The Progressive Era reformers and the federal government worked hard to bring in change in the social culture, business, and the government between 1900 and 1920. Overall, the reforms had a moderate impact; not too small, but not profoundly large, either.
The biggest issues that arose from industrialization were social problems. One of the biggest of these problems was the youth, with the issue brought about in Jane Addams’s The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, in which Addams references the steps that need to be taken in order to “save” the young men and women of America. Directed at pretty much all adults, it is somewhat of a call to action in order to make sure the children are properly developing and learning. Another huge problem in America was racism and social equality. The famous W.E.B DuBois talks about these issues in his The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. He writes of how thousands of blacks were drafted into the military to fight World War One to free others from oppression, and they did so gladly. How then, he asks, are said blacks supposed to come back to a land where they don’t have the same rights, freedoms, or respect of their neighbors? It was somewhat of a call to action to get America thinking about civil rights, and how one group of humans can be lesser than another. These issues would come about in the 1930s, with the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany and the oppression that occurred there. Many minorities, women, and immigrants believed that if the United States went to help the oppressed in Europe, then they deserved liberation as well. A photo from the national archives shows a woman protesting and claiming that we helped the Germans in World War One who were oppressed and not self-governed, yet the women of the United States are not self-governed, either. It is a protest aimed at the government in order to get women the right to vote. If they don’t have a vote, the women of this period claimed, then they are not self-governed. The United States continues to deal with issues like these in the current day, with movements like Black Lives Matter, the recent Women’s March on Washington, and protests over immigrants and refugees. The social movements of the early 1900s had a lot of followers, but not a ton of immediate success. They did, however, set the stage for future events like the civil rights movement of the mid-1900s, providing minorities a solid base to stand on.
Another huge issue that the government tried to tackle were economic problems. During the late 1800s, the rise of big business and industry took over the economy. Though this appeared to be a great thing on the outside, the fast-growing economy left a vast majority of people behind to fend for themselves and acted very immorally. Take the meatpacking industry, for example. In The Neill-Reynolds Report of 1906, the public was presented with grotesque picture of what the meatpacking and processing industry was like. It talks about how sanitation, cleanliness, and safety are neglected. The authors of this report wanted to bring light to how terrible this industry, and others like it, were abusing its power at the time. Another giant issue for the government surrounded the issue of labor. The court case Hammer v. Dagenhart in 1918 was about the issue of child labor. The court reasoned that it was unconstitutional for Congress to regulate, and, in some cases, restrict, the flow of commerce solely due to the fact that it was produced by child labor. It decided that it was more of a local issue, to be dealt with at the state level. This allowed businesses to once more transport interstate commerce freely, increasing profits. Labor unions were a very large issue with big businesses. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 protected labor unions, which protected the rights of workers to negotiate better wages, conditions, and other things, and also the right to strike. The workers, for the most part, considered this a success, whereas the businesses disliked it, as it allowed their workers more freedom to tap into the business’s profits. A final issue that was dealt with was the issue of trusts. Businesses like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil exploited loopholes in the economic system in order to make insane amounts of money. The Sherman Antitrust Act and the subsequent Clayton Antitrust Act dealt with these problems. Not everyone agreed with the policies, though. A political cartoon from the Washington Post in 1907 depicts a smirking Teddy Roosevelt posing with a bear-type creature that he shot with the gun in his hand. The bear is labeled “bad trusts.” Meanwhile, there is another bear cowering in fear in the background labeled “good trusts.” Many of the opponents of regulating trusts claimed that they can be a very good thing, but the measures that were being put into place would make trusts extinct, hurting the country and its economy. The government took expansive measures to regulate business in the Progressive Era, and the laws they passed had huge impacts. Many people liked them, but others strongly disagreed with them.
The final group of issues that the government dealt with in the Progressive Era were problems in the government. In a speech by Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, the president addresses how senators should be selected, and also takes somewhat of a shot at the electoral college. He acknowledges the fact that senators should be elected by popular vote like the president, even though that is not how the president is truly selected. His idea of a senator winning the majority of the popular vote would help decrease corruption in government, and also give the people what they really wanted. A second major problem in the government was voting, voting rights, and voting turnout. As referenced previously, women were very unhappy with the restriction of their voting rights. Right at the end of the Progressive Era, they were granted their right to cast a ballot. Voter turnout also happened to be a big issue during this time. From 1900 to 1920, the number of eligible voters who cast ballots dropped from 73 percent to 49 percent. This fact meant that more and more people were not exercising their rights as Americans, and they were not getting their voices heard. Once again, this is a very big problem in modern America. The average voter turnout every four years hovers in the 50 percent range. People then get angry because their voices are not heard, when, in reality, it is their own fault for not voting. Herbert Croly expresses his anger with President Woodrow Wilson in New Republic. He explains that he believes Wilson has not done all he says he has and would, and that he did not lead the country well. However, in 1912 when Wilson was elected, only 59 percent of the population showed up to vote, down a whole 6 percentage points from the election four years earlier. Yes, Croly may have voted, giving him a justifiable reason to complain, but the millions of others who did not vote have no basis to protest what the president does.
Not everything was great in the Progressive Era. Many Americans strongly disagreed with many of the policies and actions the government took. The political cartoon referenced above strongly disagrees with the destruction of trusts. Voting numbers declined heavily. By the end of the Progressive Era, blacks still had very few rights. Women barely got even the right to vote and were still highly inferior to men. Overall, much like the Reconstruction movement of the late 1800s, the Progressive Era was somewhat effective, with it having its positives and negatives. After all, there is no issue on which every single American will agree. No movement or era or reform will ever please everyone.