The Progressive Era: A Whirlwind Tour


Many books have been written on this period spanning roughly 1900-1920, so this modest essay is by no means comprehensive. It does hit some of the highlights, however, and enables the reader to perhaps see many similarities between the circumstances of this period and those of the present.


President Teddy Roosevelt coined the term, but writers who were determined to expose some of the egregious conditions of the Industrial Revolution embraced the term “muckraker.” There were many such writers, but most Americans have heard of Upton Sinclair who wrote the book The Jungle that exposed the conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry. He would later co-write with his wife in the 1930s the book It Can Happen Here, that explored the rise of fascism in Europe and how it might look in the U.S.

Another “muckraker” writer, Lincoln Steffens, wrote about the corrupt machine politics so common in U.S. cities. Steffens focused specifically on St. Louis in his book Shame of the Cities, which explored the connections between business and the political structure of city government. Originally a series of articles published in McClure’s magazine, Steffens argued that if honesty and principled motivation was more prevalent than business interests in governments, many of society’s ills would be cured.

There were a number of writers in the muckraker genre that wrote on the conditions of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants coming into American cities. One example is Jacob Riis (pronounced “reese”) and his books How the Other Half Lives and its sequel Battle with the Slum, published just at the turn of the twentieth century. These books exposed the dismal conditions of inner city tenements filled with recent immigrants from mostly southern and eastern Europe.

Reform Legislation

Examples of reform legislation in the early years of the progressive movement include the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act which were inspired by The Jungle. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which had been passed in 1890 and first used against labor unions, was employed in a couple of cases that represent “firsts” in anti-trust legislation.

In the case U.S. vs. E.C. Knight (1895), the Attorney General filed suit against the sugar refining firm E.C. Knight. E.C. Knight was processing a large percentage of the nation’s sugar and in the government’s attempt to break up the monopoly, the conservative Supreme Court ruled that E.C. Knight was not engaged in interstate commerce, and therefore the federal government had no jurisdiction. So the first attempt to break up a “trust” through federal legislation was unsuccessful.

A few years later, however, President Teddy Roosevelt took on breaking up the Northern Securities trust, a conglomeration of interests along the northern tier of states built around the Great Northern Railroad. The Northern Securities Case was the result, and this trust was broken up into smaller corporations in 1904. This was the first successful use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up a trust.

Other reform legislation was inspired by the tragic fire in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan. This fire broke out in an mid-rise building with most of the workers in the upper stories. It was near the end of the work day and the fire started in a pile of discarded textiles in the stairwell. The girls and young women – mainly Jewish immigrants – tried to escape but found the doors padlocked shut, as they were everyday until the end of the day. The factory was a huge sweatshop, and the death of 146 girls and young women – most of whom jumped to their deaths to avoid the flames – inspired the political will to establish some government oversight over manufacturing.


In the early years of the twentieth century, a branch of philosophy known as pragmatism became popular among a wide range of the intelligentsia. This is often attributed to William James, a member of a well-connected family who popularized this vein of thought. The essence was that in order to draw dependable conclusions, one needed to rely on empirical evidence, i.e., evidence that could be detected with the senses, not abstractions or precedents.

John Dewey was another pragmatist who had a strong influence on education, moving away from cherished epistemologies, (how we know what we know), to a more immediate experience with the world. His ideas were widely disseminated as was his library cataloging system. For some time a pacifist, when the U.S. entered World War I, pacifism became essentially illegal and many people, including Dewey, were forced to change their tune regarding the war.

On the legal front, pragmatism was employed by the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes who spent much of his life as a Supreme Court Justice. In his book Common Law, as well as in his decision making on the bench. Court decisions should rely not on precedent or notions of original intent, he argued, but on the evidence presented in the case at hand.

Realist Writers

In the last decades of the nineteenth century following the Civil War, many writers began to write on topics much more realistically than the Romantic Era predecessors. Known as the “Realist” writers, Mark Twain was certainly one of these. His books looked at real-life problems such as those of a young boy living in dire poverty with an alcoholic abusive father. Huckleberry Finn had for his best friend a runaway slave who lived on an island in the Mississippi River. Mark Twain also wrote a fair amount of social criticism into his work, as well.

“Literary Naturalism” was the term given to the works of writers such as Jack London and Stephen Crane, in which nature loomed large as part of the story. London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang continue to be widely read and many readers do not remember that he was an outspoken socialist at a time when such views were a large part of the national discourse. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage addressed the issue of fear, cowardice, and courage in the Civil War in a realistic manner.

