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History, Progressivism and Reform

Ray Stannard Baker, climate favorable, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Progressive reformers

The growth of industry and cities created problems. A small number of people held a large proportion of the nation’s wealth while others fell into poverty. Workers faced long hours, dangerous conditions, poor pay, and an uncertain future. Big business became closely allied with government, and political machines, which offered services in return for votes, controlled some city governments. As the United States entered the 20th century, demand arose to combat these ills.

Progressive reformers sought to remedy the problems created by industrialization and urbanization. To progressives, economic privilege and corrupt politics threatened democracy. Never a cohesive movement, progressivism embraced many types of reform. Progressives strove, variously, to curb corporate power, to end business monopolies, and to wipe out political corruption. They also wanted to democratize electoral procedures, protect working people, and bridge the gap between social classes. Progressives turned to government to achieve their goals. National in scope, progressivism included both Democrats and Republicans. From the 1890s to the 1910s, progressive efforts affected local, state, and national politics. They also left a mark on journalism, academic life, cultural life, and social justice movements.

Crusading journalists helped shape a climate favorable to reform. Known as muckrakers, these journalists revealed to middle class readers the evils of economic privilege, political corruption, and social injustice. Their articles appeared in McClure’s Magazine and other reform periodicals. Some muckrakers focused on corporate abuses. Ida Tarbell, for instance, exposed the activities of the Standard Oil Company. In The Shame of the Cities (1904), Lincoln Steffens dissected corruption in city government. In Following the Color Line (1908), Ray Stannard Baker criticized race relations. Other muckrakers assailed the Senate, railroad practices, insurance companies, and fraud in patent medicine.

Novelists, too, revealed corporate injustices. Theodore Dreiser drew harsh portraits of a type of ruthless businessman in The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). In The Jungle (1906) Socialist Upton Sinclair repelled readers with descriptions of Chicago’s meatpacking plants, and his work led to support for remedial legislation. Leading intellectuals also shaped the progressive mentality. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen attacked the “conspicuous consumption” of the wealthy. Educator John Dewey emphasized a child-centered philosophy of pedagogy, known as progressive education, which affected schoolrooms for three generations.

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