The Progressives

*The problems that the farmers of the late 19th century protested against were not unique to the countryside nor were they the only problems America faced as it entered the 20th century.  The rapidly growing urban areas of the country had their own share of corruption, crime, poverty, and danger.  However, they also had a rising middle class who hoped to put the ideas of the Social Gospel into action. 

*They blamed many urban problems on monopolies, while they blamed other problems on public ignorance or simply on a lack of rational and democratic organisation in government, and many would seek to fix government so that it, in turn, could use its power to fix problems in society. 

*The urban middle classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like the farmers in their Alliances and the working classes in their unions, formed associations to socialise, improve themselves, and work for common goals.  Some were professional organisations like the American Medical Association, American Bar Association, and the National Association of Realtors, but others were charitable groups, such as the YMCA, Salvation Army, and settlement houses such as Hull House or groups with a specific political goal such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union or the National American Woman Suffrage Association.  As these groups demanded social and political progress, they became known as progressives.

*Chatauqua meetings, improved schools, and an aspiring middle class created an increasingly literate public who became more progressive in part due to books and articles written about the problems of the day.  Some were products of the Yellow Press and were deliberately sensationalistic, but there were plenty of sensational things in business and politics to draw readers’ attention to.  Because these writers dealt with some of the dirtiest parts of society, they were eventually called muckrakers, although that was a term of criticism, suggesting that they had no higher focus than the filth they worked with and that they were deliberately stirring up trouble for their own (or their publishers’) profit.

*As early as 1890, Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, one of the first examples of photojournalism.  His book contained pictures and descriptions of the crowded, dirty, and dangerous lives of people living in the slums of New York.  In 1895, he became friends with the police commissioner of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, and helped make him become more interested in urban reform.

*Besides the newspapers of the Yellow Press, national magazines published early investigative journalism.  Some of the most influential were McClure’s, Collier’s, Everybody’s, and Cosmopolitan (published by Hearst) began to do the same.

*Some of the most influential pieces of muckraking journalism were published in McClure’s.  One of the first was a 19-part series by Ida Tarbell published in 1902 and later republished as the book The History of the Standard Oil Company.  Tarbell’s father had worked in the oil industry, and had been ruined by Rockefeller, and after years of writing historical and educational material, she chose to investigate the company that had ruined her father.  Rockefeller was well-known and widely admired at the time, and this exposure of the unsavoury side of his business was shocking to many Americans.  The outrage it generated helped lead to the first serious application of anti-trust laws in America.

*There were many other influential articles and books:

-In 1901, Frank Norris wrote a novel called The Octopus:  A Story of California.  It described the conflict between wheat farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad in California.  It was based on actual events that occurred in southern California in 1880 when farmers and railroad employees fought over the ownership of farmland and seven people were killed.

-In 1902, Lincoln Steffens published articles that would be reprinted as The Shame of the Cities and The Struggle for Self-Government in McClure’s to show the corruption of city government.  He later wrote The Traitor State to condemn the state government of New Jersey.

-In 1906, David Graham Phillips published The Treason of the Senate in Cosmopolitan, exposed corruption in the Senate, particularly focusing on Nelson Aldrich (R-RI).  It contributed to the demand for direct election of senators and the passage of the XVII Amendment in 1907 (although it was not ratified until 1913; the first direct elections of Senators was in 1914).

-In 1906, John Spargo published The Bitter Cry of the Children about the cruelties of child labour in factories and the mines. (excerpt below) 

-In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee (formed in 1904) hired Lewis Hine to photograph children’s working conditions in order to support the case for child labour laws.  In 1916 the Keating-Owen Act outlawed the sale of products of child labour that crossed state lines, but the Supreme Court overturned this in 1918 in Hammer v. Dagenhart.  Congress outlawed child labour again in 1938, and the decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart was overturned in 1941.

