California is an amazing state, rightly earning the name “Golden State.” We’ve already covered a brief overview of the state, as well as a look at California’s history in the film industry. If you haven’t read these posts yet, be sure to check them out! Today we are continuing our series on California by diving into California’s involvement in political reforms.
America underwent major reforms during the Progressive Era, which lasted from the 1890’s to the 1920’s. Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson are all considered “Progressive Presidents” because they were in office during this time, and led many reforms. If there is one person to remember from California’s history of political reform, it is Hiram W. Johnson. Hiram was California’s 23rd governor who served from 1911-1917; he then became a U.S. senator from 1917-1945. He was even a founder of the Progressive Party in 1912. In order to understand his significance in political reform, we need to set the political scene into which he entered as California’s governor.
In the early 1900’s, state lawmakers were heavily influenced by large corporations. One of these big corporations was the Southern Pacific Railroad, which held a monopoly over the railway industry, and pulled political strings to keep it that way. There was also increasing corruption in the government, destroying true democracy. Blue collar workers feared that they would lose their jobs if they were injured or became sick, child labor was unregulated, and 8-hour workdays were nonexistent. Public education was also a mess. It seemed as if everything political was in desperate need of reform.
Into this mess stepped Hiram W. Johnson. His first big focus was to tear down the Southern Pacific Railroad’s political and economic monopoly (Hiram’s campaign slogan was “Kick the Southern Pacific out of Politics”). The California legislature, under Governor Johnson’s leadership, passed the Stetson-Eshelman Act, which gave more authority to the state’s Railroad Commission. This allowed the Railroad Commission to change the passenger and freight rates and thus end Southern Pacific’s monopoly.
Hiram Johnson also adopted a political system from Oregon which helped to establish truer democracy in California. In 1911, Governor Johnson established Oregon’s system of “Initiative, Referendum, and Recall” in California. This system gave California’s citizens a level of direct democracy unmatched by most states during that time, bypassing political bosses. But Johnson did not stop with political corruption. California’s state legislature, led by Hiram Johnson, passed the Workmen’s Compensation, Insurance, and Safety Act in 1913. This act improved the working environment for California’s citizens by restricting child labor, establishing an 8-hour workday, and giving minimum wage to female industrial workers. Governor Johnson also improved the education system during his terms in office. Through his leadership, California’s State Government joined the kindergarten movement, which had started in the 1830’s in Germany. Johnson also improved California’s education by creating pensions for teachers and comprehensive curriculums for students.
The Progressive Era was a big period of all sorts of reform for America, and many of these changes were led by the Progressive Presidents. But the Golden State was a big leader in reform, and Hiram Johnson stands out as the main figure of reform. California’s contributions to reform in America are another reason why the Golden State is so great.