Modern history

Morality and Social Control

In many cases, progressive initiatives crossed over from social reform into social control. Convinced that the “immorality” of the poor was the cause of social disorder, some reformers sought to impose middle-class standards of behavior and morality on the lower classes. As with other forms of progressivism, progressives interested in social control were driven by a variety of motives. However, regardless of their motives, efforts to prohibit alcohol, fight prostitution, and combat juvenile delinquency often involved attempts to repress and control the poor. Some social control progressives went even further in their effort to impose their own morality, calling for restrictions on immigration, particularly from southern and eastern Europe and Asia. Anti-immigration advocates viewed cultural and religious differences as a threat and sought to prevent such people from becoming part of American society in the first place.


Prohibition campaigns began long before the Civil War but scored few important successes until after 1865. In 1869 anti-alcohol forces established the Prohibition Party, and in 1881 Kansas became the first state whose constitution banned the consumption of alcohol. Women spearheaded the prohibition movement by forming the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. Frances Willard headed the group from 1879 until her death in 1898. Willard held a broad view of temperance reform that grew from religious, moral, and social justice convictions. Under her direction, the WCTU and its nationwide chapters supported women’s suffrage, laws to end child labor, and labor unions. Willard built the temperance movement around the need to protect the home. Husbands and fathers who drank excessively were also likely to abuse their wives and children and to drain the family finances. Prohibiting the consumption of alcohol would, therefore, help combat these evils. At the same time, the quality of family and public life would be improved if women received the right to vote and young children completed their education without having to go to work. Although Willard died before progressive reform had gained momentum, she influenced activists such as Jane Addams. However, with her death, WCTU leaders withdrew from supporting broad social reforms and concentrated instead on the single issue of temperance.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) became the dominant force in the prohibition movement. Established in 1893, the league grew out of evangelical Protestantism, with Baptists and Methodists leading the way. The group had particular appeal in the rural South, where Protestant fundamentalism flourished. Between 1906 and 1917, twenty-one states, mostly in the South and West, banned liquor sales. However, concern over alcohol was not confined to the South. Middle-class progressives in northern cities, who identified much of urban decay with the influx of immigrants, saw the tavern as a breeding ground for immoral activities. In 1913 the ASL convinced Congress to pass the Webb-Kenyon Act, which banned the transportation of alcoholic beverages into dry states. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, reformers argued that prohibition would help win the war by conserving grain used to make liquor and by saving soldiers from intoxication. The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, made prohibition the law of the land.

The Crusade against Vice

Alarmed by the expansion in the number of brothels and “streetwalkers” that accompanied the growth of cities, progressives sought to eliminate prostitution. Some framed the issue in terms of public health, linking prostitution to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Others presented the crusade as an effort to protect female virtue. In 1907 the muckraking McClures Magazine, reporting on the spread of prostitution in Chicago, contended that many of the women were victims of “white slavery” and had been forced into prostitution against their will. Such reformers were generally interested only in white women, who, unlike African American and Asian women in similar circumstances, were considered sexual innocents coerced into prostitution. Still others claimed that prostitutes themselves were to blame, seeing women who sold their sexual favors as inherently immoral.

Reformers offered two different approaches to the problem. Taking the moralistic solution, Representative James R. Mann of Chicago steered through Congress the White Slave Trade Act in 1910, banning the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. This legislation became known as the Mann Act after its sponsor. By contrast, the American Social Hygiene Association, founded in 1914, subsidized scientific research into sexually transmitted diseases, funded investigations to gather more information, and drafted model ordinances for cities to curb prostitution. By 1915 every state had laws making sexual solicitation a crime. The United States’ entry into World War I further helped curtail prostitution; brothels near military bases were closed because reformers argued that soldiers’ health was at risk.

Prosecutors used the Mann Act to enforce codes of traditional racial as well as sexual behavior. In 1910 Jack Johnson, an African American boxer, defeated the white heavyweight champion, Jim Jeffries. Black Americans took great pride in his triumph, while his victory upset some white men who were obsessed with preserving their racial dominance and masculine integrity. Johnson’s relationships with white women further angered some whites, who eventually succeeded in bringing down the outspoken, black champion by prosecuting him on morals charges in 1913.

Moral crusaders also sought to eliminate the use and sale of narcotics. By 1900 approximately 250,000 people in the United States were addicted to opium, morphine, or cocaine—far fewer, however, than those who abused alcohol. Patent medicines, such as “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” a remedy for crying babies, contained diluted amounts of opium, and cocaine was an ingredient in Coca-Cola until 1903. On the West Coast, immigration opponents associated opium smoking with the Chinese and tried to eliminate its use as part of their wider anti-Asian campaign. In alliance with the American Medical Association, which had a professional stake in the issue, reformers convinced Congress to pass the Harrison Narcotics Control Act of 1914, prohibiting the sale of narcotics except by a doctor’s prescription.

Progressives also tried to combat juvenile delinquency. Led by women, these reformers lobbied for a juvenile court system that focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment for youthful offenders. Judge Ben Lindsay of Denver, Colorado, removed delinquents from dysfunctional homes and made them wards of the state. Despite progressives’ sincerity, many youthful offenders doubted their intentions. Young women often appeared before a magistrate because their parents did not like their choice of friends, their sexual conduct, or their frequenting dance halls and saloons. These activities, which violated middle-class social norms, had now become criminalized, even if in a less coercive and punitive manner than that applied to adults.

The Crusade against White Slavery Published by Clifford B. Roe and B. S. Steadwell in 1911, The Great War on White Slavery campaigned against prostitution and the criminals who lured impoverished young women into what they called "the human stockyards . . . for girls." As an assistant state's attorney in Chicago, Roe prosecuted more than 150 cases against sex traffickers. He exemplified progressivism's moral reform impulse.

© Mary Evans Picture Library/The Image Works

Immigration Restriction

Moral reformers tended to perceive immigrants as innately predisposed to vice. As a result, some reformers sought to restrict immigration. Anti-immigrant sentiment often reflected racial and religious bigotry, as reformers concentrated on preventing Catholics, Jews, and all non-Europeans from entering the United States. Social scientists validated these prejudices by categorizing darker-skinned immigrants as inferior races. The harshest treatment was reserved for Asians. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (see chapter 15), and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt entered into an executive agreement with Japan that reduced Japanese immigration to the United States. For many Californians, this agreement was not strict enough. In 1913 the state legislature passed a statute barring Japanese immigrants from buying land, a law that twelve other states subsequently enacted.

In 1917 reformers succeeded in further restricting immigration. Congress passed legislation to ban illiterates who could not read English or their native language from entering the country. The act also denied entry to other undesirables: “alcoholics,” “feeble-minded persons,” “epileptics,” “people mentally or physically defective,” “professional beggars,” “anarchists,” and “polygamists.” In barring those considered unfit to enter the country, lawmakers intended to keep out those who could not support themselves and might become a public ward of the state and, in the case of anarchists and polygamists, people who threatened the nation’s political and religious values.


• What practices and behaviors of the poor did social control progressives find most alarming? Why?

• What role did anti-immigrant sentiment play in motivating and shaping progressives' social control initiatives?

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