Posted: August 6th, 2022

M2 Discussion 6: Reflection

The purpose of this discussion is to reflect on and share the things you have learned in this module.

Instructions

  1. Identify something that made you go “wow” in this module – what surprised or impressed or shocked you?
  2. Describe why this thing stood out to you.  Use quotes from your readings and research to support your observations. Make sure to use your primary sources!
  3. Include an illustration from the period, and make sure you caption the illustration.
  4. Share two or three new words you’ve learned from this module and the definitions.
  5. Your Wow statement should be at least 100-150 words, not including the citations.

American Yawp: The Progressive Era
“Never in the history of the world was society in so terri�c �ux as it is right now,” Jack London
wrote in The Iron Heel, his 1908 dystopian novel in which a corporate oligarchy comes to
rule the United States. He wrote, “The swift changes in our industrial system are causing
equally swift changes in our religious, political, and social structures. An unseen and fearful
revolution is taking place in the �ber and structure of society. One can only dimly feel these
things, but they are in the air, now, today.”1

Widespread dissatisfaction with new trends in American society spurred the Progressive Era, named for
the various progressive movements that attracted various constituencies around various reforms.
Americans had many different ideas about how the country’s development should be managed and
whose interests required the greatest protection. Reformers sought to clean up politics; Black
Americans continued their long struggle for civil rights; women demanded the vote with greater
intensity while also demanding a more equal role in society at large; and workers demanded higher
wages, safer workplaces, and the union recognition that would guarantee these rights. Whatever their
goals, reform became the word of the age, and the sum of their efforts, whatever their ultimate impact or
original intentions, gave the era its name.

I. Mobilizing for Reform

In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan caught �re. The doors of the factory had been
chained shut to prevent employees from taking unauthorized breaks (the managers who held the keys
saved themselves, but left over two hundred women behind). A rickety �re ladder on the side of the
building collapsed immediately. Women lined the rooftop and windows of the ten-story building and
jumped, landing in a “mangled, bloody pulp.” Life nets held by �remen tore at the impact of the falling
bodies. Among the onlookers, “women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of
frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.” By the time the �re burned itself out, 71 workers
were injured and 146 had died.2

Policemen place the bodies of workers who were burned alive in the 1911 Triangle
Shirtwaist �re into cof�ns. Photographs like this made real the atrocities that could result
from unsafe working conditions. March 25, 1911

Policemen place the bodies of workers who were burned alive in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist �re into cof�ns. Photographs like this made real the atrocities

that could result from unsafe working conditions. March 25, 1911. [Public Domain via Library of Congress]

A year before, the Triangle workers had gone on strike demanding union recognition, higher wages, and
better safety conditions. Remembering their workers’ “chief value,” the owners of the factory decided
that a viable �re escape and unlocked doors were too expensive and called in the city police to break up
the strike. After the 1911 �re, reporter Bill Shepherd re�ected, “I looked upon the heap of dead bodies
and I remembered these girls were shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike last year in which
the same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These
dead bodies were the answer.”3 Former Triangle worker and labor organizer Rose Schneiderman said, “
“This is not the �rst time girls have been burned alive in this city. Every week I must learn of the untimely
death of one of my sister workers . . . the life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred!
There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if 140-odd are burned to death.”4 After the �re,
Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were brought up on manslaughter charges. They were
acquitted after less than two hours of deliberation. The outcome continued a trend in the industrializing

https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98502780/

economy that saw workers’ deaths answered with little punishment of the business owners responsible
for such dangerous conditions. But as such tragedies mounted and working and living conditions
worsened and inequality grew, it became increasingly dif�cult to develop justi�cations for this new
modern order.

Events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist �re convinced many Americans of the need for reform, but the
energies of activists were needed to spread a new commitment to political activism and government
interference in the economy. Politicians, journalists, novelists, religious leaders, and activists all raised
their voices to push Americans toward reform.

Reformers turned to books and mass-circulation magazines to publicize the plight of the nation’s poor
and the many corruptions endemic to the new industrial order. Journalists who exposed business
practices, poverty, and corruption—labeled by Theodore Roosevelt as “muckrakers”—aroused public
demands for reform. Magazines such as McClure’s detailed political corruption and economic
malfeasance. The muckrakers con�rmed Americans’ suspicions about runaway wealth and political
corruption. Ray Stannard Baker, a journalist whose reports on U.S. Steel exposed the underbelly of the
new corporate capitalism, wrote, “I think I can understand now why these exposure articles took such a
hold upon the American people. It was because the country, for years, had been swept by the agitation of
soap-box orators, prophets crying in the wilderness, and political campaigns based upon charges of
corruption and privilege which everyone believed or suspected had some basis of truth, but which were
largely unsubstantiated.”5

