By Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne

June 26, 2024

The progressive period, much like our own times, was an era of tension, change, and new ideas and policies replacing old ones. Historians’ attention has focused mostly on progressivism at the national level. Federal-level reform naturally gets highlighted due to its nationwide impact.

But focusing on state-level action helps us see progressivism in a unique way and enables us to drill down and go more behind-the-scenes for a detailed look at issues, personalities, and how solutions were developed and applied. The states often set the pace and were the proving ground and prototypes for regulation later enacted at Washington.

My most recent books, The Crucible of Public Policy: New York Courts in the Progressive Era (2022) and Progressive New York: Change and Reform in the Empire State, 1900-1920 – A Reader (2024), documented the way the states (particularly high-population, urbanized states like New York), not the federal government, first dealt with complex issues that were a legacy of the accumulated problems of the Gilded Age. These related to the impact of immigration, urbanization and industrialization, and the need to make government more responsive to the people.

An Engine of Reform

New York was a leader in labor reform, business regulation, and social welfare programs. It established a comprehensive labor department (1901), health department and modern public health system (1901), education department (1904), and public utilities regulation (called the Public Service Commission) (1907). It enacted a model tenement house law (1901). New York was the first to outlaw night work by women in factories (1899; reenacted 1903), proscribe child labor (1903), enact workers’ compensation (1910), legislate a comprehensive workplace safety and fire code (1912-1914), and regulate carrying of concealed weapons (1911).

New York State Capitol in Albany photographed by Irving Underhill, ca. 1913. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Sometimes, the Empire State was a model for other states and even the federal government. For instance, the federal government had only a very limited employers’ liability law at the turn of the century. New York was the first state to enact one in 1910. The law was later declared unconstitutional, but an even stronger one was enacted in 1913 after the state constitution had been amended to authorize it. By then, twenty-one states had liability laws, many of them modeled on New York’s 1910 statute, and the federal government’s program had also been strengthened.

New York’s Public Service Commission (1907) had jurisdiction over railroads, rapid transit lines, and gas and electricity companies. That gave it far broader regulatory authority than comparable agencies in other states or in Washington. The commission had significantly greater power over intrastate railroads (e.g. authority to prescribe rates, mandate improved freight and passenger service, regulate stock offerings, and approve construction of new rail lines) than the Interstate Commerce Commission had over interstate railroads.

A Network of Reformers

Many of the reformers lived and worked in New York City, knew each other, and consulted together by just walking to others’ houses or offices or taking a horse car, trolley, or subway ride. They often started out with an emphasis on a particular issue (e.g. child labor), got interested in other areas (e.g. women’s working conditions) through their interactions with other reformers they encountered, and wound up participating in more than one area of reform. They drew on and supported each other as they wrote articles and books, prepared reports, fostered changes in public opinion, and lobbied the legislature.

Furthermore, most of the progressive-minded magazines (e.g. Outlook, McClure’s, Cosmopolitan) that exposed political corruption and business misconduct in the period were headquartered in New York City. So also were the leading progressive journals Nation and New Republic. That added to the energy of the New York progressive scene.

Women Played a Leading Role

National-level studies mostly emphasize the role of men (except for suffrage, where women were leaders at the national as well as the state levels). But women’s roles were more pronounced, and easier to discern and measure, in the state context.

Many of the New York progressive leaders were women, often working from behind-the-scenes, sometimes leading out front.

For instance, Florence Kelley, a leader of the National Consumers’ League (headquartered in New York City) built a cadre of activists for reform. She campaigned against sweatshops, was a leader in abolishing child labor in New York, fought for better working conditions for women, advocated a minimum wage, and was one of the founders of the NAACP (founded in New York City in 1909). Her eloquence and organizing skills brought other progressive-minded New Yorkers to the causes. She also monitored enforcement of new laws and lobbied for more labor inspectors for factories.

Florence Kelley (1859-1932) was a leader in progressive reform in New York. She campaigned for women’s rights, pushed for improved factory working conditions, helped end child labor, and supported other reforms. Underwood & Underwood, ca. 1925, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Lillian Wald founded a pioneering settlement house in New York City and was an innovator in providing community health care. She was the founder of what is now the Visiting Nurse Service of New York State. Like many of her colleagues, she was also a supporter of other causes, including woman suffrage and banning child labor.

Crystal Eastman investigated working conditions, documented the impact of industrial accidents, raised public awareness about the needs of injured workers, and helped lead the development of New York’s pioneering workers’ compensation law. She also campaigned for women’s rights, served as a journalist and editor, campaigned against militarism, and joined the socialist cause.

Josephine Goldmark, tireless labor reformer, helped shape legislation to protect women workers and defend its constitutionality in court. She was the legislative manager for the National Consumers’ League, which lobbied for better factory working conditions. Her 1912 book, Fatigue and Efficiency: A Study in Industry, documented the harmful effects of long working hours on factory workers, particularly women. Goldmark helped shape legislation to restrict women’s working hours. She collaborated with her brother-in-law, activist labor lawyer (and later Supreme Court justice) Louis Brandeis, on legal briefs that led to major victories for labor legislation in the Supreme Court (Muller v. Oregon, 1908) and in New York (People v. Charles Schweinler Press, 1915).