-In 1908, Ray Stannard Baker, who was mostly famous for reporting on labour issues, published Following the Color Line to examine racial relations in the US, focusing particularly on lynching.  It included these statistics:  In the sixteen years from 1884 to 1900 the number of persons lynched in the United States was 2,516. Of these 2,080 were in the Southern states and 436 in the North; 1,678 were Negroes and 801 were white men; 2,465 were men and 51 were women.
*Perhaps the most famous of all muckraking works was Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle.  The protagonist was a poor Lithuanian immigrant, and the novel described his hard life in an uncaring capitalist society, the debt into which he sank, and the unpleasant jobs into which he, and eventually all his family, were forced.  The worst of these was a meatpacking plant. 

*The Jungle describing the workings of a meat-packing plant, where diseased cattle and perhaps other meats, completely without government regulation, went into the canned meat that was sent to consumers across America.  He claimed that canned beef from dirty factories had killed more Americans in the Spanish-American War than the Spaniards had.  This disgusted so many Americans that the government was forced to create a board of meat inspectors.
(excerpt below) 

*This led to such public outrage that in 1906 the Meat Inspection Act was passed, regulating the meat-packing industry.

*Also in 1906, the Pure Food and Drugs Act began to regulate not only meat, but other foods as well as medicines and created the Food and Drug administration.

*Descriptions of the unpleasant meat-packing industry and the coal mines, made some people want to improve conditions in general, as did the largest industrial disaster in the history of New York City and one of the worst in American history.

*The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employed many women and girls (alongside some men and boys) in a modern, fireproof building.  On 25 March, 1911 cloth caught on fire.  Many of the doors inside were locked, and the stairwells began to fill with smoke.  The only fire escape on the outside of the building twisted and broke under the weight of the people trying to run down it.  The elevator stopped working, partly because people kept trying to jump down the shaft on top of it to try to escape.  In desperation women began jumping out of the upper windows, which killed 62 of them (sometimes due to crashing through plate glass windows, sometimes because they were already on fire when they jumped).  Other women suffocated or burned alive.  When the building was opened afterwards, skeletons were found hunched over sewing machines.  146 workers died in total.  The owners fled to the roof and survived.  They were sued, but acquitted in criminal court although a civil court required them to pay the victims $75 per person killed.  One of the owners was fined again two years later for again locking the doors of another factory.

*In some states, the Progressives managed to get the workday legally limited to 10 hours, although the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in 1905.

*Other progressive groups demanded prison reform, an end to prostitution in the cities, and either temperance or the complete prohibition of alcohol.  Many states outlawed or strictly limited alcohol in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and in 1919 the XVIII Amendment made prohibition the law of the land across the United States.

*When major politicians, particularly the machine politicians who ran most city and state governments, and elected many Congressmen (who were also often bribed by big business) would not solve the problems that the people (or at least some very vocal people) wanted addressed (or, from another point of view, force middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant values on the working class, immigrants, and Catholics while mostly ignoring the problems of African-Americans), the people concluded that the only solution was more democracy—at least for the Anglo-American middle classes:  literacy tests were sometimes used to keep immigrants from voting (as well as African-Americans and some poor whites in the South).

*Progressives made many demands for government reform:

-The Initiative:  Citizens could propose laws.

-The Referendum:  Citizens could vote on proposed laws.

-The Recall:  Citizens could vote to remove elected officials from office.

-The Australian Ballot (named for the first place to use it):  An official ballot printed at public expense, on which the names of the nominated candidates of all parties and all proposals appear, distributed only at the polling place, and marked in secret.  This was meant to prevent bosses from intimidating workers.  It was adopted for presidential elections between 1884 and 1891, but is still not used for all elections (although it is used for most).

