The Progressive Era
While this Progressive Era wasn’t ultimately that Progressive nor was it an era, the importance of its successful reforms cannot be understated. Progressivism was a political movement that began in the late 19th century and reached national attention in politics shortly thereafter. Progressives believed that it was the intellectuals in society that were best suited to run the government; the professors, doctors, and lawyers were the ideal leaders of the people. This was so because they were highly experienced in their respective fields, therefore they could apply that knowledge to the greater American government and help it to run in a truly utopian sense. The goal of utopia among the emerging Progressives fostered the belief in greater rights for everyone in society. The best way to achieve this goal was through reformation of the many harsh and biased laws that favored a clear minority of the population in the United States: “Much like romanticism or Victorianism, progressivism is one of those words people frequently use but rarely define with precision. Both at the time and in subsequent histories, a person seemed progressive who supported one or more reforms popular after the turn of the twentieth century. Any political activity that pretended to make the American economic or political system fairer in some way qualified. Progressivism in this context was a blanket term for many political movements.” When considering this definition, it can be said that progressivism began with the frontier activities of Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr and specifically, their founding of the Chicagoan Hull-House for social reform in 1889 as a foundation for youth social movements in other areas of the United States. This was soon bolstered by the appearance of the first “muckrakers”, who sought to expose societal wrongs in cities and corrupt corporate business practices. Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle serve as the best example of muckraking.
Progressives envisioned a role for government as a mediating power against the great power of wealth. At the beginning of the 20th century, many of the reformers sought to correct the imbalance. Women such as Addams also hoped to improve city slum life through programs of self-help. Other reformers attacked corruption in municipal government, forming leagues to defeat city bosses and their vast political devices. Ultimately, better conditions in urban housing, direct democracy, and others cannot be underestimated. This is to the point that even Teddy Roosevelt came to believe in Progressivism and disappointed in his chosen successor Taft’s kowtowing to the trusts that Teddy had broken up during his two terms, ran in the historical 1912 election, and won a greater percentage of the vote as the Bull Moose Party representative, who championed Progressivism and women’s rights. He didn’t win, but the resultant fracturing of the Republican Party lead to the dominance of Woodrow Wilson.
The way in which this Era could actually be thought of as regressive is in how many so-called progressives didn’t seek to address the original sin of America, slavery amid the issue of race relations. While it had officially been abolished following the Civil War and the subsequent Amendments to the Constitution, Jim Crow and the Redeemers of the New South worked following the end of Reconstruction to restore slavery in all but name. The convict leasing system is another example of this crime against race and humanity put into action by those who sought the keep the black race downtrodden.
W.E.B Dubois wanted to address this issue through his work, The Souls of Black Folk, encompassing many of his well-known essays into the subject of black national identity amid American identity. In developing sociological concepts like “double consciousness” and “the Veil”, Du Bois worked to create new schools of thought and study that impact and are pondered by African Americans to this day. Dubois’ specific strategy for uplifting Black America was based on his being born in the Northern state of Massachusetts. Largely building on his knowledge of the subsequent disagreements with Booker T. Washington, Du Bois was also mired by the fundamental disconnect he had with his Southern brothers in arms. Nevertheless, concepts like “The Talented Tenth” were innovative and sought to address black inequities in the South, an area in which Progressivism was strangely silent.
The people who made the most gains from Progressivism were women, due to the suffrage gained from the 19th Amendment, and while their choice of candidates in Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover didn’t do much to ensure the continuance of Progressive ideals, their rights were now set in stone, and that is a victory in itself. The elites and the rich who benefitted from trusts had been on the defensive due to the early actions of Theodore Roosevelt, but the subsequent administration of William Howard Taft did a lot to restore their influence and power.
Those that did not were the everyday folk that spurred on and championed Progressive ideals, as such largely fell by the wayside with the events that were to come. It is ironic that the Progressive reform movement that began with such confidence ultimately ended on a rather sour note. The environment of WWI pushed away progressive reform and replaced it with sedition prosecution and a general repression of freedom in favor of support for the cause of “making the world safe for democracy.” Woodrow Wilson indeed carried progressive ideals into World War I, but those ideals were not to last the full course of the war. At Versailles, Wilson’s Fourteenth Points, with its idiosyncrasies and misleading nature, failed to lead to the lasting peace that world leaders promised their nations as war rationale: “The War to End all Wars”.