Learn California.org
Home Visit the Students section Visit the Teachers section Visit the Research California section Visit the Sitemap
Keyword Search

The Wane of Progressivism
The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Party: 1912-1922 

<-- Go Back


1911 was the high water mark for progressive reforms, and after the spectacular success of the 39th legislative session, the pace of reform slowed considerably. Johnson vigorously advocated only two bills in 1912. Indeed, many progressives believed that the reforms of 1911 had effectively fulfilled their program, and now all they had to do was simply sit back and provide the state with sound administration. By 1916, Johnson's only major state goals were a system of rural credits and land colonizing schemes.

Rather than maintain their focus on the Golden State, California progressives turned their attention to the presidential election of 1912. Many progressive Republicans hoped that their party would nominate Theodore Roosevelt, feeling that William Taft, Roosevelt's hand picked successor, had proven himself a turncoat reactionary. When the Republicans re-nominated Taft, a band of progressives, led by Hiram Johnson, stormed out of the convention and formed their own party in a nearby hotel. Thus the Progressive Party was born. Hiram Johnson nominated Theodore Roosevelt for President, with Katherine Phillips Edson seconding the nomination. Roosevelt, who previously had been reluctant to accept a Republican nomination, was now itching for a fight, and promised a vigorous campaign, calling for a "New Nationalism" based on progressive reform, and the careful regulation of corporations. Hiram Johnson was chosen as Roosevelt's running mate, and he toured the nation in a whirlwind campaign, making over 500 speeches. However, the “Bull Moose,” (this famous party moniker was adopted when Roosevelt, nicked in the chest by a would-be assassin's bullet, bellowed "it takes more than that to kill a bull moose!") Party met with defeat. The rebellion within the Republican Party ruined the chances of both Taft and Roosevelt. Taft absorbed enough votes to prevent victory for the nascent party, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson ran on a "New Freedom" platform that was every bit as progressive as Roosevelt's. California was one of the handful of states Roosevelt carried. Here, however, the Progressives refused to break with the state Republican Party, which they still dominated. If they did so, they would be listed in the “Other” section of the ballot with the other third parties, such as the Socialists. However, if the progressives continued to stay in the state Republican Party they controlled, all of the Republican electors would be pro-Roosevelt men. 1 Thus meant Taft's complete exclusion on the state ballot, a trick which conservative Republicans deeply resented as they organized a write-in campaign.

Despite the disappointing election, Johnson and his cadre felt confident with the returns from California to finally split with the state Republican party, and thus in 1913 they formally founded the California Progressive Party. They did this only after a cross-filing law had been passed by the progressive dominated legislature, allowing political candidates to appear on the ballot under more than one party head, for example, a candidate could be listed as both a Progressive and a Republican, or in the case of some left-leaning candidates, as a Progressive and a Socialist. Also, under the new law primary candidates were to be listed without their party affiliation. The cross-filing law was an issue of both convenience and principle for the progressives. It allowed them to form their own state party organization while still being able to appeal to Republican voters. At the same time cross-filing carried through the progressive attack on the political party, crippling party organizations in California and making cross-filed political candidates less beholden to the party machine.

Johnson, running as a Progressive and cross-filed as a Republican, easily won re-election in 1914, handily beating both the Republican and Democratic candidates. His campaign, however, rested upon his laurels; he promised to do little but simply run the state in a sound and efficient fashion.

Johnson and his followers were deeply disappointed by the 1916 collapse of the national Progressive Party. Theodore Roosevelt refused to run again for President and encouraged the Progressives to re-unite with the Republican Party. Johnson reluctantly agreed to support the candidacy of Republican Charles Evans Hughes, former reformist governor of New York and justice of the United States Supreme Court. However, Johnson's support of Hughes was lukewarm at best. Meanwhile, the state Republican Party was engaged in a civil war. The conservative Republicans hoped to re-gain the ascendancy of the party from the progressive wing. To this end they took control of Hughes' California campaign. Johnson was denied all access to the candidate. In one notorious incident, Hughes by chance stayed the night in the same hotel as Johnson, without being alerted by his jealous aides of the governor's presence, an insult that the hypersensitive Johnson was not wont to forget. Hughes, naive to the dynamics of California politics, allowed himself to be seen with only conservative Republicans, giving the appearance that they had regained their position in the state Republican hierarchy. 2

This was a gross error, for Johnson was the most powerful man in California politics, and a man who was renown for his abilities to maintain a grudge. 3 He put little effort into stumping for Hughes; his endorsements were limited to feebly comparing Hughes record in New York to his own astounding accomplishments in California.