-Direct Primaries:  The people of a state could vote for their party’s candidates.  This was seen as expanding the voice of the people, but some political scientists and party leaders have since seen this as a bad thing, as it has sometimes led to the choice of weak candidates who were popular with a vocal faction of their party (such as Democrat George McGovern in 1972) or of radicals or other outsiders disrupting their party leaders’ choices even if they did not ultimately get the nomination on their own (such as Pat Buchanan hurting George Bush’s re-election chances in 1992 when he challenged him in the Republican primaries, or Bernie Sanders—not even officially a Democrat, but an avowed Socialist—weakening the establishment choice of Hillary Clinton in 2016, or Donald Trump—not even a Republican for most of his life, and not wanted by the Republican establishment—being nominated for the presidency and winning in the same year).  Many of the Founding Fathers would have this as the opposite of what they wanted to do with the electoral college, which was keep the people from having too great a voice, for fear of electing someone who could appeal to people’s base instincts and raw emotions rather than to reason or Republican virtue—it has seemed to lead to candidates appealing to the most motivated (and most radical) members of their own party, because they are the ones most likely to vote in the primaries, thus pushing both parties in more extreme directions than many voters might like. Of course, some people might view this disruption of the party establishment as a good thing, and that was more or less what the progressives wanted (even if they might not have liked some of the candidates chosen by this system).

-Direct Election of Senators:  The people of a state, rather than the state legislatures, could vote for their senators.  Some states did this on their own, and in 1913 the XVII Amendment required it.  Like the direct primary, though some people have worried that this has made the Senate too responsive to popular pressure.

-Women’s Suffrage:  Many people thought that women were naturally more moral than men, it stood to reason that they ought to be able to vote, in order to provide some moral guidance to politics.  Furthermore, most middle-class women did not work, so that had plenty of time, as well as their husbands’ money, with which to campaign for progressive causes.  Women particularly opposed child labour, alcohol, and prostitution, and Women’s Suffrage was opposed by the liquor industry, businesses that employed children, and by traditionalists who believed in separate spheres (some of whom feared that politics would corrupt women).  Many states began allowing women to vote in some or all elections in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1920, the XIX Amendment allowed women to vote in all elections nation-wide.

-City Councils/Commissions:  Small groups of men elected to run a city, rather than a single mayor.  Galveston, Texas was the first city to adopt this, because there was so much work to do in rebuilding after the hurricane of 1900.

-City Managers:  Experts hired to run cities (usually by a city council) because they were good at city management, not because they could win a popularity contest.  This is the most common form of city government in America today.

*In many cities, councils and other leaders took over public utilities (like the water and power boards) in order to make them more efficient and effective, and to keep them out of the hands of bosses, who offered jobs in them to supporters to win or keep their support.
*As more and more progressives voted, they elected local and state leaders across the country:
-Governor Fighting Bob La Follette (R) tried to make Wisconsin a laboratory for progressive reforms, and fought the railroads and the trusts, attempted labour reform, and created some of the first public utilities to ensure their safety and to make sure businessmen did not gouge the public on utility prices.  He would later try (unsuccessfully) to win the Republican nomination for president.

-Hiram Johnson (R) in California attacked the power of the railroads.  California also adopted many progressive reforms, including the initiative, referendum, and recall that they still use today.

-Theodore Roosevelt (R) of New York introduced a tax on corporations and promoted civil service reform.

-Charles Evans Hughes (R) of New York attacked the railroads, coal companies, and insurance companies.  He would later serve on the US Supreme Court and run (unsuccessfully) for president in 1916.

-Woodrow Wilson (D) of New Jersey had been president of Princeton University before the machine politicians chose him to replace the obviously corrupt politicians they had supported.  They expected him to be their puppet, but instead he began reforming the state of New Jersey.

-Ben Hooper (R) of Tennessee supported prohibition, school reform, banking reform, and changed the state’s method of execution from hanging to the more modern, scientific, and (perhaps) humane electric chair.

-Albert H. Roberts (D) of Tennessee oversaw Tennessee’s ratification of the XVIII and XIX Amendments.  He particularly supported Women’s Suffrage, even though that ended his political career, although he was able to perform the marriage of Alvin York and Gracie Williams. 

*The progressives even found national leadership, although not, at first, through the ballot box.  In 1901, Leon Czolgosz, an unemployed son of immigrants who was an anarchist who admired Emma Goldman went to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.  He waited in the receiving line in the Temple of Music to see President McKinley, with a gun in his hand wrapped in a bandage.  When he got to the president, he shot him twice, and would have shot him more but the crowd attacked him—McKinley had to ask the crowd not to beat him to death.