Journalists shaped popular perceptions of Gilded Age injustice. In 1890, New York City journalist Jacob
Riis published How the Other Half Lives, a scathing indictment of living and working conditions in the
city’s slums. Riis not only vividly described the squalor he saw, but he also documented it with
photography, giving readers an un�inching view of urban poverty. Riis’s book led to housing reform in
New York and other cities and helped instill the idea that society bore at least some responsibility for
alleviating poverty.6 In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel dramatizing the experiences
of a Lithuanian immigrant family who moved to Chicago to work in the stockyards. Although Sinclair
intended the novel to reveal the brutal exploitation of labor in the meatpacking industry, and thus to
build support for the socialist movement, its major impact was to lay bare the entire process of
industrialized food production. The growing invisibility of slaughterhouses and livestock production for
urban consumers had enabled unsanitary and unsafe conditions. “The slaughtering machine ran on,
visitors or no visitors,” wrote Sinclair, “like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and
unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.”7

 

squalid �at with an exhausted and worn mother
holding a swaddled infant

Jacob Riis, “Home of an Italian Ragpicker.” 1896. Photo shows squalid �at with an exhausted and worn mother holding a swaddled infant Wikimedia].

Of course, it was not only journalists who raised questions about American society. One of the most
popular novels of the nineteenth century, Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Looking Backward, was a national
sensation. In it, a man falls asleep in Boston in 1887 and awakens in 2000 to �nd society radically altered.
Poverty and disease and competition gave way as new industrial armies cooperated to build a utopia of
social harmony and economic prosperity. Bellamy’s vision of a reformed society enthralled readers,
inspired hundreds of Bellamy clubs, and pushed many young readers onto the road to reform.8 It led
countless Americans to question the realities of American life in the nineteenth century:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:In_the_Home_of_an_Italian_Rag-Picker,_Jersey_Street

“I am aware that you called yourselves free in the nineteenth century. The meaning of the
word could not then, however, have been at all what it is at present, or you certainly would
not have applied it to a society of which nearly every member was in a position of galling
personal dependence upon others as to the very means of life, the poor upon the rich, or
employed upon employer, women upon men, children upon parents.”9

But Americans were urged to action not only by books and magazines but also by preachers and
theologians, too. Confronted by both the bene�ts and the ravages of industrialization, many Americans
asked themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” In 1896, Charles Sheldon, a Congregational minister in
Topeka, Kansas, published In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? The novel told the story of Henry
Maxwell, a pastor in a small Midwestern town one day confronted by an unemployed migrant who
criticized his congregation’s lack of concern for the poor and downtrodden. Moved by the man’s plight,
Maxwell preached a series of sermons in which he asked his congregation: “Would it not be true, think
you, that if every Christian in America did as Jesus would do, society itself, the business world, yes, the
very political system under which our commercial and government activity is carried on, would be so
changed that human suffering would be reduced to a minimum?”10 Sheldon’s novel became a best seller,
not only because of its story but also because the book’s plot connected with a new movement
transforming American religion: the social gospel.

The social gospel emerged within Protestant Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century. It
emphasized the need for Christians to be concerned for the salvation of society, and not simply
individual souls. Instead of just caring for family or fellow church members, social gospel advocates
encouraged Christians to engage society; challenge social, political, and economic structures; and help
those less fortunate than themselves. Responding to the developments of the industrial revolution in
America and the increasing concentration of people in urban spaces, with its attendant social and
economic problems, some social gospelers went so far as to advocate a form of Christian socialism, but
all urged Americans to confront the sins of their society.

One of the most notable advocates of the social gospel was Walter Rauschenbusch. After graduating
from the Rochester Theological Seminary, in 1886 Rauschenbusch accepted the pastorate of a German
Baptist church in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, where he confronted rampant crime and
stark poverty, problems not adequately addressed by the political leaders of the city. Rauschenbusch
joined with fellow reformers to elect a new mayoral candidate, but he also realized that a new
theological framework had to re�ect his interest in society and its problems. He revived Jesus’s phrase,
“the Kingdom of God,” claiming that it encompassed every aspect of life and made every part of society a
purview of the proper Christian. Like Charles Sheldon’s �ctional Rev. Maxwell, Rauschenbusch believed
that every Christian, whether they were a businessperson, a politician, or a stay-at-home parent, should
ask themselves what they could to enact the kingdom of God on Earth.11

“The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensi�ed. The
individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has
inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to
him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order
and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power
of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of
oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of
the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for
their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls on us
for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.”12

Glaring blind spots persisted within the proposals of most social gospel advocates. As men, they often
ignored the plight of women, and thus most refused to support women’s suffrage. Many were also silent
on the plight of African Americans, Native Americans, and other oppressed minority groups. However,
the writings of Rauschenbusch and other social gospel proponents a profound in�uence on twentieth-
century American life. Most immediately, they fueled progressive reform. But they also inspired future
activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., who envisioned a “beloved community” that resembled
Rauschenbusch’s “Kingdom of God.”

