History of US – Chapter 1

Progressive Era

Dakota Territory was booming in 1881 when John Henry and Emma Smith DeVoe moved from their home in Washington, Illinois, in large measure due to the extension of the railroad. The railroad brought settlers, many of whom were Civil War veterans, widows, or orphans, to the region to make their fortunes in gold, while others came on the promise of free, fertile land in central Dakota. The DeVoes came because John Henry had accepted a position with the railroad.

The young couple settled in the newly established town of Huron. Gambling dens and saloons thrived in the town, and men frequently discharged their weapons in the city limits and engaged in drunken scuffles. Women filed complaints against men who had seduced them with promises of marriage, but then—after illicit love affairs—refused to marry them. Houses of prostitution openly operated on the main thoroughfares, which were nothing but wide dirt paths dotted with animal waste and human refuse.

Given their interest in prohibition as well as their affiliation with the Baptists, ties between the Dakota Baptist Convention and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were solid, and so over the next few years, the DeVoes served as Christian soldiers working to create a city dedicated to the social mores they subscribed to: prohibition and the elimination of gambling halls, saloons, and brothels in town. Troubled by the lack of morals in their new community, Emma and John Henry helped to establish many of Huron’s voluntary groups, including Huron’s literary association. Volunteerism was all the rage out West in the decades following the Civil War.

Likeminded reformers joined the organization such as Edwin G. Wheeler, the owner of a drug store and deacon of the First Baptist Church. They and other Huronites established the association for the purpose of keeping “young people away from the haunts whose influence destroys mind, body, and soul,” in other words working class forms of leisure—bars, billiard rooms, and gambling dens. The Dakota Huronite, whose editors supported prohibition, praised the organizations for their efforts saying, “It will at least remove the excuse of those who spend their time in places of ill repute, that there is no place else to go.”

These Gilded Age moral reform efforts, although more aligned in philosophy with American reform movements of the early nineteenth century, opened the door and paved the way for Emma to become involved with other, broader political campaigns in Dakota Territory and eventually as a major organizer for the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and a central figure in western states passing legislation that allowed women the right to vote. The story of the DeVoes demonstrates a turning point in U.S history when Americans’ focus on moral reform takes a new approach and a new focus that we call today Progressivism.

No time period in American history is possibly as misunderstood, convoluted, and nebulous, yet important to clearly understand to better appreciate the economic, political, and social liberties of American society in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as the Progressive Era. Neither a national movement, nor a singular ideology, or a coherent time frame, the Progressive Era usually falls under the umbrellic Gilded Age at its earliest roots by the rise of agrarian reform measures in the 1870s and, at its demise, the end of the Woodrow Wilson administration shortly after “the war to make the world safe for democracy.” Yet the Progressive seeds will bloom in the 1940s and again in the 1960s under the presidencies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

As with other “modern” periods, ages, or times, the Progressive Era traces its roots back to the rough and tumble alleys of thoroughfares of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York where, before the Civil War, burgeoning American factories and ever-increasing immigration created an entrenched working class and a major gang problem (especially in New York). In the first half of the nineteenth century, morally-charged, upper class women silently protested in front of saloons or created urban political parties with the hopes of codifying what they considered anti-social behaviors (not unlike the efforts of the DeVoes in the 1880s). They demanded changes to public and private morality that tended to smack more of social control and less of progressive assistance to the newly arrived immigrants.

Nonetheless, what makes the Progressive Era different from previous periods of U.S. history where moral reformers demanded changes to public behavior, was the inherent belief in the use of evangelism, education, and native-born American political, economic, and social ideals to both identify problems as well as to divine solutions. In a word, while earlier reformers used the rod of morality to control behavior, Progressive reformers used academia and their belief in the inherent superiority of American strategies as the fulcrum from which all meaningful change will turn.

Progressive reformers also tended to see the United States on an evolutionary path. Charles Darwin’s ideas on biological change over time began to be applied to society. Known as Social Darwinism, learned Americans tried to figure out why some people failed in life while others succeeded. Why were some poor while others rich? Why were some sickly while others healthy? What caused sin, vice, and malfeasance? The answer was evolution: some groups of people were more evolved than others. The highest stage of evolution on a nation scale was the United States: American religious ideas, American economic theory, American political theory, and American culture were all evolved beyond those of European, African, Asian, and Latin American politics, cultures, religions, and societies.

In the late nineteenth century, some Americans will conclude that Americans had a special, God-given mission to spread American social, political, economic, and religious ideas to those who were not as advanced, even in the face of physical hardship. This became known as the “White Man’s Burden,” from a poem written by an English proponent of the duty of civilized peoples to help those who are less civilized.

An example of American display in this belief that nations evolve was evidenced in a major theme of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis: classification. William McGee, one of the directors of the fair, created an exhibit that was a literal walk through national evolution. Beginning with the most uncivilized society, as McGee defined “civilization,” and ending at the most advanced of societies (spoiler alert – the U.S.), McGee strove “to represent human progress from the dark prime to the highest enlightenment, from savagery to civic organization, from egoism to altruism.”

