Bounded by the end of the nineteenth century and the American entry into World War I, the Progressive Era brought dramatic changes to the nation’s economic, political, and social sectors. Progressives included both men and women from various ethnic groups, classes, and occupations who challenged traditional attitudes about the American way of life.
The reformers fought to overcome inefficiencies in government, corrupt political machines, and the inadequate living conditions of the poor. They believed industrialization and urbanization produced an abundance of social problems, including city slums and worker mistreatment by callous corporations. Scores of progressive-minded associations formed throughout the United States to raise concern for the grim issues and to press business and government leaders to address the problems.
The roots of Progressivism date back to the mid to late 1800s, when angry farmers and small business owners formed the Grange and later the Populist Party to confront unfair practices of big business. Progressivism appealed to middle and lower-class Americans who felt helpless against industrial giants like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, whose increasing power influenced politicians and the laws and regulations they sanctioned. Progressives believed that individuals were essentially kind and well intentioned by nature. The root of society’s evils, they preached, was located in the structure of its institutions. Once government and big business were reformed, leaders would be able to focus their efforts on protecting the weaker members of society, such as women, children, the sick, and the poor.
Progressive writers attacked the rich in a succession of books and articles that accused the “bloated trusts” of cultivating corruption and concealing wrongdoing. Henry Demarest Lloyd targeted the questionable conduct of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company in his book Wealth Against Commonwealth, and in How the Other Half Lives, New York Sun reporter Jacob A. Riis documented the rampant disease, filth, and suffering found in New York slums.
After the turn of the century, exposing offensive and immoral behavior became big business. Many magazines, including McClure’s, Cosmopolitan, and Collier’s, instructed their reporters to aggressively uncover scandalous stories. Theodore Roosevelt branded the zealous journalists “muckrakers,” after the character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who was so fixated on raking the muck at his feet that he failed to see the celestial crown. From that time on, the term muckraking became synonymous with mudslinging journalism.
Despite Roosevelt’s admonishment, muckrakers accepted the label as a badge of honor. Circulation for the ten-cent magazines soared. Investigative reporters blanketed the cities to discover the next shocking story. In 1902, New Yorker Lincoln Steffens penned a series of articles for McClure’s titled “The Shame of the Cities,” in which he uncovered a corrupt alliance between “respectable” businessman and city governments. Two years later, McClure’s featured a disturbing exposé of the Standard Oil Company, written by Ida Tarbell, the most prominent woman muckraker.
Social iniquities were also popular subjects for magazines to investigate. While slum conditions generally garnered the most attention, other topics included “white slave” trafficking, industrial accidents, child labor, and the subjugation of blacks. Muckrakers also targeted medicine dealers who advertised unproven claims for their products that often contained high quantities of alcohol and other habit forming drugs. In a 1903 McClure’s editorial, S.S. McClure explained that the investigative reports offered proof that a high percentage of American corporations, employees, and politicians were immoral. “There is no one left,” he wrote, “none but all of us.” The editorial sparked a wave of activity in progressive movements as thousands of readers joined the fight to end corruption and improve living and working conditions for Americans.
Some progressives promoted more radical views to initiate reformation and close the gap between the rich and the middle and lower classes. In 1905, labor leaders Eugene V. Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones organized the Industrial Workers of the World. The union did not hide its anti-capitalistic views, as evidenced by the opening line of its constitution: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”
Radical progressives borrowed “advanced” ideas from prominent European intellectuals, most notably from Sigmund Freud. Although they did not concern themselves with much of his analytical theories, they did pick up on his thoughts about slips of the tongue and sexuality, and promoted a revolution of morals. Radical progressives advocated trial marriages and easy divorces, and pushed for sex education programs and the distribution of information about birth control.
As radical progressives fought to change conservative America, a group of Protestant ministers organized the Social Gospel movement to instill religious ethics into the business world. Congregational minister Washington Gladden started a ministry for working-class neighborhoods and favored sanctions to improve workers’ rights. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister, proclaimed that Christians should endorse social reform to end poverty and labor abuse.
According to the members of the Social Gospel movement, it was the government’s ethical responsibility to improve the living and working conditions in America. Many economists climbed aboard the religious bandwagon to call for state action to produce social progress. Economist Richard T. Ely declared that “industrialization has brought to the front a vast number of social problems whose solution is impossible without the united efforts of church, state, and science.”
During the first decade of the twentieth century, urban populations grew quickly and corruption spread throughout all levels of political institutions. Political machines and dishonest public officials controlled some of the largest cities in the nation. San Francisco lawyer Abe Ruef, who operated one of the most powerful political machines of the era, forced companies to pay substantial bribes to conduct business in the city. For example, a streetcar company once paid $85,000 for approval from the city—actually Ruef—to install overhead trolley lines. Ruef and his associates also collected huge profits from prostitution and illegal liquor license sales.
