Modern history

Progressivism and the Search for Order



Gifford Pinchot grew up on a lavish Connecticut estate catered to by tutors and governesses and vacationing in rural areas, where Gifford learned to hunt, fish, and enjoy the splendor of nature. Yet Pinchot rejected a life of leisure and gentility. Like other affluent young men and women of his time, Pinchot sought to make his mark through public service, in his case by working to conserve and protect America's natural resources. In 1885, following his father's advice, Gifford entered Yale University to study forestry. However, the university did not offer a forestry program, reflecting the predominant view that the nation's natural resources were, for all practical purposes, unlimited. Pinchot cobbled together courses in various scientific fields at Yale, but he knew that after graduating his only option for further study was to travel to Europe, where forests were treated as crops that needed care and replenishing.

By the time Pinchot returned in 1890, many Americans had begun to see the need to conserve the nation's forests, waterways, and oil and mineral deposits and to protect its wild spaces. Drawing on his training as a scientist and his experiences in Europe, Pinchot advocated the use of natural resources by sportsmen and businesses under carefully regulated governmental authority. Appointed to head the Federal Division of Forestry in 1898, Pinchot found a vigorous ally in the White House when Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901 after William McKinley's assassination. In 1907 Pinchot began to speak of the need for conservation, which he defined as “the use of the natural resources now existing on this continent for the benefit of the people who live here now." This use of resources included responsible business practices in industries such as logging and mining.

Not all environmentalists agreed. In contrast to Pinchot, author and nature photographer Geneva (Gene) Stratton-Porter focused her energies on preservation, the protection of public land from any private development and the creation of national parks. Born in 1863 in Wabash County, Indiana, Stratton-Porter spent her childhood on a farm roaming through fields, watching birds, and observing "nature's rhythms." After marrying in 1886, Stratton-Porter took up photography and hiked into the wilderness of Indiana to take pictures of wild birds.

Stratton-Porter built a reputation as a nature photographer. She also published a series of novels and children's books that revealed her vision of the harmony between human beings and nature. She urged readers to preserve the environment for plant life and wildlife so that men and women could lead a truly fulfilling existence on Earth and not destroy God's creation. Of all the preservationists, Stratton-Porter reached the widest audience. Five of her books sold more than a million copies, and several were made into movies.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of Gifford Pinchot and Gene Stratton-Porter reveal the efforts of just two of the many individuals who searched for ways to control the damaging impact of modernization on the United States. From roughly 1900 to 1917, many Americans sought to bring some order out of the chaos accompanying rapid industrialization and urbanization. Despite the magnitude of the issues they targeted, those who believed in the need to combat the problems of industrial America possessed an optimistic faith—sometimes derived from religious principles, sometimes from a secular outlook—that they could relieve the stresses and strains that modern life brought. Such people were not bound together by a single, rigid ideology. Instead, they were united by faith in the notion that if people joined together and applied human intelligence to the task of improving the nation, progress was inevitable. So widespread was this hopeful conviction that we call this period the Progressive Era.

In pursuit of progress and stability, reformers tried to control the behavior of groups they considered a threat to the social order. Equating difference with disorder, many progressives tried to impose white middle-class standards of behavior on immigrant populations. Some sought to eliminate the “problem” altogether by curtailing further immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Many white progressives, particularly in the South, supported segregation and disfranchisement, which limited opportunities for African Americans. At the same time, however, black progressives and their white allies created organizations dedicated to securing racial equality.

The women's suffrage organization headquarters of Ohio, 1912. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University/ The Bridgeman Art Library

The Roots of Progressivism

At the turn of the twentieth century, many Americans believed that the nation was in dire need of reform. Two decades of westward expansion, industrialization, urbanization, and skyrocketing immigration had transformed the country in unsettling and, in the minds of many, dangerous ways. In the aftermath of the social and economic turmoil that accompanied the depression of the 1890s, many members of the middle and upper classes were convinced that unless they took remedial measures, the country would collapse under the weight of class conflict. Progressives advocated governmental intervention, yet they sought change without radically altering capitalism or the democratic political system. A progressive newspaper editor explained in 1912: “The world moves and we have to move with it. So with all that is going on with politics today. . . . It is evolution, and not revolution.”