*One bullet was easily found and extracted, but doctors were unable to locate the second bullet. It was feared that the search for the bullet might cause more harm than good. In addition, McKinley appeared to be recovering, so doctors decided to leave the bullet where it was.

*The newly developed X-ray machine was displayed at the fair, but doctors were reluctant to use it on McKinley to search for the bullet because they did not know what side effects it might have on him. The operating room at the exposition's emergency hospital did not have any electric lighting, even though the exteriors of many of the buildings at the extravagant exposition were covered with thousands of light bulbs. The surgeons were unable to operate by candlelight because of the danger created by the flammable ether used to keep the president unconscious, so doctors were forced to use pans instead to reflect sunlight onto the operating table while they treated McKinley's wounds.

*McKinley's doctors believed he would recover, and he convalesced for more than a week in Buffalo at the home of the exposition's director. On the morning of September 12, he felt strong enough to receive his first food orally since the shooting — toast and a small cup of coffee.  However, by afternoon he began to experience discomfort and his condition rapidly worsened. McKinley began to go into shock. At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, 1901, eight days after he was shot, McKinley, who had survived heavy fire on the bloodiest day of the Civil War died from gangrene surrounding his wounds at the age of 58.

*Leon Czolgosz was convicted of murder, executed in an electric chair, and had his body dissolved by acid so that it could never be used as a symbol for anarchists.

*McKinley’s vice-president was a true progressive: former New York assemblyman and governor, New York City police commissioner, US civil service commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, naturalist, author, Harvard graduate, cowboy, and war hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who had been made Vice-President to try to get him out of politics—after all, Vice-Presidents rarely amount to much, and none had been elected president since Martin van Buren in 1836.  He would change America.

John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of the Children (New York: Macmillan, 1906), 163–165

Work in the coal breakers is exceedingly hard and dangerous. Crouched over the chutes, the boys sit hour after hour, picking out the pieces of slate and other refuse from the coal as it rushes past to the washers. From the cramped position they have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed and bent-backed like old men….

The coal is hard, and accidents to the hands, such as cut, broken, or crushed fingers, are common among the boys. Sometimes there is a worse accident: a terrified shriek is heard, and a boy is mangled and torn in the machinery, or disappears in the chute to be picked out later smothered and dead. Clouds of dust fill the breakers and are inhaled by the boys, laying the foundations for asthma and miners' consumption.

I once stood in a breaker for half an hour and tried to do the work a twelve-year-old boy was doing day after day, for ten hours at a stretch, for sixty cents a day.  I tried to pick out the pieces of slate from the hurrying stream of coal, often missing them; my hands were bruised and cut in a few minutes; I was covered from head to foot with coal dust, and for many hours afterwards I was expectorating some of the small particles of anthracite I had swallowed.

I could not do that work and live, but there were boys of ten and twelve years of age doing it for fifty and sixty cents a day. Some of them had never been inside of a school; few of them could read a child’s primer. True, some of them attended the night schools, but after working ten hours in the breaker the educational results from attending school were practically nil….

As I stood in that breaker I thought of the reply of the small boy to Robert Owen. Visiting an English coal mine one day, Owen asked a twelve-year-old lad if he knew God. The boy stared vacantly at his questioner: “God?” he said, “God? No, I don’t. He must work in some other mine.” It was hard to realize amid the danger and din and blackness of that Pennsylvania breaker that such a thing as belief in a great All-good God existed.

From the breakers the boys graduate to the mine depths, where they become door tenders, switch boys, or mule drivers. Here, far below the surface, work is still more dangerous. At fourteen or fifteen the boys assume the same risks as the men, and are surrounded by the same perils. Nor is it in Pennsylvania only that these conditions exist. In the bituminous mines of West Virginia, boys of nine or ten are frequently employed.

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906), Chapter 14.

There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white--it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one-- there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water--and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public's breakfast. Some of it they would make into "smoked" sausage--but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it "special," and for this they would charge two cents more a pound. 

This page last updated 17 August, 2020.
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