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The Progressive Era
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History of Reform
In the mid 1800s, individuals such as Emerson and Thoreau spoke and wrote in philosophical terms, becoming key players in Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement in the US that drew upon many cultures and religious beliefs. It was a distinctly American movement. We developed an American literature and began to define ourselves in new ways as a new country. As we defined who we were, we wanted to improve ourselves. Throughout the 19th century, Americans had attempted to make their grand experiment as a country even better. They formed groups and worked to address one particular issue over another on a semi consistent basis. From the movement to improve mental health asylums and prisons to the move to end the sale of alcohol, Americans strove to make our community better. Some groups had seen success while others had not. The temperance movement still struggled, but the abolitionist movement to end slavery at least achieved the end of the institution in law.
Changes in the Early 1900s
At the turn of the century some of the same groups were still working. The suffrage movement for women still fought for the right of women to vote. The temperance movement to prohibit the sale of alcohol continued to lobby for legislation as well. The momentum of progressivism was about to gain a great deal of strength. One clear reason for this change could be found in the White House. Teddy Roosevelt, the first progressive president, was on board with these groups and wanted to see improvement as well. He would listen and act. Knowing that the president would listen to concerns and act to see things change inspired many.
The Progressive Era lasts from about 1900-1914. In 1914 everything essentially gets put on hold while World War I takes everyone’s attention. However, within this time frame many Americans organized and some saw real success. The Progressives were an eclectic group. Some wanted to improve education while others wanted to improve housing. Some wanted to improve labor conditions while still others wanted to regulate in some way drugs and alcohol. Several issues would impact women directly including labor laws specifically for women, birth control, prostitution, and even protecting women at these new venues called “the movies”. While the groups differed on the subject of their concern, they agreed on some new ways of dealing with them. This is considered the first modern reform movement. Groups conducted surveys and gathered statistics. They published reports and held conferences. They worked with government leaders and sat on official commissions. They used science to address economic, social, and political concerns.
The US was in many ways behind the times. Most European countries had labor laws already in place. Some even had workman’s compensation laws and some form of government assistance programs in place. The US lagged behind in all of these areas and would not catch up until the Great Depression when times were so tough that the public elected a man who vowed to change all this. Progressive reformers traveled to these European countries and found that Germany had sickness, disability, and accident insurance as early as 1880, Demark followed in 1890. England had workman’s company, old age, and sickness in 1890 and unemployment by 1911. American progressives worked in an era of global research.
What caused the US to fall so far behind? First of all the US held to the ideal that one worked hard on their own to get ahead in life. This combination of a hard work ethic and almost religion would hinder this type of reform. Also, the US government had tried to stay out of the economy. Regulating labor in the way England had with maximum hours and a prohibition on child labor, would violate that hands-off policy. England also had multiple political parties, many European countries did and still do. The US operates with largely a 2 party system which would make these types of reforms harder as well. In addition to the parties, just the way the system is set up in the US makes operating on a local level infinitely easier than working on a national one. It is much easier to get a local law passed than a constitutional amendment. These challenges faced progressive reformers.
Key Areas in Need of Reform
Children in particular faced some key issues. Nothing embarrassed reformers and Americans in general more than seeing children injured on the job as often as occurred. Children cost less to hire though. One reformer in particular, Florence Kelley, tackled this issue head on. Part of the first generation of college educated women, Kelley sought to bring her skills to end child labor. She tried to hit companies in the pocketbook, where it would hurt and force them to listen first. She tried to convince lawyers to file lawsuits against companies when kids were injured. Since no lawyer would take her cases, she then decided to go to law school and after a few years, took the necessary exams and filed the cases herself. She started at the local level in Illinois and successfully got a law passed, only to have it rejected by the courts. Then she turned to the national level joining the National Consumers League, a group who vowed to economically boycott any business that hired children. Her focus remained on economics, but she was able to meet with Teddy Roosevelt in the White House to discuss the topic. Their meeting sparked controversy as Kelley, being female and not even able to vote, appeared to counsel the president on a labor topic. The meeting didn’t exactly end well, she stormed out and slammed the door in his face, but he did at least listen for a little while. Child labor did not end until the Great Depression.
