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The Progressive Era in Minnesota, 1899–1920

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Black and white photograph of members of the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis, 1915.

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.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Atkins, Annette. Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

Chrislock, Carl H. The Progressive Era in Minnesota, 1899–1918. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1971.

Gilman, Rhoda. Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota's Protest Tradition. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

Lass, William E. Minnesota: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920. New York: Free Press, 2003.

Ridge, Martin. Ignatius Donnelly: The Portrait of a Politician. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Risjord, Norman K. A Popular History of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of members of the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis, 1915.
Black and white photograph of members of the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis, 1915.
Black and white photograph of Ignatius Donnelly c.1898.
Black and white photograph of Ignatius Donnelly c.1898.
John Lind
John Lind
Black and white photograph of James J. Hill, 1902.
Black and white photograph of James J. Hill, 1902.
Oil on canvas painting of Governor Samuel R. Van Sant, 1905. Painting by artist Herbert G. Connor.
Oil on canvas painting of Governor Samuel R. Van Sant, 1905. Painting by artist Herbert G. Connor.
Governor John A. Johnson
Governor John A. Johnson
Black and white photograph of a crowd listening to Theodore Roosevelt at State Fair, 1912.
Black and white photograph of a crowd listening to Theodore Roosevelt at State Fair, 1912.
Black and white photograph of the University of Minnesota's women's suffrage club, 1913.
Black and white photograph of the University of Minnesota's women's suffrage club, 1913.
Black and white photograph of a crowd of striking workers assembled during the Street Railway Company strike in St. Paul, 1917.
Black and white photograph of a crowd of striking workers assembled during the Street Railway Company strike in St. Paul, 1917.
Black and white photograph of Clara H. Ueland, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Clara H. Ueland, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Nonpartisan League meeting in Carver County, 1918.
Black and white photograph of Nonpartisan League meeting in Carver County, 1918.

Turning Point

Public outrage toward corrupt business practices and monopolies builds when James J. Hill works with J.P. Morgan and Edward H. Harrison to form the Northern Securities Company in 1901.

Chronology

1899

John Lind is elected governor and proposes progressive reforms.

1901

James J. Hill organizes the Northern Securities Company.

1902

President Roosevelt dissolves the Northern Securities Company.

1903

The Minneapolis Citizens' Alliance is organized to combat the spread of unionization.

April, 1909

Progressives in Minnesota and throughout the nation protest the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act.

Septem-ber 15, 1909

Minnesota governor and sometime progressive ally John A. Johnson dies, cutting short his third term.

June, 1912

The state legislature ratifies federal income tax and direct election amendments to the constitution.

Novem-ber, 1912

A majority of Minnesota progressives support Theodore Roosevelt's third-party campaign for president. In November, Democrat Woodrow Wilson wins the national election.

1913

Minnesota adopts a non-partisan legislature and passes labor reform legislation.

1914

Clara H. Ueland becomes president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association.

1915

The Nonpartisan League is founded by Arthur C. Townly in North Dakota.

1916

Striking Iron Range miners galvanize Minnesota's labor movement.

1917

The Nonpartisan League moves its headquarters to Minnesota.

1918

The Farmer-Labor Party emerges from the declining Nonpartisan League and gains political prominence.

1920

The 19th Amendment is passed, granting voting rights to women.