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The Progressive Era is considered as the combination and interaction of a variety of different ideas and activities that emerged during the years of 1890 and 1920 as a consequence for needed new reforms by pressure groups in responding to various social, political, and economic problems of the time. This is the period in the history of the United States where the Progressive Movement fought for better social reform issues such as women’s suffrage, education, people’s working conditions, unionization, urbanization, industrialization, and child labor. Bribery and corruption were underlying forces that drove many of these reformation efforts, same as the need for new perspectives into issues related to monopolies, corporative abuses, and unfair business practices. There was a turmoil of social issues and problems needing to be addressed; Progressives were going to be the ones challenging the status quo of the time, and work hard to promote radical changes which would later shape the America we currently know.
The Progressive Era arose in response to all the problems and issues resulting from industrialization. This phenomenon brought new social and economic standards for America, one not based on fairness and equality, but on dishonest competition as the baseline for corporate business activities. One of these causes was unfair business practices, elimination of competition, and attain profits at any price. Employees of these corporations were subjected to exploitation and inhumane working and living conditions, being immigrants one of the representative minority groups was tremendously affected by these labor conditions. Besides these corporate challenges, America was also facing substantial political corruption, where politicians would get enriched at the expense of the lower working classes. The gap between the rich and the poor was getting more extensive, a situation that was not tolerable anymore. As a result, the Progressive movement sought to encompass a revolutionary movement that would address all the economic, political and social issues of the nation, one that would propose reforms against unfair private industry, create laws and regulate protection for labor workers and consumers, eliminate generalized corruption in politics and government, as well as in the corporate arena. The core motto of this era was to bring a better quality of life for all the people who live in society and disseminate equality among them while improving all different areas of such a society.
The philosophy behind the Progressive movement was based on two significant assumptions: improvement of human nature and the power of individuals to transform society. Both perspectives took into consideration the importance of the individual as an essential and vital element in society as well as his/her rights as a human being. However, ideology went much further, by identifying the power of these individuals to improve and shape society as a whole. In regards to the improvement of human nature, proposals centered on the application of regulations, incentives, and punishments. Likewise, a second assumption was centered on the role of the federal government as an engine to empower individuals and citizens as an engine to transform society. There is quite a significant focus on the individual, his/her capacities, and an entirely different perspective of the value of a person in society and as part of a nation. These two assumptions were not shared by thepolitical conservatives of the time, who tended to believe human nature was not able to be changed, and the government’s role was to remain limited in size and scope.
Much of the work Progressives focused on was passed into law. From a political perspective, three Presidents had significant activity and helped shape and endure the Progressive efforts by means of passing essential laws protected the primary objectives of the movement. President Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson were directly associated and leaders of the Progressive Era of the time.
Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909) and very rapidly, tapped into the widespread fervor for reform. His administration layered the basis for critical public antitrust cases against large companies, finding the right balance between companies and its employees, as well as to prize an individual not because of his/her class, but because of his/her character. Some other important improvements under his administration were efforts toward protecting the environment and conservationism, inauguring many National Parks, and restricting private development on government lands. Finally, many reforms were tailored to consumer protection, which included the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. These significant focuses would later be described as Roosevelt’s Three Cs: Corporations (control for the corporations), Consumers (laws to support them), and Conservation (protection of natural landscapes and natural sceneries). Even though he voluntarily stepped down from office in 1909, he would later run again for elections but was lost the campaign. He remains a legendary figure in American political history.
William Howard Taft was the next President who was also considered a leader of the Progressive Era during 1909 and 1919. His presidency was very focused on the corporate world and reforming business practices and its public demands for change. He led and promoted a high number of trust-busting suits, the regulation of transportation costs through the Interstate Commerce Commission, the passage of two constitutional amendments, and the use of dollar diplomacy to stimulate trade with Latin America. Another important reform he led was to motivate black people to get educated and insert into the economy by creating their own companies and businesses. Even though Taft was not as popular a Progressive as Roosevelt, especially after giving out some forest and mining lands to the public, an act that angered conservationists, he did pass some laws and did plenty of progressive works that tremendously shaped the American nation as we know it today.
