During the late 19th century, findings of rich and varied natural resources, innovations, and rapid industrialization led to the Gilded Age. American writer, Mark Twain, coined this period as such because the nation was “glittering” on the surface but had underlying flaws. The achievements made in the economy overshadowed the corruption and extreme poverty the lower class faced. The Progressive Era intended to solve the problems that the Gilded Age refused to deal with. The Progressive Era was a time that brought important reforms to the American government to direct society to a new and improved lifestyle.The Progressive movement emerged from the efforts of the Greenback Labor Party and the Populist Party. The Progressives were mostly the middle-class city dwellers who grew wary of the unrestrained power of capitalism. They questioned the government’s laissez-faire policies to be outdated in this new industrial age.
The Progressives were composed of many occupations who wanted to correct the injustices of industrialization. Doctors promoted good health and had knowledge to combat epidemics at the time like tuberculosis and cholera. Engineers focused on the city infrastructure, as it was common for buildings to catch on fire or would collapse due to poorly constructed designs. Some of the railroad businessmen thought that progressive reform would be important because their cutthroat competition (setting a lower price to their competition out of business) with each other led to bankruptcy. Thus, they wanted government regulation on the price rates to keep railroads from overcharging the public and to ensure business profits and stability. The bourgeoise women and worker class women formed alliances to attain suffrage and deal with the issues of alcohol addiction and better working conditions. Lawyers helped with the litigation essential for law-making. They could allow the voices of the occupations mentioned to be heard by coercing force of state to bring changes. In addition, a group of photographers and writers called Muckrakers, made an industry out of exposing the corporate maltreatment upon the poor. There were many issues that Progressive reformers faced economically, politically and socially.
During the Gilded Age, big corporations dominated United States’ economy. Some notable leaders of industries include JP Morgan (business financier), Andrew Carnegie (steel magnate) and John D. Rockefeller (oil tycoon). Once they eliminated their competition, they created a monopoly and overcharged their products. In response, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the first federal antitrust law authorizing federal action against any “combination in the form of trusts or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade.” It outlawed restrictions of trade in forms of collusive price fixing, breaking up markets and bid rigging. However, the law was vague, where courts would target trade unions as illegal combinations and allowing corporations to find loopholes to walk away freely. In 1914, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act reinforced the Sherman Antitrust Act by “banning the practices of price discrimination and anti-competitive mergers.” It fixed the flaws that the Sherman Act had by exempting actions of declaring strikes, boycotting, and formation of labor unions. The Panic of 1907 was a financial crisis that was caused by three events happening in a very short time: (1) the Hepburn Act of 1906 which was a federal law that gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to raise their railroad rates and maximize its jurisdiction, (2) the San Francisco Earthquake in 1907 that made the government send many of their funds toward reconstruction of the city, (3) the Bank of England raised their interest for American policy holders.
The events made people to start removing their money from banks and requiring more money from the government. The banking community failed to keep a set amount in their vaults and soon many companies and Wall Street along with them went bankrupt. Since the government did not have its national bank, they turned to J.P. Morgan to help by putting his own assets for security. Morgan compromised with President Theodore Roosevelt to not use the Antitrust laws against him as the collusion needed to save the economy was against the act. The dependence to Morgan showed how powerful private corporations were. In 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act which created a decentralized national bank (consisted of 12 regional banks) intended to replace the inflexible system of using government bonds. It required a set amount for commercial banks to keep at the reserve and set the terms where certain loans can be made to, preventing financial troubles. The Federal Reserve System can now “issue more currency in deflationary times and retire currency in inflationary times, curing inflation and heading off panics.”
While working for Robber Barons like Carnegie and Rockefeller, employees worked in terrible working conditions for long hours and wages so low that the whole family would have to get a job, resulting in more child labor. These reasons gave wage laborers to seek union status and ability to bargain fairly with their managers. When a company refused to bargain is when union members resorted to strikes. Women were even facing unequal treatment than men in terms of pay, and position. Support for this cause led to the case of Muller vs. Oregon ruling that the laws protecting women workers on account they were weaker bodily than men. This wasn’t a form of discrimination, but rather a victory in women’s favor and felt like a stepping-stone to further their goals. The problem with laws was being ineffective, being hidden away in books at a legal depository. Laws should’ve been enforced but the rights of women weren’t upheld. In the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which employed hundreds of women in the garment industry in New York City.
The factory paid no regard for fire safety codes and closed all the exits. In 1911, a fire broke out, and the women were trapped inside as the fire escape broke under the weight of people in panic. Many women fled to the windows in the 8th floor and jumped. In a first-hand account published in the Milwaukee Journal on March 27, 1911, a man saw “from outside the building…[heard a sound] of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk. Thud-dead, thud-dead… Sixty-two thud-deads… … plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.” This would be the worst human disaster New York City would know until the tragic attack on 9/11. It was unfortunate for state legislation to start regulating safety conditions in factories and Progressives demanding for a responsive and efficient government due to the event. If only they were mindful they could’ve prevented the fire. Many Progressive women focused on bettering “the condition of women and child laborers.”