 

II. Women’s Movements

Suffragists campaigned tirelessly for the vote in the �rst two decades of the
twentieth century, taking to the streets in public displays like this 1915 pre-
election parade in New York City. During this one event, 20,000 women de�ed
the gender norms that tried to relegate them to the private sphere and deny
them the vote. 1915.&nbsp

Suffragists campaigned tirelessly for the vote in the �rst two decades of the twentieth century, taking to the streets in public

displays like this 1915 pre-election parade in New York City. During this one event, 20,000 women de�ed the gender norms

that tried to relegate them to the private sphere and deny them the vote. 1915. [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Reform opened new possibilities for women’s activism in American public life and gave new impetus to
the long campaign for women’s suffrage. Much energy for women’s work came from female “clubs,” social
organizations devoted to various purposes. Some focused on intellectual development; others
emphasized philanthropic activities. Increasingly, these organizations looked outward, to their
communities and to the place of women in the larger political sphere.

Women’s clubs �ourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1890s, women
formed national women’s club federations. Particularly signi�cant in campaigns for suffrage and
women’s rights were the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (formed in New York City in 1890) and
the National Association of Colored Women (organized in Washington, D.C., in 1896), both of which
were dominated by upper-middle-class, educated, northern women. Few of these organizations were
biracial, a legacy of the sometimes uneasy mid-nineteenth-century relationship between socially active
African Americans and white women. Rising American prejudice led many white female activists to ban
inclusion of their African American sisters. The segregation of Black women into distinct clubs
nonetheless still produced vibrant organizations that could promise racial uplift and civil rights for all
Black Americans as well as equal rights for women.

Other women worked through churches and moral reform organizations to clean up American life. And
still others worked as moral vigilantes. The fearsome Carrie A. Nation, an imposing woman who believed
she worked God’s will, won headlines for destroying saloons. In Wichita, Kansas, on December 27, 1900,
Nation took a hatchet and broke bottles and bars at the luxurious Carey Hotel. Arrested and charged
with causing $3,000 in damages, Nation spent a month in jail before the county dismissed the charges on
account of “a delusion to such an extent as to be practically irresponsible.” But Nation’s “hatchetation”
drew national attention. Describing herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at
what He doesn’t like,” she continued her assaults, and days later she smashed two more Wichita bars.13

Few women followed in Nation’s footsteps, and many more worked within more reputable organizations.
Nation, for instance, had founded a chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), but
the organization’s leaders described her as “unwomanly and unchristian.” The WCTU was founded in

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pre-election_suffrage_parade_NYC

1874 as a modest temperance organization devoted to combating the evils of drunkenness. But then,
from 1879 to 1898, Frances Willard invigorated the organization by transforming it into a national
political organization, embracing a “do everything” policy that adopted any and all reasonable reforms
that would improve social welfare and advance women’s rights. Temperance, and then the full
prohibition of alcohol, however, always loomed large.

Many American reformers associated alcohol with nearly every social ill. Alcohol was blamed for
domestic abuse, poverty, crime, and disease. The 1912 Anti-Saloon League Yearbook, for instance,
presented charts indicating comparable increases in alcohol consumption alongside rising divorce rates.
The WCTU called alcohol a “home wrecker.” More insidiously, perhaps, reformers also associated alcohol
with cities and immigrants, necessarily maligning America’s immigrants, Catholics, and working classes in
their crusade against liquor. Still, reformers believed that the abolition of “strong drink” would bring
about social progress, obviate the need for prisons and insane asylums, save women and children from
domestic abuse, and usher in a more just, progressive society.

Powerful female activists emerged out of the club movement and temperance campaigns. Perhaps no
American reformer matched Jane Addams in fame, energy, and innovation. Born in Cedarville, Illinois, in
1860, Addams lost her mother by age two and lived under the attentive care of her father. At seventeen,
she left home to attend Rockford Female Seminary. An idealist, Addams sought the means to make the
world a better place. She believed that well-educated women of means, such as herself, lacked practical
strategies for engaging everyday reform. After four years at Rockford, Addams embarked on a multiyear
“grand tour” of Europe. She found herself drawn to English settlement houses, a kind of prototype for
social work in which philanthropists embedded themselves among communities and offered services to
disadvantaged populations. After visiting London’s Toynbee Hall in 1887, Addams returned to the
United States and in 1889 founded Hull House in Chicago with her longtime con�dant and companion
Ellen Gates Starr.14

