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The Progressive Era of early 20th century America was a riveting age of mass reform motivated by the great social, economic, and political injustices being committed unto the common person. The Pioneers of the progressive movement came from many diverse backgrounds, with equally diverse opinions and solutions to the problems apparent in society. Some progressives worked to better the living conditions of those suffering from the effects of urbanization. One major pioneer in this field was Jane Addams, the founder of the Hull House in Chicago, Illinois. (The American Journey p.519). Other aspects of social reform were politically based, by pushing for more federal regulations in certain industries. An example of this would be Theodore Roosevelt’s firm stance on food quality and inspection in America (After the Fact p.237). Although social and political movements were effective, one of the most prominent movements came from those of religious motivation, such as The Social Gospel Movement (The American Journey p.602). The progressives were able to achieve their goals of social reform by targeting three major pillars of American civilization: common welfare, federal regulation, and religion.
A large portion of the progressive movement sought to improve the lives of the common laborer in the early 20th century. With 30,000 workers killed annually, it became apparent that social reform would be a necessity (Module 2 Power Point slide 22). Jane Addams fought on the forefront in order to improve the lives of workers in urbanized areas by establishing settlement houses, which would provide far better living conditions than the slums from whence they had came. In fact, Jane Addams herself built the first settlement house in America in 1889 in Chicago, Illinois called the Hull House (The American Journey p.519). Nearly a decade later, the progressive movement continued on with ample momentum. Settlement houses provided many with an adequate place to live, but there were still tens of thousands living in the slums of large cities. A tenement would have between four to five floors, sixteen families per floor, with only one bathroom for the entire building (Module 2 power point slide 17). These living conditions were absolutely atrocious, and they had been in such a state since tenements had been established at the start of the industrial revolution. At this time, there were absolutely no housing regulations enforced by the federal government which changed when the New York Tenement House Law was passed in 1901 and established a model housing code for safety and sanitation (The American Journey p. 606 table 21.2). The progressive reforms relating to the common welfare of the people ultimately led to the necessity of federal intervention to ensure health and safety of laborers in the United States.
The rapid boom of technology, mechanization and urbanization of the late 19th and early 20th century had occurred so quickly that the slow moving process of politics had little time or motivation to ensure the safety and health of those working within this society. When Upton Sinclair published his novel, The Jungle, exposing the horrors of the meatpacking industry in 1906, he had finally caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt (After the Fact p.237). Before this point in time, there had been absolutely no regulations of the manufacturing or processing of food in America. With that said, it could be deduced that Sinclair’s novel ultimately led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which regulated the production and sale of food and drug products (The American Journey p.606 table 21.2). Although Sinclair’s novel mostly exposed the terrors of the meat industry, it led to a more scrupulous federal approach to the food and drug industry entirely. It was disgusting methods such as this that led to the need for the government to oversee many regulatory processes of business. Before government intervention, corporation had no one to answer to but themselves, which would lead to unsafe and unethical behaviors over all regardless of who it affected personally or economically. This realization is what led to the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1914, and the purpose of this commission was to oversee business activities in the United States (The American Journey p.606 table 21.2). The laws and acts produced by the United States federal government during the progressive era, finally allotted a certain amount of federal intervention to prohibit social injustice dealt by the hand of corporations. Although federal intervention was absolutely necessary, some progressives believed that society could not reach its full potential without a divine intervention.
Religion played a crucial role in the progressive era, especially since religion could reach such a large population on the U.S. continent. One movement in particular that wept across the nation was the Social Gospel movement, which hoped to introduce religious ethics into industrial relations by appealing to churches to meet their social responsibilities (Module 2 Power point slide 26). By enlisting the resources of the many religious institutions within America, the Social Gospel movement was able to actually be effective. Washington Gladden was one of the leading progressives of religion-motivated reform, and was also a major supporter of the Social Gospel movement, and some of the many reforms he fought for were: shorter work week, abolition of child labor, and factory regulation (Module 2 power point slide 26). One major opponent of social reform were the religiously- conservative fundamentalists who believed that the progressives were enlisting too much change, far too quickly, but it was the actions of the religious reform movement that provided justification for federal intervention (The American Journey p.605). Needless to say, it is apparent that religion ultimately helped the Progressive era gain momentum by thwarting off their largest opposition, the Fundamentalists.
In conclusion, the progressive era would not have had as large of an impact on American society if it had targeted only one area of American civilization. The progressives had to approach society from multiple perspectives in order to achieve the all-around welfare of the American public. By focusing on the common welfare, federal intervention, and religious institutions within the United States, the progressives were able to finally gain momentum and make progress towards achieving their goal of bettering society as a whole.