The tour began with a walk through the Igorot Village. The Igorots were scantly clad peoples living in the Philippines who were head hunters and ate dogs. Fair directors supplied dogs to the people, although there were rumors that the Igorot snuck off the fair grounds and procured dogs from the near-by neighborhoods. Then came European civilization but the most highly advanced, evolved, and perfected society was the United States, which was the last stop of the exhibit. The exhibit also included a few freshly painted, steel battleships that were moored in an artificial lake created specifically to demonstrate the new American naval power initially proposed by Teddy Roosevelt when he worked in the Department of the Navy. The Igorot, American Indians, Africans, and other peoples were hired to live, work, and be on display throughout the fair’s run. This exhibit was a physical example of the “truth” that societies evolve—maybe not progressive as we use the word today but certainly progressive for the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Americans.

What did it mean to be a “Progressive”?

The Progressives shared some common traits. First, they tended to have Evangelical backgrounds or experiences. Following the Civil War there developed a swell among Protestants that they were the true leaders of this country (politically, socially, and economically) and thus only they could speak in the best interests of this country, as they professed those best interests to be. This idea led to action, specifically young men (and sometimes women) being sent out around the country and around the world to spread American ideas on politics, society, and the economy through what they believed to be the driving force behind the success of the United States, which of course was Protestantism. Unlike pre-Civil War forms of evangelism that focused on traditional religious preaching (Mark 16:15 “Go ye into all into the world, and preach the gospel to every creature”), Progressive Era evangelism included political, social, and economic evangelism.

Many Progressive reforms had backgrounds in religious evangelicalism. Today, many American religious groups send out their own to profess their particular versions of “Truth” with the hopes of converting others to their belief system. Mormons might spend two years evangelizing, so too do Jehovah Witnesses knock of their neighbors’ doors. Some evangelize through the media, such as Rick Warren and his wildly popular book The Purpose Driven Life. Possibly this nation’s most-known evangelical preacher is Billy Graham.

Domestic and foreign missionaries published magazines, such as The Heathen Women’s Friend; they established offices throughout the American West, Asia, the Ottoman Empire, and Latin America. And, even claimed the United States on behalf of God such as William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) when in the early spring of 1880 Booth established a missionary outpost in New York where his followers began preaching to the homeless of the largest city in this country. Evangeline Booth, a daughter of the founder, became an American citizen and led the Salvation Army in the United States for three decades (1904-1934). The Salvation Army had the twin tenets of religious salvation through Jesus Christ with a combination of Methodism and a whiff of millennialism and social salvation in which the group tried to rid the world of poverty. It is the second of these goals that this English organization will affect American Progressive reformers and ideas, such as Jane Addams and the Settlement House Movement (see below).

Interestingly enough, the rise of evangelism paralleled the dramatic increase in the number of Roman Catholics in this country. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Roman Catholics doubled in numbers causing more than mere concern among the native-born Protestants. Some of this nation’s most popular evangelicals included Dwight Moody who preached an exceptionally pessimistic view of human history and Washington Gladden who, out of step with most Americans in the late nineteenth century, called for the federal government to take an increasingly active role in protecting unions and the working class.

A second trait common among those who hoisted the Progressive banner was a grounding in social sciences. Before the Civil War, academic pursuits were exceptionally limited in both the numbers of Americans who could afford to attend colleges as well as the curriculum offered at those institutions. Many universities offered students what they considered to be a well-rounded education grounded in the classics such as Latin, Ancient history, and Renaissance art. After the Civil War, more universities began allowing women to attend and so too did their curricula change to include classes in “new” disciplines such as anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology. The need for people with educational backgrounds in engineering became evident as this nation’s railroad system spread further west and connected more communities than ever before. As more family-owned, mom-and-pop shops or general stores became gobbled up by national corporations such as the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), International Business Machines (IBM), or Standard Oil, industrial leaders such as John Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie increasingly demanded employees who had educational backgrounds in business, as opposed to Medieval art, for example.

With the sheer lack of anything resembling a business program, Rockefeller used his own money to create an institution tasked with training business leaders. His school, the University of Chicago, also created a new, advanced program for the study of business called the Masters in Business Administration, or MBA. Before the Civil War, the only school that offered degrees in engineering was the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

These new fields of study had one thing in common: they all examined human behavior (sociology) or overcoming obstacles (such as in engineering). The study of human behavior usually focuses on the negative or abhorrent thus once you study the rules to how societies are ordered, you begin to identify problems and then you get to apply your knowledge gained in university study on how to solve those problems. The spread of both engineering schools, as well as institutions that offered programs in business, resulted in the idea that the world (or at least the United States) could be categorized, evaluated, assessed, and proper measures applied to fix problems or to surmount obstacles.

