The purpose of this discussion is to reflect on and share the things you have learned in this module.
American Yawp: The Progressive Era "Never in the history of the world was society in so terri�c �ux as it is right now,” Jack London wrote in The Iron Heel, his 1908 dystopian novel in which a corporate oligarchy comes to rule the United States. He wrote, “The swift changes in our industrial system are causing equally swift changes in our religious, political, and social structures. An unseen and fearful revolution is taking place in the �ber and structure of society. One can only dimly feel these things, but they are in the air, now, today."1
Widespread dissatisfaction with new trends in American society spurred the Progressive Era, named for the various progressive movements that attracted various constituencies around various reforms. Americans had many different ideas about how the country’s development should be managed and whose interests required the greatest protection. Reformers sought to clean up politics; Black Americans continued their long struggle for civil rights; women demanded the vote with greater intensity while also demanding a more equal role in society at large; and workers demanded higher wages, safer workplaces, and the union recognition that would guarantee these rights. Whatever their goals, reform became the word of the age, and the sum of their efforts, whatever their ultimate impact or original intentions, gave the era its name.
I. Mobilizing for Reform
In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan caught �re. The doors of the factory had been chained shut to prevent employees from taking unauthorized breaks (the managers who held the keys saved themselves, but left over two hundred women behind). A rickety �re ladder on the side of the building collapsed immediately. Women lined the rooftop and windows of the ten-story building and jumped, landing in a “mangled, bloody pulp.” Life nets held by �remen tore at the impact of the falling bodies. Among the onlookers, “women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.” By the time the �re burned itself out, 71 workers were injured and 146 had died.2
Policemen place the bodies of workers who were burned alive in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist �re into cof�ns. Photographs like this made real the atrocities that could result from unsafe working conditions. March 25, 1911
Policemen place the bodies of workers who were burned alive in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist �re into cof�ns. Photographs like this made real the atrocities
that could result from unsafe working conditions. March 25, 1911. [Public Domain via Library of Congress]
A year before, the Triangle workers had gone on strike demanding union recognition, higher wages, and better safety conditions. Remembering their workers’ “chief value,” the owners of the factory decided that a viable �re escape and unlocked doors were too expensive and called in the city police to break up the strike. After the 1911 �re, reporter Bill Shepherd re�ected, “I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike last year in which the same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.”3 Former Triangle worker and labor organizer Rose Schneiderman said, “ “This is not the �rst time girls have been burned alive in this city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers . . . the life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred! There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if 140-odd are burned to death.”4 After the �re, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were brought up on manslaughter charges. They were acquitted after less than two hours of deliberation. The outcome continued a trend in the industrializing
economy that saw workers’ deaths answered with little punishment of the business owners responsible for such dangerous conditions. But as such tragedies mounted and working and living conditions worsened and inequality grew, it became increasingly dif�cult to develop justi�cations for this new modern order.
Events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist �re convinced many Americans of the need for reform, but the energies of activists were needed to spread a new commitment to political activism and government interference in the economy. Politicians, journalists, novelists, religious leaders, and activists all raised their voices to push Americans toward reform.
Reformers turned to books and mass-circulation magazines to publicize the plight of the nation’s poor and the many corruptions endemic to the new industrial order. Journalists who exposed business practices, poverty, and corruption—labeled by Theodore Roosevelt as “muckrakers”—aroused public demands for reform. Magazines such as McClure’s detailed political corruption and economic malfeasance. The muckrakers con�rmed Americans’ suspicions about runaway wealth and political corruption. Ray Stannard Baker, a journalist whose reports on U.S. Steel exposed the underbelly of the new corporate capitalism, wrote, “I think I can understand now why these exposure articles took such a hold upon the American people. It was because the country, for years, had been swept by the agitation of soap-box orators, prophets crying in the wilderness, and political campaigns based upon charges of corruption and privilege which everyone believed or suspected had some basis of truth, but which were largely unsubstantiated.”5
Journalists shaped popular perceptions of Gilded Age injustice. In 1890, New York City journalist Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, a scathing indictment of living and working conditions in the city’s slums. Riis not only vividly described the squalor he saw, but he also documented it with photography, giving readers an un�inching view of urban poverty. Riis’s book led to housing reform in New York and other cities and helped instill the idea that society bore at least some responsibility for alleviating poverty.6 In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel dramatizing the experiences of a Lithuanian immigrant family who moved to Chicago to work in the stockyards. Although Sinclair intended the novel to reveal the brutal exploitation of labor in the meatpacking industry, and thus to build support for the socialist movement, its major impact was to lay bare the entire process of industrialized food production. The growing invisibility of slaughterhouses and livestock production for urban consumers had enabled unsanitary and unsafe conditions. “The slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors,” wrote Sinclair, “like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.”7
squalid �at with an exhausted and worn mother holding a swaddled infant
Jacob Riis, “Home of an Italian Ragpicker.” 1896. Photo shows squalid �at with an exhausted and worn mother holding a swaddled infant Wikimedia].
