The Progressive Movement came about when urbanization and industrialization rapidly evolved in the end of the 19th century after millions of Americans migrated to urban areas in the late 1800s. In addition to the masses of Americans descending to the cities multitudes of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe also arrived bring new sets of societal obstacles.
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In the beginning stages the progressives held the firm belief that the problems in American society were the direct result of a lack of education, unsafe environment, inefficient workplace, and a corrupt government
One huge problem was the steady acts of racism brought against African Americans, especially public segregation and the denial of rights especially having the right to vote in elections. African Americans were discriminated against in many areas such as housing, education, and healthcare. Many progressives were skeptical of racial inequality. Prominent African Americans such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois brought differing ideas about how to combat the issues facing blacks. Washington pushed education and knowledge instead of fighting. Du Bois, however, formed the Niagara Movement and eventually the NAACP encouraging African Americans to fight against decimation and for racial equality. The handful of African American organizations did find success affording blacks better housing, educational services, and healthcare.
Another major change during the Progressive Movement was the move to end what was considered women’s suffrage. Although coeducation had been brought to many colleges and universities prior to the Progressive Era there was a push to keep it going. As women became more educated the job market opened raising the number of married women working outside the home and showing a rise in the divorce rate. These changes did not set well with the male population. Although equal pay for equal work made a short appearance it soon went by the way side. Protestant fundamentalists also fought the women’s movement believing women should be subservient and bear babies. For the most part men believed a woman’s place was in the home waiting on her husband and tending to the children. It was very difficult for women to be taken seriously or even heard when it came to women’s rights.
Eventually, however, the long battle for women’s suffrage did find successes with the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the Woman’s Peace Party, two powerful women’s groups. Each of these groups was very different than the other, the NAWSA being less confrontational than the Women’s Peace Party. The major changes brought by these two groups were women’s right to vote and to run for office.
Prohibition came about in the Progressive Era which prevented the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Both progressives and revivalists believed that alcohol was the root of most social evils such as poverty, crime, and violence. Catholics and Protestants believed alcohol consumption caused men to become aggressive and abusive, brought organized crime, prostitution, unemployment, and divorce. Scientists brought forth evidence that abusing alcohol led to brain damage. Although the Eighteenth Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol, it did not ban possessing or consuming alcohol. Unfortunately, Prohibition brought with it corruption in law enforcement, the courts, and in politics.
The Progressive movement proved to be many things, both good and bad. Like any political party, not many progressives agreed on all of the issues at hand. Progressives could be empathetic to some issues and hard-lined on others. Depending on the social stature of the progressive, views varied on everything from regulating business to the working conditions of laborers.
President Roosevelt was a conservative and for the most part a progressive, bringing about various reforms. It was his belief that the old system needed to be updated to repair new social and economic tribulations. He advocated for the removal of large monopolies including oil and tobacco, and effectively made room for fair trade, lessened work hours, restrictions to child labor, and safety rules in the workplace. Roosevelt went up against some prominent heavy hitters, bankers and railroad magnates, with his Antitrust Act in a successful effort to dissolve their businesses. President Roosevelt believed he could not change tariffs so he opted for trust reform.
Not long after President Roosevelt successfully disbanded the Northern Securities Company he was forced to go up against the United Mine Workers in an attempt to end their strike. The UMW was demanding an eight-hour work day, an increase in wages, and that their union be recognized. The big railroad companies would not accept nor honor the demands of the UMW. Roosevelt eventually invited the two sides to the White House in fear of a coal shortage. The mine operators would not give in to the demands of the UMW, however, the UMW was much more willing to listen to the President. Roosevelt, worried about the economic impact, was so intent on ending the strike he secretly prepared the army to seize the mines and shared this with top business leaders. His tactics worked and eventually the mine operators agreed to the recommendations, ending the strike.
President Roosevelt’s disbanding of the Northern Securities and his role in ending the coal mine workers strike was very significant economically but also brought him great respect, ultimately bringing the Progressive movement to a national level.
Roosevelt’s position on race relations varied. Although he ended school segregation he was considered a moderate. When Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, a black civil rights activist, to the White House for dinner there was a public outcry. Whites did not approve and he was never invited back again. This seems to deviate from what progressives stood for, equality for all.
President Wilson implemented a plan known as the New Freedom Program which basically stated that no one should be given preferential treatment or privileges. The New Freedom Program prescribed regulated competition instead controlled monopolies. It also sent most social programs back to the municipalities and states. Wilson would go before Congress and argue for policy change, the first being the cutback of the tariff. Wilson also orchestrated the authorization of the Sixteenth Amendment and a modest income tax.
Wilson found himself entangled with banking legislations, Conservative Republicans seeking a single central bank supervised by private bankers verses Democrats wanting a decentralized reserve system controlled privately. Roosevelt reached out to his trusted domestic adviser Louis D. Brandeis eventually adopting the Federal Reserve Act. Thus creating twelve Federal Reserve Banks controlled by individual district private banks that reported to a Federal Reserve Board consisting of seven members selected by President Wilson. The Federal Reserve Banks would provide loans to banks at a lower rate by holding a percentage of assets of their member banks and issue Federal Reserve Notes to meet loan requests in times of money shortages.
In order to make all of this possible Wilson needed to make revisions to anti-trust laws. This would include no special privileges to labor, no agricultural aid, and no conservation program. He also insisted states be accountable for child labor, women suffrage, and workmen’s compensation, taking the load from the Federal Government. When Wilson refused to pass a bill proposed by the National Child Labor Committee on to the Senate the progressives put so much pressure on the White House that he was at risk of losing his presidency. Progressives also would not support his planned legislation to outlaw unfair trade practices and to create a federal trade commission. At the insistence of Brandeis and other supporters Wilson eventually signed the Clayton Antitrust Bill to help define unfair trade practices.
Feeling pressured by the New Freedom’s line against special privilege for any group and their commitment to state rights, Wilson found it difficult to fulfill his own notion of social justice. Wilson leaned on his former Progressive status. He was able to pass new bills for federal workmen’s compensation and the Child Labor Bill denying goods made by child labor to cross state borders. Fearing the unloading of European goods after World War I he also persuaded Congress to form a tariff commission.
President Wilson extended federal assistance to states for highway construction, increased income taxes and imposed estate taxes (Revenue Act of 1916), He also created a bill to institute the eight-hour day for rail workers and signed the prohibition and woman suffrage amendments.
Originally, when World War I was imminent, it was President Wilson’s belief that geography would be the saving grace of America. He requested the citizens of the United States be neutral and impartial. It was his belief that the United States could evade involvement in the war. The American public was underscored by the impossible task of remaining neutral. President Wilson made the decision to accept Britain’s control of the seas perhaps was twofold, his desire to remain neutral and his fear of a victorious Germany.
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