Theodore Roosevelt and Others: Defining Which Progressive Leader Impacted American Society the Most

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In the late 1800’s a rise in industrialism transformed American society dramatically with progress in technology, efficiency, and transportation. With this progress there came many benefits - more goods for consumers, more low skilled jobs, and opportunity for the middle class man to rise to success. However, there were also many societal problems hidden below the surface, giving this era the name “The Gilded Age.” There was mistreatment of workers, imbalanced distribution of wealth and government corruption of political machines in urban areas. Though some called this industrial revolution “ress”, a new definition of progress emerged among reformers who wanted to help solve the problems and injustices that came with this time. 

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Grassroots Progressive reformers and the federal government approached these issues with different priorities, and levels of success, mainly focusing on decreasing the power of monopolies, standing up for the unrepresented, and improving conditions for the poor. Monopolies emerged with the industrial era, as some used new strategies to dominate a certain industry. Carnegie controlled the steel Industry while Rockefeller the oil. This control negatively impacted wage workers who were overworked and small businesses that could not compete. To combat these large corporations, the federal government finally stepped in during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. A progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt took measures to reign in the power of trusts as displayed in Doc 1. In this cartoon, Roosevelt is killing a “Bad Trust” bear, likely representing the cartoonist’s point of view that Roosevelt was subjective when making laws to control trust. Woodrow Wilson, another progressive president also combated monopolies with his Clayton Antitrust Act. (Doc 4). Its purpose was to not allow trusts to be discriminatory in pricing. Neither of these president's’ acts were fully successful. Louis Brandeis a reformer lawyer took on cases against trusts including the New England Railroad Company, teaming with Wilson and successfully dissolved it. Though there was some change in the power of railroads and monopolies, corporations continued to dominate the capitalist economy.

Along with trying to decrease the power of the wealthy, reformers also wanted to give more support to the struggling lower classes who lived in cities and worked for these corporations. Economically the 17th Amendment was passed which placed a graduated income tax, which taxed the rich more heavily but helped the common people with more services. The income tax was suggested in Wisconsin by then Governor Robert La Follett in (Doc 3). This autobiography explains his point of view which was to relieve the burden of the poor. This was a successful act and inspired the later federal 17th amendment. The poor were prominent in cities and there were increasing local measures to support them. Reformer, Jane Addams created the Hull House to support the immigrants with more opportunity. Muckrakers such as Jacob Riis and Upton Sinclair exposed the truth behind the lower classes working and living conditions. Riis took photos tenements while Sinclair wrote about meatpacking. The Neill-Reynolds report also exposed health dangers of workers (Doc 2). Its purpose was to explain the dirtiness of the factories in order to evoke change in sanitation. Both these reformers were rather successful, with measure from the federal government addressing these issues and awareness from the public. In cities there were new housing laws passed after uproar in response to “How the Other Half Lives”, and the Food and Drug Administration were created. However, conditions for the poor; continued to be less than ideal, though there were some major changes.

Political, economic, and social reforms were pushed by progressives to help the unrepressed groups such as immigrants, children, women, and African Americans. In the South the blacks were granted full citizenship and voting rights with the 14th and 15th amendments, but they still faced much oppression. There was segregation and there were laws such as grandfather clause that kept them from voting. Progressives opposed this injustice and WEB Dubois fought back. In “The Crisis” (doc 7), he says that blacks must continue to fight because they are still treated unfairly. This book was likely directed at the federal and state governments in all attempt to get them to do more for black equality after World War I. However, there was little success and the progressive presidents including Woodrow Wilson payed no attention to reforms for blacks. Women also had little success and as displayed in (Doc 6) they are “not self-governed”. Though there were aggressive suffragists such as Alice Paul, they did not gain voting rights until after WWI. 

Progressives addressed many problems in society with varying success, however overall there were not enough significant changes. Some reforms did have a major impact and still are present today. The FDA still protects public health and cities are more sanitary. There are always progressive reformers throughout history, whether it is those who are anti-slavery and wanted emancipation before the civil war, or today the achievements in rights for gay marriage. There are many problems in society in any era and progressives of different identities will stand up for change and push the federal government to fix them. 

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