Topic 6: The Progressive Era, 1900-1917

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Written by Sonniee Alli

Progressive Era: Introduction

The period between 1900 and 1917 in American history has been described as the progressive era. Prior to this period, a lot of disequilibrium had been experienced by the American nation and society.

The nation had witnessed acute corruption, graft, nepotism and several other vices, which nearly subverted not only American democracy but also the American way of life. The period of venality in American history had been known as the Gilded Age.

Things had become more difficult with the depressions of the 1890s. Several groups in the United States recognized the negative effects of the Gilded Age on American life and institutions and so took steps to correct these anomalies.

Farmers Group Revolutionary Movement

For instance, in 1894, the farmers group had attempted a revolution, but this collapsed without achieving its aims. In spite of this, however, it still served to give notice to the American people that there were ills in the society, which should be corrected.

The Mugwumps

Another group arose to also try to correct the ills in the American society. These were a group of gentlemen called the Mugwumps and they fought against the Spoil System in government. They affirmed that advancement in the civil service should be based on merit.

The American society also benefitted from the prevailing circumstances in the world. It was a period in which socialism was the most important ideology and one that criticized the inequalities in the society.

Socialism believed in the equitable distribution of wealth. As a result of this, many Americans deprived of their means of livelihood and oppressed by hunger and exploitation became susceptible to the teachings of socialism.

The activities of those who were against the corrupt climate ultimately gave rise to a dynamic group bent on eradicating the ills in American society. Their activities formed a radical departure from earlier attempts.

This group became known as the Muckrakers. The name was derived from a character in John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrims Progress. The Muckrakers tried to destroy the basis of the corruptionists in the American nation.

Their activities spanned several spheres of the American life, most especially politics, economics and the social life. The group was regarded as the brainchild of Henry Lloyd, who produced in 1904 a book titled, Wealth Against Commonwealth.

In the book, he chronicled the corruptive tendencies of Standard Oil and some other groups. It was the position of this group that by exposing the activities of the corporations, Americans would take steps to combat corruption in American life.

Another book that complemented the activities of the Muckrakers was that written by Lincoln Stiffens titled, The Shame of Their Cities. In the book, he attempted to draw attention to the activities of certain individuals and groups in the corruption of American life.

Several other newspapers and magazines also took up the crusade by highlighting the publications of the Muckrakers as well as investigating some of the allegations of corruptions on their own.

A fundamental flaw of the group, however, was the view that it was enough to just expose those negative things and that Americans would take actions. This was not always the case. In spite of this fundamental flaw, the progressives recorded a lot of successes.

Features of Progressivism

Progressivism touched all aspects of American life. The effects of this became noticeable in the political and economic sectors as well as in social justice. The political terrain could be regarded as the bedrock of corruption.

As a result of this, steps were taken to sanitize the sector through the adoption of several strategies. There was the adoption of what became known as the Recall System.

Under this strategy, political office holders were removed from offices through petition and votes. The institution of this strategy made it difficult for office holders to become too powerful or too careless.

Not only would they be ineligible for a second term, but also faced the risk of being removed from office in the midterm.

In South Carolina, a new experiment which ultimately became accepted by the whole nation was inaugurated.

This was the introduction of the Primaries. Before this period, political bosses or leaders handpicked candidates for elective posts, but with the introduction of the primaries everybody within the political parties was given the opportunity to take part in the election of candidates who would take part in a larger election.

The spirit of Efficiency also became one of the hallmarks of American progressivism. In this regard, mention must be made of what became known as the Commissioner System that took off from Texas.

In this place, people were appointed the accounting officers for specific duties, that is, Commissioner of Police, Commissioner for Health etc.

There was also the adoption in Wisconsin of what became known as the Legislative Reference Bureau. This was made up of professors and experts who were to advise Governor La Folette of Wisconsin on very important matters.

This style was later copied by other states in America. They served as Think Tank to the Wisconsin Governor.

In the economic sector, the Octopoidal influences of the corporations had become so all-pervading that it became inevitable that attempts be made to call the sector to order.

Although as late as 1890, there was the inauguration of what became known as the Sherman Anti-Tax Act. With this act, attempts were made to clip the powers of these corporations.

It took the activities of two American Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson for the influences of the corporations to be finally loosened.

In the social sector, the American nation had suffered untold injustices. These included child labour, unfair wages, bad working conditions, etc. In fact, it was not uncommon to find children between ages eight and fourteen working for their livelihood.

Wages were poor and there were no guarantee in the conditions of service and in the working conditions. For instance, those working in textile mills in spite of the fact that they were exposed to several dangers were not usually protected against the hazards of their jobs.

Those who developed infections or diseases were also summarily dismissed. The Progressives fought against the perceived injustices and succeeded, to a large extent, in improving American working conditions.

The discrimination against women also received the attention of the Progressives. It is worthy to note, however, that women themselves played crucial roles in reforming the American nation.

One major area in which the effects of the women were seriously felt was in the consumption of liquor. By the 1900s, the consumption of alcohol had become an American problem.

Several women thereafter got together to form organizations that would combat this scourge. These were Anti-Saloon League and Christian Women Temperance League.

The political activism of these American women, to a large extent, determined the outcomes of several electoral battles. With this, they ultimately succeeded in drying out several of the drinking places in America.

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Sonniee Alli

Dr. Sunday Abraham OGUNODE (aka Sonniee Alli) is a lecturer in the Department of History and International Studies and currently the Sub-Dean, Faculty of Arts, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko. He preferred to be called a Teacher not a Lecturer in order to allow students' easy access and enhance their inclusive experiences while imparting knowledge in and out of classes. It is, therefore, not surprising that Sonniee Alli takes time out of his very busy schedules to write and make available detailed notes in all his courses to the students. Despite this, he attends all his classes and passionately explains issues using real-time illustration. His notes are available on the History Archives managed by his mentee Obaloluwa Tadese FAFORIJI, a 300level young but promising student of the Department. Enjoy as you explore the academic world of Sonniee Alli.

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