Stories from PA History
Pennsylvania Politics 1865-1930.
Pennsylvania Politics 1865-1930.
Chapter Four: From the Progressive Era to the Great Depression

Cardinal Gibbons enters President Theodore Roosevelt's carriage, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 1905.
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President Theodore Roosevelt, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 1902.
Before Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, the nation's chief executive had intervened in labor disputes only on behalf of corporations. Technically this was done to restore order or, when the railroads stopped, to deliver the mail, but practically it meant dispersing pickets and allowing owners and those they recruited to break strikes to reopen factories, mills, and mines.

In 1903, in the midst of amarker great coal strike in the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania, Roosevelt intervened and with the help of business leaders and Catholic clergymen forced the mine owners to grant a wage increase and reopen the mines. The strike was organized by the United Mine Workers of America, whose secretary-treasurer was Pennsylvanianmarker William B. Wilson. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Wilson the nation's first Secretary of Labor. Another Pennsylvanian,marker Philander Chase Knox, made the transition from one of the nation's preeminent corporate attorneys to trust buster, as President Theodore Roosevelt's Attorney General.

Sewers from Calder and Reily Streets, Harrisburg, Pa., 1900.
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Susquehanna riverfront at Calder and Reily Streets, Harrisburg, PA, 1900.
The changes in the coal fields mirrored those in the nation. In the early 1900s, reformers attacked problems in numerous areas of American life. Pennsylvanians markerJoseph Rothrock and markerGifford Pinchot were at the head of the nation's forestry-conservation movement. Having witnessed the near total-destruction of Pennsylvania's magnificent first-growth forests they argued successfully that forests were valuable natural resources in need of state and federal conservation for future use.  markerMira Lloyd Dock and markerJ. Horace McFarland of Harrisburg were leaders in the "City Beautiful" movement that turned garbage dumps and polluted water into attractive parks in their home city and then throughout the nation.

During the Progressive era, Pennsylvania embraced a broad range of moderate progressive era reforms. Progressive-era governors of Pennsylvania tended to be more reform-minded and independent of the state machine than the state legislature. In 1905, Governor Samuel Pennypacker (1903-07) created the markerPennsylvania State Police to curtail the power of the state's Coal and Iron Police, which he considered unconstitutional, supported passage of a state child labor law, and established the state's markerfirst game preserves to bring back endangered wildlife. His successor Edwin Stuart (1907-1911) signed the bill creating the State Railroad Commission to regulate the state's railroads.

The only governor born in a foreign country (Ireland), markerJohn Tener (1911-1915) supervised reform of the state's public-education system, and supported a women's suffrage amendment to the state constitution. During World War I, the state was led by markerMartin Brumbaugh (1915-1919), the only Ph.D. to serve as the state's governor. Of German descent, he at first opposed intervention on behalf of the Allies but then did his best to support the cause at the head of the state that produced more munitions and ships than any other state, and ranked second to New York in soldiers. While serving the first of his two terms as governor between 1923 and 1927, Gifford Pinchot took on the powerful state utilities industry and authorized an investigation of the state police.

Alice Paul, full-length portrait, standing, facing left, raising glass with right hand
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Alice Paul toasting Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S....
The legislature in 1915 voted down, however, an amendment to the state constitution to extend the vote to women, and in 1921 voted down a new state equal-rights bill to combat racial segregation, after Senator Boies Penrose, the Republican state boss, sent word from Washington, D.C., to squash it. Pennsylvanians did, however, lead the movement to honor women as mothers and housewives. Philadelphia's Anna Jarvis led the movement for the celebration of markerMother's Day, first endorsed both by Congress and presidential proclamation in 1914.

The campaign for women's suffrage went on to achieve national success with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919. In that campaign, Pennsylvanians and women educated at Commonwealth's Quaker colleges played a significant role. Suffragist Alice Paul received her undergraduate education at Swarthmore and in 1911, while working on her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, Paul led open-air meetings in Philadelphia to build public support for a state and federal suffrage amendment before going on to found the National Woman's Party in 1913. In her fifties, nationally renowned nurse Lavinia Dock served forty-three days in prison for participating in pro-women's suffrage demonstrations outside the White House. Indeed, of the 168 "Silent Sentinels" arrested in the summer of 1917, twenty-one came from Pennsylvania, the most from any state.