The Settlement … is an experimental effort to aid in the solution of the social and industrial
problems which are engendered by the modern conditions of life in a great city. It insists that
these problems are not con�ned to any one portion of the city. It is an attempt to relieve, at
the same time, the overaccumulation at one end of society and the destitution at the other …
It must be grounded in a philosophy whose foundation is on the solidarity of the human race,
a philosophy which will not waver when the race happens to be represented by a drunken
woman or an idiot boy.15 

Hull House workers provided for their neighbors by running a nursery and a kindergarten, administering
classes for parents and clubs for children, and organizing social and cultural events for the community.
Reformer Florence Kelley, who stayed at Hull House from 1891 to 1899, convinced Addams to move
into the realm of social reform.16 Hull House began exposing conditions in local sweatshops and
advocating for the organization of workers. She called the conditions caused by urban poverty and
industrialization a “social crime.” Hull House workers surveyed their community and produced statistics
on poverty, disease, and living conditions. Addams began pressuring politicians. Together Kelley and
Addams petitioned legislators to pass antisweatshop legislation that limited the hours of work for
women and children to eight per day. Yet Addams was an upper-class white Protestant woman who, like
many reformers, refused to embrace more radical policies. While Addams called labor organizing a
“social obligation,” she also warned the labor movement against the “constant temptation towards class
warfare.” Addams, like many reformers, favored cooperation between rich and poor and bosses and
workers, whether cooperation was a realistic possibility or not.17

Addams became a kind of celebrity. In 1912, she became the �rst woman to give a nominating speech at
a major party convention when she seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as the Progressive

Party’s candidate for president. Her campaigns for social reform and women’s rights won headlines and
her voice became ubiquitous in progressive politics.18

Addams’s advocacy grew beyond domestic concerns. Beginning with her work in the Anti-Imperialist
League during the Spanish-American War, Addams increasingly began to see militarism as a drain on
resources better spent on social reform. In 1907, she wrote Newer Ideals of Peace, a book that would
become for many a philosophical foundation of paci�sm. Addams emerged as a prominent opponent of
America’s entry into World War I. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.19

It would be suffrage, ultimately, that would mark the full emergence of women in American public life.
Generations of women—and, occasionally, men—had pushed for women’s suffrage. Suffragists’ hard
work resulted in slow but encouraging steps forward during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Notable victories were won in the West, where suffragists mobilized large numbers of women and male
politicians were open to experimental forms of governance. By 1911, six western states had passed
suffrage amendments to their constitutions.

Women protested silently in front of the White House for over two years
before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Here, women represent
their colleges as they picket the White House in support of women’s suffrage.
1917

Women protested silently in front of the White House for over two years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Here, women represent their colleges as they picket the White House in support of women’s suffrage. 1917. [Public Domain

via Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-31799)]

Women’s suffrage was typically entwined with a wide range of reform efforts. Many suffragists argued
that women’s votes were necessary to clean up politics and combat social evils. By the 1890s, for
example, the WCTU, then the largest women’s organization in America, endorsed suffrage. An alliance of
working-class and middle- and upper-class women organized the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL)
in 1903 and campaigned for the vote alongside the National American American Suffrage Association, a
leading suffrage organization composed largely of middle- and upper-class women. WTUL members
viewed the vote as a way to further their economic interests and to foster a new sense of respect for
working-class women. “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist,” said Ruth
Schneiderman, a WTUL leader, during a 1912 speech. “The worker must have bread, but she must have
roses, too.”20

Many suffragists adopted a much crueler message. Some, even outside the South, argued that white
women’s votes were necessary to maintain white supremacy. Many white American women argued that
enfranchising white upper- and middle-class women would counteract Black voters. These arguments
even stretched into international politics. But whether the message advocated gender equality, class
politics, or white supremacy, the suffrage campaign was winning.

The �nal push for women’s suffrage came on the eve of World War I. Determined to win the vote, the
National American Woman Suffrage Association developed a dual strategy that focused on the passage
of state voting rights laws and on the rati�cation of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Meanwhile, a
new, more militant, suffrage organization emerged on the scene. Led by Alice Paul, the National
Woman’s Party took to the streets to demand voting rights, organizing marches and protests that
mobilized thousands of women. Beginning in January 1917, National Woman’s Party members also
began to picket the White House, an action that led to the arrest and imprisonment of over 150
women.21

In January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson declared his support for the women’s suffrage amendment,
and two years later women’s suffrage became a reality. After the rati�cation of the Nineteenth
Amendment, women from all walks of life mobilized to vote. They were driven by the promise of change
but also in some cases by their anxieties about the future. Much had changed since their campaign
began; the United States was now more industrial than not, increasingly more urban than rural. The
activism and activities of these new urban denizens also gave rise to a new American culture.

