By the dawn of the twentieth century, many Americans felt the need to change the relationship between government and society and address the growing social and political problems. Like the Populists before them, Progressives believed that unregulated capitalism and the urban boom required stronger government supervision and intervention. Specifically, Progressives wanted to regain control of the government from special interests like the railroads and trusts, while further protecting the rights of organized labor, women, blacks, and consumers in general.
Unlike the Populist movement, which rose from America’s minority groups, Progressives came primarily from the middle class and constituted a majority of Americans in the Republican and Democratic parties. As a result, reform dominated the first decade of the new century.
At the forefront of the reform movement were turn-of-the-century exposé writers dubbed “muckrakers.” These writers published the dirt on corporate and social injustices in books and magazines like McClure’s, Collier’s, and Cosmopolitan. Muckrakers had an unprecedented impact on public opinion and even on the president and Congress. For example, Upton Sinclair’s graphic description of the meatpacking industry in his 1906 novel The Jungle so deeply disgusted President Roosevelt and Congress that they passed the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act the same year, hoping to clean up the industry and protect American consumers. In 1890, Jacob Riis awakened middle-class Americans to the plight of the urban poor in his book How the Other Half Lives. Likewise, Lincoln Steffens published a series of articles titled “The Shame of the Cities” that further exposed big-business corruption.
In addition to operating in the federal government, Progressives also began to challenge industrial and political corruption at the state and local levels. Voters in many cities and states succeeded in their fight for direct primary elections and the secret ballot to eliminate bribes and reduce the power of political machines. Many states passed laws granting voters the power of initiative, or the right to directly propose legislation themselves; the referendum, allowing Americans to vote directly for or against specific laws; and the power to recall corrupt elected officials. Progressive governors like Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, Hiram Johnson of California, and Charles Evans Hughes of New York worked tirelessly to punish grafters, break up uncompetitive monopolies, and regulate public utilities.
An ardent Progressive himself, Roosevelt decided to use his powers to give Americans a “Square Deal” to protect the public interest. He focused his domestic efforts on regulating big business, helping organized labor, protecting consumers, and conserving the nation’s already-dwindling natural resources.
Roosevelt began by launching a campaign to tackle monopolistic trusts that hurt consumers. In 1902, under the auspices of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, he filed a lawsuit against James J. Hill’s and J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Railroad Company. In 1904, the Supreme Court upheld Roosevelt’s suit in the Northern Securities decision, forcing the giant railroad company to disband. Roosevelt subsequently filed similar suits against dozens of other trusts, including the beef trust, the sugar trust, and the harvester trust.