In the early 1900s, Pennsylvania followed, rather than led the nation in protecting or expanding the rights of its voters, workers, and consumers. In the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge famously noted that the business of America is business, an observation as true in Pennsylvania as in any other state in the nation. Periodic mine disasters and exposé of child labor demonstrated that state laws, even once enacted, were often poorly enforced.

Black and white, head and shoulders photograph.
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Senator Boise Penrose of Philadelphia, Pa., June 8, 1920.
There is no state historical marker to honor the state's most powerful political leader in the early twentieth century. Senator Boies Penrose (1860-1921) dominated Pennsylvania politics in the first two decades of the twentieth century. A Harvard graduate who in his twenties wrote two books on government reform, this descendant of an old Philadelphia family simply gave up his ideals in the 1880s and turned to accumulating power for the joy it brought him. At six foot four and 350 pounds, Penrose physically loomed like a giant in the United States Senate from 1897 until his death in 1921, although his legislative legacy was puny. He sponsored no important piece of legislation, opposed labor reform and women's rights, and supported pro-business policies without fail.

In 1913, Congress passed and the states ratified the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided that Senators would henceforth be elected by the people rather than the state legislatures, in considerable part to oust Penrose. In 1914, for the first time in his life, he took to the campaign trail and defeated reform markerDemocrat A. Mitchell Palmer, who as President Wilson's Attorney General led the infamous "Palmer Raids" against suspected radicals in 1919 and 1920.

Penrose received large donations from companies to prevent the state legislature from passing regulatory laws that he only introduced to solicit bribes and received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Mellon family of Pittsburgh. Penrose's tentacles extended into the Democratic Party, as well. In 1910, he selected both the winning Republican (John Tener) and losing Democratic candidates for state governor. Ten years later, his role in winning the presidential nomination for Warren Harding led to an offer of the vice-presidency for Pennsylvania Governor markerWilliam Sproul, who turned it down, and the appointment of Pittsburgh banker Andrew W. Mellon (1855-1937) as Secretary of the Treasury.

Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon pictured with Assistant Secretary Henry Herrick Bond (seated) are shown the new bills by Director Hall of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, sitting on the left, examining new...
In the 1920s, Mellon was one of the nation's wealthiest and most powerful men. Directing the nation's finances during the prosperity of the 1920s as the nation's Secretary of Treasury, Mellon was hailed as the nation's greatest financier since Alexander Hamilton. Hoping to further stimulate an already booming economy, he championed the reduction of taxes on business and government expenditures, and supported the high tariffs that protected American industries - and his own investments. Mellon and markerJoseph Grundy, head of the powerful Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, also orchestrated the election of markerJohn S. Fisher as Pennsylvania governor in 1926. During the Great Depression, however, marker his policies were widely associated with the causes of the worst and most prolonged economic collapse in American history.

     This photo shows that committee of men, dressed in suits, and one woman in overalls, entering a mine.
The New York Hirshfield Committee entering a mine, at the Berwind-White Coal...
In the early 1900s, Pennsylvania remained a conservative state, but its politics were not monolithic. In coal mining towns like markerWindber and markerRossiter, steel and textile mills, and elsewhere, suppressed cries for political representation were waiting to break free from the state's Republican machine. In the 1910s, the voters of Reading three times elected Socialist labor leader marker James Maurer to the state legislature. In 1928 and again in 1932, Maurer ran as the Socialist's party's vice-presidential candidate in 1928.

The Great Depression would inaugurate a new age in Pennsylvania politics and government as voters gave Democrats control of the state government. During Pennsylvania's "Little New Deal," Governor George Earle (1935-1939) and Democrats in control of the state legislature would pass an unprecedented volume of legislation.

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