 

III. Targeting the Trusts

In one of the de�ning books of the Progressive Era, The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly argued
that because “the corrupt politician has usurped too much of the power which should be exercised by the
people,” the “millionaire and the trust have appropriated too many of the economic opportunities
formerly enjoyed by the people.” Croly and other reformers believed that wealth inequality eroded
democracy and reformers had to win back for the people the power usurped by the moneyed trusts. But
what exactly were these “trusts,” and why did it suddenly seem so important to reform them?22

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a trust was a monopoly or cartel associated with the
large corporations of the Gilded and Progressive Eras who entered into agreements—legal or otherwise
—or consolidations to exercise exclusive control over a speci�c product or industry under the control of
a single entity. Certain types of monopolies, speci�cally for intellectual property like copyrights, patents,
trademarks, and trade secrets, are protected under the Constitution “to promote the progress of science
and useful arts,” but for powerful entities to control entire national markets was something wholly new,
and, for many Americans, wholly unsettling.

Illustration shows a “Standard Oil” storage tank as an octopus with many
tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as
a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House.
The only building not yet within reach of the octopus is the White House—
President Teddy Roosevelt had won a reputation as a trust buster.

Illustration shows a “Standard Oil” storage tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and

shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House. The only building

not yet within reach of the octopus is the White House—President Teddy Roosevelt had won a reputation as a trust buster.

Udo Keppler, “Next!” 1904. [Public Domain via Library of Congress (LC-USZCN4-122)]

The rapid industrialization, technological advancement, and urban growth of the 1870s and 1880s
triggered major changes in the way businesses structured themselves. The Second Industrial Revolution,
made possible by available natural resources, growth in the labor supply through immigration, increasing
capital, new legal economic entities, novel production strategies, and a growing national market, was
commonly asserted to be the natural product of the federal government’s laissez faire, or “hands off,”
economic policy. An unregulated business climate, the argument went, allowed for the growth of major
trusts, most notably Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel (later consolidated with other producers as U.S.
Steel) and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Each displayed the vertical and horizontal
integration strategies common to the new trusts: Carnegie �rst used vertical integration by controlling
every phase of business (raw materials, transportation, manufacturing, distribution), and Rockefeller
adhered to horizontal integration by buying out competing re�neries. Once dominant in a market, critics
alleged, the trusts could arti�cially in�ate prices, bully rivals, and bribe politicians.

Between 1897 and 1904, over four thousand companies were consolidated down into 257 corporate
�rms. As one historian wrote, “By 1904 a total of 318 trusts held 40% of US manufacturing assets and
boasted a capitalization of $7 billion, seven times bigger than the US national debt.”23 With the
twentieth century came the age of monopoly. Mergers and the aggressive business policies of wealthy
men such as Carnegie and Rockefeller earned them the epithet robber barons. Their cutthroat sti�ing of
economic competition, mistreatment of workers, and corruption of politics sparked an opposition that
pushed for regulations to rein in the power of monopolies. The great corporations became a major target
of reformers.

Big business, whether in meatpacking, railroads, telegraph lines, oil, or steel, posed new problems for the
American legal system. Before the Civil War, most businesses operated in a single state. They might ship
goods across state lines or to other countries, but they typically had of�ces and factories in just one
state. Individual states naturally regulated industry and commerce. But extensive railroad routes
crossed several state lines and new mass-producing corporations operated across the nation, raising
questions about where the authority to regulate such practices rested. During the 1870s, many states
passed laws to check the growing power of vast new corporations. In the Midwest, farmers formed a
network of organizations that were part political pressure group, part social club, and part mutual aid
society. Together they pushed for so-called Granger laws that regulated railroads and other new
companies. Railroads and others opposed these regulations because they restrained pro�ts and because
of the dif�culty of meeting the standards of each state’s separate regulatory laws. In 1877, the U.S.
Supreme Court upheld these laws in a series of rulings, �nding in cases such as Munn v. Illinois and Stone
v. Wisconsin that railroads and other companies of such size necessarily affected the public interest and
could thus be regulated by individual states. In Munn, the court declared, “Property does become
clothed with a public interest when used in a manner to make it of public consequence, and affect the
community at large. When, therefore, one devoted his property to a use in which the public has an
interest, he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the
public for the common good, to the extent of the interest he has thus created.”24

Later rulings, however, conceded that only the federal government could constitutionally regulate
interstate commerce and the new national businesses operating it. And as more and more power and
capital and market share �owed to the great corporations, the onus of regulation passed to the federal
government. In 1887, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which established the Interstate
Commerce Commission to stop discriminatory and predatory pricing practices. The Sherman Anti-Trust
Act of 1890 aimed to limit anticompetitive practices, such as those institutionalized in cartels and
monopolistic corporations. It stated that a “trust . . . or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce . . . is
declared to be illegal” and that those who “monopolize . . . any part of the trade or commerce . . . shall be
deemed guilty.”25 The Sherman Anti-Trust Act declared that not all monopolies were illegal, only those
that “unreasonably” sti�ed free trade. The courts seized on the law’s vague language, however, and the
act was turned against itself, manipulated and used, for instance, to limit the growing power of labor
unions. Only in 1914, with the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, did Congress attempt to close loopholes in
previous legislation.