In other words, the development of social sciences and engineering programs and their application to society was strikingly similar to the Enlightenment, which hit the British colonies in North America during the first half of the eighteenth century just before the American War for Independence. And not unlike the Enlightenment that produced physical spaces to showcase “modern” ideas and inventions (such as universities, libraries, and even fairs), Progressive era accomplishments too were celebrated in public spaces.

Colossal, year-long extravaganzas to publicize and draw attention to accomplishments, shine light on new ideas, and demonstrate American technological advances was evidenced in the world fairs that were iconic glimpses of everything new, bright, right, and wrong in the Progressive era. At the Chicago fair in 1893, which drew an estimated crowd of over 27 million people, visitors marveled at the scientific and technological advances to include a massive lighted tower supplied to the fair by a fledging company calling itself General Electric (GE).

Visitors experienced many products for the first time that we take for granted today such as movies (courtesy of Thomas Edison), pancake-in-a-box kit (the retro house-slave-inspired look of “Aunt Jemima”), the automatic dishwasher (invented by Josephine Cochrane), and two flavors of a new kind of candy (Juicy Fruit and Spearmint) called gum unveiled by a Chicago candy maker, William Wrigley, Jr. Visitors also tasted for the first time shredded wheat and diet soda. They rode the first ferris wheel (invented by a fellow aptly named Ferris). They marveled at the vertical file (a business necessity), and they conserved their calories by riding on moveable sidewalks, as opposed to having to use the old fashioned form of locomotion—walking. American progress was showcased indeed!

Once the principles of science and technology were understood, then those principles could be applied to solve society’s problems. In the case of GE, the problem was human beings tended to have difficulties seeing in the dark, and candle, oil, or gas lights were not terribly efficient nor overtly powerful, hence the development of electric light (thanks in large measure to the work of Thomas Edison). Many of the inventions and products demonstrated at the Chicago fair suggested that the American pace of life was speeding up (you no longer had time to mix flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder hence the invention of Aunt Jemima) and that American pockets were getting deeper (buying “store bought” food products were not as cost effective as making the food yourself).

Nevertheless, although newly minted college graduates characterize the Progressive era, a college education was something that most Americans could not afford to pursue and was not necessary to obtain meaningful work. By 1900, only about 4 percent of Americans of traditional college ages were attending college. Those who could afford the cost and were accepted (most universities refused to matriculate women) tended to put their college educations to work for their communities through progressive reform such as Jane Addams and other social Progressives.

These Progressives were true-blue believers in the American society, politics, religion, and especially American capitalism. They were not Marxists, Communists, or anarchists. They were people who had an opportunity to gain formal education beyond the scope of what would pass today for a high school education, and that education tended to emphasize new intellectual fields. Those new intellectual fields tended to focus on society’s problems and how to fix those problems.

For example, after decades of dawn to dusk work on his Wisconsin farm, Hamlin Garland decided that college was the way through which he would elevate his life. He became a famous novelist using his own background as the basis for his publications, thus shedding light on the backbreaking, hand-to-mouth life style of American farmers, who Thomas Jefferson called “God’s chosen people.” A free-born black woman, Lucie Stanton Day, wanted to enlighten the plight of her people while also working to help them get off the farms so she obtained a college degree and moved to Mississippi where she spent the rest of her life teaching freed slaves. A young Sioux named Ohiyesa earned a medical degree from Boston University, changed his name to Dr. Charles Eastman, and married a white reformer named Elaine Goodale. The couple moved to Pine Ridge where they worked for the Sioux and fought for Indian rights.

What these Progressives had in common was the belief in the elevating power of education as well as their interest to give back to their communities. Most of the Progressive era reformers were not as involved with education as these examples might suggest, nonetheless the Progressive Era is characterized as identifying problems, using certain tools to address those problems, and applying corrective actions to put an end to those problems.

There were two basic, and sometimes opposing, views on how Progressive reform should take place: reform from within or reform from without. In the former, Progressives tended to believe that problems were local, and thus solutions (and actors) needed to be local. This grassroots, volunteer mentality was exceptionally widespread in wake of massive westward migration following the Civil War. An example of this type of Progressive reform was the Settlement House movement, led by a young college graduate, Jane Addams. Other Progressive reformers believed that problems could be best identified when viewed from above and thus solutions tended to be thorough when applied by those on high. An example of this top-down approach was President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt did not necessarily disagree with the problems that folks such as Addams identified; he just believed that he, as president, was in the best place and at the right time to fix those problems. There were various types of Progressive reform to include reforming the ills of society (such as tackling issues of poverty, immorality, or disease), addressing human foibles (such as alcoholism, gambling, or drug addiction), addressing inequalities in American life (such as women’s right to vote or own property), and altering American foreign policy (which was addressed in the previous chapter). This chapter examines domestic Progressive reform.

                                                           Next Chapter

Textbook content produced by Dr. James Ross-Nazzal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 license.http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/975fa4e6-56c8-42cd-a1a2-04722d7724b8@3.3.

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