Of course, it was not only journalists who raised questions about American society. One of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century, Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Looking Backward, was a national sensation. In it, a man falls asleep in Boston in 1887 and awakens in 2000 to �nd society radically altered. Poverty and disease and competition gave way as new industrial armies cooperated to build a utopia of social harmony and economic prosperity. Bellamy’s vision of a reformed society enthralled readers, inspired hundreds of Bellamy clubs, and pushed many young readers onto the road to reform.8 It led countless Americans to question the realities of American life in the nineteenth century:
“I am aware that you called yourselves free in the nineteenth century. The meaning of the word could not then, however, have been at all what it is at present, or you certainly would not have applied it to a society of which nearly every member was in a position of galling personal dependence upon others as to the very means of life, the poor upon the rich, or employed upon employer, women upon men, children upon parents.”9
But Americans were urged to action not only by books and magazines but also by preachers and theologians, too. Confronted by both the bene�ts and the ravages of industrialization, many Americans asked themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” In 1896, Charles Sheldon, a Congregational minister in Topeka, Kansas, published In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? The novel told the story of Henry Maxwell, a pastor in a small Midwestern town one day confronted by an unemployed migrant who criticized his congregation’s lack of concern for the poor and downtrodden. Moved by the man’s plight, Maxwell preached a series of sermons in which he asked his congregation: “Would it not be true, think you, that if every Christian in America did as Jesus would do, society itself, the business world, yes, the very political system under which our commercial and government activity is carried on, would be so changed that human suffering would be reduced to a minimum?”10 Sheldon’s novel became a best seller, not only because of its story but also because the book’s plot connected with a new movement transforming American religion: the social gospel.
The social gospel emerged within Protestant Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century. It emphasized the need for Christians to be concerned for the salvation of society, and not simply individual souls. Instead of just caring for family or fellow church members, social gospel advocates encouraged Christians to engage society; challenge social, political, and economic structures; and help those less fortunate than themselves. Responding to the developments of the industrial revolution in America and the increasing concentration of people in urban spaces, with its attendant social and economic problems, some social gospelers went so far as to advocate a form of Christian socialism, but all urged Americans to confront the sins of their society.
One of the most notable advocates of the social gospel was Walter Rauschenbusch. After graduating from the Rochester Theological Seminary, in 1886 Rauschenbusch accepted the pastorate of a German Baptist church in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, where he confronted rampant crime and stark poverty, problems not adequately addressed by the political leaders of the city. Rauschenbusch joined with fellow reformers to elect a new mayoral candidate, but he also realized that a new theological framework had to re�ect his interest in society and its problems. He revived Jesus’s phrase, “the Kingdom of God,” claiming that it encompassed every aspect of life and made every part of society a purview of the proper Christian. Like Charles Sheldon’s �ctional Rev. Maxwell, Rauschenbusch believed that every Christian, whether they were a businessperson, a politician, or a stay-at-home parent, should ask themselves what they could to enact the kingdom of God on Earth.11
“The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensi�ed. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls on us for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.”12
Glaring blind spots persisted within the proposals of most social gospel advocates. As men, they often ignored the plight of women, and thus most refused to support women’s suffrage. Many were also silent on the plight of African Americans, Native Americans, and other oppressed minority groups. However, the writings of Rauschenbusch and other social gospel proponents a profound in�uence on twentieth- century American life. Most immediately, they fueled progressive reform. But they also inspired future activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., who envisioned a “beloved community” that resembled Rauschenbusch’s “Kingdom of God.”
