Category Archives: The Progresive Era and World War I

ITPL Ep 024 I Want You poster

Episode 024 The Path to War: The US and World War I

This week we mark the 100th anniversary of the US entry into The Great War, or what we’ve come to know as World War I. The US declaration of war in April 1917 marked a decisive turning subscribe-buttonpoint in American history, as for the first time the US engaged in a European war. This decision marked a decisive break with the nation’s longstanding tradition of isolationism when it came to European affairs. But at the outset of the war in 1914, that spirit of isolationism was running high in the US. Reflecting this view, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the US would remain neutral. But over the course of the next three years, many events transpired that gradually moved a majority of Americans to accept US involvement in WWI as inevitable. To help us understand this crucial period in US history from 1914-1917, this episode has two segments.
1) First, I provide a brief overview of the isolationist tradition in US history and how it changed by 1917. To illustrate this transition, I look at two hit songs from the period. In 1915, the top song in the US was explicitly anti-war: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be A Soldier.” But two years later, the #1 song in the US was “Over There!,” a rousing patriotic ditty extolling America’s commitment to military victory in WWI penned by the famed songwriter George M. Cohan.

2) Second, I talk to historian Michael S. Neiberg about his new book, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America. It’s a close examination of the years between 1914 – when WW1 began in Europe – and 1917, when the US finally chose to enter the conflict. It’s a fascinating and largely forgotten period in American history.

Michael S. Neibergwebsite
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Further Reading

Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America (Oxford, 2016)

Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (Oxford, 2008)

Justus D. Doenecke, Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I (Kentucky, 2014)

Jennifer D. Keene, World War I: The American Soldier Experience (Bison, 2011)

David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Oxford, 1989)

Robert H. Zieger, America’s Great War: World War I and the American   Experience (Rowan & Littlefield, 2000)

PBS, The American Experience, The Great War

Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “A Storm At Eilean Mor” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Morton Harvey sings “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” 1915

Billy Murray sings “Over There!”  by George M. Cohan 1917

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer

Associate Producer: Devyn McHugh

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Darrell Darnell of Pro Podcast Solutions

Photographer: John Buckingham

Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci

Website by: ERI Design

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Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates

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© Snoring Beagle International, 2017


Episode 015 The History of the Republican Party – Convention Edition!

This week, in honor of the G.O.P. Convention, In The Past Lane explores the fascinating history of the Republican Party. I speak with historian Heather Cox Richardson, author of a superb history of the Republican party. She’ll take us on a fascinating journey through eras when the GOP was the party of big business and Wall Street and when it periodically shifted to become the party of the people and the common good. And she’ll bring her analysis all the way to the present to help put Donald Trump in historical perspective.

Episode 015 notes and credits

Recommended Reading

Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life

Lewis L. Gould, The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party

Heather Cox Richardson, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party

Theda Skocpol, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism

Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace


Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

The Womb, “I Hope It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home”

The Bell, “I Am History”


Episode 011 Scandal! In American History

subscribe-buttonWho doesn’t love a good scandal (so long as it doesn’t involve them)? This week at In The Past Lane we examine the important — and often positive — role scandals have played in American history. Here’s the lineup:
1) a short segment on the role of scandals in US history
2) an interview with historian Daniel Czitrom about his new book, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal That Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford U Press, 2016). We talk about the famous 1894 Lexow Commission investigation into allegations of widespread corruption involving the political machine Tammany Hall and the New York City Police Dept. Dan also draws important links to key issues confronting American society in 2016 – police violence and the origins of the so-called “blue wall of silence” and voting suppression efforts.
3) a look at the scandal in the meatpacking industry triggered by the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s famous novel, The Jungle.

Episode 011 notes and credits

Further reading about the history of Scandals in American History

Daniel Czitrom book cover copy: The Gilded Age Police Scandal That Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford U Press, 2016)

Andy Hughes, A History of Political Scandals: Sex, Sleaze and Spin (2014)

George C. Kohn, The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal (2001)

Laton McCartney, The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country (Random House, 2009)

Mitchell Zuckoff, Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend (Random House, 2006)

Andrew Burt, “The 1826 Kidnapping, Allegedly by a Cabal of Freemasons, That Changed American Politics Forever,” May 15, 2015

Music for This Episode:

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “On The Street” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Womb, “I Hope That It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)


Eligible students cast their ballots for the presidential election and several state positions while voting at a polling place in Memorial Union's Tripp Commons at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 6, 2012. The Memorial Union is the designated polling location for campus residents living in Adams, Barnard, Chadbourne, Elizabeth Waters, Slichter and Tripp residence halls. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Why Do We Hold Presidential Primaries?