Aggression against the trusts—and the progressive vogue for “trust busting”—took on new meaning
under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, a reform-minded Republican who ascended to the
presidency after the death of William McKinley in 1901. Roosevelt’s youthful energy and
confrontational politics captivated the nation.”26 Roosevelt was by no means antibusiness. Instead, he
envisioned his presidency as a mediator between opposing forces, such as between labor unions and
corporate executives. Despite his own wealthy background, Roosevelt pushed for antitrust legislation
and regulations, arguing that the courts could not be relied on to break up the trusts. Roosevelt also used
his own moral judgment to determine which monopolies he would pursue. Roosevelt believed that there
were good and bad trusts, necessary monopolies and corrupt ones. Although his reputation as a trust

buster was wildly exaggerated, he was the �rst major national politician to go after the trusts. “The great
corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts,” he said, “are the creatures of the
State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is in duty bound to control them
wherever the need of such control is shown.”27

His �rst target was the Northern Securities Company, a “holding” trust in which several wealthy bankers,
most famously J. P. Morgan, used to hold controlling shares in all the major railroad companies in the
American Northwest. Holding trusts had emerged as a way to circumvent the Sherman Anti-Trust Act:
by controlling the majority of shares, rather than the principal, Morgan and his collaborators tried to
claim that it was not a monopoly. Roosevelt’s administration sued and won in court, and in 1904 the
Northern Securities Company was ordered to disband into separate competitive companies. Two years
later, in 1906, Roosevelt signed the Hepburn Act, allowing the Interstate Commerce Commission to
regulate best practices and set reasonable rates for the railroads.

Roosevelt was more interested in regulating corporations than breaking them apart. Besides, the courts
were slow and unpredictable. However, his successor after 1908, William Howard Taft, �rmly believed in
court-oriented trust busting and during his four years in of�ce more than doubled the number of
monopoly breakups that occurred during Roosevelt’s seven years in of�ce. Taft notably went after U.S.
Steel, the world’s �rst billion-dollar corporation formed from the consolidation of nearly every major
American steel producer.

Trust-busting and the handling of monopolies dominated the election of 1912. When the Republican
Party spurned Roosevelt’s return to politics and renominated the incumbent Taft, Roosevelt left and
formed his own coalition, the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. Whereas Taft took an all-encompassing
view on the illegality of monopolies, Roosevelt adopted a New Nationalism program, which once again
emphasized the regulation of already existing corporations or the expansion of federal power over the
economy. In contrast, Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Party nominee, emphasized in his New Freedom
agenda neither trust busting nor federal regulation but rather small-business incentives so that
individual companies could increase their competitive chances. Yet once he won the election, Wilson
edged nearer to Roosevelt’s position, signing the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914. The Clayton Anti-Trust
Act substantially enhanced the Sherman Act, speci�cally regulating mergers and price discrimination
and protecting labor’s access to collective bargaining and related strategies of picketing, boycotting, and
protesting. Congress further created the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the Clayton Act, ensuring
at least some measure of implementation.28

While the three presidents—Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson—pushed the development and enforcement of
antitrust law, their commitments were uneven, and trust-busting itself manifested the political pressure
put on politicians by the workers, farmers, and progressive writers who so strongly drew attention to the
rami�cations of trusts and corporate capital on the lives of everyday Americans.

 

VI. Progressive Environmentalism

The potential scope of environmental destruction wrought by industrial capitalism was unparalleled in
human history. Professional bison hunting expeditions nearly eradicated an entire species, industrialized
logging companies denuded whole forests, and chemical plants polluted an entire region’s water supply.
As American development and industrialization marched westward, reformers embraced environmental
protections.

Historians often cite preservation and conservation as two competing strategies that dueled for
supremacy among environmental reformers during the Progressive Era. The tensions between these
two approaches crystalized in the debate over a proposed dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in California.
The �ght revolved around the provision of water for San Francisco. Engineers identi�ed the location
where the Tuolumne River ran through Hetch Hetchy as an ideal site for a reservoir. The project had
been suggested in the 1880s but picked up momentum in the early twentieth century. But the valley was
located inside Yosemite National Park. (Yosemite was designated a national park in 1890, though the
land had been set aside earlier in a grant approved by President Lincoln in 1864.) The debate over Hetch
Hetchy revealed two distinct positions on the value of the valley and on the purpose of public lands.