On Election Day, Hughes lost California by a mere 3000 votes, and by losing California he lost the nation. Woodrow Wilson received support from the traditionally Democratic San Francisco, as well as the labor vote, which Hughes had alienated by eating in a restaurant staffed by scabs during a waiters strike4, along with some progressives who favored the liberalism of Wilson over the conservative polish of Hughes. Nonetheless, had the conservative Republicans not been determined to turn Johnson into a pariah, it is possible that Johnson's famous campaigning skills could have garnered the additional 3,000 votes Hughes needed to win the Presidency.

In the same election, Johnson was elected to the United States Senate, a long coveted prize for both himself and his socialite wife. Before beginning his campaign, however, Johnson was forced to fill the position of Lt. Governor, which had been vacated by the death of John Eshelman, a close friend and advisor. The choice of replacement was somewhat forced upon him by Southern Californian progressives, who backed William Stephens. 5 Relying on their efforts to support his senatorial campaign, Johnson acquiesced, despite a strong personal distaste for Stephens. Once elected, however, the stubborn Johnson neglected to resign as governor, but rather stayed in Sacramento, a simultaneous California governor and United States Senator. Finally, when Wilson called Congress into an emergency session over crisis with Germany, Hiram Johnson resigned as governor and boarded the train to Washington.

The progressive political apparatus in California was meanwhile falling apart. The Los Angeles mayoral election of 1913 produced a bitter break within the progressive establishment, as the liberal editor Edwin Earl accused his fellow progressives of selling out to vested interests when they again allied themselves in support of a moderate mayoral candidate against the socialist challenger Job Harriman. As progressive in-fighting raged, an independent candidate arose, defeating both the progressive and the socialist, humiliating the progressive power-brokers of Los Angeles.6 By 1916, the Progressive Party in California was effectively defunct, and most progressives politicians attempted to rejoin the Republicans, who were not enthusiastic about accepting the rebels back into the fold.

The fall in political fortunes perhaps merely mirrored a decline in economic prosperity. Progressivism had been borne by a period of national prosperity, which had lowered levels of labor agitation and class conflict, mellowing the attitudes of both capital and labor and allowing them to agree on middle-of-the-road progressive measures. However, after 1912, the business cycle reversed itself, and recession and economic hardship returned. Progressives found it increasingly difficult to hold the middle ground between the two forces. 7 Many progressives, including Johnson himself, became increasingly conservative, while others, such as Fremont Older, Myer Lissner and Chester Rowell began devoting idle thoughts to considering the merits of evolutionary socialism. 8

America's entrance into World War I in 1917 dealt a monstrous blow to the reform spirit of the progressives. War mobilization brought a resurgence of conservatism. Conservatives used the crisis of war to rail against the leftist fringes, and Socialists, Wobblies and other radicals were harassed, imprisoned and otherwise silenced. The war was a great distraction from domestic affairs, and many Americans, who ten years earlier had been riveted by the work of muck-racking journalists, now forgot about dull topics of domestic reform as the bloody news from the trenches took center stage.

Post-War fears of radicalism, inspired by the ongoing Marxist saga in Russia, led to reactionary legislation in California. In 1919, the legislature passed the Criminal Syndicalism Act, targeting IWWs, communists and socialists. 128 people were sent to prison under the act, mostly wobblies engaged in the organization of migrant farm workers. 9

In the Presidential election of 1920, progressive Democrat James Cox was defeated for the Presidency by the conservative Warren G. Harding. Harding, trying to balance his ticket, had asked Hiram Johnson to be his running mate, but Johnson, who had coveted the 1920 nomination for himself, declined, not wishing to play second fiddle. Had he accepted, Johnson would have become President of the United States, as Harding died in a San Francisco hotel room in 1923.

Johnson himself abandoned the progressive agenda as Senator, focusing instead on the theme of isolationism and becoming one of the most vehement opponents to Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations. When Woodrow Wilson toured the country by rail trying to sell the League to the people, Johnson was on a train right behind him, countering the President's endorsements with violent denunciations. He later went on to oppose Franklin Roosevelt's interventionist policies, and railed against the proposed United Nations with the same fury he unleashed against the League in 1919. Johnson died in August, 1945, having served 28 years in the Senate, the longest tenure of any United States Senator from California.


Go To: The Legacy of Progressivism



Copyright ©2000-2009 LearnCalifornia.org. All rights reserved.