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The Progressive Era and the Limits of Progressive Reform, Essay Example

Pages: 3

Words: 850

Essay

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, life in the United States was marked by a number of significant changes. The advent of new technologies spurred the rise of industry and in turn the explosive population growth in many of the nation’s urban centers (Sammis, 2000). A variety of social reform movements developed in the 1890s and early 1900s; among the most notable were the women’s suffrage movement, the prohibition movement, and a growing chorus of voices calling for change in the political arena (Jaycox, 2005). With the technological advances of the era, many Americans came to believe that the application of science and reason to the problems of society would provide the necessary solutions to these problems. It was a time where individuality was subsumed by the larger needs and purposes of society, and where the fundamental traditions of business, economics, and politics were supplanted by the changes wrought by industrialization and modernization (Diner, 1998). Progressive reform had its limits, however; at the same time as society was being reshaped for millions of Americans, issues related to race, gender and class ensured that progress was not a universal constant.

In the latter part of the 19th century the United States was attempting to rebuild itself, both figuratively and literally. Although the Union had survived the Civil War, the political environment in the U.S. was rife with corruption and inefficiency. The party system that dominated local and state politics was built on patronage and favoritism, and the party machinery was more concerned with ensuring its own survival than with serving the needs of constituents (Harrison, 2004). The Prohibition movement, in fact, arose in part as a response to this entrenched party machinery, as bars and taverns often served as the power bases of party bosses (Harrison). At the federal level, the U.S. Congress was marked by inefficiency, while the Presidency was a politically weaker position than it became in the 20th century (Harrison). Political reformers pushed for change at all levels of government, both in terms of eliminating corruption and in terms of passing laws that were aimed at improving social conditions for many Americans.

The changing nature of the American economic system and the rise of industrialization led to harsh conditions for many workers and dangerous products for many consumers. In his novel The Jungle, author Upton Sinclair exposed the nature of such conditions by writing about life in a meatpacking plant; other journalists and writers examined the dangers in many medicines and other products. These so called “muckrakers” brought widespread attention to these and other problems, and their exposes helped spur Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (Sammis). The success of such muckraking in bringing about such legislation demonstrated that the Progressive movement could serve to promote real change in the U.S.

One of the most notable movements of the Progressive era was the Prohibition movement. Alcohol abuse was seen by many Americans as a significant social and moral ill, and calls for the prohibition of alcohol grew louder in the early 1900s (Sammis). The 18th Amendment that prohibited the manufacture and distribution of alcohol was passed in 1917, though the unforeseen consequences of Prohibition would eventually lead to its repeal. At the time, however, the 18th Amendment served as another tangible example of how social reform could lead to legislative and political change. Other notable achievements related to the Progressive movement include the passage of a national income tax and the success of the women’s suffrage movement in gaining the right of women to vote (Jaycox). At the local and regional levels the Progressive movement also worked to reform education, improve labor conditions, and address other social and political issues.

The Progressive movement did not benefit all Americans, however. Despite improvements in some areas, the issues of racism and segregation continued to plague the nation.  While conditions improved for some African Americans in the North, the situation in the South grew worse in many ways, as restrictive laws on African Americans made it all but impossible for many of them to share in the benefits of the Progressive era (Frankel and Dye, 1998). Native Americans also found themselves left out of the improvements of the Progressive era, as did other monitories and immigrants seeking to enter the United States (Frankel and Dye). For some in the labor movement the improvements brought about in the Progressive era did not go far enough, and this faction of the labor movement increasingly turned to socialism and communism as a possible solution to their problems (Sammis). Despite these and other limits to progressive reform, however, it is clear that the Progressive movement ushered in many notable changes in American life.

References

Diner, S. J. (1998). A very different age: Americans of the progressive era. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Frankel, N., & Dye, N. S. (1991). Gender, class, race, and reform in the progressive era. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Harrison, R. (2004). Congress, progressive reform, and the new American state. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jaycox, F. (2005). The Progressive Era. New York, NY: Facts On File.

Sammis, K. (2000). The era of modernization through the 1930s. Portland, ME: J. Weston Walch.

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