II. Women’s Movements
Suffragists campaigned tirelessly for the vote in the �rst two decades of the twentieth century, taking to the streets in public displays like this 1915 pre- election parade in New York City. During this one event, 20,000 women de�ed the gender norms that tried to relegate them to the private sphere and deny them the vote. 1915.
Suffragists campaigned tirelessly for the vote in the �rst two decades of the twentieth century, taking to the streets in public
displays like this 1915 pre-election parade in New York City. During this one event, 20,000 women de�ed the gender norms
that tried to relegate them to the private sphere and deny them the vote. 1915. [Public Domain via Wikimedia]
Reform opened new possibilities for women’s activism in American public life and gave new impetus to the long campaign for women’s suffrage. Much energy for women’s work came from female “clubs,” social organizations devoted to various purposes. Some focused on intellectual development; others emphasized philanthropic activities. Increasingly, these organizations looked outward, to their communities and to the place of women in the larger political sphere.
Women’s clubs �ourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1890s, women formed national women’s club federations. Particularly signi�cant in campaigns for suffrage and women’s rights were the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (formed in New York City in 1890) and the National Association of Colored Women (organized in Washington, D.C., in 1896), both of which were dominated by upper-middle-class, educated, northern women. Few of these organizations were biracial, a legacy of the sometimes uneasy mid-nineteenth-century relationship between socially active African Americans and white women. Rising American prejudice led many white female activists to ban inclusion of their African American sisters. The segregation of Black women into distinct clubs nonetheless still produced vibrant organizations that could promise racial uplift and civil rights for all Black Americans as well as equal rights for women.
Other women worked through churches and moral reform organizations to clean up American life. And still others worked as moral vigilantes. The fearsome Carrie A. Nation, an imposing woman who believed she worked God’s will, won headlines for destroying saloons. In Wichita, Kansas, on December 27, 1900, Nation took a hatchet and broke bottles and bars at the luxurious Carey Hotel. Arrested and charged with causing $3,000 in damages, Nation spent a month in jail before the county dismissed the charges on account of “a delusion to such an extent as to be practically irresponsible.” But Nation’s “hatchetation” drew national attention. Describing herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like,” she continued her assaults, and days later she smashed two more Wichita bars.13
Few women followed in Nation’s footsteps, and many more worked within more reputable organizations. Nation, for instance, had founded a chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), but the organization’s leaders described her as “unwomanly and unchristian.” The WCTU was founded in
1874 as a modest temperance organization devoted to combating the evils of drunkenness. But then, from 1879 to 1898, Frances Willard invigorated the organization by transforming it into a national political organization, embracing a “do everything” policy that adopted any and all reasonable reforms that would improve social welfare and advance women’s rights. Temperance, and then the full prohibition of alcohol, however, always loomed large.
Many American reformers associated alcohol with nearly every social ill. Alcohol was blamed for domestic abuse, poverty, crime, and disease. The 1912 Anti-Saloon League Yearbook, for instance, presented charts indicating comparable increases in alcohol consumption alongside rising divorce rates. The WCTU called alcohol a “home wrecker.” More insidiously, perhaps, reformers also associated alcohol with cities and immigrants, necessarily maligning America’s immigrants, Catholics, and working classes in their crusade against liquor. Still, reformers believed that the abolition of “strong drink” would bring about social progress, obviate the need for prisons and insane asylums, save women and children from domestic abuse, and usher in a more just, progressive society.