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)As the citizens of the United States follow this wild and often bewildering presidential primary process, few stop to ask a very important question: why do we have primaries in the first place? In the history of American democracy, political primaries are of relatively recent origin, so when and why did we adopt them?

Before answering these questions, let’s be clear about one thing: American democracy has changed A LOT over the centuries. Some people find this fact a little disconcerting, since we often take comfort in the notion that amidst the rapid social changes around us, there exist certain constants like the family, religion, language, national identity, and democracy.

But the fact is, as you’ve heard me say many times before, everything changes and evolves, including the family, religion, language, national identity, and yes, good old democracy.

George Washington being sword in as the nation's first President. He was not elected by popular ballot, but rather by appointed electors.

George Washington being sword in as the nation’s first President. He was not elected by popular ballot, but rather by appointed electors.

Just think of the history of American democracy. At the founding of the Republic in the late 18th century most people could not vote and presidents were not elected by the people, but rather by electors. There was no set date for election day. And there were no political parties. In fact, nearly all the founders agreed the political parties were dangerous institutions that threatened to destroy the republic.

Jump ahead 40 years to the 1820s and the situation was very different: nearly all white male citizens have gained the right to vote and Americans have embraced political parties as indispensable features of democracy. Soon came other innovations: paper ballots replaced voice votes and simple shows of hands. Election day became fixed as the first Tuesday that follows a Monday in November. Political parties developed political campaigns, with catchy slogans and songs and rallies and parades to build party loyalty and get out the vote.

Two generations later, the Civil War led to voting rights for black men. Voting rights, of course, that were later stripped away in the Jim Crow era.

American women gained the right to vote in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment.

American women gained the right to vote in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment.

And while that was happening in the early 20th century, women gained the right to vote.

See what I mean? Our democracy has evolved – A LOT — since its creation.

So, when did we add primaries to the mix — and why?

The idea of holding political primaries emerged in the early 20th century, the period known as the Progressive Era. It was promoted by reformers who had come to see the major political parties as powerful and corrupt organizations that controlled the political process in very undemocratic ways for their own benefit. And one of the most important powers they possessed was the power to choose nominees for office, from city counselors all the way up to the president of United States.

The prime example of how all this work was Tammany Hall in New York. Tammany was a powerful political organization that dominated New York politics – and greatly influenced national politics – from the 1860s to the 1930s. You probably know the name, Boss Tweed. He was one of Tammany’s more colorful leaders in its early years. In fact, his nickname – Boss – was a recognition of his power to control politics and elections. It came from his critics, not his Tammany admirers.

The power enjoyed by bosses like Tweed had many manifestations and we will explore them in a future podcast episode on the history of political machines.

A political cartoon about the prolonged and secret backroom dealing at the 1920 GOP convention that eventually produced Warren G. Harding.

A political cartoon about the prolonged and secret backroom dealing at the 1920 GOP convention that eventually produced Warren G. Harding.

But for today, let’s focus on the power to control the nomination process. Every fall, the leaders of Tammany Hall – and the leaders of every other political party organization across the nation – would gather behind closed doors to choose a slate of nominees for every office being contested that November. The only time the people – the democracy – played a role was on election day when they had the opportunity to choose among candidates selected by a small group of men huddled in proverbial “smoke filled rooms.”

Reformers hated this system because guess who it intentionally shut out? That’s right – reformers. Party officials considered “reform” a dirty word. In fact, Tammany Hall’s unofficial campaign slogan was, ”to hell with reform!” Party leaders liked order, and predictability, and they liked candidates who were loyal and obedient to them, rather than to the public. That’s because party leaders had strong ties to business and banking interests – interests that more often than not the target of reformers.

