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The Progressive Era (1895–1914) for AP U.S. History (page 2)

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 3, 2011

The Goals of Progressives

The fact that many in the progressive movement were from the middle class greatly influenced the goals of progressivism. Progressives wanted to improve the life experienced by members of the lower classes; at the same time, most desired that the nature and pace of this improvement be dictated by them and not the workers themselves. Progressives greatly feared the potential for revolution found in socialist and anarchist writings of the era; they proposed a series of gradual reforms. Progressives, as stated previously, wanted to make existing institutions work better. Factories, they felt, could be changed so that they would be concerned with the quality of life of their workers; governments could be altered so that they would act as protectors of the lower classes.

It should be noted that progressive goals and programs were not universally popular. Progressive programs for the betterment of the poor oftentimes meant that the government would have more control over their lives; many in the lower class were vehemently opposed to this. In addition, progressives wanted to crack down on urban political machines, which in many cases did much to aid the lives and conditions of the lower classes. As a result, the very people whom progressive reforms were designed to help were oftentimes resentful of these reforms.

Historians debate the overall intent of the progressive movement. Some maintain that social reformers of the era wanted to protect Americans from the evils of contemporary society. Others maintain that the real goal of progressivism was to control Americans so that they could be functioning members of that society.

Urban Reforms

Many of the early successes of progressivism were actions taken against urban political machines. Yet again, some reforms supported by progressives put more power in the hands of those machines. Certain "reform mayors," such as Tom Johnson in Cleveland and Mark Fagan in Jersey City, were legitimately interested in improving the living and working conditions of the lower classes and improving education. In cities such as Cleveland, municipal utilities were taken over by the city to provide more efficient service. Some reform mayors also pushed citywide relief programs and established shelters for the homeless.

Other progressive reformers wanted to professionalize the administrations of various cities and to enact measures so that mere "political hacks" could not get municipal jobs. It should be noted that some of these reforms appeared to be antidemocratic in nature. By attacking the system of political machines and ward politics, reformers were attacking a system that had given a degree of assistance and influence to the urban working classes. The new "professionals" who reformers envisioned getting municipals jobs would be almost exclusively from the middle class, the same class as the reformers themselves.

The Progressives at the State Level

It was at the state level that some of the most important political work of the progressives took place. Governors Robert La Follette from Wisconsin and Hiram Johnson from California introduced reforms in their states that would allow citizens to have a more direct role in the political process. These reforms included the following:

  1. The adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment. Finally adopted in 1913, it allowed voters, instead of the state legislatures, to directly elect United States senators.
  2. The adoption of the initiative process. This initiative allowed a citizen to propose a new law. If he or she got enough signatures, the proposed law would appear on the next ballot.
  3. The adoption of the referendum process. Referendum allowed citizens to vote on a law that was being considered for adoption.
  4. The adoption of the recall process, which allowed the voters to remove an elected official from office before his or her term was up.
  5. The adoption of the direct primary, which allowed party members to vote for prospective candidates instead of having them handpicked by the party boss.

Women and Progressivism

Women played a major role in progressivism from the very beginning. In 1899, Florence Kelley founded the National Consumers League, an organization made up largely of women that lobbied at the state and national level for legislation that would protect both women and children at home and in the workplace. Minimum wage laws for women were enacted in various states beginning in 1911; more stringent child labor laws began to be enacted in the states one year later.

Women also played a crucial role in the creation of settlement houses. In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in Chicago, which would become a model for settlement house construction in other cities. Found at Hull House (and at many other centers) were clubs for adults and children, rooms for classes, and a kindergarten. Settlement house workers also gave poor and immigrant women (and their husbands) advice on countless problems that they encountered in the city. Some settlement houses were more successful than others in actually helping lower-class families cope with urban life. Programs at settlement houses were multidimensional, stressing art, music, drama, and dance. Classes in child care, health education, and adult literacy could be found at most settlement houses.