Progressive Origins

Progressives contended that old ways of governing and doing business did not address modern conditions. In one sense, they inherited the legacy of the Populist movement of the 1890s. Progressives attacked laissez-faire capitalism, and by regulating monopolies they aimed to limit the power of corporate trusts, which they saw as a threat to economic and political democracy. Like the Populists, progressive reformers advocated instituting an income tax as well as a variety of initiatives designed to give citizens a greater say in government. However, progressives differed from Populists in fundamental ways. Perhaps most important, progressives were interested primarily in urban and industrial America, while the Populist movement had emerged in direct response to the problems that plagued rural America in the late nineteenth century.

Progressives were heirs to the intellectual critics of the late nineteenth century who challenged laissez-faire and rejected Herbert Spencer’s doctrine of the “survival of the fittest” (see chapter 16). Pragmatism greatly influenced progressives. Identified with Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James and philosopher John Dewey, pragmatists contended that the meaning of truth did not reside in some absolute doctrine but could only be discovered through experience. Ideas had to be measured by their practical consequences. From these critics, progressives derived a healthy skepticism toward rigid dogma and instead relied on human experience to guide social action.

Reformers also drew inspiration from the religious ideals of the social gospel (see chapter 18). In Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), the Protestant clergyman Walter Rauschenbusch of Rochester, New York, urged Christians to embrace the teachings of Jesus on the ethical obligations for social justice and to put these teachings into action by working among the urban poor. Progressive leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot combined the moral fervor of the social gospel with the rationalism of the gospel of scientific efficiency.

Pragmatism and the social gospel appealed to members of the new middle class. Before the Civil War, the middle class had consisted largely of ministers, lawyers, physicians, and small proprietors. The growth of large-scale businesses during the second half of the nineteenth century expanded the middle class, which now included men whose professions grew out of industrialization, such as engineering, corporate management, and social work. The new middle class established organizations to promote their own professional goals and further the public interest. One of the most powerful groups, the American Medical Association (AMA), had originally formed in 1847 but grew rapidly at the turn of the century. The AMA raised qualifications to increase the level of education required to practice medicine, thus limiting access to the profession. Progressivism drew many of its most devoted adherents from this new middle class.


The growing desire for reform at the turn of the century received a boost from investigative journalists known as muckrakers. Popular magazines such as McClure’s and Collier’s sought to increase their readership by publishing exposés of corruption in government and the shady operations of big business. Filled with details uncovered through intensive research, these articles had a sensationalist appeal that both informed and aroused their mainly middle-class readers. In 1902 journalist Ida Tarbell lambasted the ruthless and dishonest business practices of the Rockefeller family’s Standard Oil Company, the model of corporate greed. Lincoln Steffens wrote about machine bosses’ shameful rule in cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Minneapolis, New York, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. Ida B. Wells, a Memphis journalist, wrote scathing articles and pamphlets condemning the lynching of African Americans. Other muckrakers exposed fraudulent practices in insurance companies, child labor, drug abuse, and prostitution.

Ironically, President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term muckraker in 1906 not as a compliment but as a sign of disgust for journalists he thought were more interested in making sensationalist charges than in carefully documenting their stories. He compared them to the character in John Bunyan’s novel Pilgrims Progress who was so absorbed in looking at the filth (muck) on the ground that he did not see a beautiful gift offered to him. Roosevelt feared that if muckraking became too sensational and unrestrained, it would threaten moderate reform and encourage more radical alternatives. Yet muck- rakers did succeed in raising middle-class awareness and generated wide support for the political reforms that Roosevelt and other progressives proposed.


• What late-nineteenth-century trends and developments influenced the progressives?

• Why did the progressives focus on urban and industrial America?

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