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The Success of Progressive Era Reforms (1890-1920)


The decades from 1890 to 1920 were characterized

by various social, political, and economic reform movements-- this period is known as the Progressive Era. These reforms were intended to create an all-around better society at the local, state, and federal levels. Reformers advocated for the changes seen in Theodore Roosevelts Square Deal and Woodrow Wilsons New Freedom as well as in reforms for prohibition, woman suffrage, child labor, tax reforms, working conditions, and government.

There were many reforms throughout the thirty

years marked as the Progressive Era not all were successful, but overall, reforms of the progressive movement were generally successful in their own rights in protecting social welfare, advocating moral improvement, and encouraging economic and political reform.

Teddy Roosevelts Square Deal

Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most notable

presidents of the Progressive Era. His Square Deal was well-known for its progressive reforms including the three Cs:

1. Conservation of Resources 2. Corporate Control 3. Consumer Protection

Teddy Roosevelts Square Deal (Contd)

President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first

conservationist presidents. He brought hope to conservationists in America such as John Muir.

Muir, possibly as early as 1876, had suggested that a national commission be established to investigate the destruction of forests, make a survey of publicly owned forest lands, and recommend measures for their conservation. In 1896 the National Conservation Commission was created and Muir was invited to help. Later, in 1903, Muir was able to convince President Roosevelt that he should use the power granted to him in the Forest Reservation Act of 1891, which said that the president could set apart and reserve . . . public land bearing forests . . . or in part covered by timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations.

Roosevelt did just that and added 148 million additional acres of forest reserves, doubled the number of national parks, and created 16 national monuments. This portion of the square deal was successful as a reform because it established a way that land could be saved from settlers and loggers who wanted to use up the land and its resources.

Teddy Roosevelts Square Deal Contd

Reigning in the power of corporate businesses

was the main component of Roosevelts Square Deal. In 1903, he allowed for the creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor which could probe businesses involved in interstate commerce and became useful in what Teddy called trust-busting.

In his trust-busting days, he declared that there were good trusts and bad trusts and that we would only control the bad ones. However, as depicted in the cartoon to the left, Roosevelt gained control over all the trusts, good and badhe eliminated the bad trusts and put the good ones on a leash to prevent them from going bad.

While Roosevelt did not destroy all trusts, his corporate reform was successful because it took down over 40 trusts and helped to reform other trusts.

Teddy Roosevelts Square Deal Contd

Teddy Roosevelt wanted to help the people to do this,

he made foods and drugs safer for the people. The food and drug industries added impure substances to their products to cheapen the cost of production. He protected the consumers of these items through regulation of those industries. Roosevelt introduced the Pure Food and Drug Act in 19o6 which was meant to prevent the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors. He also passed the Meat Inspection Act which made federal regulations for meat packing and a system of inspections to ensure the food would be safe.

These reforms of the food and drug industries were successful because they helped to ensure the quality of foods processed in factories and ensure freshness.

Woodrow Wilsons New Freedom

Wilsons idea of New Freedom was enacted to

reduce tariffs and shut down all trusts. He abetted the passing of the Underwood Tariff of 1913.

This reduced tariff rates on imports and even eliminated tariff rates on some products such as sugar, iron ore, and wool. It also established a graduated income tax supported by the Sixteenth Amendment which states that "the Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived.

The implementation of the gradual income was a savior to the lower and middle classes as Grover Cleveland said in his annual speech in 1886, the just demand of the people for relief from needless taxation is honestly answered with an income tax, even if it means that big businesses who have built their companies around the current tax system may have trouble adapting without the previous advantage. The employment of the Underwood Tariff of 1913 was successful as a progressive reform in that it created more social and economic equality among the classes while the schism between the wealthy and the poor had been rapidly broadening.

Woodrow Wilsons New Freedom Contd

Likewise, Wilson provided for the Congressional passing of the Federal

Trade Commission Act as well as the Clayton Anti-Trust Act in 1814.

The Federal Trade Commission Act allowed that a president-appointed position could delve into the activities of trusts and halt unfair trade practices including unlawful competition, false advertising, mislabeling, adulteration, and bribery. The Clayton Anti-Trust Act provided for the disassembly of trusts and declared that no corporation engaged in commerce shall acquire, directly or indirectly, the whole or any part of the stock or other share capital of another corporation engaged also in commerce, where the effect of such acquisition may be to substantially lessen competition.

Both succeeded in limiting the abilities of trusts to monopolize and take advantage of the consumer and created a more equal industry for smaller businesses which were being destroyed by big businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.


