In 1896 and 1897 America emerged from the serious depression that had jolted it in the first part of the decade. It remained obvious to many observers that large social and political problems continued to plague American society. The gap between the poorest and richest members of American society continued to widen. Vast numbers of immigrants continued to pour into eastern cities without any meaningful system to support them. Corrupt political machines continued to dominate many American cities. As a result of these and countless other social problems, a group of largely middle-class men and women attempted to reform American society in many meaningful ways. These individuals, called progressives, oftentimes blamed capitalism for many of the problems facing America society. Their goal, however, was not to destroy capitalism in any way; it was to make capitalism and the social structures created by it operate more efficiently and more humanely. This reform impulse was a key influence in American political life until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and was called progressivism. Most progressives were either writers or journalists.
THE ORIGINS OF PROGRESSIVE
It should be emphasized that progressivism was not a unified movement in any way. There was never a unifying agenda or party; many “progressives” eagerly supported one or two progressive reforms without supporting any others. Thus, progressive reforms could be urban or rural, call for more government or less government, and on occasion could even be perceived as being pro-business.
Progressivism has many sources of origin. Books mentioned in Chapter 14 such as Progress and Poverty by Henry George and Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy were read by most early progressives. Taylorism (also discussed in Chapter 14) influenced many progressives; many felt that the efficiency that Taylor proposed for American industry could also be installed in American government, schools, and even in one’s everyday life.
Progressive reforms also shared some of the same critiques of society that American socialists were making at the time. Progressives and socialists both were very critical of capitalism and wanted more wealth to get into the hands of the poor working class. However, as stated previously, progressives were interested in reforming the capitalist system, while American socialists wanted to end capitalism (by this point, by the ballot box). It should be noted that many progressive reformers had knowledge of socialism, some attended socialist meetings at some point in their careers, and a few progressives remained socialists throughout their careers. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, was both a progressive and a socialist.
Progressivism was also influenced by religious developments of the era. During this era the Social Gospel movement flourished; this movement had its origin in Protestant efforts to aid the urban poor. The Social Gospel movement emphasized the elements of Christianity that emphasized the need to struggle for social justice; followers stated that this fight was much more important than the struggle to lead a “good life” on a personal level. Many progressive leaders (such as Jane Adams) had grown up in very religious homes and found in progressive politics a place where they could put their religious beliefs into action. The Social Gospel movement was strictly a Protestant movement.
Finally, progressives were deeply impacted by the muckrakers. Newspaper editors discovered that articles that exposed corruption increased circulation, and thus exposes of unethical practices in political life and business life became common in most newspapers. The term muckrakers was used in a negative way by Theodore Roosevelt, but writers using that title exposed much corruption in American society. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair attacked the excesses of the meatpacking industry. Ida Tarbell wrote of the corruption she found in the Standard Oil Trust company, while Lincoln Steffens exposed political corruption found in several American cities in The Shame of the Cities. Jacob Riis exposed life in the slums in How the Other Half Lives. Progressives wanted to act on the evils of society uncovered by the muckrakers.