So reformers who wanted to push for laws to improve public housing, education, or workplace safety, or for policies that would reduce corruption or lower taxes – they were left on the outside looking in. Sure, they could form their own Labor Party or Citizens for Good Government Party, but they stood almost no chance of winning. They could also lobby officeholders to support their reform causes, but few if any officeholders dared risk defying party officials for fear of being denied nomination in the next election cycle. So, listen to the bosses, keep your job. Listen to your constituents, lose your job.

In 1884 Republicans dumped incumbent President Chester A. Arthur in favor of party loyalist James G. Blaine. This cartoon suggests Blaine was not just loyal, but also corrupt.

In 1884 Republicans dumped incumbent President Chester A. Arthur in favor of party loyalist James G. Blaine. This cartoon suggests Blaine was not just loyal, but also corrupt.

Party bosses exerted similar control over the selection of delegates to the state and national party conventions that chose presidential nominees. Only party loyalists and stalwarts were chosen, men who could be counted on to vote the way party leaders instructed them based on their wheelings and dealings in those smoke-filled rooms. This fact explains why in 1884 President Chester A. Arthur was denied the Republican party nomination for a second term. Arthur, who has risen to the presidency following the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, had angered Republican leaders by criticizing the party’s corrupt system of awarding political appointments, the so-called “spoils system,” and for promoting civil service reform. So they made certain delegates to the GOP convention in June 1884 dumped President Arthur in favor of a staunch party loyalist named James G. Blaine.

So, how did reformers propose to break this undemocratic stranglehold of political parties on the nomination process?

Primaries. Primaries in which the people could choose the final nominees from a wide open list of candidates. With primaries, the political parties could support their favored candidates, but the ultimate choice of nominee would rest with the people. It would be, Progressive-era reformers claimed, a restoration of democracy in America. We’d once again have a government of, by, and for the people.

Initially, primaries were adopted in local elections for offices like school board and mayor. But they gradually expanded to include nominations for state legislators and governors. By 1915 every state in the country used the primary system for for some or all of its state and local elections.

And what about presidential elections? The campaign of 1912 was the first to feature presidential primaries. In that year, 14 states held some form of presidential primary. The purpose of these contests, of course, was not to nominate a presidential candidate, but rather to apportion delegates pledged to support a particular candidate at the later national party conventions.

But in many states, these early presidential primaries were nonbinding. In other words, they gauged public opinion, but delegates were not bound by the results. And, of course, 34 states held no primaries at all. Delegates in those states were apportioned in the old-fashioned way: by state conventions controlled by the political party bosses.

Despite Theodore Roosevelt's popularity, the GOP chose Taft as its nominee in 1912. Roosevelt then launched his famous Bull Moose campaign.

Despite Theodore Roosevelt’s popularity, the GOP chose Taft as its nominee in 1912. Roosevelt then launched his famous Bull Moose campaign.

The weakness of this early primary system was made crystal clear in the very first presidential election to feature political primaries, 1912. This contest was one of the most dramatic in American history. Incumbent President William Howard Taft was challenged for the nomination by two fellow Republicans, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, and former President, Theodore Roosevelt of New York. Roosevelt was clearly the most popular candidate among Republican voters. He won nine of the 14 presidential primaries, with Taft and La Follette winning just two each. Roosevelt’s victories garnered him 290 delegates versus only 124 for Taft. But Republican leaders favored Taft, and they controlled the delegates in the 34 states that held no primaries. So the less popular Taft received the party’s nomination. Furious, Theodore Roosevelt launched his famous 3rd party “Bull Moose” campaign but came up short in the end.

In the years that followed, presidential primaries increased in popularity. By the presidential campaign of 1916, 25 states held primaries. But then, the major political parties pushed back against the political primary movement, convincing several states to drop them. Primaries, they argued, were expensive and voter turnout was lower than reformers promised.

So by 1936 the number of primaries had declined to only 12 states. And it stayed that way—just 12 states holding presidential primaries—until 1968. That’s less than 50 years ago. So, the presidential primary system, at least as we know it today, is of relatively recent vintage.

