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The Progressives

The Progressive Era, a time of social reform in America, aimed to tackle issues like poverty, unsafe working conditions, and big business corruption. Progressives believed in societal improvement through government intervention, but their efforts were often limited to those they deemed worthy. Despite internal contradictions, they achieved significant reforms in sanitation, worker protection, women's rights, and more.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] After the Civil War there were enormous changes in American life. With industrialization, urbanization, and immigration changing the composition of who lived in the United States, where they lived, and what they did for a living. But city living and factory work came with new social problems like poverty and unsafe working and living conditions. The rise of big business had also led to practices that limited competition, like monopolies and price fixing. Starting in the 1890s a number of reformers began to advocate for remedies to these social problems. They were known as the Progressives. This era of reform, which lasted through the 1920s, has come to be known as the Progressive Era. But the difficult thing about the Progressive Era was that these reformers worked on all sorts of different things. There were muckrakers, which were journalists, writers, and photographers who tried to expose corruption or unsanitary factory practices. There were politicians who tried to reign in big businesses and protect consumers. There were conservationists who tried to preserve national parks and wilderness from exploitation. And there many influential female reformers who tried to help women, children, and immigrants achieve better working and living conditions. So clearly Progressives didn't all share the same goals or advocate for the same solutions to problems. How can we even compare the goals and effects of the Progressive reformers when they were so diverse? Let's start by taking a look at some of the goals and achievements of the Progressives. Now, I'm not gonna go into a lot of detail about individual reformers or pieces of legislation here. What I'm interested in doing is taking a birds eye view of the kinds of reforms that Progressives pursued during this time period. First, there were those who advocated for sanitation and consumer protections like Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle exposed the unsanitary conditions in factories that made food products. The outrage that book generated led to the passage of laws like the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Then there were the Progressives who fought for protections for workers. They pushed for an eight hour workday and for safer conditions for workers, along with the right for workers to bargain collectively through unions. Along with those reforms were others aimed at advancing the rights of women and children, including limiting child labor, promoting access to birth control, and granting women the right to vote through the 19th Amendment. Many of the Progressive reformers were interested in reining in the excesses of big business. Politicians, like President Teddy Roosevelt, went after trusts and monopolies for stifling competition and fixing prices. Another avenue of reform was aimed at limiting political corruption, particularly city political machines that were dominated by party bosses. One victory in this arena was the passage of the 17th Amendment, which provided for the popular election of senators. Lastly, there was a push for moral reform to make society more orderly and humane. The major achievement of these reformers was the passage of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale or consumption of alcohol. Okay, so now that we've done a brief survey of what the Progressives were up to, let's think about what aspects these reformers had in common with each other, and where they differed with or contradicted each other. So this might sound a little obvious, but one thing that united the Progressives was that they believed in progress. That is, they thought it was possible to improve society and to make people better human beings. This is worth mentioning just because not everyone felt that this was possible. Many of the opponents of the Progressives saw human nature as fixed and a society with vast inequalities of wealth and opportunity is just an inevitable consequence of industrialization. A second shared belief was that it was the role of government to step in and fix these social problems. This was a big departure from the laissez-faire or hands off approach of the Gilded Age. In that era, attempting to improve sanitation or morality would have been considered work for private charities or voluntary associations to take on. But the Progressives thought that the problems they were trying to solve were too big for that approach. And they sought out the help of local, state, and federal government to implement their measures. They campaigned for laws and constitutional amendments to bring about change. So they really began a debate over whether or to what extent the government should take an active role in the welfare of its citizens that would continue into the Great Depression. But the Progressive Movement was also riddled with divisions and internal contradictions. One of these was around voting rights. The Progressives expanded democracy by winning the right to vote for women, but they also advocated for restricting the vote to who they considered good voters. White, educated, native-born people. They worked to impose literacy tests and residency requirements in the North, and made no effort to challenge Jim Crow Laws preventing African Americans from voting in the South. Progressives were also divided on the issue of immigration. Although a few Progressives championed the rights of immigrants and respect for immigrant's culture like Hull-House founder, Jane Addams, most Progressives thought the only way forward for immigrants was complete assimilation into American culture. They also supported restrictions on the entry of immigrants they considered undesirable, like those from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Mexico. These beliefs around who was fit to vote or to be an American citizen derived from the flawed racial science of the day, which categorized white Anglo-Saxons as the most evolved race, and everyone else falling somewhere along a continuum of less evolved peoples. With the exception of African American activists, like Ida B. Wells, Progressive reformers supported segregation and pretty much turned a blind eye towards the working and living conditions of African Americans. Some Progressives even advocated eugenics, a plan to improve the American gene pool by encouraging native white women to have more babies, and discouraging undesirables from reproducing, sometimes through forced sterilizations. So taking these uniting and dividing factors into consideration what conclusions can we come to about the goals and effects of the Progressive reform movement? I think it's safe to say that the Progressives wanted to improve society and find a remedy for the social problems caused by industrialization and urbanization. And that they wanted to do so through government intervention. But their goals were also limited. They only wanted these improvements for those they deemed worthy to participate in American society. As for how effective their reforms were at solving the problems of industrialization and urbanization, they did succeed in curbing some of the worst problems of corruption, sanitation, and exploitation. But we would also need to look ahead to the '20s and '30s to see how much things really changed. Spoiler alert, this booming era of industry was about to end with a crash.