At home and at school, reformers found ample need for change for children. Working class families were usually large and tended to live in filthy tenements that were constructed by their employers. Reformers like Jacob Riis wrote about them in How the Other Half Lives. Teddy when he held office in New York would go with Riis on “nighttime raids” into the slums to see things first hand. Why he did this in the middle of the night, I have no idea, other than that’s just Teddy being Teddy. At school reformers like John Dewey wanted to see the way we teach changes. It also believed the world was in flux and nations could rise and fall (sound familiar?) and he wanted to see that same fluidity in the classroom. He unbolted desks and urged for collaborative learning and hands on approaches. He told teachers to give students four apples to demonstrate that 2 + 2 = 4. One famous quote was “Teach kids, not math”. He rebuked memorization in favor of critical thinking.
For women, they faced some serious issues themselves. In 1911, 146 mostly immigrant and very young women died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. The fire which spread early one Saturday morning in New York, attracted nationwide attention. At 9am many of the upper class and middle class would have a day off and this fire was in a populated area. Onlookers were horrified to see 46 of the women jump to their deaths just feet in front of them. They could hear them screaming inside, while somehow the managers from the 10th floor stood beside them on the street. They later learned management locked the women inside those room and abandoned them inside when the fire started. This graphic scene finally prompted legislation to begin to regulate businesses in terms of safety in the factory. It also made Francis Perkins famous. She was appointed by the state legislature to investigate and her efforts led to the new laws that key legislators like FDR supported. He later made her the first woman ever to hold a cabinet position as Secretary of Labor when he came into office in 1932.
In addition to labor, there were other issues that impacted women such as birth control. Birth control was illegal in the US until the 1960s. A nurse who worked in the working class communities saw first hand how badly knowledge of how to prevent pregnancy was needed. Margaret Sanger spent weeks nursing one woman back to health. The woman had an abortion, at that time performed with knitting needles, and had started to bleed to death. The doctor she worked with was called to the tenement and they were not sure the woman would survive. So, Margaret stayed with her and after 6 weeks, finally had a last visit with the local doctor. The woman all but begged for information on how to prevent pregnancy. She could not bear to watch another child of hers starve to death. Margaret said later she waited patiently to see how the doctor would respond. Apparently all he did was pat her head and told her not to worry about it. In six months they were called back, only this time there was nothing that could be done to save her. Margaret was beyond angry. She took it upon herself to start a magazine called The Woman Rebel. If doctors would not give women the information they needed, she would. As a result of her publishing and mailing out her magazine with the latest scientific information (along with the story as to why she was doing this as I describe above), she was charged with violating obscenity laws. She fled to Europe for a little while as one of America’s most wanted. She came back and faced punishment, but her movement continued on. The American Birth Control Movement she started is now called Planned Parenthood.
Other issues facing women included voting rights. Women finally gained the right to vote after people like Alice Paul went to prison for protesting under President Wilson, after Teddy had left office. Her story of being forced medications and forced fed through a tube officials threaded through her nose sparked some outrage. The suffrage movement that in some ways began in 1848 finally achieved success with the 19th Amendment. The temperance movement was also a success. Another movement founded by women in the 1800s, the WCTU, became the Anti Saloon League after 1900 as more men joined and was able to usher in the dark days of Prohibition in 1920 with the 18th Amendment. Two constitutional amendments were achieved by these reformers. Even though the 18th Amendment came to be known as the most openly violated law in US history.
Other issues in which reformers saw less success involved the new medium of the movies or silent pictures and the move to end prostitution. Reformers in many cases would conduct surveys to get a sense of the environments in which some of the acts occurred. The movies were particularly troubling because even though they were foreign films with foreign language subtitles, young Americans seem to enjoy them. What was even more troubling was that to watch these, the room need to be dark. Americans were used to opera houses where the audience sang along with the actors, threw food at the actors from time to time, and prostitutes conducted business in at least one if not two of the balconies. These movies were in dark rooms where the audience remained quiet. They also tended to be located next to bars. So, Americans saw young unchaperoned people going into a dark room probably going to the tavern next door first. Heavens to Betsy, the birth rate would just skyrocket within a matter of about 9 months after opening! Try as they did with their statistics and concerns the birth rate did not in fact skyrocket and we only need to look to Hollywood to see that the rest is history. In terms of prostitution, a handful maybe of red light districts got knocked out, but that was it. There were a handful of raids, but while almost all social progressives viewed prostitution as the worst of all social evils, not much was really done to end it. A new medical term was coined however, the whorehouse knee. It describes a knee injury when one jumps out of a second story window to evade the police and not get caught in the whorehouse. The term is actually still used today.
