1.5. New England (1900-1925): The Progressive Era and Its Aftermath



1900
(45 states)
1920
(48 states)
Maine
694,466
30th
768,014
35th
New Hampshire
411,588
36th
443,083
41st
Vermont
343,641
38th
352,428
44th
Massachusetts
2,805,346
7th
3,852,356
6th
Rhode Island
428,556
34th
604,397
38th
Connecticut
908,420
29th
1,380,631
29th
Region's % of US pop.
7.3%

7.0%


  • Between 1900 and 1925, much of the United States completed its transition from an agrarian economy to a mature industrial economy.   New England had largely completed the industrialization process by 1900, but it did not have a clear vision of where to go next.  As a result, the region enjoyed modest prosperity and growth during the early 20th century but it did not play an important role on the national stage. 
  • Many adjustments were required to fit American law to the new economic order, and the Progressive Era (1900-1915) witnessed an unprecedented expansion of regulatory laws and of government’s role in the daily lives of Americans.  Major reforms included “good government” laws creating civil service systems and requiring selection of political candidates by voters rather than party caucuses; increased railroad regulation; public utility regulatory systems; the addition of income and inheritance taxes to property taxes; and new conservation, product safety and workplace safety laws. 
  • New England had a mixed record of reform during the Progressive era.  All New England states enacted workers compensation laws; several states created workplace safety commissions, and others passed protective laws setting minimum wages and maximum hours of work for women and children.  Massachusetts and Connecticut modernized their tax systems by creating state income taxes, but the rural states of northern New England had a tradition of resistance to high taxes and saw no need to modify their taxation systems.
  • From the 1890s to the 1930s, new waves of immigration reshaped the population in many parts of New England.  Many Yankees feared and resisted the cultural changes that the early 20th century promised.  A tradition of legislative apportionment favoring rural areas, dating from the colonial era gave Yankees a powerful political weapon in their effort to preserve their cultural dominance.  Yankees stoutly resisted efforts to reapportion legislatures to give urban immigrants more power, and when New Englanders of Irish, Italian and French Canadian descent began winning statewide elections, Yankees responded by transferring powers from the executive branch to the legislature.  
  • The clash of Yankee and immigrant sensibilities manifested itself most memorably in the trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, immigrants and anarchists, in the mid-1920’s, for murder during the course of a robbery.  The Sacco-Vanzetti case had little effect on the evolution of the law: to the Massachusetts courts it was a standard, if highly-publicized, criminal case.  But it gained a place in American history as a dramatic illustration of the difficulties of transitioning to an industrially mature and increasingly culturally diverse society.  



Shoe factory workers, Lynn, Massachusetts (1895) - courtesy Library of Congress

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti - courtesy Wikimedia Commons