That’s not to say that presidential primaries played no significant role in elections held before the 1970s. In fact, primaries enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and impact after World War II. From 1948 to 1952 voter participation nearly tripled. This upsurge was due in part to new voting rules in many states, but also to the rise of television as a new factor in American politics. Television allowed outsiders and less established politicians to gain popularity which they then could parlay into a bid for the presidency.

Estes Kefauver upset President Harry Truman in the 1952 New Hampshire primary. The victory increased the importance of primaries in the coming years.

Estes Kefauver upset President Harry Truman in the 1952 New Hampshire primary. The victory increased the importance of primaries in the coming years.

For example, in 1950 a relatively little-known senator from Tennessee names Estes Kefauver

became a household name when he chaired televised hearings on the organized crime problem in the US. Two years later in 1952, in New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” primary, Kefauver defeated incumbent Pres. Harry Truman. That result prompted Truman to drop out of the race. 16 years later in 1968, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson’s poor showing in the New Hampshire primary likewise prompted him to withdraw from the race.

While poor showings in primaries doomed Truman and LBJ, strong performance in primaries led John F. Kennedy to his party’s nomination in 1960 and Barry Goldwater to his in 1964.

But it’s after 1968 that presidential primaries began to assume the important role they play today. Rule changes by the Republican and Democratic parties as to how delegates would be awarded to presidential candidates encouraged a growing number of states in the 1970s and 1980s to establish presidential caucuses or primaries. Now every state holds one and they play dominant role in selecting presidential candidates.

But 100 years on, it’s worth asking: have presidential primaries, or at least our current system of presidential primaries, helped or harmed American democracy? Remember, back in the 19 teens when primaries were invented, the goal was to shift power from political party bosses to the people.

Well, many historians and political scientists question whether political primaries actually have improved our democracy. They note, for example, that while primaries have indeed put more power and influence in the hands of everyday voters when it comes to choosing political candidates, over the decades, the Democratic and Republican parties have found many ways to exert tremendous influence over the nomination process. The parties use their enormous financial power and personnel resources to favor particular candidates. And the parties have frequently changed the way delegates are awarded to primary candidates, thereby diminishing the influence of voters.

Critics also argue that political primaries are inherently flawed in terms of representing the views of the general American public. Only a sliver of the electorate participates in political primaries and these voters tend to be more ideologically extreme –– both liberal and conservative –– in their political views. This dynamic can result in the nomination of candidates whose political views are outside the American mainstream and as a result these candidates lose in the general election. The old system of party bosses nominating candidates may not have been very democratic, but it did often ensure the nomination of candidates with broad electoral appeal.

political-party-buttonsBut, people, rest assured, there are many, many proposals out there for reforming both the primary process and elections in general. These range from plan to make it easier to vote in primaries — including proposals to allow for online voting — to changing the current primary and caucus schedule to diminish the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire – states whose populations are overwhelmingly white and economies far more rural than the rest of the nation.

And then there’s campaign finance reform. Yikes! We better not go down that road right now.

So, keep some of this in mind as you observe and hopefully participate in the primary process in 2016. And don’t lose heart, citizens. If there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that while democracy is indeed a wondrous and virtuous system, it’s also messy and complicated. It always has been and always will be.


Geoffrey Cowan, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary (2016)

David W. Moore and Andrew E. Smith, The First Primary: New Hampshire’s Outsize Role in Presidential Nominations (2015)

Alan Ware, The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North (2002)

SeondGildedAge 1

Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age? Part 1

“Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age?” is an ongoing examination of the parallels between the first Gilded Age (1870-1900) and what many contend is a Second Gilded Age (1980-present). A key source of these musings is my forthcoming book, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the First Gilded Age (Columbia University Press, June 2015).

Americans have long loved to celebrate centennials and sesquicentennials of major events in national history such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the start of the Civil War, and the March on Washington in 1963. Of course, no such commemoration occurred in 1970 to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Gilded Age (1870-1900). But it’s useful to imagine for a moment what such an event might have looked like. Given the context of 1970, it’s not hard to imagine the primary theme that would have dominated speeches, museum exhibitions, and documentary films: The Gilded Age was a period of extraordinary growth and innovation, but also dangerous levels of poverty and inequality that threatened the integrity of America’s cherished republican values; this threat was eventually checked by the efforts of social reformers who empowered the state to place limits on corporate power and adopt policies aimed at promoting the common good over raw individualism. Americans in 1970 were riding the greatest period of economic growth and prosperity in the nation’s history (from 1946 to 1973 the U.S. economy grew by an average rate of 3.8%). And they were living at a time of the greatest level of economic equality in the nation’s history. It seems likely that the average American in 1970 would have viewed the Gilded Age as a dark and ugly chapter in American history that few would want to repeat.

