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EXPOSING THE SHORTCOMINGS OF SOCIETY

Although change sometimes begins slowly, it can be pretty strong after it gets going. The U.S. had always had a Progressive movement, even as early as Abigail Adams's "Remember the Ladies" letter before the Revolution. Although "walrus" presidents (with their slow-moving politics and big business connections) seemed to dominate the post-Civil War 1800s, the Greenback Labor party of the 1870s and the Populist party of the 1890s had an influence on popular opinion if not elections. Progressive thinkers rejected the Social Darwinism of unregulated business and called for government action because concentrations of wealth were hurting, not improving, society.

Women and working people may not have won their crusades at first, but they didn't give up. Upper-class suffragettes worked for the women's vote and improved living conditions through urban settlement houses like Jane Addams's Hull House (1889) in Chicago and Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement (1893) in New York. Women's clubs blossomed from 100,000 members in the 1890s to more than 1 million by World War I.

Example

Question: Why did Progressives reject Social Darwinism?

Answer: Because the natural competition of unregulated business resulted in monopolies that hurt people and did not help society to improve.

The era of the muckraker

As the circulation of newspapers, popular magazines, and books grew in the early 1900s, exposing the shortcomings of society became a major occupation. Authors seemed to be able to dredge up almost any hidden secret. Lincoln Steffens (1902) wrote The Shame of the Cities, detailing municipal corruption in leading towns. Ida Tarbell (1904) exposed the monopolistic practices of the Standard Oil Company that had ruined her father. Thomas Lawson (1905), himself a major stock manipulator, tattled on the trust scammers in Frenzied Finance. Other socially conscious authors examined legislative corruption in The Treason of the Senate (1906), the slow progress of the blacks in Following the Color Line (1908), and child labor in The Bitter Cry of Children (1906). Teddy Roosevelt called these reformers muckrakers (1904) because they insisted on cleaning up the country by looking down at the mucky mess.

Example

Question: What helped muckrakers publicize their investigations?

Answer: The growth in the popular press, magazines, and books.

 
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