Woodrow Wilson was another progressive President who was elected in 1913 and run presidency until 1921 and was considered as the last President of the Progressive Era. Wilson’s program was known as the “New Freedom,” and became an important slogan for all his tenure and campaign. Wilson believed the government’s role was to create and set a new level playing field, where individual energy and business competition would regulate American lives and stop bigger companies to get involved. His solution for the monopoly was antitrust prosecution and break-up. Some of his significant accomplishments were the Federal Trade Act in 1914, a Federal Trade Commission to investigate unfair and illegal business practices. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 declared certain types of businesses as unlawful, legalized unions, legalized labor strikes, and boycotts. He was also in charge of the Banking Reform and its ability to control the amount of currency in circulation, as well as created the Federal Reserve System, as the institution to print and coin money as well as to set interest rates. Also, he also created the Federal Farm Loan Act, with the objective to support farmers with loans and incentives to improve this sector of the population. A significant accomplishment was the institution of a Federal Income Tax through the 16th amendment, making legal for Federal Government to tax income in 1913 (since tariffs were gone or reduced before that time, this was the best way for the government to raise money). In the end, however, Wilson’s Presidency was overtaken by foreign issues, mainly World War I, which led to the end of the Progressive Era.
Besides political leaders, there were a good number of non-political influencers of the Progressive Era had a meaningful impact on the American nation as well. One of the first ones was Herbert Croly, whose principal focus was on the expansion of the democratic nature of America to the total population, proposing more control for the people through their government. In this respect, he published The Promise of American Life in 1909. In the book, Croly argued for a planned economy, increase focus and efforts on education, and the creation of a society based on universal collaboration. The book influenced the political views of all the Progressive Era Presidents we have already reviewed.
Frederick Winslow Taylor was a mechanical engineer who was famous due to his thesis on improving overall efficiency in business. His work called The Principles of Scientific Management was a very influential piece at the time and based his core thesis on the simplification of labor/business activities by breaking them into simple tasks any employee can make without specific training. Also, these roles could be easily interchanged among workers. This was the founding element of what was called assembly lines, being Henry Ford the first one to apply this proposal into practice in 1913. Taylor’s ideas were iconic of the Progressive Era and instrumental to future modes of corporation’s efficiencies.
In regards to social reformers, we have many distinguished representatives of this era. One of the most influential progressive reformers in the social arena was Jane Addams. She was the leader of the extension of suffrage to women; before, women were not able to vote and they were excluded from having an actual say on the decisions of the government and nation. She also had a crucial role in the peace movement, work led her to receive a Nobel Peace Price in 1931 tailored to international policy and peace.
Another prominent figure was Jacob Riis, who was a journalist and social reformer as well. He dedicated much of his time to document social unfairness and all social classes division in New York, helping expose this gap between to entire population via media. One example of his works was How the Other Half Lives, where publicly he wrote and presented these differences to promote awareness to all populations and start changing people’s perspectives. He also investigated corruption in politics, creating the basis for “muckraking,” which was an investigative journalism tendency investigated different social issues such as corruption in politics, monopolies, labor exploitation, and socio-economic gaps within communities and overall society. The objective of these “muckrakers” was to ventilate all these issues publicly and get the attention of public opinion on these topics of common interest. President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term ‘muckrakers’ based on a literary character who was so busy cleaning and raking up the muck and dirt and was never able to see anything else around him, a term with a negative connotation. Some of the most representatives so-called “muckrakers” were, in addition to Riis, was Lincoln Stephens (The Shame of Cities), Ida Tarbell (History of the Standard Oil Company), and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle).
Other important social reformers were W.E.B. Du Bois, Eugene Debs, Grace Abbott, and Booker T. Washington. Du Bois was a very influential African-American activist who dedicated his career in fighting for the rights of blacks and brings equality between black and whites. Even though there were not unique and significant advances made during this time and Du Bois for radical or specific changes, his effort laid the foundation for the NAACP and future rights movement. Another Progressive was Eugene Debs, who was a Trade Union Leader and five times Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. He supported trade union activity and opposed the First World War. Another Progressive was Grace Abbott, who was an American social worker who campaigned for improvements in labor protection. She concentrated very much on the welfare of children and immigrants. In regards to Booker T. Washington, he was an author, orator, and an adviser to the presidents Roosevelt and Taft. He was considered the leader of African-Americans and fought for the improvement of education and overall living standards for black Americans.
There were also some Progressives that focused on religious efforts and these groups dedicated their activities to have churches improve the conditions for the workers and the poor. Many religious organizations like the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) and YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) were created, all with the objective of helping newcomers adjust to life in the big cities and help them integrate into their new communities. These religious organizations would provide food, clothing, and housing to those in need.
It is through the eyes of these essential influencers and activists of the Progressive Era that we can understand all the work done in many different aspects of the society of the time, activities we still use in our current modern era. Among some of the examples of reformers we have reviewed already, we can identify some of the critical elements for which they worked and strive for. First, we can locate anti-corruption as the primary driver for these reformers, which was a significant problem in the American politics of the time, where local bosses would be controlling the crucial jobs strategically to maintain power. We also have labor market reforms, where Progressives sought to reform working conditions (this would include aspects of health and safety), as well as the right to form unions and better pay for employees. The anti-trust activities were also essential for these reformers, were already established monopolies were controlling and protecting the nation, and where a few companies will control the entire market. Some Progressives passed laws that would eliminate monopolistic companies and will put in pace anti-trust legislation to protect consumers and help alleviate better corporation practices and give the opportunity to other companies to grow as well.