Women differed greatly on how they felt the urban poor could be helped. Some pushed heavily for reforms in the workplace, while others joined organizations such as the AntiSaloon League, whose members felt that alcohol was the major cause for the woes of the lower classes. Still others became deeply involved in the suffrage movement, oftentimes attempting to get lower-class women interested in the vote as well. Women started to get the vote in individual western states beginning with Idaho, Colorado, and Utah in the 1890s. In 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was created by a merger of two woman suffrage groups. It was led in its early years by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In 1916, Alice Paul founded the more radical National Woman's Party. Both organizations would be crucial in the final push for woman's suffrage after World War I.

In addition, during this era, women in public meetings first began to discuss the topic of feminism. The word was first used by a group of women meeting in New York City in 1914. Feminists wanted to remove themselves from the restraints that society had placed on them because they were female. A radical feminist of the time was Margaret Sanger, who as a nurse in New York City observed the lack of knowledge that immigrant women had about the reproductive system. Sanger devoted herself to teaching the poor about birth control and opened the first birth control clinic in the United States.

Some laws were passed in the era to protect working women. In Muller v. Oregon, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1908, it was ruled constitutional to set limits on the number of hours a woman could work. The rationale given for this, which the Court agreed with, was that too much work would interfere with a woman's prime role as a mother.

Reforming the Workplace

Horrible events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire convinced many progressives to push for reforms of safety and health conditions in factories. Progressives lobbied hard for the creation of accident insurance programs for workers in New York and elsewhere. From 1910 to 1917, many states adopted legislation that would help to protect families of those killed or injured in workplace and mine accidents.

Progressives and labor unions oftentimes did not see eye to eye. However, one issue that some progressives and unions did agree on was the need to restrict further European immigration, especially from southeastern Europe. Immigrants were not union supporters, and increased immigration would cause a larger supply of labor, thus driving down wages. By not bringing in more immigrants who were "unlike ourselves," supporters stated that city life and morale in the workplace would improve. To some, opposing immigration was a progressive reform. More than anything, this demonstrated that "progressivism" meant very different things to different people.

The Square Deal of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt's ascending to presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley brought to office a man unafraid to use the power of the government to address the evils of society. In 1902, Roosevelt helped mediate a strike between the United Mine Workers and the coal companies. Roosevelt stated that the agreement was a "Square Deal" for both sides. This term would be used throughout his time in office to emphasize that government intervention could help the plight of ordinary Americans.

Roosevelt was reelected in 1904, and, in 1906, Roosevelt supported legislation that was progressive in nature. He supported the Hepburn Act, which gave teeth to the Interstate Commerce Act, designed to further regulate interstate shippers, and the creation of the pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. The writings of many muckrakers, including Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, highlighted many of the problems of the food industry addressed in these bills.

Roosevelt also used the federal government to aggressively investigate and prosecute illegal trusts and holding companies (both described in Chapter 16). The Sherman Antitrust Act had been in place since 1890, yet neither President Cleveland nor President McKinley had ordered its enforcement on a regular basis. To many Americans, it appeared that a small group of Wall Street bankers controlled the entire American economy (this complaint would be echoed many times in the twentieth century). Roosevelt had the Justice Department sue Standard Oil, the American Tobacco Company, and the Northern Securities Company, a holding company that controlled many American railroads. All were partially broken up as a result of these government actions. By the end of his time in office, Roosevelt had taken on 45 major American corporations. It should be emphasized that Theodore Roosevelt was not antibusiness; however, he did strongly believe that corporations who abused their power should be punished.

Roosevelt also enacted other measures applauded by progressives. In 1905, he created the United States Forest Service, which soon acted to set aside 200 million acres of land for national forests. The Sixteenth Amendment, enacted in 1913, authorized the collection of federal income taxes, which could be collected largely from the wealthy (the income of the federal government had been previously collected from tariffs; progressives argued that to pay for them the prices of goods sold to the working classes were artificially high). In the end, the "Square Deal" was based on the idea of creating a level playing field. Roosevelt was not against trusts; he opposed trusts that were harmful to the economy. He supported Standard Oil, for example, because of the benefits he said it brought to America.

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