The government was in desperate need of reform. Political progressives worked and saw the 17th Amendment passed which calls for the direct election of Senators. The general idea behind all of these reforms with politics and government was the need to make the government more responsive and accountable to the people. In addition to the 17th Amendment, the reform, referendum, and the recall all got passed giving Americans at a state level more control over their government and those that run it. Municipal progressives began bringing in experts to hire, not elect, like a city manager. The City Beautiful Movement built playgrounds and museums.
The Role of the President
Teddy Roosevelt came into office in 1901. No one really knew what to expect. He was intelligent, had written books, and had served the government in a variety of capacities. He was also very popular, the greatest celebrity of the day. However, he would not be controlled. That worried Republicans and to a degree it worried progressives. Labor progressives knew he had said something about shooting all strikers as a way to discourage striking a few years back so they were uncomfortable, but he also worked with Jacob Riis to make housing better. And housing progressives did get some fire codes, etc passed to try to make things better.
Teddy sparked a lot of controversy as president. First of all, he decided to go after big businesses who were violating the Sherman Anti-Trust (monopoly) Act. Not only did he decide to go after them, but he went after the biggest one first, J.P. Morgan. He directed his attorney general to file charges. Morgan attempted to reach out to him saying they could settle any problem without having to go to court, Teddy’s people just needed to get a hold of Morgan’s people and they could work this out. Teddy responded to that with words I don’t use in polite company, but essentially told him to get a lawyer and get ready to go to court. Members of the Republican Party told him they didn’t go after big business to which Teddy told them, yes we do so buckle up. Teddy won this first case, then very publicly gave the attorney general a long list of people to go after next. He did not end monopolies, but he did cause many to change tactics and diversify so the number of monopolies went down.
The book, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair also came out during his presidency. One of the tactics of the progressives was to write fiction in a very detailed and graphic manner to highlight a particular social issue. Sinclair was attempting to highlight the plight of immigrants. He set his story in the meatpacking industry of Chicago where his characters swept off rat feces off of meat before packaging and another character lost a finger that just ended up in the sausage somewhere. There is a climax at one point where a whole guy falls in the grinder. Meat consumption dropped about two weeks after the book came out. Teddy read it as well and was quoted as saying “I can no longer enjoy my breakfast sausage. Something must be done!” He ordered an investigation and learned things were actually worse than in the book. He was able to convince Congress to support the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. When some legislators hinted that they would not support it because they received money from lobbies, he informed them he would go to the newspapers of their constituents and publicize their refusal to vote to approve it. This was not a controversial bill with the American people. They did not want to eat rat parts. It got approved easily. It marked the first time a president used public opinion to force through legislation. In the end, the meatpacking industry started asking for more regulations. They found their smaller competitors couldn’t afford the new safety equipment and went out of business. The Pure Food and Drug Act got passed the same day marking our first drug laws. Before this nothing was regulated and people sold tonics that either had cocaine, large quantities of alcohol, or opium. While they most certainly made people feel better, they did little to relieve underlying conditions. In fact they seemed to add new ones like dependency. The Pure Food and Drug Act attempted to eliminate some of the worst abuses. Cocaine was taken out of Coca Cola for example.
Being a Darwinist, Teddy wanted to see the US conserve its natural resources. He considered the setting aside of 15 million acres of land as nationally protected areas as his greatest domestic achievement. He also appointed Gilbert Pinchot to head his conservation efforts after several interviews and policy discussions.
Roosevelt met with leaders and reformers addressing a whole variety of concerns, from labor issues to violence in college football (they didn’t have safety equipment and an average of 18 guys died on the field every year). One of the more controversial actions involved coal miners. Teddy received reports that coal miners had decided to go on strike. He was told that the next winter would be brutal and without coal he could expect a death toll. This strike would cause the deaths of untold Americans. He called the miners and management to the White House to negotiate. Once in the White House he locked them in a room until they worked out their differences. He was told he could not or should not do this as president. He basically replied that he lived there and could wait as long as necessary. In front of a reporter a Republican legislator told him what he was doing was not constitutional, he replied “Then to hell with the Constitution!” The papers the next day read that the president says to hell with the Constitution. The strike ended with a 10% pay raise for the miners.
Progressivism and Today: Discussion Question
Throughout our history we have attempted to improve upon our society. We attempt to improve upon our government. The progressives at the turn of the century began to organize and applied statistics and scientific data to try to make a difference. Some wrote vivid stories to try to get people to think. Which issue to do think was most significant? What group do you think had the most success? Did we solve some of the major ones? Which ones are still of great concern today? What strategies could we take and use to bring about change today? If you had one issue you would want to see resolved and were able to act, which one would it be and which tactic would you use?