1912-1932: Pragmatic Politics


Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912. He was an eloquent president who wanted to create a new freedom for America. He was responsible for three reforms: lower tariffs, new banking systems, and more business regulations. He was very much a progressive, but he respected private property and individual rights.

The Underwood-Simmons Tariff of 1913 lowered tariffs because industries no longer needed as much protection as they had enjoyed. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 created twelve Federal Reserve Banks, which were responsible for banking services for smaller banks (the one's individuals use). It provided banking security. The banks were privately run, but they were controlled by a government board.

In 1914 the Clayton Act forbid business policies that prevented competition or discouraged labor unions. He also passed a child labor law and established an eight-hour day for railroad workers.


A new kind of philosophy called pragmatism had a powerful effect on America. William James was a proponent of pragmatism. It can be summarized as "For human purposes, whatever promotes human welfare is true enough". A pragmatic motto is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

People started to realize that laws and policies are not written in stone. They must be revised and adapted to changes in society. More direct government was established with this in mind. Everyday people were more involved in electing officials.


Earlier, two organizations were established to help African-Americans deal with racism and segregation. In the South there were still laws that said African-Americans couldn't go to the same schools or use the same restrooms.

Booker T. Washington wanted African-Americans to be patient. He encouraged them to pursue education and financial success, while accepting discrimination a temporarily inevitable.

W.E.B. Du Bois wanted action. He fought politically for the abolishment of segregation. In 1909 he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Jane Addams was an important reformer. She moved to a really poor neighborhood and opened Hull-House. She helped people there. She also was an important anti-war activist.

Socialist ideas became more popular, especially with intellectuals. Some people were fed up with the problems caused by capitalism.


In 1914 World War I started. Wilson tried to keep America out of the war, but American civilians were dying. Germany kept destroying passenger ships with their submarines.

In 1917 Wilson felt compelled to enter the war because the Allies (the good guys) seemed to be losing. Wilson was very focused on establishing peace after the Allies won the war. He created the Fourteen Points in 1918 that wanted open trade, self-determination, and an international peace keeping organization.

He helped to create the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. But the Senate didn't accept the treaty because they thought it was too easy on the Germans. Wilson campaigned for it, but he got sick and couldn't convince anyone. He failed to get the treaty signed.


The Bolsheviks (Communists) took over Russia in 1917. This led to the establishment of the USSR. They asked for all workers to revolt all over the world. A lot of Americans were terrified of Communism, and labor unions were very suspicious because of their socialist tendencies. The Freedom of Speech Amendment was neglected during the Red Scare. Many people who spoke up in favor of Communism were deported.


In 1919 most states passed the 18th Amendment which banned alcohol. But this didn't work very well. It created many bootleggers and violent crime. Bootleggers were people who made and sold alcohol illegally. People drank alcohol illegally at Speakeasies.


Women were given the right to vote just before the 1920 election with the approval of the 19th Amendment.


In the '20s Jazz became popular. Party girls called flappers started wearing short skirts and cutting their hair. Cars became more affordable, and radio and motion pictures became very popular. The economy was doing really well, and everyone seemed to be celebrating the end of the war.

But a lot of people were hardened by the war. Many artists were pessimistic and cynical. T.S. Eliot made a frightening prediction of the hard times to come when he said, "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper".


Between 1925 and 1929 the stock market had risen dramatically, but then it crashed. War debt, and agricultural slump, and overproduction by industry all led to the depression. President Hoover passed a tariff act to try to encourage industry, but instead foreign countries reduced trading with America. Industries started setting up factories abroad. The act did more harm than good.

Hoover was afraid to help the country's economy too much because he didn't want to seem like a socialist. His policy was described as Rugged Individualism, but American citizens had become too rugged. He wasn't being pragmatic.

Hoover was blamed for the depression, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. Roosevelt gave his inaugural address over the radio, and more people than ever before heard him. He reassured them that, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself". People immediately felt more optimistic about the country's economy.