To attack political corruption, progressives took the direct approach and ran for public office. Successful progressive mayoral candidates included Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones of Toledo; Tom Johnson of Cleveland; Seth Low and later John P. Mitchell of New York; and Hazen S. Pingree of Detroit. The city reformers changed the urban political institutions to combat the corrupt political machines. While some cities received more freedom from state administrations to deal with problems at local levels, others created special bureaus to conduct nonpartisan investigations.
Many communities assigned the power and responsibility to coordinate city activities to small elected commissions. From this arrangement came the city manager system, first used in Galveston, Texas, which involved the hiring of a professional manager to oversee city affairs on a nonpartisan basis. Under the direction of progressive leaders, some cities also regained control over the power and water systems and operated them as departments of the city government.
The success of progressive leadership in the city encouraged followers to run for state office. In Wisconsin, perhaps the most progressive state during the era, Governor Robert La Follette challenged corrupt corporations and political machines. Before his election as governor, La Follette served three terms as a progressive Republican congressman. During that time he developed a reputation as an uncompromising enemy of corruption.
La Follette reasoned that accurate information was the key to ethical behavior. If people are well informed, they will choose to do the right thing. Democracy, he claimed, was based upon knowledge, which is why political machines relied on misrepresentation and fraud to gain control. La Follette constantly clashed with the more conservative Republicans in his state, and was accused of oversimplifying the truth to voters, but he remained dedicated to keeping government honest.
During his tenure as governor, La Follette established direct primaries, railroad regulations, state income tax, and workers’ compensation. To create a more efficient government, he developed the Legislative Reference Bureau, which was staffed by experienced economic and political science professors from the University of Wisconsin. The Bureau established a legislative reference library to help lawmakers draft bills. The success of the Wisconsin Idea, as it became known, swept into other states as progressive-minded politicians, both Republican and Democrat, looked for methods to make government more responsive to the needs of the population.
Progressivism gained national attention when Theodore Roosevelt took his place in the White House. The adventurous president who loved to box, wrestle, hunt, and chase rustlers embraced many of the movement’s ideals. He believed that the president should set the agenda for Congress, rather than just lead the executive departments. He promoted efficiency and expertise and staffed the growing federal government with highly capable professionals.
Roosevelt’s reputation as a “trust buster” gained momentum when he attacked the Northern Securities Company, financial giant J.P. Morgan’s attempt to build a railroad monopoly. The Supreme Court supported his antitrust suit and ordered Northern Securities Company to be dissolved. By taming the powerful corporations, improving living and working conditions, and creating more educational opportunities, progressives in all levels of government hoped to transform society and establish what they called “social justice.”
During the Progressive Era, lawmakers at both state and federal levels introduced laws and regulations to protect citizens at home and work. Although many states had already passed social-minded legislation before the Progressive Movement, many of the laws were poorly written and could not be adequately enforced. For example, in 1874, Massachusetts restricted women and children workers to 10-hour workdays. In 1882, New York attacked the sweatshops by prohibiting cigar manufacturing on property occupied as a residence. And in 1901, New York enacted a tenement house law that required better ventilation, fireproofing, and plumbing for each apartment. However, powerful manufacturers and landlords hired high-priced lawyers to find holes in the bills and defeated the regulations.
Many conservative judges believed that the new social laws were too strict and used the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to overturn the rulings. The Fourteenth Amendment, enacted to protect the civil rights of blacks, forbid states to deprive any person of life, liberty, and property without due process of the law. In the 1905 Lochner v. New York legal case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that an act regulating New York bakers to ten-hour days deprived bakers the liberty of working as long as they desired.
Undeterred by the rulings, progressives continued to use the law to reform business. Inspired by the National Child Labor Committee, which was organized in 1904, progressives pushed for laws banning the employment of young children and restricting the hours of older ones. However, when Congress passed a federal child labor law, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
After the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster of 1911, in which a fire in a New York factory killed 150 women because there were no fire escapes, state lawmakers enacted stricter regulations to protect workers from on-the-job accidents. Before the tragedy, most workers accepted the risk of accidents with no entitlement to compensation if their employers were negligent. In the years following the catastrophe, state leaders gradually adopted accident insurance plans and granted pensions to widows with children.
During the nineteenth century, the vast majority of society felt that the woman’s place was in the home. Progressive females avoided questioning their positions as wives and mothers, and instead considered activism as an extension of their more traditional roles. Many women campaigned for improved working conditions for children and females.
