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Progressive reforms in 1901-1917

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Although the Progressive movement is usually seen as a great achievement in the history of American development, some feel that the Progressives failed to comply with the standards of equality and justice they had set out to create. The Progressive movement was instigated as a reaction to the political and corporate abuses created by the Industrial Revolution,. Religious groups, members of the press, and radical political groups had all been hungering for reform, with solutions ranging from subtle changes in the capitalist economy, to a call for the establishment of a socialist government. Reforms were initiated by individuals, and at the city, state, and national levels of the government.

Social reformers such as Margaret Sanger, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois all fought for the progressive movement. They took action to help the poor, minorities, and women to insist upon equal treatments and rights from society. Another group of influential people who took great steps towards exposing corruption were the muckrakers, or members of the press that scrutinized problems and exposed them to the public. Their large range of influence often resulted in the passage of laws designed to reform the abuses reported. For example, Thomas Nast worked to expose the abuses of the New York political machine Tammany Hall through the use of political cartoons.

Frank Norris’ book The Octopus (1901) exposed corrupt railroad actions in California, leading to Northern Securities vs. U.S. in 1904, breaking up the company controlling the railroads. “The Jungle”, written by Upton Sinclair in 1906 was often seen as the embodiment of American Progressive literature, as it investigated dangerous and unsanitary procedures in the meat-packing industry; this lead to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Acts in 1906.

Progressive reform began at the city level because it was much easier to put into operation than at the national level. Urban corruption due to political machines was a chief issue, resulting in re-organization of local governments using new management. This idea created new positions such as city managers, hired to run each department of the city and report back to council. This leads us to state reforms, passed with the help of governors supporting the movement. Reforms proposed by the Populist Party were often enacted by said governors in order to make state governments more responsive to the needs of the people. Concepts such as the secret ballot, direct primary, and referendums were all key to state reform. Also during the Progressive Era, the Federal Government enacted a huge amount of legislation designed to protect the environment, fix economic regulations, and basically provide needed capitalist reforms.

For example, the Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) encouraged conservation by allowing the building of dams and irrigation systems using money from the profit off public land. The Clayton Antitrust Act (1914) strengthened the Sherman Antitrust Act by making the creation of a monopoly through any means illegal. To provide a secure income for the Federal Government while providing graduated taxation, the 16th Amendment was passed. The 17th Amendment weakened political machines, because it allowed citizens to directly elect representatives to the Senate. Also, the 17th and 18th Amendments supported actions such as the Temperance Movement and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Ignoring the many accomplishments of the Progressive movement, it still had its faults. Albeit the Progressives advocated social equality, there was intense multiplicity and basic contradictions within their group. One of the more large examples came with the question of blacks and their position in Progressivism. Catholic groups would advocate Progressivism in black neighborhoods, however the Protestants would not work with the “inferior, ungodly race.” The Progressives often had their goals in two different areas: bureaucracy and democracy. The ideal end of Progressive democracy was justice, socially. The minimal end of Progressive bureaucracy was social power and control. Most critics feel that the two political entities were too uncompatible to ever succeed in the end.

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