John Muir, a naturalist, a writer, and founder of the Sierra Club, invoked the “God of the Mountains” in his
defense of the valley in its supposedly pristine condition. Gifford Pinchot, arguably the father of
American forestry and a key player in the federal management of national forests, meanwhile
emphasized what he understood to be the purpose of conservation: “to take every part of the land and
its resources and put it to that use in which it will serve the most people.” Muir took a wider view of what
the people needed, writing that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread.”29 These dueling arguments
revealed the key differences in environmental thought: Muir, on the side of the preservationists,
advocated setting aside pristine lands for their aesthetic and spiritual value, for those who could take his
advice to “[get] in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth.”30 Pinchot, on the other hand, led the charge
for conservation, a kind of environmental utilitarianism that emphasized the ef�cient use of available
resources, through planning and control and “the prevention of waste.”31 In Hetch Hetchy, conservation
won out. Congress approved the project in 1913. The dam was built and the valley �ooded for the
bene�t of San Francisco residents.

Picture Hetch Hetchy Valley before it was dammed showing a verdant
landscape and big river bed

Hetch Hetchy Valley before after it was dammed; the same valley with a
much bigger body of water in it

The image on the top shows the Hetch Hetchy Valley before it was dammed. The bottom photograph, taken almost a century later, shows the obvious

difference after damming, with the submergence of the valley �oor under the reservoir waters. Photograph of the Hetch Hetchy Valley before damming,

from the Sierra Club Bulletin, January 1908. Public Domain via Wikimedia] and Daniel Mayer (photographer), May 2002. [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

While preservation was often articulated as an escape from an increasingly urbanized and industrialized
way of life and as a welcome respite from the challenges of modernity (at least, for those who had the
means to escape), the conservationists were more closely aligned with broader trends in American
society. Although the “greatest good for the greatest number” was very nearly the catchphrase of
conservation, conservationist policies most often bene�ted the nation’s �nancial interests. For example,
many states instituted game laws to regulate hunting and protect wildlife, but laws could be entirely
unbalanced. In Pennsylvania, local game laws included requiring �rearm permits for noncitizens, barred
hunting on Sundays, and banned the shooting of songbirds. These laws disproportionately affected
Italian immigrants, critics said, as Italians often hunted songbirds for subsistence, worked in mines for
low wages every day but Sunday, and were too poor to purchase permits or to pay the �nes levied
against them when game wardens caught them breaking these new laws. Other laws, for example,
offered up resources to businesses at costs prohibitive to all but the wealthiest companies and
individuals, or with regulatory requirements that could be met only by companies with extensive
resources.

But Progressive Era environmentalism addressed more than the management of American public lands.
After all, reformers addressing issues facing the urban poor were also doing environmental work.
Settlement house workers like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley focused on questions of health and

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hetch_Hetchy_Valley

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hetch_Hetchy_Valley_in_Yosemite_NP-1200px

sanitation, while activists concerned with working conditions, most notably Dr. Alice Hamilton,
investigated both worksite hazards and occupational and bodily harm. The progressives’ commitment to
the provision of public services at the municipal level meant more coordination and oversight in matters
of public health, waste management, and even playgrounds and city parks. Their work focused on the
intersection of communities and their material environments, highlighting the urgency of urban
environmental concerns.

While reform movements focused their attention on the urban poor, other efforts targeted rural
communities. The Country Life movement, spearheaded by Liberty Hyde Bailey, sought to support
agrarian families and encourage young people to stay in their communities and run family farms. Early-
twentieth-century educational reforms included a commitment to environmentalism at the elementary
level. Led by Bailey and Anna Botsford Comstock, the nature study movement took students outside to
experience natural processes and to help them develop observational skills and an appreciation for the
natural world.

Other examples highlight the interconnectedness of urban and rural communities in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. The extinction of the North American passenger pigeon reveals the
complexity of Progressive Era relationships between people and nature. Passenger pigeons were
actively hunted, prepared at New York’s �nest restaurants and in the humblest of farm kitchens. Some
hunted them for pay; others shot them in competitions at sporting clubs. And then they were gone, their
ubiquity giving way only to nostalgia. Many Americans took notice at the great extinction of a species
that had perhaps numbered in the billions and then was eradicated. Women in Audubon Society
chapters organized against the fashion of wearing feathers—even whole birds—on ladies’ hats. Upper-
and middle-class women made up the lion’s share of the membership of these societies. They used their
social standing to �ght for birds. Pressure created national wildlife refuges and key laws and regulations
that included the Lacey Act of 1900, banning the shipment of species killed illegally across state lines.
Examining how women mobilized contemporary notions of womanhood in the service of protecting
birds reveals a tangle of cultural and economic processes. Such examples also reveal the range of ideas,
policies, and practices wrapped up in �guring out what—and who—American nature should be for.

