William Taft: The American Franchise

William Taft: The American Franchise

The nation’s population had leaped from 76 million people in 1900 to 92 million people in 1910—a 21 percent increase. Nearly 9 million immigrants were included in that population surge, the largest number of newcomers in any decade of the nation’s history. Almost 60 percent of these immigrants came from Italy, Russia, and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. They were poorer and less well educated than earlier arrivals from northern and western Europe. Their religious traditions clashed with America's dominant Protestantism. Most of the new immigrants settled in cities, which explains partly the shift in the rural/urban ratio in the nation. By 1920, more Americans lived in urban places than in rural areas.

Changes in the Political Scene

When William Howard Taft entered the White House in 1909, 65.4 percent of the eligible voters in the nation had voted. In 1912, the ratio of voter participation had dropped to 58.8 percent—a continuation of the downward trend that began in 1904. By comparison, the percentage of eligible voters who participated in the presidential elections from 1840 to 1900 always ranged between 75 to 80 percent. The principal reason behind the drop is related to the weakening of the political party structure with the onset of progressivism in the 1890s. States moved to restrict the influence of political parties by such measures as direct primaries that enabled citizens to support independents in party nominating elections. In addition, states adopted voter registration requirements which made access to the vote more difficult. State initiative and referendum processes allowed citizens to go beyond political parties to move legislation. The electorate was additionally empowered by its ability to recall elected state officials. And starting in 1916, voters—not state legislatures—chose U.S. senators. This latter change forced campaigns to focus on the popular vote rather than on legislatures controlled by party bosses. Moreover, civil service reform greatly reduced party patronage. As a result, a new style of campaign emerged in which candidates appealed directly to voters rather than party leaders and convention delegates. Advertising began to replace the armies of party workers who had mobilized voters in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, without party efforts to get out the vote, voter turnout began to decline.

Rise of Interest Groups

As the influence of political parties weakened, organized interest groups could push their special interests without having to go through party leaders. Groups like the Anti-Saloon League, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Federation of Labor, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People focused their attention on the legislative process and on electing specific individuals to support their causes. They also began to retain the service of lobbyists, paid advocates who pressured elected officials to support their respective group interests. By 1912, some elected officials came to see themselves as mediators among competitive interest groups rather than just loyal members of a political party. Additionally, beginning in the 1890s, parties had become more heavily dependent on campaign contributions by business leaders and corporations.

Empowering the Disfranchised

Among the disfranchised were women and African Americans. Most blacks still lived in the American South in 1908, and most of them had been disfranchised by the various Jim Crow laws that threw up barriers, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, to their registration for voting. Since the end of Reconstruction, the Republican Party had maintained a shadow organization among southern African Americans, but it was primarily a means for manipulating delegate votes at Republican conventions and gave no real political power to African Americans. Most importantly, the wave of violence that swept the South in the first two decades of the new century (white mobs lynched more than 1,000 blacks between 1900 and 1914) terrorized African Americans. Most of those lynched, although wrongly accused of sexual aggression towards white women, had actually violated the political color line by their political assertiveness or personal independence in the face of white intimidation. Understandably, very few blacks voted in the national elections of 1908 and 1912.

In response to the limitations on their civil and political rights, and because economic opportunity in the South was limited for them, African Americans began moving to Northern cities after 1900. Although they found job discrimination, inferior schools, and segregated neighborhoods, they at least felt a sense of empowerment in the Northern ghettos. In Harlem, for instance, they could walk the streets unmolested, and they could organize into political action groups of some power. Also, new leaders and organizations emerged in the new century, which advocated black power and black assertiveness in the face of discrimination. W. E. B. DuBois, a forceful black scholar and writer, broke with white-accommodationist policies advocated by black educator and leader Booker T. Washington when he established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). DuBois supported black mobilization for political and social rights, and by 1914, the NAACP had 50 branch offices and more than 6,000 members.

Demanding the Vote

During the Taft years, American women organized effectively to demand suffrage and new roles for women in all walks of life. (The Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote in federal elections, would be ratified in time for the 1920 elections). Their struggle, similar to the struggle for black rights, raised questions about tactics and female identity. Before 1910, those women who organized for women's rights thought of themselves as members of "the women's movement." This label signified their desire to move beyond the domestic sphere of life into social welfare activities and political equality. They believed women's special, even superior, traits as protectors of family and home would lift all of society to a higher moral level as a result of their participation.

Around 1910, some of those concerned with women's role in society began using a new word—feminism—to characterize their efforts. They thought less in terms of duty and morality and more about rights and self-realization as women. They believed that all women should unite politically and socially because of their shared disadvantages as women. Their advocacy presented them with a fundamental dilemma that their opponents often highlighted: the formation of a united gender group for the purpose of abolishing gender-based distinctions in politics, the economy, religion, society, and life. Feminists especially focused on economic (equal pay for equal work) and sexual independence, supporting birth control (led by Margaret Sanger) and "sex rights," or a single standard of social behavior for men and women in sexual relations.

As chief justice of the United States, Taft presided over the court when it came down with a decision in Adkins vs. Children's Hospital which abolished "protective legislation" regulating the number of hours and the wages paid to women in a federal hospital in the District of Columbia. Although the decision abolished the distinction between men and women, at the time it was considered a reactionary move by the court to strike down a law that had granted women preferential, or "protective," treatment. Taft dissented from the opinion, citing the authority of Congress to set maximum hours, a position that was considered progressive at the time.