And yet, since 1970, a rising chorus of scholars, activists, and social critics has emerged to warn Americans about rising corporate power, wealth inequality, and poverty and the threats they posed to the nation’s republican values. By the 1990s some began to invoke the phrase, “Second Gilded Age,” to describe this era in an attempt to conger up images of an age of unrestrained robber baron industrialists and financiers, roiling social conflict, and a widening chasm between rich and poor.

NewGildedAgeBookThis pessimistic view of the direction in which the United States was heading really took off in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 that triggered massive job losses and home foreclosures and a bitter debate over how the federal government should respond. Since that moment, references to the Gilded Age and invocations of a “Second Gilded Age” have become increasingly popular in public discourse. A quick search of the Lexis-Nexis database for the term Gilded Age shows 11 articles employing it in the 1970s, 76 in the 1980s, 184 in the 1990s, and 541 in the 2000s. And the trend shows no sign of abating as the period 2010-2012 already has generated 450 articles. Many books since 2008 now bear the phrase Gilded Age in their titles, such as Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), David Grusky and Tamar Kricheli-Katz, eds., The New Gilded Age: The Critical Inequality Debates of Our Time (Stanford, 2012); Katherine S. Newman and Elisabeth S. Jacobs, Who Cares?: Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), Susan P. Crawford, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Yale, 2013); and Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi, eds., Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories from the New Gilded Age (NYU Press, 2011).

one percentThis sudden return of Gilded Age to common American parlance reflects a keen awareness of the eerie similarities between the United States of today and that of the last third of the nineteenth century. The nation then and now was consumed with intense debates over wealth inequality, labor unions, immigration, terrorism, women’s rights, family values, money in politics, voter eligibility, Wall Street recklessness, political polarization and paralysis, religion vs. secularism, individualism vs. the common good, free market capitalism vs. regulation, wars of choice vs. diplomacy. If we take a closer look at just one of these issues, we learn that in 1890 the top 1% of Americans owned 51% of all wealth, while the lower 44% owned just 1.2%. Income taxes, inheritance taxes, and other measures adopted since the early 20th century reduced wealth disparity significantly by 1979 to 20.5%. But since 1980 the trend has shifted dramatically back toward increased wealth and income inequality. By 2010 the top 1% owned 35.4% of all wealth, leading to the sudden popularization of the pejorative phrase “the 1%” among progressive protesters like the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Twain history rhymes copyThose who claim that the United States has entered a Second Gilded Age are not invoking the tired and thoroughly misleading notion that “history repeats itself.” Instead, they are guided (knowingly or unknowingly) by a maxim offered by Mark Twain, the man who coined the phrase, Gilded Age back in 1873: “The past does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” It is the ways in which our times rhyme with the late nineteenth century that many Americans who possess a sense of history find so disturbing.

In this series of articles I will explore this rhyming between the First Gilded Age and the Second Gilded Age. History does not offer a specific map, formula, or blue print for dealing effectively with contemporary social, economic, and political challenges. Yet we study history in part because we believe it allows us to understand where we as a society have come from and why things—institutions, ideas, practices, customs, and power arrangements—are as they are. We believe these insights have the capacity to guide individuals and societies as they make the choices that will shape the future. “Trying to plan for the future without knowing the past,” Daniel Boorstin once quipped, “is like trying to plant cut flowers.” In the late nineteenth century the United States faced a host of vexing challenges regarding policies related to economic opportunity, democracy, citizenship, freedom, and human rights. Likewise, the United States in the early 21st century also faces a great many problems that remind us of that past Gilded Age. What choices the American people and their political leaders make in the coming years will, as they did in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have a profound impact on the future vitality of their nation and its cherished values.