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
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
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
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.
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.