IX. Reference Material

This chapter was edited by Mary Anne Henderson, with content contributions by Andrew C. Baker,
Peter Catapano, Blaine Hamilton, Mary Anne Henderson, Amanda Hughett, Amy Kohout, Maria
Montalvo, Brent Ruswick, Philip Luke Sinitiere, Nora Slonimsky, Whitney Stewart, and Brandy Thomas
Wells.

Recommended citation: Andrew C. Baker et al., “The Progressive Era,” Mary Anne Henderson, ed., in The
American Yawp, eds. Joseph Locke and Ben Wright (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

Recommended Reading

Ayers, Edward. The Promise of the New South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Bay, Mia. To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
Cott, Nancy. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.
Dawley, Alan. Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1991.
Dubois, Ellen Carol. Women’s Suffrage and Women’s Rights. New York: New York University Press,
1998.
Filene, Peter. “An Obituary for ‘The Progressive Movement,’” American Quarterly 22 (Spring 1970):
20–34.

Flanagan, Maureen. America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s–1920s. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Foley, Neil. The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton
Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Gilmore, Glenda E. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North
Carolina, 1896–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–
1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Hicks, Cheryl. Talk with You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New
York, 1890–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Knopf, 1955.
Johnson, Kimberley. Governing the American State: Congress and the New Federalism, 1877–
1929. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in
20th-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and
American Thought, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Kolko, Gabriel. The Triumph of Conservatism. New York: Free Press, 1963.
Kousser, J. Morgan. The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment
of the One-Party South, 1880–1910. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.
McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America,
1870–1920. New York: Free Press, 2003.
Molina, Natalia. Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939. Berkeley:
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Muncy, Robyn. Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1991.
Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2000.
Sanders, Elizabeth. The Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–
1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Stromquist, Shelton. Re-Inventing “The People”: The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem,
and the Origins of Modern Liberalism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
White, Deborah. Too Heavy a Load: In Defense of Themselves. New York: Norton, 1999.
Wiebe, Robert. The Search for Order, 1877–1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.

 

Notes

1. Jack London, The Iron Heel (New York: Macmillan, 1908), 104.
2. Philip Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement: From Colonial Times to the Eve of World

War I (New York: Free Press, 1979.).
3. Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire (Ithaca, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1962), 20.
4. Ibid., 144.
5. Ray Stannard Baker, American Chronicle: The Autobiography of Ray Stannard Baker (New York:

Scribner, 1945), 183.
6. Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York:

Scribner, 1890).
7. Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (New York: Doubleday, 1906), 40.
8. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (Boston: Ticknor, 1888).
9. Ibid., 368.

10. Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?” (Chicago: Advance, 1896), 273.
11. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1917).
12. Ibid., 5.
13. John Kobler, Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1993), 147.
14. Toynbee Hall was the �rst settlement house. It was built in 1884 by Samuel Barnett as a place for

Oxford students to live while at the same time working in the house’s poor neighborhood. Daniel
Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press,
1998), 64–65; Victoria Bissell Brown, The Education of Jane Addams (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

15. Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 125–126.
16. Allen Davis, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York: Oxford University

Press, 1979), 77.
17. Jane Addams, “The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement,” reprinted in Hull-House Maps

and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago Together
with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing out of the Social Conditions (Chicago: University
of Illinois Press, 2007), 145, 149.

18. Kathryn Kish Sklar, “‘Some of Us Who Deal with the Social Fabric’: Jane Addams Blends Peace and
Social Justice, 1907–1919,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2, no. 1 (January 2003).

19. Karen Manners Smith, “New Paths to Power: 1890–1920,” in No Small Courage: A History of
Women in the United States, ed. Nancy Cott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 392.

20. Sarah Eisenstein, Give Us Bread but Give Us Roses: Working Women’s Consciousness in the
United States, 1890 to the First World War (New York: Routledge, 1983), 32.

21. Ellen Carol Dubois, Women’s Suffrage and Women’s Rights (New York: New York University Press,
1998).

22. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 145.
23. Kevin P. Phillips, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (New York:

Broadway Books, 2003), 307.
24. Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1877).
25. Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.
26. The writer Henry Adams said that he “showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to

ultimate matter—the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.” Henry
Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Houghton Mif�in, 1918), 413.

27. Theodore Roosevelt, Addresses and Presidential Messages of Theodore Roosevelt, 1902–1904,
15.

28. The historiography on American progressive politics is vast. See, for instance, Michael McGerr, A
Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (New
York: Free Press, 2003).

29. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 4th ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
2001), 167–168, 171, 165.

30. John Muir, Our National Parks (Boston: Houghton Mif�in, 1901).
31. Gifford Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation (New York: Doubleday Page, 1910), 44.

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