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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

What it meant to be ‘progressive’ in turn-of-the-century Minnesota

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Members of the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis, 1915

The growth of cities and industry in the late nineteenth century brought sweeping changes to American society. Minneapolis and Saint Paul grew rapidly. Urban labor provided new opportunities for Minnesotans as well as new challenges. Business practices and labor rights became topics of heated debate. The progressive movement spread amid growing concerns about the place of ordinary Americans in relation to the new urban landscape.

Ignatius Donnelly‘s novel Caesar’s Column (1890) predicted a dystopian future ruled by business elites. He argued that greed and corruption would ultimately destroy democracy. The progressive movement was a reaction to these fears, as well as an expression of political idealism.

The rise of populism in the 1870s strongly influenced progressive politics. The Financial Panic of 1873 caused farmers and workers to criticize corporate power and wealth inequality. Many Minnesotans joined groups like the Farmers’ Alliance and Knights of Labor to influence public policy. Populists attacked railroad monopolies, currency manipulation, and government corruption.

Progressives addressed many of these issues beginning in the late 1890s. They also took on labor rights, partisan politics, liquor sales, and women’s suffrage. Their start in Minnesota came with a battle against monopolies and the power of railroad barons like James J. Hill.

In 1901 Hill merged his interests with Edward H. Harriman and J.P. Morgan to create the Northern Securities Company (NSC). The company had a monopoly over all major railroads in the Northwest.

Progressives responded angrily. Farmers in particular criticized the NSC for keeping shipping rates high. The merger also violated state law. Governor Samuel Van Sant condemned the NSC and took legal action. President Theodore Roosevelt later dissolved the company as part of his trust-busting efforts.

The concentration of business power among a small number of elites led to many issues for workers. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad cut wages sharply in the 1890s. This led to protests and a strike in 1894. Eugene Debs organized the American Railway Union to protect the interests of rail workers.

Labor unrest and unionization increased after 1901. In that year, Minneapolis machinists joined the International Association of Machinists to obtain fair working hours. They also received union protection against discrimination. Employers now had to work with unions directly. This became known as a “closed-shop” arrangement.

The industrial leaders of Minneapolis organized the Citizens Alliance in 1903. The Alliance challenged labor unions and fought for “open-shop”, or non-union, labor policies. Local bankers forced companies to join the alliance by threatening to suspend credit. Large companies like U.S. Steel also used labor spies to combat unions.

The labor movement gained ground in Duluth in 1907. Ore dock workers went on strike. This triggered a later strike among miners on the Mesabi Range. Mine owners responded by calling for military troops. Although violence was avoided, trains brought in new miners to replace strikers.

Another strike among dock workers in 1913 and a mining strike in 1916 fueled greater conflict. A pay increase for miners and safer working conditions were finally achieved in the 1920s.

Political reform was another key aspect of the progressive movement. Progressives blamed party politics and corruption for the government’s ineffective response to shady business practices. They argued that parties were tools of the business elite. As such, politicians bowed to corporate interests. Progressives wanted direct primaries, the authority to recall elected officials, and non-partisan elections.

Minnesota adopted a non-partisan legislature in 1913 to temper the influence of political parties. It was also an attempt to reform government. The state maintained a non-partisan legislature until 1973.

The women’s suffrage movement was one of the progressive era’s most successful campaigns. Industries based in cities created new jobs for women. Reformers challenged old gender roles and social norms.

The influx of Scandinavian immigrants to the state shaped public opinion about women’s rights. In Norway and Sweden women had relative equality and the right to vote. As a result, issues like women’s voting rights received public attention.

Women formed groups to discuss social and political issues. They proposed ways to improve working conditions, urban sanitation, and poverty. Clara H. Ueland and the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) led the movement in the Twin Cities.

Sarah T. Colvin, of St. Paul, led the National Women’s Party as they launched a more radical campaign. They protested through acts of civil disobedience and public demonstrations. Colvin was also an early supporter of birth control.

A state law passed in 1913 established a commission empowered to set minimum wages for working women and minors. Equal voting rights came in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Christian ideals drove much of progressive politics. The revival of Christian fundamentalism between 1850 and 1900 spurred calls for reform. For many progressives, the prohibition of alcohol was a moral issue. Liquor, they argued, threatened domestic life. They saw prohibition as a step toward improving society.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League led the call for prohibition in Minnesota. Their campaign for the county option, which allowed counties to legalize or prohibit liquor, was the first push to control liquor sales.

Opponents of the county option feared it would lead to complete prohibition. They viewed it as a violation of individual freedom by the state. The state legislature rejected county option proposals in 1909 and 1913. It finally enacted the policy in 1915. Forty-six counties had banned liquor sales when national prohibition was enacted in 1920.

By 1917 the Nonpartisan League (NPL) was leading progressivism in the state. The NPL embraced the principles of populism. Its members were farmers eager to challenge the power of grain millers and railroads. In many ways, the NPL was the apex of the progressive movement in Minnesota.

World War I interrupted the optimism that had driven the NPL. Populist ideals gave way to fear of unorthodox politics. The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) was created in 1917 to manage the war effort. It defined patriotism strictly and upheld the status quo. As a result, groups like the NPL came to be seen as threats to national security.

The Russian Revolution dealt a blow to socialism and labor reform in the U.S. Minnesota’s progressive movement was effectively over by 1918. It revived, however, after the stock market crash in 1929. The Great Depression restored public dissent against corporate greed and corruption.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Wilfahrt on 08/26/2014 - 10:57 am.

    A sincere thank you

    Mr. Backerud,

    This is the type of material all too frequently glossed over in postings across the web, be it blogs, feature articles or that miserable disseminator of half truths FaceBook.

    The past is indeed prologue. Ninety years later we find ourselves at the same asymptote of issues that the sinusoid of history represents.

    We are here again at the point of history where the truth of distribution as fairness stands in contrast to greed.

    Thank you for the wisdom and knowledge base to speak to that sad, ever so sad, fact.

    • Submitted by Thomas Backerud on 08/27/2014 - 02:42 pm.

      Thank you

      Hi Jeff,

      Thank you for your kind words; I always appreciate feedback. History tends to repeat itself if the lessons of the past are ignored.

      All the best,

      -Tom

  2. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 08/26/2014 - 11:23 am.

    Recommended Reading

    Those interested in learning more about the Progressive era in Minnesota would be well served to read two books by the late Carl Chrislock:
    Progressive Era in Minnesota 1899-1918

    –and–

    Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety During World War I.

    The latter shows how the Commission was more than just a vehicle to “manage the war effort”. Its purpose was to squelch dissent, enforce a strict code of pro-Americanism, and root out those it viewed as being unpatriotic. Sound familiar?

    • Submitted by Jon Lord on 08/26/2014 - 02:34 pm.

      Yes

      And don’t forget our neighbor to the east and “Tail-gunner” Joe McCarthy and his “anti-American” act that cause havoc within the country after WWII.

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