this religious liberalism undermined the Church's essential message - what mattered was a faith rooted in belief that the Bible was divinely inspired. An influential set of essays - The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915) - gave American twentieth century fundamentalism its name and early inspiration.

Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.



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