Muckrakers were reformer-writers who greatly contributed to the success of Progressive Era reforms by revealing corruption and injustice. Their exposure of corruption and injustice were based on actual investigation and evidence as opposed to opinion muckrakers wrote with precise dates, names, and places.

Lincoln Steffens and Ida M. Tarbell were two muckrakers who wrote for McClures, a massively popular and inexpensive magazine that had a penchant for uncovering the secrets and ambiguities of industry, business, and the working class.

Steffens wrote a series of articles wherein he showcased the corruption among big business and government alliances while Tarbell wrote a devastating expose against the Standard Oil company.

Upton Sinclairs The Jungle was a major driving force which led to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Acts he wrote about the horrors of the meat packing plants where No tiniest particle of organic matter was wasted. Out of the horns of the cattle they made combs, buttons, hairpins, and imitation ivory; out of the shin bones and other big bones they cut knife and tooth brush handles, and mouthpieces for pipes; out of the hoofs they cut hairpins and buttons, before they made the rest into glue. From such things as feet, knuckles, hide clippings, and sinews came such strange and unlikely products as gelatin, isinglass, and phosphorus, bone black, shoe blackening, and bone oil. Other muckrakers wrote about trusts and railroad barons and child labor, creating further fervor in the American people for change which led to more pressure for reform and action on the Congress as well as a new wave of reformers being elected into public offices.

Working Conditions
During Wilsons presidency, the

Workingmens Compensation Act was suggested in 1916 and was meant to provide assistance to federal civil-service employees during times of need but was invalidated by the Supreme Court. However, detracting from the disappointment of this invalidation was the employment of the Adamson Act in the same year which established an 8hour workday with overtime pay.

While men could not receive compensation, they were able to get the necessary 8-hour workday which was healthier for laborers and with the addition of overtime pay, they had better means of paying for living expenses.

Child Labor
The most effective reform organization in

relation to child labor was the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), established in 1904. They pushed for reforms at the state level which were largely successful, however their legislation was not uniform and was especially weak in the South. The most successful of the child labor legislation was the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act. This act banned the shipping of products made by child laborers in interstate commerce. By doing this, factory owners were discouraged to use children under the appropriate working ages.

The Keating-Own Act provided for the elimination and/or limitation of employment of about 1 million child workers who toiled in the harsh factory conditions for long hours every day. This act helped to disentangle the web of Child Labor which included greed and poverty for the sake of profit and luxury.

Woman Suffrage
While the movement for woman suffrage had been going

for many years, it wasnt having much success.

In order to potentially advance the creation of a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) united in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Led by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone, the organization worked on building support within the states and disassociating itself from radical causes.

Suffragist Alice Paul brought her experiences with militant suffragists in England home to the United States. She demonstrated tremendous leadership which helped to increase support for woman suffrage. This support was also abetted by the progressive movement which inspired many suffragists to focus exclusively on the federal government's failure to approve a woman suffrage amendment. As seen in the image to the right, women made excellent progress in the Progressive Era and completely steam-rolled over all opposition to their cause. This reform for womens rights was successful because at the end of the Progressive Era in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed which gave women the right to vote.

One of the various areas of social reform

took place in the world of prohibition. The consumption of alcohol was largely seen as a catalyst for thievery, gamboling, prostitution, and political corruption, as seen in the political cartoon here. The Womans Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) came together for the prohibition of alcohol in the United States.

Activists of the temperance movement were successful, though only temporarily, with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which prohibited the possession, manufacture, sale, or consumption of alcohol.

Progressives were all about getting their

opinions out in the open for all to hear and wanted to lend their voices to change. They thought the prime way to achieve this was in getting more involved in the government.

Such progressives called for the initiative so that voters could have direct say in legislation, the referendum so that people could vote on laws that affected them, and the recall to remove bad officials from office. They also worked for a secret ballot to counteract the votes from the party bosses who controlled the ballots, called the Australian ballot.

Progressives successfully got the direct election of senators with the 17th Amendment in 1913, which reduced senatorial corruption.

Corruption ran rampant throughout America thus the
Social welfare

Progressive Era started The Progressive Era was a time of successful reforms in the areas of:

Social welfare was improved upon with the advancements in workers rights and the safety of factories for adults and children as well as the improvement of products for the public Morals were improved momentarily with the temperance movement and help for children in factories Economic reform was achieved with the banishment of trusts by Roosevelt and Wilson Politics were reformed with the passing of the 17th Amendment which allowed for the direct election of U.S. senators

Moral improvement

Economic reform

Political reform