Wisconsin was a hotbed for many of the reform ideas that marked the Progressive Era in the United States. Under the leadership of Charles Van Hise from 1903-1918, the University of Wisconsin forged close ties with the state government and Governor Robert La Follette. Faculty members often consulted with legislators to draft new laws on everything from workers’ compensation to the public regulation of utilities.
One of the key figures in these efforts was Charles McCarthy (1873-1921) the chief document clerk for the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, who expanded his research services and formulated the concept of a legislative reference library. Working out of the attic in the state capitol, McCarthy built the first such library in the country and it became critical to how laws were created in Wisconsin.
By 1912 McCarthy codified his thinking into a book called The Wisconsin Idea, a summary of progressive ideals and thinking. Many of the reforms McCarthy called for focused on removing corruption from politics and waste and inefficiency in government. The book also argued for the women’s suffrage, children’s rights, farm relief, and income taxes. Former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote an introduction for The Wisconsin Idea. Later that year, Roosevelt called upon McCarthy to help draft the platform for the new Bull Moose Progressive party.
Their 1912 Progressive Party platform called for campaign finance reform, registration of lobbyists, and recording and publishing Congressional committee proceedings. It advocated for women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators (who had been appointed by state legislatures). Among the many social programs, it endorsed:
- A National Health Service;
- social insurance for the elderly, unemployed, and disabled;
- workers’ compensation;
- a minimum “living wage”;
- an eight-hour workday and a six-day work week;
- a federal securities commission;
- farm relief; and
- a Constitutional amendment to allow for federal income tax.
The platform also called for voters to have more direct control over government through the ballot by initiative, referendum, and recall.
Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party made for a rare four-way Presidential election, with William Howard Taft for the Republicans, Woodrow Wilson for the Democrats, and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs.
Edward House, who later became Wilson’s trusted advisor, wrote on August 21 with this prediction:
“In my opinion, the greatest asset that we have is the scare that Roosevelt is giving the conservative Republicans and I have found that my efforts proselytizing prominent Taft adherents have been successful whenever I have been able to show that a vote for Taft is a half vote for Roosevelt.”
Fred D. Warren, advisor to Eugene Debs, reported his observations about the Bull Moose convention:
“I am impressed with the importance of the 3rd party move. There is something strikingly significant in the gathering together of 14,000 men and women from all parts of the nation to declare that they no longer were republicans, thus severing the political ties of a life time. I sat within twenty feet of Roosevelt and there were times when I could have shut my eyes and readily believed I was listening to a Socialist soap boxer!”
When the votes were cast and counted, Wilson won the majority of electoral votes, but the popular vote was: Wilson 42 percent, Roosevelt 27 percent, Taft 23 percent, and Debs 6 percent. (A fifth candidate Eugene W. Chafin, the Prohibition candidate won 1.4 percent!)
Roosevelt sent a carefully-worded telegram to Wilson after the election: “The American people by a great plurality have conferred upon you the highest honor in their gift. I congratulate you thereon.”
The NHPRC has funded a number of projects that document the Progressive Era. In addition to the Papers of Woodrow Wilson, and the Letters of Eugene V. Debs, a great source is the collected papers of reformer Jane Addams, who seconded TR’s nomination at the Bull Moose convention. The NHPRC also supported a microfilm edition of the Robert La Follette Papers and five major Wisconsin reformers in the Progressive Era: Charles Van Hise, Richard T. Ely, Edward A. Ross, John R. Commons, and Charles McCarthy, the erstwhile document clerk who helped write many of the key progressive reforms of the era.
McCarthy remained at the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library, advising Presidents and serving as chief aide to Herbert Hoover at the U.S. Food Administration. He passed away in Prescott, Arizona at age 47.