Mary Kenney Sullivan and Leonora O’ Reilly created the Women’s Trade Union League to assist female factory workers and Florence Kelley created the National Consumers League to boycott goods produced with low-paid female and child labor. In terms of politics, Progressives focused on securing democracy and preventing corruption. Political machines were controlling many of the cities and took advantage of immigrants who weren’t educated to gain their votes and trust. One of the notorious political machines was Boss Tweed who gained supporters for the Democratic Party in New York City.  He used the spoils system, where if a party won the election, they would give government jobs to those who supported them, weakening democracy. To combat corruption, the Progressives urged Congress to ratify the 17th amendment in 1913, calling for the direct election of senators by the public instead of state legislatures. The Progressives also pushed for the use of the secret ballot to prevent party machines from pressuring voters and convinced the states to adopt the process of initiative (bills to derive from the people, not lawmakers), referendum (direct vote on the initiative or law proposed by the legislature) and recall (removal of a public official from office).
A social issue they had was protecting the posterity from a life of crime. Before, if a child broke a law, he or she was treated the same as an adult. Therefore, the Progresses advocated for a separate juvenile justice system to help reform their character while they were still young. Many monopolies thrived from the child labor, and Progressivists thought of it as immoral. A solution they came up with was passing the Keating-Owen child labor act, putting a stop to child labor for the time being. Another social problem was overcrowding of cities by the increase in immigrants. This led to cramped spaces, poor living conditions, becoming a safety hazard causing diseases and poverty. One prominent photographer was Jacob Riis, who uncovered the abhorrent settings New York City’s poor faced. His book, How the Other Half Lives, led to the break-up of the slums and “to pass legislation forcing tenement owners to build toilets rather than outside their apartment.”
Another problem was men coping with the misery of poverty by going to the saloons, where they engaged on public drinking and sex with prostitutes, who generally carried venereal diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea. The prostitutes infected their male clients who then infected their wives. Their wages were wasted on liquor and prostitutes and domestic abuse upon wives and children largely attributed to the consumption of alcohol. Progressive women joined the Anti-Saloon League, believed that by banning of saloons, they would solve two birds (banning alcohol and prostitution) with one stone. However, it ultimately led to the passing of the 18th amendment, known as Prohibition, the banning, selling, drinking, and transporting of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.
Reformers believed that the restriction of alcohol would reduce poverty, crime, domestic abuse, strengthen family bonds and promote worker productivity.The Progressive movement fostered many successful changes. Congress passed the following: 16th amendment (federal income tax), one would account for this as becoming today’s biggest source of revenue for the government, 17th amendment (right to directly vote for senators) and the 19th amendment (granted women suffrage). These new rights would be accounted by the growth in democracy. The government focused on safeguarding the lives of consumers. At the time, manufactures of drugs would mislabel their patent medicine, where it would say one thing but do something else, or sometimes, nothing at all. Another reform would stir from the book, The Jungle. Its writer, Upton Sinclair, exposed the general public to the unsanitary practices and dangerous conditions that took place in Chicago’s meat industry plant. Readers were more outraged by descriptions of rotten meat more than by the treatment of the workers. President Roosevelt was disgusted by the horrors found in the book and immediately took action by requesting for investigations on the matter and establish a federal agency called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who would be accounted for safety measures. This followed with Congress passing two consumer protection laws in 1906: The Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. In addition, Roosevelt’s square deal promoted health and safety, improved working condition, and balanced the interests of business, laborers and consumers. The movement was also successful in protecting the environment. They established the National Park Service to take care of the national parks and monuments and passed the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, crediting money from public land sales for irrigation and reclamation use.
There were quite a few failures. Many Americans embraced Prohibition as a remedy for the society’s ills. But, the actual consequence of prohibition was an abomination. When Prohibition took effect in 1920, it was immediately countered by illegal activities like bootlegging (illegal trafficking of liquor) and speakeasies (illegal establishments selling alcohol).  Prohibition stimulated organized crime, murders, and hijacking. The solution they had devised to address the problem of alcohol abuse had instead made the problem even worse. More people were drinking during Prohibition and raised corruption where the police became open to bribes. It worsened with the unexpected side effects of prohibition like deaths and disability caused by bootleg liquor, and the blindness and paralysis that resulted from contaminants inside.
Due to the many medical problems from liquor and widespread crime stemming from prohibition, this movement was a failure. While this period of time led to some political achievements in increasing the democracy of voters, it failed to protect African American’s voting rights. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal. Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist who wrote about the lynching that took place was an action to punish or somewhat control the blacks in the newspaper, Free Speech. Lynching failed to become a federal crime for this period. Booker T. Washington (founder of the Tuskegee Institute) encouraged blacks to learn trade and use their education for gradual equality. Founder of the National Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), W.E.B. Du Bois, disagreed with Washington, believing that Blacks do not need to “earn” their equality, but have it immediately. He advocated that African Americans needed to educate themselves, and detested Washington’s tolerance of “separate but equal.” But the court case proved far superior as the government upheld a literacy test and ignored the “legal segregation, disenfranchisement and racial degradation.”
These groups and leaders helped laid the groundwork for the future of the civil rights movement.As a result, the Progressive Era was an extraordinary time that addressed the social, political, and economical problems needed to be fixed in order to make the United States we know today. It changed the way how governments function. It fixed the imperfect system that would lead the nation to a financial panic. It helped the people with problems involving health, environment and protection from malicious corporate leaders. These accomplishments proved to that if enough people car enough, and take on an active role in society, almost anything is possible. Many efforts, however, were not successful because of the difficulty in trying to mobilize the vast amount of interests in a pluralistic nation, especially toward African American. However, this diversity and complexity continues the progress to rise and fight for what’s right in the first place.