In 1908, Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League persuaded attorney Louis D. Brandeis to participate in the Muller v. Oregon lawsuit, which challenged states’ rights to limit women laundry workers to ten hours a day. Owner Curt Muller contested the law when his laundry business was fined because a supervisor asked a female employee to work after hours. Brandeis argued that the law to restrict work was constitutional because it protected women’s weaker bodies from the harsh effects of factory labor. The Supreme Court agreed with Brandeis and Muller was forced to pay his $10 fine.
The drive to create more complete consumer protection laws gained support when New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson pushed for a public utility commission to evaluate railroad, gas, electric, and telephone companies. The group was granted the power to regulate rates and standards for these businesses. During this time, between 1911 and 1913, the legislature also enacted storage and food inspection laws to protect consumers’ health. Congress then passed a series of bills to give states more control over corporations. Progressives believed that the balance of power was finally tilting in the people’s favor.
As the Progressive Movement strengthened its challenge to conventional attitudes in America, feminists used the platform to gain support for woman suffrage. In 1890, two major women’s groups—American Woman’s Suffrage Association and National Woman’s Suffrage Association—joined forces to create the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The group looked to gain support for many issues of concern to women, but concentrated on a state-by-state approach to win voting rights. Lawmakers in Wyoming were the first to give women voting privileges, and by 1896, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho followed suit. After the turn of the century, leaders of a new association, the Congressional Union, took the campaign to the national level.
On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, women from across America paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue with signs and fliers petitioning for the right to vote in national elections. Scores of marchers rolled elaborate floats, each one representing a country that already allowed women to vote. While thousands of spectators cheered, others destroyed the floats and blocked the women’s passage to the White House. Troops were eventually called to restore order and allow the parade to continue.
Ironically, while Wilson promoted progressive ideals in his bid for the presidency, he refused to endorse a woman’s right to vote. For the next several years, groups worked continuously to build support for woman suffrage. Policymakers in state after state passed regulations to approve voting rights for women, but on a national level, the status remained the same. Finally, in 1919, the resolution in favor of the Woman Suffrage (Nineteenth) Amendment was approved by Congress, allowing women to vote beginning in 1920.
Like the women’s fight for equal rights during the Progressive Era, the black population in the United States campaigned for an end to segregation, improved living and working conditions, and better educational resources. Since before the Civil War, racial segregation restricted blacks to separate facilities that frequently did not equal those used by whites. Railways, restaurants, hotels, prisons, and hospitals all incorporated segregation policies. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Plessy v. Ferguson that Louisiana’s railroad segregation law did not violate the Constitution because equal accommodations were provided. The decision, however, never defined exactly what “equal” meant.
The Court’s ruling allowed states to enact a series of segregation laws—collectively known as the Jim Crow laws after a blackface caricature performed by minstrel performer Thomas Rice—that pushed blacks out of the “white man’s world.” The regulations kept blacks from joining trade unions, which forced them to take low skilled, low paying jobs, and further reduced their opportunities to secure an education and a better standard of housing.
Members of the black community did what they could to improve conditions. Women established settlement houses and day care centers, and progressive groups challenged discriminatory policies and called for equal justice. However, as news of the movement spread throughout the country, racists incited anti-black violence. Race riots broke out in New York, and lynching became commonplace, used primarily by extremists in the South to control black agitators. In 1892, black journalist Ida B. Wells organized a protest against the lynching of three successful black businessmen in Memphis. When angry whites threatened her life, she moved north and continued to speak out against lynching.
One of the most well known supporters of the black movement was Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery in 1856 and founded Tuskegee Institute in 1881. A persuasive speaker and rational-thinking leader, Washington called for patience and accommodation to end racial segregation. Rather than force whites to accept blacks, he reasoned that education and self-improvement would help African-Americans climb the social and economic ladders.
Washington became one of the most powerful men in America, influencing presidents, business leaders, and philanthropists. In 1895, Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech instructed African-Americans to ignore racial slurs and comments about black inferiority, and instead build their personal dignity and self worth. However, as Washington preached for peaceful and harmonious behavior to win support for the black cause, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois believed confrontation was the solution.
Du Bois, the first black to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard and an experienced historian, sociologist, and poet, called Washington an “Uncle Tom” who partnered with whites to suppress the black movement. While Washington accepted the “separate but equal” policies so blacks could at least access facilities, Du Bois demanded complete equality for blacks.In 1905, Du Bois met with other black activists in Niagara Falls, Canada, to create plans to promote equality for blacks. In 1910, this Niagara Movement founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois served as the director of publicity and research for the organization. By 1918, the NAACP counted more than 44,000 members in 165 branches. Du Bois continued to fight for racial justice until he renounced his American citizenship in 1961 at the age of 93. He died two years later in the African state of Ghana.
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