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What is the Progressive Era Known For?

What is the Progressive Era Known For?


Charlotte Perkins Gilman (pictured) wrote these articles about feminism for the Atlanta Constitution, published on 10 December 1916.

Throughout the first half of the 1800s, America experienced its first market revolution. The Market Revolution led to the mechanization of the American economy and the integration of various domestic and international markets. This Revolution was not only fueled by the expansion of the railroad, canals, and roads but also by a growing demand for employment in factory jobs. As a result, the country transformed from a rural farming nation into a more urban and industrious society. Also, political corruption started to spread after Jackson rewarded political supporters with government jobs. Which is called the “spoils system.”

However, many newly appointed government officials were unqualified, incompetent, and corrupt.

For example, Samuel Swartwout stole one million dollars. This was after becoming put in charge of customs duties at a port in New York. These developments continued in the Gilded Age because industrialization led to the explosion of big businesses, dirty business tactics, and poor working conditions, which increased the number of wealthy individuals who could ramp up political corruption by bribing out politicians on the state and federal level. These events had an equally significant effect on the

Progressive Movement because the movement’s reforms centered around “rooting out corruption in government, regulating big business through various federal legislation, and protecting worker’s rights. However, the progressive movement also focused on other issues, such as advocating for the political and social equality of women and African Americans. 

A central focus of the Progressive Era centered around the issues that sprung up during the Gilded Age, such as economic inequality and the expansion of big businesses.
Cornelius Vanderbilt versus James Fisk Jr. in a famous rivalry with the Erie Railroad

To increase profitability and power, big businesses practiced various strategies, including horizontal integration, vertical integration, interlocking directorates, forming trusts, or lowering overall costs by keeping wages low and poor working conditions. In addition, they not only operated without regulation but also with government support because wealthy business owners would bribe state and federal politicians. This level of autonomy and federal support allowed industries like the railroad to boom. Railroad presidents acted as kings who held undue power that allowed them to discharge workers without cause, withhold wages, and control freight prices. Other railroad tricks involved frequent kickbacks to politicians and rebates for larger companies.”

Due to the massive power and wealth of railroad owners, they could utilize their extensive political connections to pass legislation that gave them an advantage over their competitors.

Big business owners also paid their workers low wages and kept working conditions poor to maximize profits. For example, a letter from the starving citizens of the Pullman Company also shows the dirty business practices of the railroad. This letter explained how the Greed of Mr. Pullman crushed his workers by lowering their wages to maintain high-profit levels, yet he kept the price of rent constant. In response, they protested until federal troops put them down.

As a result, many progressive journalists wanted to improve workers’ pay and working conditions by exposing big businesses’ immoral and dirty practices.
Glass works in Indiana, from a 1908 photograph by Lewis Hine

These journalists were called “muckrakers” because they revealed all the corruption and injustice they saw. For instance, Ida M. Tarbell wrote “The History of the Standard Oil Company” to expose Rockefeller’s ruthless business strategies that harmed smaller oil distributors. Her work played a large role in breaking up the Standard Oil Company and would later help usher in legislation such as the Federal Trade Commission, Hepburn Act, and Elkins Act. The progressive era also tried to dissolve trusts and monopolies. For instance, Teddy Roosevelt developed a reputation as a trustbuster because he roughly busted 40 ‘bad’ trusts. Unlike Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow

Wilson did not distinguish between good and bad trusts. He also expanded the number of illegal business practices of the Sherman Antitrust Act. With the creation of the Clayton Antitrust Act. The Clayton Antitrust Act attempted to break up corporate consolidation by preventing interlocking directorates and the formation of trusts. This becomes essential. Because this act was passed during the same time the Underwood Tariff, Federal Reserve Act, and Federal Trade Commission were passed, which attacked the triple wall of privilege, these ‘walls’ of privilege had to be knocked down. Because they benefited the wealthy while hurting the lower and middle classes. In conclusion, the expansion of big business, dirty business practices, and growing income inequality were significant catalysts for reforms during the Progressive Era. 

In addition to economic factors, progressive reform became influenced by a growing dissatisfaction among the general population over the increasing amount of political corruption on the state and federal levels.

Keppler’s political cartoon, The Bosses of The Senate, reflected the explosive growth of various industries and its excessive influence on politics. The cartoon implies that large trust companies were able to bribe senate members to pass favorable legislation for their industry.

The purpose is to shed light on the rampant political corruption in the gilded age to galvanize public opinion to support new laws that would prevent corruption. This cartoon, coupled with David Phillip’s book titled Treason of the Senate, which proved how seventy-five out of ninety senators represented big business instead of the people, exposed the political corruption that resulted from the intertwining growth of big business and politics. In addition to federal corruption, state corruption was also rampant.

Thomas Nast depicts the large thumb of Boss Tweed pressing down on New York.

Nast implies that Boss Tweed has complete control of New York because he controls Tammany Hall, which is a New York Democratic political machine that gave him immense political power. The artist, Thomas Nast, was a political cartoonist who exposed Boss Tweed’s democratic political machine that stole money from taxpayers, rigged elections, and accepted bribery. Nast effectively conveyed his messages through simple to understand yet memorable cartoons. Eventually, Boss Tweed was caught and convicted of stealing roughly 200 million from New York taxpayers. This example shows that political corruption was not only limited to the federal government but also extended to the state level.

This widespread corruption prompted many progressives to attempt to uproot political corruption by increasing democracy.

In other words, many progressive reformers sought to fix the ills of democracy with more democracy. Progressive reformers believed the direct election of Senate members freed them from the influence of corrupt state political machines and big business interests. Allowing them to represent the will of the people. The most notable reforms were the initiative, referendum, 17th amendment, and recall program. This attempted to curtail political corruption. By allowing voters to introduce and vote on laws. Letting voters vote for senate members instead of state legislators. And permitting people to vote politicians out of office before their term ended. The growing political corruption was an extremely influential catalyst for political reform in the progressive era. 

Although industrialization and political corruption were driving factors in the progressive movement. Moreover, a push for universal equality for women was also an impetus for progressive reform. For example, the North American Woman Suffrage Association and National Women’s Party led the fight for women’s suffrage. Carrie Chapman, President of the North American Woman Suffrage Association, wanted to gain the right to vote on a state level, which would force the federal government to recognize their right to vote. However, Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s party, wanted immediate national suffrage and used more violent strategies to achieve their end.

So, in 1920 their goal would become realized in the passing of the 19th amendment.
Women’s Suffrage Headquarters on Euclid Avenue in ClevelandOhio in 1912

One which granted women universal suffrage. Showing that some of the purposes of the progressive era became not only linked to regulating business or rooting out corruption. While the progressive movement led to some political achievements in increasing the democracy of voters and the extension of suffrage to women. It failed to achieve proper protection of democratic principles in that Black voters still faced limitations in terms of their voting rights. Although many presidents during the progressive supported social reform for the common man, they were indifferent to the plight of African Americans, who struggled to protect their constitutional rights during the Reconstruction Era. In particular, African Americans could not stop their systematic disenfranchisement through poll taxes, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause. Moreover, a push for equality drove some of the progressive era’s reforms. 

In conclusion, the progressive era sought to fix the Gilded Age’s wrongdoings by exposing big businesses’ unjust and dirty tactics, putting pressure on local and federal governments to pass meaningful legislation. The movement also tried to limit political corruption by increasing democracy through direct elections of senators, referendums, and recall programs. As a result, the Progressive Era led to several constitutional amendments and laws that attempted to regulate the industry and lessen corruption.

What is the Progressive Era Known For?

Written by John Otto

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