Business Progressivism in Omaha: 1900 - 1917
Wilson, Richard K.
MA (Master of Arts), History
MA (Master of Arts), History
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During the first two decades of the twentieth century most urban areas in the United States experienced rapid expansion coupled with mounting problems. Political machines subverted democracy and institutionalized corruption, large areas deteriorated into slums, vice flourished, and services could not keep pace with demand. Phis led to movements by community inhabitants to reform their cities. This thesis will analyze a particular segment of that reform impulse in Omaha during what became known as the progressive era. While the progressive reform movement was a multi-faceted phenomena, this study will concentrate on the activities of business and professional groups. Reforming Omaha's political structure to provide honest and efficient government became one of the most important issues facing the city during the pre-World War I era. The Omahans involved in pursuing changes in this area came from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Generally they were educated, middle to upper middle-class business and professional men. These progressive reformers were largely in accord over what was necessary to bring good government to the metropolis, although they differed over the manner in which to achieve that end. As a result, Omaha reformers split into two groups, although they were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic. In fact both groups co-operated and usually belonged to the same civic and commercial organizations. One group, the counter-organizationists, were actively involved in seeking the reins of power in order to reform city government. Met by hostility from the lower classes, blue collar workers, the political machine and conservative members of their own class, these reformers enjoyed only one brief electoral victory and little substantive change was accomplished through the employment of their means. On the other hand, the second faction of reformers was larger and dominated the civic and commercial bodies. They sought to bring about structural changes to the political system. Unwilling to become involved in partisan politics, they felt it unnecessary to actually hold office, and instead they worked through the courts, the state legislatures and referendums to bring reform to the city. As lobbyists, litigants and propagandists, these mechanistic reformers succeeded in bringing about the municipalization of key public utilities, the annexation of suburbs, electoral reform and the commission form of government. These reforms represent the major accomplishments of the progressive era in Omaha and they resulted from the efforts of the mechanistic reformers between 1900 and 1917. Although those progressives who sought office finally succeeded in doing so in 1918, they accomplished little. Their administration was characterized by a moral crusade which dissipated the energy necessary for socio-economic-political reform. Therefore, the essence of the progressive era in Omaha is to be found in the record of the mechanistic reformers in the pre-World War I era.