Powerful female activists emerged out of the club movement and temperance campaigns. Perhaps no American reformer matched Jane Addams in fame, energy, and innovation. Born in Cedarville, Illinois, in 1860, Addams lost her mother by age two and lived under the attentive care of her father. At seventeen, she left home to attend Rockford Female Seminary. An idealist, Addams sought the means to make the world a better place. She believed that well-educated women of means, such as herself, lacked practical strategies for engaging everyday reform. After four years at Rockford, Addams embarked on a multiyear “grand tour” of Europe. She found herself drawn to English settlement houses, a kind of prototype for social work in which philanthropists embedded themselves among communities and offered services to disadvantaged populations. After visiting London’s Toynbee Hall in 1887, Addams returned to the United States and in 1889 founded Hull House in Chicago with her longtime con�dant and companion Ellen Gates Starr.14
The Settlement … is an experimental effort to aid in the solution of the social and industrial problems which are engendered by the modern conditions of life in a great city. It insists that these problems are not con�ned to any one portion of the city. It is an attempt to relieve, at the same time, the overaccumulation at one end of society and the destitution at the other … It must be grounded in a philosophy whose foundation is on the solidarity of the human race, a philosophy which will not waver when the race happens to be represented by a drunken woman or an idiot boy.15
Hull House workers provided for their neighbors by running a nursery and a kindergarten, administering classes for parents and clubs for children, and organizing social and cultural events for the community. Reformer Florence Kelley, who stayed at Hull House from 1891 to 1899, convinced Addams to move into the realm of social reform.16 Hull House began exposing conditions in local sweatshops and advocating for the organization of workers. She called the conditions caused by urban poverty and industrialization a “social crime.” Hull House workers surveyed their community and produced statistics on poverty, disease, and living conditions. Addams began pressuring politicians. Together Kelley and Addams petitioned legislators to pass antisweatshop legislation that limited the hours of work for women and children to eight per day. Yet Addams was an upper-class white Protestant woman who, like many reformers, refused to embrace more radical policies. While Addams called labor organizing a “social obligation,” she also warned the labor movement against the “constant temptation towards class warfare.” Addams, like many reformers, favored cooperation between rich and poor and bosses and workers, whether cooperation was a realistic possibility or not.17
Addams became a kind of celebrity. In 1912, she became the �rst woman to give a nominating speech at a major party convention when she seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as the Progressive
Party’s candidate for president. Her campaigns for social reform and women’s rights won headlines and her voice became ubiquitous in progressive politics.18
Addams’s advocacy grew beyond domestic concerns. Beginning with her work in the Anti-Imperialist League during the Spanish-American War, Addams increasingly began to see militarism as a drain on resources better spent on social reform. In 1907, she wrote Newer Ideals of Peace, a book that would become for many a philosophical foundation of paci�sm. Addams emerged as a prominent opponent of America’s entry into World War I. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.19
It would be suffrage, ultimately, that would mark the full emergence of women in American public life. Generations of women—and, occasionally, men—had pushed for women’s suffrage. Suffragists’ hard work resulted in slow but encouraging steps forward during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Notable victories were won in the West, where suffragists mobilized large numbers of women and male politicians were open to experimental forms of governance. By 1911, six western states had passed suffrage amendments to their constitutions.
Women protested silently in front of the White House for over two years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Here, women represent their colleges as they picket the White House in support of women’s suffrage. 1917
Women protested silently in front of the White House for over two years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Here, women represent their colleges as they picket the White House in support of women’s suffrage. 1917. [Public Domain
via Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-31799)]
Women’s suffrage was typically entwined with a wide range of reform efforts. Many suffragists argued that women’s votes were necessary to clean up politics and combat social evils. By the 1890s, for example, the WCTU, then the largest women’s organization in America, endorsed suffrage. An alliance of working-class and middle- and upper-class women organized the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903 and campaigned for the vote alongside the National American American Suffrage Association, a leading suffrage organization composed largely of middle- and upper-class women. WTUL members viewed the vote as a way to further their economic interests and to foster a new sense of respect for working-class women. “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist,” said Ruth Schneiderman, a WTUL leader, during a 1912 speech. “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”20
Many suffragists adopted a much crueler message. Some, even outside the South, argued that white women’s votes were necessary to maintain white supremacy. Many white American women argued that enfranchising white upper- and middle-class women would counteract Black voters. These arguments even stretched into international politics. But whether the message advocated gender equality, class politics, or white supremacy, the suffrage campaign was winning.
The �nal push for women’s suffrage came on the eve of World War I. Determined to win the vote, the National American Woman Suffrage Association developed a dual strategy that focused on the passage of state voting rights laws and on the rati�cation of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Meanwhile, a new, more militant, suffrage organization emerged on the scene. Led by Alice Paul, the National Woman’s Party took to the streets to demand voting rights, organizing marches and protests that mobilized thousands of women. Beginning in January 1917, National Woman’s Party members also began to picket the White House, an action that led to the arrest and imprisonment of over 150 women.21
In January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson declared his support for the women’s suffrage amendment, and two years later women’s suffrage became a reality. After the rati�cation of the Nineteenth Amendment, women from all walks of life mobilized to vote. They were driven by the promise of change but also in some cases by their anxieties about the future. Much had changed since their campaign began; the United States was now more industrial than not, increasingly more urban than rural. The activism and activities of these new urban denizens also gave rise to a new American culture.