One of the most important achievements of the Progressive Era was the extension of suffrage to women. Even though efforts could have started way before the Progressive Era, it was this time in history in which it got materialized. It was through the Nineteenth Amendment that America allowed women the right to vote, an activity that changed the course of history and provide more equality and liberty to women. It was also a starting point for future additional women’s rights laws and amendments that would continue to influence and keep closing gaps between men and women.
Modernization was another crucial, essential element for Progressive reformers: they would continuously search for the knowledge and implementation of new scientific and business methods to overturn outdated customs and improve efficiency. Civil rights were to be also developed, especially those conditions of the black Americans, but the results were not successful in this arena. Lastly, the theme of prohibition was also a significant topic for Progressive reformers. Many of them supported the banning of alcohol prohibition. One of their motivations was the hope it would reduce the economic power of salon owners, where people will go to drink, and often exercise threatening influence into people going to those places for drinking.
Among some of the Progressive Era achievements, we have the creation of the National Child Labor Committee, a progressive organization formed in 1904 to promote laws restricting the use of child labor. The National Labor Union was created and founded by William Sylvis, who implanted the 8-hour workday schedule, the federal department of labor, did reforms to banking, immigration restrictions, and the increase of wages. The women’s Christian Temperance Movement was the organization whose members visited schools to help and educate children and provide guidance within the Christian parameters to kids. On the other hand, the National Conservation Commission was created to achieve more efficient and responsible management of the nation’s resources. On the other hand, the Federal Trade Commission was established to preserve competition by preventing unfair business practices and investigated lawsuits and complaints against the organizations.
Although Progressivism brought essential achievements and progress to the government, establishing a better and more equality battlefield for corporations, increasing political reach to all citizens, the most prominent challenge, and failure was around the intense segregation and discrimination against African Americans. Even though all citizens were to receive the same protections and receive equal benefits, they must do it in a segregated way, with separate facilities for each race. The truth was those reserved facilities for African Americans were not as excellent as the ones reserved for whites. For example, regarding public educational funding, African-American schools would receive less funding per student in comparison with close by white schools. The segregation effect was very well noticed in the educational arena, and schools, where black students would attend schools were nearly all black. These differences would also remain in topics related to voting and limiting them from registering to vote. These discriminatory practices would not be outlawed until the 1950s and later. Racism was an element underlined many of the Progressive reform efforts, one that did not pay too much attention to improving the lives of African Americans and other minorities in the nation. Additionally, the Progressive Era was characterized by loose, multiple, and contradictory goals would difficult the activities and efforts of reformers and any times would put leaders against one another, most drastically in the Republican Party. For example, Progressive national leaders such as Roosevelt argued for increased federal regulation to coordinate important business practices while others, such as Wilson, promised to legislate for open competition. At the local, municipal, and state levels, various Progressives advocated for disparate reforms whose concerns ranged as wide as prisons, education, government reorganization, public improvement, prohibition, female suffrage, birth control, improved working conditions, labor, and child labor. Although significant advancements were made in social justice and reform on a case-by-case basis, there was little local effort to coordinate reformers on a comprehensive platform of issues.
We have been able to conceptualize what the Progressive Era was regarding the most representative reformers of that time, both political and non-political figures. It is through their work and activities that we can understand the status-quo of the nation at that time and the efforts that these reformists put in place to overcome some essential elements in society that screamed for a change. By understanding their lives, their motifs, and their work, we can understand what the Progressive Era was about and all the work that was done to fix many of the issues that society was going through. There are many laws, institutions, organisms, and organizations created at that time that still in effect at present. All the work executed by the Progressives laid down a new beginning for America, one that was able to correct and adjust many of the social and political phenomena of the time. It would be interesting to note which of those elements from the Pre-Progressive Era are now in place in our current and modern society. Are there any important elements that could deserve a reform in our contemporary society? One should take a look at current issues with Immigrations, education access, and improvements, international policy, natural resources management, corporation’s own agendas, pharmaceutical emporiums, consumer issues, among others, and be able to identify the perfect conditions for another Progressive reform in our nation, one that could be trying to address not only issues at the national level but one that encompasses the entire globe due to the interrelation among countries and dependencies. It would be fascinating to try to identify those conditions in our current era and try to find new opportunities for change and improvement, taking into consideration past lessons history has provided to us.