The Successful Reforms Made in America during the Progressive Era

Last Updated: 14 Mar 2023
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Progress, as defined in history, is a slow improvement in the positive direction, After the rise of industry, America was a country that desperately needed reforms. The Progressive Era rose to combat this chaos. Although the reform (or the lack of reform) in the progressive era is often overshadowed by presentism, the Progressive Era was a success politically, economically, and socially. The Progressive Era was a direct response to the social, economic, and political problems caused by industrialization. After the corruption and unregulated business of the gilded age, the public wanted to reform socially and politically to protect themselves from the mistakes made in the past, Progressives did not believe in social Darwinism but instead insisted that society’s problems could be fixed through education, a safe environment, and a fair workplace, The era started in the late 19‘“ century but reached its peak during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson in the early 20m century.

The movement was lead by the suburban middle class, and because of this, the changes they made were more moderate and therefore often accepted. Many of the reforms made in the Progressive Era were made through politics. During these years many acts were passed for the betterment of American society. None of these acts were very radical or ground-shaking, but each was an incremental step toward democracy as it is today. Laws such as the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were created to protect consumers. The Hepburn Act and Mann- Elkins act regulated rates in large businesses like railroads, telephones, and telegraphs. Also, the Child Labor Act prevented children under a certain age from working, Along with these there were many more acts adding to the progress of the era.

One way the public, especially the media, would raise awareness in government issues was through muckraking. Muckrakers are journalists who “rake“ through “muck” to uncover corruption and other wrongdoings of industry and corporations, These journalists would then create sensationalist stories that were devoured by the common public. One example of this is the “Neill-Reynolds Report” which describes how meat was “shoveled from filthy wooden floors, piled on tables rarely cleaned, [and] pushed from room to room in rotten box carts” t Such works as this are what inspired the Meat Inspection Act. Teddy Roosevelt was actually reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair while eating breakfast one morning. The repulsive muckraking caused Teddy Roosevelt to vomit his breakfast and probably caused the two food inspection acts. Other calls to action like Jane Addam’s The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets inspired government action, Addam says that society is so caught up in “admiration of...achievements of modern industry” that society “forgets the children”.

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Writing like this inspired the Child Labor Act, which allowed children to be kept out of dangerous factory jobs longer and allowed them to be educated more. Progressives also made progress politically through the passage of two new amendments In the 16‘“ amendment a tax was placed on the people based on income to help fund the government. The 17'" amendment states that senators will be elected by popular votes. In a speech, Teddy Roosevelt argues that “actual experience has convinced us that senators should be elected by direct vote of the people“. Teddy Roosevelt was also famous for being a “trustbuster”, a president on a mission to get rid of trusts (especially bad ones). By getting rid of the huge trusts and monopolies Roosevelt hoped to keep the market fair for the majority of people. A cartoon published by the Washington Post depicts Roosevelt standing over a heart he just killed labeled with the words “Bad Trusts”, Also Roosevelt has a bear on a leash labeled “good trusts“.

The cartoon represents Teddy Roosevelt’s method of “trustbusting” in which he would determine “good” trusts to keep regulated and “bad" trusts which he would kill off. Also it is important to realize the trusts are represented as bears, A bear market is a market that is in decline, so by making the trusts bears, the cartoonist is implying trusts contribute to the decline of the economy. This in turn depicts Roosevelt as the savior of the economy Lastly, Progressives inspired reforms in state politics. Systems like referendum, initiatives, and recall were put in place to give the people the ability to propose laws, votes on laws being passed, and to recall elected officials, Reforms in politics slowly moved the country closer to democracy Reform in labor also added to the number of reforms in the progressive era, Acts like the Child Labor Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act contributed to make the market a better place.

Even old acts like the Sherman Anti-Trust act finally were put to use for their intended purposes. At the end of the Clayton Antitrust Act it says that the antitrust laws cannot be used against “the operations of labor organizations” (Doc E), In the Gilded Age government always supported big business. One of the only times the Sherman Antitrust act was used before the Progressive Era was to break up a union, With the new Clayton Antitrust Act workers obtained more rights. Although these steps in Labor were not monumental, every single one contributed to the larger movement, Progressivism also positively impacted America socially. Institutions were set up to help those in poverty. Settlement Houses helped immigrants assimilate into the country easiert Classes were offered in English to teach the new immigrants Like previously mentioned, “muckrakers” helped alarm society of problems within the country.

Lastly, support for labor unions grew, both in terms of people and the view of the government. Socially, the Progressive area made small but important advances. Of course some may argue that the reform in the Progressive Era was not nearly enough As Herbert Croly of the New Republic stated “wrongs of a modern society [can’t] be easily and quickly righted as a consequence of a few laws” (Doc F). Croly is true, but it is also true that “wrongs of a modern society” can‘t be changed by radical reform Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party in America, was arrested countless times for promoting values that America holds today, but because Debs did not make progress in incremental steps his entire fight was lost. Also some might argue that the most important issues of the era were completely avoided, so the Progressive Era was a failure.

It is true that Progressives ignored the “America that represents and gloats in lynching and disenfranchisement“ (Doc 1) and that many suppressed immigrants and colored people to vote as shown in the statistics in DocumentJ (Jim Crow laws and P011 taxes, etc. caused the percent of eligible voters who voted to drop from 1900 to 1920). Also it is true that Progressives ignored the issue of women’s rights as shown in Document H which states on a sign that “American Women are not self-governed“. One has to remember though that the Progressives were normal middleclass people who tried to reform what benefitted them. As pressing as African American rights were at the time in society, it was more beneficial for the middle class to reform business.

Also one has to make sure presentism is not applied to the situation. Just because some reforms might seem natural now does not make them so easy back in the early 20m century. The reforms the Progressives did make were good steps forward and contributed to the progressive era being a success. Although presentism taints its image, the Progressive Era was a successful time in American history. When looking at the past we need to keep our views relative to both that time period and our own The Progressive Era was an important time for the shaping of democracy as we know it today.

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The Successful Reforms Made in America during the Progressive Era. (2023, Mar 14). Retrieved from

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