III. Targeting the Trusts
In one of the de�ning books of the Progressive Era, The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly argued that because “the corrupt politician has usurped too much of the power which should be exercised by the people,” the “millionaire and the trust have appropriated too many of the economic opportunities formerly enjoyed by the people.” Croly and other reformers believed that wealth inequality eroded democracy and reformers had to win back for the people the power usurped by the moneyed trusts. But what exactly were these “trusts,” and why did it suddenly seem so important to reform them?22
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a trust was a monopoly or cartel associated with the large corporations of the Gilded and Progressive Eras who entered into agreements—legal or otherwise —or consolidations to exercise exclusive control over a speci�c product or industry under the control of a single entity. Certain types of monopolies, speci�cally for intellectual property like copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets, are protected under the Constitution “to promote the progress of science and useful arts,” but for powerful entities to control entire national markets was something wholly new, and, for many Americans, wholly unsettling.
Illustration shows a “Standard Oil” storage tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House. The only building not yet within reach of the octopus is the White House— President Teddy Roosevelt had won a reputation as a trust buster.
Illustration shows a “Standard Oil” storage tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and
shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House. The only building
not yet within reach of the octopus is the White House—President Teddy Roosevelt had won a reputation as a trust buster.
Udo Keppler, “Next!” 1904. [Public Domain via Library of Congress (LC-USZCN4-122)]
The rapid industrialization, technological advancement, and urban growth of the 1870s and 1880s triggered major changes in the way businesses structured themselves. The Second Industrial Revolution, made possible by available natural resources, growth in the labor supply through immigration, increasing capital, new legal economic entities, novel production strategies, and a growing national market, was commonly asserted to be the natural product of the federal government’s laissez faire, or “hands off,” economic policy. An unregulated business climate, the argument went, allowed for the growth of major trusts, most notably Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel (later consolidated with other producers as U.S. Steel) and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Each displayed the vertical and horizontal integration strategies common to the new trusts: Carnegie �rst used vertical integration by controlling every phase of business (raw materials, transportation, manufacturing, distribution), and Rockefeller adhered to horizontal integration by buying out competing re�neries. Once dominant in a market, critics alleged, the trusts could arti�cially in�ate prices, bully rivals, and bribe politicians.
Between 1897 and 1904, over four thousand companies were consolidated down into 257 corporate �rms. As one historian wrote, “By 1904 a total of 318 trusts held 40% of US manufacturing assets and boasted a capitalization of $7 billion, seven times bigger than the US national debt.”23 With the twentieth century came the age of monopoly. Mergers and the aggressive business policies of wealthy men such as Carnegie and Rockefeller earned them the epithet robber barons. Their cutthroat sti�ing of economic competition, mistreatment of workers, and corruption of politics sparked an opposition that pushed for regulations to rein in the power of monopolies. The great corporations became a major target of reformers.
Big business, whether in meatpacking, railroads, telegraph lines, oil, or steel, posed new problems for the American legal system. Before the Civil War, most businesses operated in a single state. They might ship goods across state lines or to other countries, but they typically had of�ces and factories in just one state. Individual states naturally regulated industry and commerce. But extensive railroad routes crossed several state lines and new mass-producing corporations operated across the nation, raising questions about where the authority to regulate such practices rested. During the 1870s, many states passed laws to check the growing power of vast new corporations. In the Midwest, farmers formed a network of organizations that were part political pressure group, part social club, and part mutual aid society. Together they pushed for so-called Granger laws that regulated railroads and other new companies. Railroads and others opposed these regulations because they restrained pro�ts and because of the dif�culty of meeting the standards of each state’s separate regulatory laws. In 1877, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld these laws in a series of rulings, �nding in cases such as Munn v. Illinois and Stone v. Wisconsin that railroads and other companies of such size necessarily affected the public interest and could thus be regulat
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