Populism: Teddy Roosevelt to Henry Wallace

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13587

Populism grew during the 19th century but only had minor political success. In the first half of the 20th century, the ideals of the populist movement would dramatically reform society.


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Theodore Roosevelt quote

  • A company should give the government extra earnings if it receives any preferential treatment?

That does not sound like the Republican platform of today. Even the Republican president at the time, William McKinley, did not agree with this idea.

Despite these differences, Theodore Roosevelt would later become vice president and would eventually begin the thrust of populism in the 20th century.

Let's find out how!

Before you begin this lesson, it would be helpful to have completed the first Related Lesson in this series on populism, found in the right-hand sidebar.

Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was not an ordinary Republican...or politician for that matter. He was a war hero in the Spanish-American War, and nearly every American loved him.

Col. Theodore Roosevelt, 1898

Image [cropped] by B.J. Falk, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

However, he saw problems with the state of the nation, especially New York, when he became governor of the state in 1898.

Industrial monopolies, like Standard Oil and U.S. Steel, controlled nearly the entire market share of their respective industries, which hurt American citizens. Due to a lack of regulation, American workers were being overworked, underpaid, and put in unsafe conditions.

As governor, Teddy Roosevelt aggressively began to answer this problem in his own state. He started regulating the monopolies and attempted to find a balance between the interest of labor movements and the men who owned the companies.

Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

Image by the American Press Association, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

  • So, how did a man opposing the broad Republican platform of the time come to be its candidate for president?

When William McKinley had to nominate a new vice president, he was pressured by the monopolists to choose Teddy Roosevelt.

  • Why?

As governor of New York, Roosevelt was endangering the control businessmen had found. However, if he were vice president instead, he would lose that power, allowing McKinley to continue focusing on business interests.

Progressive Era

Shortly after winning his second term, President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. The businessmen who moved Roosevelt so he could no longer harm them had, instead, made their biggest foe the President of the United States.

William McKinley, 1900

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

By 1901, populism had splintered into many forms.

William Jennings Bryan, who you should recall from the previous Related Lesson, continued activism for decades. While his Populist party was never elected to the presidency, the ideas that were so fervently extolled in the late 19th century were finally begining to be realized.

During the entire 19th century, the United States government had been seen as a limited body that should only act in a minor capacity in order to maximize the liberty of both individuals and states.

As you watch History Brief: The Trustbuster President, from Reading Through History, pay attention to what Roosevelt thought the role of the federal government should be:

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Roosevelt thought that, unless the Constitution specifically forbade it, he could do whatever was necessary to destroy monopolies.

The ideas of populism had begun to seep into other political ideologies, and Theodore Roosevelt was one of these early adopters.

Through his activism, Theodore Roosevelt and the larger social movements of the time began to reform society in the name of ordinary Americans for the first 20 years of the 20th century.

Under the three progressive presidents -- Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson -- American monopolies would be broken up, child labor would be restricted, and working conditions would be improved.

Woodrow Wilson, 1919

Image [cropped] by Harris & Ewing, via Wikimedia Commons, has no known copyright restrictions.

Amongst all this labor reform, the U.S. Constitution was also amended:

Amendment 16 gave the federal government the power to collect income tax. (1913)

Amendment 17 made the position of U.S. Senator one that was directly elected by the people. (1913)

Amendment 18 made the sale of alcohol illegal. (1919)

Amendment 19 gave women the right to vote. (1920)

  • Do you see how these amendments, often referred to as the Progressive Amendments, reflected the ideas of populism?

These reforms have little to do with economic or federal issues but are more focused on society and the ideals of individual power.

While the progressive movement and its leaders championed the issues of the worker, there is a major difference between it and the populist movement.

To find out more, read this excerpt from Difference Between Populism and Progressivism, by Julita for DifferenceBetween.net:

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Essentially, populism is uncompromisingly for the worker, and progressivism is more pragmatic.

Wilson and Roosevelt were both born into wealthy families. While this did not disqualify them from championing reform for the average American, progressive presidents were focused on finding a balance between the two interests.

To better understand this difference, listen to William Jennings Bryan speak when he ran for President again in 1908 (video below).

Bryan had become a staple in American elections and was running against Teddy Roosevelt's heir, William Howard Taft. Taft was endorsed by Roosevelt and won, continuing the progressive era.

As you listen to William Jennings Bryan: 1908 Presidential Campaign Recording, from danieljbmitchell, identify statements that seem especially populist in nature:

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Roaring '20s and The Great Depression

roaring twenties

During the 1920s, the Harding and Coolidge administrations massively loosened regulations on business, setting the economy free.

During this time, populism lost popularity, and the economy grew dramatically. The stock market was at an all-time high, and average wealth was going up.

However, once the Great Depression began around 1930, the problems of workers became the only issue in the nation.

Franklin Roosevelt passed several programs in his New Deal in order to get Americans working again as well as providing them a form of security.

unemployed men in line at soup kitchen, 1931

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

The Great Depression affected even the wealthy class, greatly shrinking it. Because populism is the struggle between workers and the wealthy, it was not incredibly popular during this time.

The movement did not resurface until the end of World War II when it was clear the U.S. would become a global superpower. The actions in the early post-war years would shape American society for decades to come.

Henry Wallace

Henry Wallace, 1940

Image by D.N. Townsend, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Henry Wallace, who was elected as Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, was one of the most liberal politicians in the United States at the time. However, his message was not focused on democratic ideology, but a populist one.

Once the U.S. became involved in World War II, Henry Wallace was certain the only way forward was to recognize the fight against fascism as a global fight for liberty around the world.

Watch him give his Century of the Common Man Speech (below) and pay attention to how he unites the workers.

  • Is it based on countries or something else?

Henry Wallace [Century of the Common Man] [Less Edited Version] (May 8th, 1942) from buenafe2005:

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The revolutions of the past centuries were what Wallace identified as unifying events. With the shrinking of the world due to technology, populism went global.

Much like the late 19th century, Henry Wallace spoke for the common man and the issues he saw in the post-war world, but he was largely ignored.

Keep going in the Got It? section to separate populism from the ideologies that attempt to harness it.

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