The New Freedom has two meanings. The first comprises the campaign speeches and promises of Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential campaign; it called for limited government. The second meaning, the more common, comprises the Progressive programs enacted by Wilson as president during his first term (1913-1916), when the Democrats controlled Congress. Wartime policies are not generally considered part of the New Freedom; and after the 1918 elections the Republicans took control of Congress, and were generally hostile to the New Freedom. As President, Wilson focused on three types of reform:
1. Tariff Reform: This came through the passage of the Underwood Tariff Act of 1913, which lowered tariffs for the first time since 1857 and went against the protectionist lobby.
Wilson's position in 1912 stood in opposition to Progressive party candidate Theodore Roosevelt's ideas of New Nationalism, particularly on the issue of antitrust modification. According to Wilson, "If America is not to have free enterprise, he can have freedom of no sort whatever." In presenting his policy, Wilson warned that New Nationalism represented collectivism, while New Freedom stood for political and economic liberty from such things as trusts (powerful monopolies). Wilson was strongly influenced by his chief economic advisor Louis D. Brandeis, an enemy of big business and monopoly.
Although Wilson and Roosevelt agreed that economic power was being abused by trusts, Wilson ideas split with Roosevelt on how the government should handle the restraint of private power as in dismantling corporations that had too much economic power in a large society.
Wilson in office
Once elected, Wilson seemed to abandon his "New Freedom" and adopted policies that were more similar to those of Roosevelt's New Nationalism, such as the Federal Reserve System. Wilson appointed Brandeis to the US Supreme Court in 1916. He worked with Congress to give federal employees worker's compensation, outlawed child labor with the Keating-Owen Act (though this act was ruled unconstitutional in 1918) and passed the Adamson Act, which secured a maximum eight-hour workday for railroad employees. Most important was the Clayton Act of 1914, which largely put the trust issue to rest by spelling out the specific unfair practices that business were not allowed to engage in.
By the end of the Wilson Administration, a significant amount of progressive legislation had been passed, affecting not only economic and constitutional affairs, but farmers, labor, veterans, the environment, and conservation as well. The reform agenda of the New Freedom, however, did not extend as far as Theodore Roosevelt's proposed New Nationalism in relation to the latter's calls for a standard 40-hour work week, minimum wage laws, and a federal system of social insurance. This was arguably a reflection of Wilson's own ideological convictions, who according to Herbert Hoover adhered to the classical liberal principles of Jeffersonian Democracy (although Wilson did champion reforms such as agricultural credits later in his presidency, and called for a living wage in his last State of the Union Address). Despite this, the New Freedom did much to extend the power of the federal government in social and economic affairs, and arguably paved the way for future reform programs such as the New Deal and the Great Society.
Legislation and programs
The 1914 Smith-Lever Act tied vocational education in home economics and agriculture to the land-grant college system. It also led to the support of the federal government to support farm cooperatives, bringing about a system of country agents to assist farmers in conducting more efficient and scientific stock-raising and crop-growing.
The Cotton Warehouse Act (1914) authorized the federal government to license warehouses. The intention of this legislation was to ensure that the better handling of crops “would make warehouse receipts more readily acceptable by banks as collateral for loans.”
The Agricultural Extension Act (1914) authorized federal grants-in-aid to the state agricultural colleges for the purpose of supporting a program of extension work in farm areas.
The Smith-Hughes Vocational Education Act extended the Smith-Lever provisions of 1914 and supported teacher training and other instruction in industrial occupations, home economics, and agriculture.
The Grain Standards Act of 1916 mandated the grading and inspection of grains under federal license.
The LaFollette-Peters Act (1914) mandated an eight-hour workday for most women workers in the District of Columbia.
The Seamen's Act of 1915 aimed to protect merchant seamen. It outlawed their exploitation by officers and ship owners by practices such as indefinite hours, inadequate food, poor wages, and abandonment in overseas ports with back pay owing.
The Adamson Act gave railroad workers on interstate runs an eight-hour workday.
The Clayton Act strengthened anti-trust regulation while exempting agricultural cooperatives and labor unions, thus putting an end to the court’s habitual rulings that boycotts and strikes were “in restraint of trade.”
A National War Labor Board was established, which improved working conditions in factories by insisting on an eight-hour workday, no child labor, and better safety conditions.
A Department of Labor was established (1913), designed to promote the welfare of workers through improving conditions of work, tracking changes in employment-related economic factors, and safeguarding benefits.
A law was passed fixing minimum wages for women and children in the District of Columbia (1918).
The Women's Bureau Act of 1920 established a Women’s Bureau to “formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.”
A Child Labor Tax Law (1919) assessed a 10% tax on the net profits of factories and mines employing children “to offset any competitive advantage employers thereby gained. The legislation introduced a minimum age of 14 for workers in most jobs, and of 16 for mining and night work. The legislation also required documentary proof of age and, like the previous Keating-Owen Act, limited working hours for minors. From 1919 to 1922 (the year when the Supreme Court declare the legislation to be unconstitutional), arguably as a result of, or partly because of, this legislation, the number of working children fell by 50%.
The Civil Service Retirement System was established (1920) to provide pensions to retired civilian federal employees.
The Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1920 (Smith-Fess Act) authorized a joint federal-state vocational rehabilitation program for handicapped civilians.
The Death on the High Seas Act (1920) aimed at compensating the wives of sailors who had lost their lives at sea. The legislation enabled survivors “to recover pecuniary damages, or the lost wages of their relatives on whom they depended upon financially.”
Under the Industry Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1920 (Smith-Bankhead Act), Congress began providing federal funds for cooperation with the states in the vocational rehabilitation of persons disabled in industry.
On the anniversary of the United States’ entry into the war (the 6th of April 1918), the Children’s Bureau, funded with $150,000 from the President’s Defense Appropriation, launched a national health education program called “Children’s Year.” This campaign, which was repeated the following year, provided information “on the feeding and care of babies for their mothers and involved the weighing and measuring of some six million infants.” The effects of the campaign were not temporary, as various states set up child hygiene divisions in their public health departments, and the state of California itself established 22 permanent health centres as a result of the bureau’s initiative. This program led to the postwar passage of the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act.
The Rehabilitation Law of 1919 provided disabled veterans with tuition, books, and a monthly subsistence allowance of between $90 and $145.
The Public Health Service was made directly responsible for the hospitalization of veterans under the War Risk Insurance Act (1919).
The Smith-Sears Vocational Rehabilitation Act (1918) supported programs to help veterans with disabilities return to civilian employment following the end of the First World War.
The Bureau of War Risk Insurance was set up to provide direct assistance to the families of soldiers. By the end of the First World War, the bureau was sending regular checks to 2.1 million families.