Reform Grounded in Analysis

There was little starry-eyed idealism among these state progressives. “[T]he demand of this hour is not allegiance to phrases, but sympathy to every aspiration for the betterment of conditions and a sincere and patient effort to understand every need and to ascertain in light of experience the means best adapted to meet it,” said Charles Evans Hughes, New York’s great Republican Progressive-Era governor (1907-1910) in his first inaugural address in 1907. “Each measure proposed must ultimately be tested by critical analysis of the particular problem, the precise mischief [sic] alleged, and the adequacy of the proffered remedy.”

Studies and reports often served as the basis of legislation. For instance, the 1900 report of a state commission on canals recommended replacing the aged Erie Canal with a much larger canal capable of accommodating large barges. That report led to legislative authorization for a new canal in 1903. That project, the largest undertaken by any state up to that time, resulted in the modern Barge Canal, finished in 1918. The 1900 report by a State Tenement House Commission led to legislation that upgraded standards for new apartment buildings. A 1906 legislative report on life insurance resulted in substantial expansion of state oversight.

Modern steel canal barges built for the new Barge Canal. State of New York, Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor for the Year Ended June 30, 1919 (Albany: J.B. Lyon Co., printers, 1920), facing pg. 48.

Lenient Regulators

The state enacted powerful regulatory laws, but in implementing them, enforcement was often lenient, designed to nudge businesses into compliance with public policy rather than coerce them through orders and fines.

For instance, Governor Hughes appointed as chairman of the Public Service Commission’s second district (which covered upstate and regulated railroads) an attorney who had been serving as legal counsel to a branch of the New York Central Railroad. The other initial appointments were also inclined toward pushing the railroads to do better rather than coercing them. The commissioners urged the railroads to build more facilities, provide better service, and iron out rate inequities. In considering complaints, the commission carried out lengthy investigations and held public hearings to allow tempers to cool, reveal previously unrealized misunderstandings, and bring out bases for compromise solutions.

Sometimes, the commission proposed something simple. To address dozens of complaints about passenger trains running late, the commission suggested that the railroads just adjust their schedules to establish more realistic expectations. The railroads did that, and it worked.

The Commission favored the railroads in other ways. For example, it seldom questioned or restricted company stock offerings. It held new competition at bay, for instance, vetoing the application for a new cross-state railroad which would have competed with the state’s dominant cross-state line, the New York Central.

Labor regulations, strong on paper, were often lightly enforced, particularly just after enactment, to give businesses a chance to adjust their policies to comply with the new requirements. The state did not have enough factory inspectors to monitor compliance closely. The inspectors issued citations for violations but seldom imposed the heavy fines the laws authorized. They usually did not have time to check back later to ensure compliance. Businesses came to realize that worker safety provisions and shorter hours increased morale and productivity and did not significantly cut into profits (this was a time of general business prosperity in New York).

The first state workers’ compensation act, referenced above, applied only to a few hazardous industries. But the program worked well, the law permitted other industries to opt into it, and several businesses did. When the law was re-enacted in 1913, businesses accepted the merits of state workers’ compensation programs, its coverage was much broader, and most companies participated enthusiastically.

The Courts Generally Backed Reform

Most coverage of Progressive-Era judicial history focuses on the Supreme Court, which in those days was quite conservative and inclined toward holding progressive reforms to be unconstitutional.

But a closer look reveals that much of the constitutional action in those days was in state courts rather than at the Supreme Court. Major issues were mostly decided by states’ highest courts; appeals to the Supreme Court were rare compared to today.

New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, was mostly supportive of progressive reforms. It was guided by the principle that courts should support the legislature unless a law clearly violated the state or federal constitutions. “Whether the legislation was wise is not for us to consider,” said one notable opinion, Bohmer v. Haffen (1900). The courts are “bound to assume that the law-making body acted with a desire to promote the public good. Its enactment must stand.”

The Court was so highly regarded that its Chief Judge, Alton B. Parker, was nominated for president by the Democrats in 1904 (he lost to incumbent Theodore Roosevelt).

Alton B. Parker, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, who lost the 1904 presidential election to Republican incumbent Theodore Roosevelt. Photograph 1906, Wikimedia Commons.

The Court backed the state’s public health authority, utility regulation, and factory safety laws. It validated delegation of rule-making and regulatory authority to executive administrative agencies. It struck down a law forbidding night work by women in factories, but, years later, presented with new persuasive evidence, it validated a similar law. The Court invalidated the state’s first workers’ compensation law. But after the state constitution was amended to sanction it in 1913, the court approved a second law.

In a very important decision, People v. Lochner (1904), the Court validated an 1895 law regulating the hours of bakeshop workers. The Supreme Court overturned that decision the next year (Lochner v. New York, 1905). But the Court of Appeals continued to defend the expansive state. It had to abide by Supreme Court rulings, of course, but was selective and interpretive in applying them. New York’s high court was fond of citing its own decisions as precedent and also referencing decisions of other states’ highest courts, English courts, and even leading law textbooks. Its defense of expansive state regulatory policies came to prevail at the Supreme Court in the 1930s and thereafter.

New York was a leader in many ways, but its experience on the frontlines of progressive reform suggests the need for more study of the largely unexplored experiences of other states in the Progressive Era. That seems likely to turn up new insights into what fueled and propelled progressivism.

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne
+ posts

Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Albany, New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Syracuse University and has taught history at SUNY Albany, SUNY Potsdam, and Russell Sage College. He was also a professor at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies. His most recent books are The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History (2nd ed., 2022); The Crucible of Public Policy: New York Courts in the Progressive Era (2022); and Progressive New York: Change and Reform in the Empire State, 1900-1920 – A Reader (2024).

Leave a Reply