Social Theorists

There was also a group of writers who fell under the broad category of socialist and who wrote books critical of the extreme inequalities of the Industrial Revolution. Henry George argued in his book Progress and Poverty that the land could not be owned by any one individual, that it was owned by all. Therefore, profits taken from the land should be put into a fund to alleviate the nation’s social ills. Thorstein Veblen, in Theory of the Leisure Class, argued that it was unfair for some to never have to work a day of their lives and others to toil endlessly in soul-deadening drudgery for starvation wages.

Social Reformers

There were a wide array of social reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriette Beecher Stowe, preached the “Social Gospel” which, among other things, argued that the wealth produced by the Industrial Revolution should partly be used to aid the indigent poor. Much of the “Social Gospel” was a predecessor to Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”; the idea that the “superior” white man had an obligation to help the “inferior” colored races.

Jane Addams was a woman who set out to alleviate the suffering of immigrant communities living in the slums of Chicago. She started an aid center known as Hull House, modeled on London’s Toynbee Hall, where impoverished people could get food, medicine, blankets and other assistance. This was before the time of government programs to alleviate the suffering of the indigent, so her efforts were much needed during this era of massive immigration and low pay.

The Women’s Movement had taken off with the 1848 Seneca Falls Conference in upstate New York. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the latter of whom had taken part in that conference, were outspoken advocates of women’s right to vote, inherit their husband’s property, own half of that property in life, and other issues that had made women second-class citizens at best during the early modern period.

Stanton had written the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments for Women, and the two of them organized the Women’s State Temperance Society in New York. They achieved a number of legislative successes in that state, but toward the end of the century the movement began to break up along lines between temperance and the write to vote.

At that point, Carrie Chapman Catt entered the picture. She focused her energy on “Votes for Women,” organizing the League of Women Voters and the National American Women Suffrage Association. Her campaign was a sustained one that won the right to vote for women in a number of states. These efforts finally resulted in passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women nationally a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.

Land Use Reform

Sometime shortly after the end of the Civil War, Americans woke up to the fact that the great forest of eastern North America, which had once extended from Maine to Texas, had largely been cut down. A book written by George Perkins Marsh called Man and Nature published in 1866 helped raise awareness of the consequences of clear-cut forests.

Marsh called attention to the forests of Greece and Italy, whose empires 2,000 years previously had cut down all the trees for shipbuilding and other purposes resulting in catastrophic soil erosion. The result, Marsh noted, was that those peninsulas no longer had the extensive forests they had enjoyed and nor would they for centuries to come because of soil erosion due to clear-cutting.

One individual who, as a young student from a patrician Philadelphia family, set out to do something about this situation in North American was Gifford Pinchot. When Pinchot reached college age, he told his father he wanted to study silvaculture (study of trees and forests) in Germany. The Germans had had to deal with the problem of deforestation and had come up with some solutions.

Pinchot returned from Germany with educated ideas of forestry and began to employ them in the U.S., most notably in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Adirondack Mountains of New York. His brand of land use reform became known as “Conservation.” This is the idea that we will always need renewable resources such as lumber, therefore we should conserve our forests and harvest them wisely. By the 1900s, Pinchot became the head of the new National Forest Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture.

John Muir, on the other hand, had a deeper relationship with nature in many ways. Raised in the Wisconsin woods, Muir traveled to California where he fell in love with the high Sierra Nevada Mountains. He eventually started a hiking club called the Sierra Club, and wrote extensively on his belief that some places were so sublimely beautiful that their pristine power should be preserved forever. As an advocate of “preservation,” Muir argued that these places would serve as sites of spiritual renewal.

Both of these men knew each other and both were friends with a nature advocate in the White House, President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt established both the National Forest Service (conservation), and the National Park System (preservation). These ideas continue to have great influence on people who realize that stewardship of the land is absolutely necessary for the survival of not only humans, but of all the species we share the planet with.

The Progressive movement was much broader than is depicted in this essay – these are only a sampling of the thousands of progressives that changed the U.S. for the better in the early years of the twentieth century. However, one notable reform is missing from their repertoire of reform causes, namely, civil rights. Early twentieth century progressivism was a very white and even racist movement. African American’s civil rights would have to wait for their own movement to bring change in the 1950s and ’60s.