Agitation for Reform
Agitation for Reform
Theodore Roosevelt’s assumption of the presidency in 1901 coincided with the beginning of what became known as the Progressive Era, which lasted roughly until 1917. These years were marked by progressivism, a fervent reform impulse in America promoting social justice and democracy. This movement arose partly in response to the ill effects of industrialization: urban poverty and ruthless business policy, including the exploitation of workers and natural resources. Progressives agitated for far-reaching reform in politics, business, poverty relief, and conservation. Progressives represented a diverse base: farmers, laborers, small-business owners, and many of America’s elite, including esteemed authors, philosophers, and statesmen. On a crusade to rout out corruption in all areas of life, Progressives saw themselves as enhancing the welfare of the entire nation.
Novelists and Muckrakers
Novelists and journalists helped spread the progressive spirit through the nation by exposing the political corruption and corporate immorality that had been the norm during the Industrial Revolution. Known as “muckrakers,” a term coined by Roosevelt to describe their journalistic tactics of “raking the filth” in search of wrongs, these authors and journalists wrote searing accounts of corporate and political evils. Their writings moved the public to demand reform. Among the most notable muckraking exposés:
  • Ida Tarbell’s History of Standard Oil (1904) exposed the ruthless and exploitative practices of Rockefeller’s oil company.
  • Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) exposed the inhumane working environment and unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants.
  • Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities (1904) explored political corruption in local governments.
Through their writings, muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair exposed the dark side of industrialization during the early 1900s, leading to public calls for reform.
Local Government Reform
Political reform on the local level actually began to spread through American cities in the late 1890s, when municipal and state governments passed a slew of progressive laws. These laws included labor laws that established the eight-hour workday and workers’ compensation and restricted child labor. Local governments also attacked private monopolies in gas, water, and electricity by regulating rates and weakening the companies’ political power. Some states, including Wisconsin and California, reformed the statewide election system by developing the direct primary, in which party members rather than the party leadership selected candidates for office.
Social Control: Morality, Immigration, and Eugenics
Many Progressives saw it as their duty to “clean up” America through moral and social reform. Early attempts at moral reform included censorship of movies and attempts to end prostitution. Moral reform peaked with the prohibition movement, which sought the legal abolition of alcohol. Led by the Anti-Saloon League, prohibition gained momentum through the Progressive Era and in 1919 finally succeeded in pushing the Eighteenth Amendment through Congress. This amendment outlawed the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages (see next chapter).
The social reform movement included another, more menacing side. Many reformers, seeing social problems as most prevalent in poor immigrant communities, sought to end immigration. Knowing that immigrants were seldom literate, Congress passed bills requiring literacy tests as a condition for entry to the U.S. in 1896, 1913, 1915, and 1917. The first three were defeated by presidential vetoes, but Congress passed the 1917 bill over the president’s veto.
By far the darkest side of progressive reform was the eugenics movement, centered on the premise that genetic manipulation could reform American society. Many eugenicists hoped to turn the U.S. into an exclusively white and Protestant nation. In 1904, the Carnegie Foundation established a eugenics research center that was dominated by racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant ideology. Such ideology led to calls from some circles for ethnic segregation and the sterilization of “less fit” ethnic groups.
Though many social reformers interested in social control focused on the traditional targets of morality and temperance, some reformers advocated more extreme measures such as immigration restriction and the use of eugenics to eliminate what they saw as undesirable racial elements.
Black Rights
During the Progressive Era, those fighting for the rights of black Americans were torn between two charismatic and intelligent leaders. Booker T. Washington advocated patience, arguing that blacks must first acquire vocational skills and prove their economic worth before hoping to be treated equally. In 1881, Washington had founded what would become Tuskegee University in his efforts to implement this plan. Many northern blacks, however, rejected Washington’s philosophy in favor of the more radical ideas presented by W.E.B. Du Bois, who demanded immediate equal treatment for blacks and their equal access to all intellectual opportunities, not just vocational training.
The two main black leaders of the Progressive Era were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. The former advocated patience and the development of vocational skills. The latter demanded immediate change in the treatment of American blacks.
In 1909, a group of blacks led by W.E.B. Du Bois joined with a group of white reformers to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which called for an end to racial discrimination. The NAACP, along with groups like the National Urban League, attacked Jim Crow laws in the South and the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. These organized efforts led to few actual political or social gains, but they did begin laying the foundation for the future.
Female suffrage, the granting of the right to vote to women, was the primary feminist cause of the Progressive Era. In its early stages, this movement was led by Susan B. Anthony, who retired as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1900. During the early 1900s, the NAWSA served as the point of central control for nationwide grassroots groups that lobbied legislators, held small rallies, and distributed literature. Other suffragists were more aggressive, staging demonstrations and picketing the White House. Nevertheless, women would have to wait until after World War I for the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted them suffrage in 1920.
Women were active beyond the suffrage movement, supporting campaigns for building playgrounds and nurseries, improving conditions for women workers, equalizing women’s wages with those of men, and banning child labor. Feminists also actively pushed for women’s education and birth control.
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