Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Encyclopedia Homepage
Search all Volumes
Disclaimer and Usage
© Copyright 2003

Table of Contents Search All Entries Home

PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT

The political events leading to Oklahoma statehood mirrored the broader goals, concerns, and reforms of the so-called progressive era (1900-1916). In the late nineteenth century, the rise of large corporations enhanced the well being of most Americans, but also evoked fear from consumers, workers, and farmers, who believed the new businesses were too powerful. The depression of the 1890s convinced many critics of the economic system that change was needed. To fix the problems and to counteract the giant corporate wealth, many citizens of the Twin Territories (Oklahoma and Indian territories) embraced the new People's (Populist) Party, which prescribed manipulating the currency, imposing income taxes on the wealthy, restricting big business, and adopting direct democracy devices, such as the initiative and referendum, direct primaries, and secret ballot. Many of these reforms would later be incorporated into Oklahoma's constitution.

As the twentieth century approached, prosperity returned, and businesses accelerated their pace of merging, thus creating even larger monopolies. Meanwhile, to cope with the new economic and social realities, interest groups of various types began copying the industrial models to combine into large cooperative entities. Workers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, social justice activists, and others created unions, associations, and clubs. Oklahoma's emerging citizenry followed the national pattern, creating a farmers' union, commercial clubs, a medical association, a bankers' association, and a federation of women's clubs. This organizing tendency accompanied the rapid increase in population, as the Twin Territories expanded faster than any other region from 1890 to 1910.

Although generally optimistic, most Oklahomans grew increasingly wary of big business. Beginning about 1902, they read articles by the muckraking journalists in national newspapers and magazines detailing corruption and criminal negligence among corporations. Local writers and editors also informed their readers about territorial scandals involving adulterated milk, price rigging on textbooks, unsafe railroad bridges, hazardous kerosene, and the schemes of the local lumber and railroad trusts. Legislators in Oklahoma Territory, following the same pattern found in other states, began to consider legislation to inspect kerosene and to improve railroad regulation.

Meanwhile, in Indian Territory in the summer of 1905, with the political environment geared to reform, Muskogee railroad promoter Charles H. Haskell and other leaders organized a constitutional convention with the goal of creating a state of "Sequoyah," which was envisioned to be separate from Oklahoma Territory. Haskell, William H. Murray of Tishomingo, and Robert L. Owen of Muskogee, among others, helped craft a constitution that incorporated the popular sentiments concerning the new economic and political concerns. The resulting document included populistic direct democracy provisions, a strong corporation commission to regulate utilities and railroads, protection for workers, and prohibition of price fixing and other unethical business practices, all strategies in vogue in other states. The people of Indian Territory ratified the Sequoyah Constitution, but the U.S. Congress rejected it, instead passing the enabling act to create a state from both of the Twin Territories.

As preparations began to select delegates to the state constitutional convention, two large interest groups, the Twin Territorial Federation of Labor and the Farmers' Educational and Cooperative Union of Indiahoma, held a joint meeting in Shawnee in August 1906, to draw up "demands" for candidates. Most of their platform had already appeared in the Sequoyah constitution. They wanted direct democracy devices, prohibition of child labor in industry and mines, a strong corporation commission, various restrictions on railroads and other companies, a mining inspector, and commissioners of agriculture and labor. Kate Barnard of Oklahoma City, an activist for the poor and women workers, took a major role in the meeting. These proposed reforms reflected the overwhelming national sentiment concerning protection of common people against the corporate interests.

Most Democrats endorsed the Shawnee demands, thereby helping their party win 99 out of the 112 delegate seats. Meeting at Guthrie beginning in November 1906, the members quickly elected William H. Murray as president. Murray formed an alliance with Charles Haskell, Henry S. Johnston of Perry, Robert L. Williams of Durant, and Peter Hanraty of McAlester, and other Democrats to draw up a constitution that resembled the Sequoyah document and conformed to most of the Shawnee demands. Whereas other states were passing laws or amending their constitutions to reflect popular reforms, Oklahoma entered the union with most of those ideas embedded in its original constitution. These provisions included the initiative and referendum, direct primary elections, the secret ballot, an eight-hour work day for laborers under state contracts, a strong corporation commission, an inspector of mines, restrictions of child labor, and liberal homestead exemptions. Conspicuously absent from the document was the right to vote for women, although a strong majority of delegates had initially pledged to support it. As required under the enabling act, prohibition was implemented, but as an amendment rather than in the constitution itself.

The Democrats won overwhelmingly in the initial elections of 1907. Under their leadership, the Oklahoma legislature enacted the nation's first deposit guarantee law for state-chartered banks, which drew considerable national attention. The reform coalition of farmers and workers fell apart, however, over the passage of a stringent child labor law and other issues. Also, Kate Barnard, elected as the first Commissioner of Charities and Corrections, discovered that protection of the downtrodden did not extend to uneducated Indians and Indian orphans who were being cheated by unscrupulous grafters. Likewise, the legislature passed strong Jim Crow provisions, proving that blacks were viewed as unworthy of equality by the lawmakers. Ironically, the reforms seemed to have been spent in Oklahoma by 1909 and 1910, when the word "progressive" came in vogue as a label for protection of the common people against special business interests. Self-styled progressives, such as Oklahoma's U.S. Sen. Robert L. Owen, continued to push for national-level reforms, using the same anticorporate vocabulary of the previous years. Other state politicians adopted the progressive label as their own, but few new changes took place. The progressive movement in Oklahoma, therefore, is best described as a collection of provisions embedded in the constitution that reflected the sentiments of the era.

SEE ALSO: DEMOCRATIC PARTY, GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS, POPULIST (PEOPLE'S) PARTY, REPUBLICAN PARTY, SOCIALIST PARTY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Aaron Bachhofer II, "Strange Bedfellows: Progressivism, Radicalism, and the Oklahoma Constitution in Historical Perspective," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 77 (Fall 1999). Kenny L. Brown, "Progressivism in Oklahoma Politics, 1900-1913: A Reinterpretation," in "An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before": Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, ed. Davis D. Joyce (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994). Keith L. Bryant, Jr., Alfalfa Bill Murray (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968). Danney Goble, Progressive Oklahoma: The Making of a New Kind of State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Amos E. Maxwell, The Sequoyah Constitutional Convention (Boston: Meador Publishing Company, 1953). Worth Robert Miller, Oklahoma Populism: A History of the People's Party in the Oklahoma Territory (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987). Lynn Musslewhite and Suzanne Jones Crawford, One Woman's Political Journey: Kate Barnard and Social Reform, 1875-1930 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003). James R. Scales and Danney Goble, Oklahoma Politics: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982). Rennard J. Strickland and James C. Thomas, "Most Sensibly Conservative and Safely Radical: Oklahoma's Constitutional Regulation of Economic Power, Land Ownership, and Corporate Monopoly," Tulsa Law Journal 9 (Fall 1973).

Kenny L. Brown

© Oklahoma Historical Society

Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site