GAZING BACK TO BLAZE AHEAD
The Long Progressive Era (1877-1920) & Today
The time after the Civil War was a period of both great change and advancement in America. Cities grew. Technology exploded and heretofore incomprehensibly changed life. Millionaires rose overnight. Wage laborers grew from infancy to an organized force that along the way resembled both teen angst and mature statesmanship among their numbers. In becoming this polarizing force, wage labor supplanted the household economy as the dominant social construct in the country. These vast changes carried along a considerable number of complications and challenges. The exploding urban populations in places like New York & Chicago, but also Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis et. al exposed just how greatly cities were unprepared for this unprecedented growth.
Many looked to, and expected, the state to provide the answers to these and thousands of other questions. However in the last several decades of the 19th century Capitalists, such as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, George Pullman, & Marshall Field ruled the day. This was due to both political corruption and monetary influence. The new wealth of the Capitalists, used just right, could greatly persuade politicians to see things through their eyes. The corruption came as the politicians took this money and as party bosses such as Boss Tweed in New York City and the Aldermen in Chicago manipulated voting and elections.
All was not as bleak as the opening to a Dickens’ tale however. There was a growing grassroots movement during this time to push back against the Capitalists and the corruption to make things equitable across the socioeconomic classes, race and gender. This is seen in the unionization of wageworkers, establishment of settlement houses, and increased push for women’s suffrage.
Much of this grassroots movement was galvanized around the beginning of the 20th Century by both the rise of a new utilization of scientific method and a new style of journalism that went far beyond just telling the facts. During the last decade of the 19th Century several journalists and newspaper writers began to expose the above-mentioned corruption. After the turn of the century this journalistic movement was off and running with both a name and powerful figures. The name was muckraker or muckraking, given by President Theodore Roosevelt. The leading figures were men and women such as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, and Upton Sinclair. This expositional style of reporting alone did not serve as a magic bullet to uncover the ails of America. No, there was another piece of the puzzle.
The missing piece was the discipline of sociology and the social sciences. The practitioners of this field sought to apply the scientific methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis to the societal problems of America. In order to perform this analysis, hard and fast figures were needed by the social reformers. The growing settlement houses across the landscape of America became a place for this data to be mined. Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago was the preeminent location where this took place. Women from Hull House went door to door all over local Chicago neighborhoods filling out questionnaires. That information was then placed into what is known as the Hull House Maps, truly a treasure trove of empirical records from this time period.
This information was used in such a wide variety of ways. It was used to help provide better education and cultural opportunities for the local residents. It was also used as men like John Dewey agitated for a sea change in public education. Some of this data mining and collecting aided in the push by organized labor for fairer and safer working conditions. They wanted an 8-hour day, safe and sanitary conditions, and an ability to negotiate now known as collective bargaining.
Walter Rauschenbusch took this information and the experiential knowledge of it, which he acquired ministering in Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, and wrapped this call to action in religious language. He birthed the social gospel movement advocating taking the words heard inside the sanctuary on Sunday morning and living them out in the real world Monday through Saturday. He faced much opposition from other clergy and the societal elites for this move. The masses found much to like in the social gospel though.
Not all that glitter with the data was gold however. Some nativists used the mapping of ethnicities to call for quotas and restrictions on immigrants of certain races, creeds, and colors. This does not mean it is ok for current leaders to say similar things in updated language, rather it just means this is an arena still in need of much progressive reform.
These years saw this method of data and analysis applied to many areas to see progress. Ida Wells used research and journalism to bring appropriate national outrage to the sin of lynching in the south, but tragically not only in the south. Ella G. Berry and Jennie E. Lawrence used this approach to push for voting rights among African American women in Chicago. By doing so they also advocated for the further recognition of African American’s and women as full citizens of the new century. William S. U’Ren also sought an expanse of the freedom and liberty of America by advocating for direct democracy, seeing much success in the state of Oregon.
Other issues were also undertaken during these years. The issue of what is money and whether it should be backed by gold, silver, or nothing except the economy rose to the forefront. This question was being driven by farmers seeing their profitability being destroyed by both technological advancements and the massive corporations driving the economy. The Federal Reserve Bank was eventually established to meet some of the agrarian demands however inequality remained and fomented, as is still seen today.
Conservation also came to the forefront during this time period. If John Muir served as the messiah of ecology then Gifford Pinchot was the prophet. These two men did more than anyone else to preserve large tracts of beautiful land from the scourge of big business. In doing so there was much collateral damage. Some of the most severe collateral damage was inflicted upon Native American’s and Hispanics as their centuries old ways of life were threatened and erased. Neither group could redress these issues through the courts, as they were not citizens; Native Americans were seen as a protectorate and Hispanics were in fear of being reclassified as immigrants if they were to speak out and against atrocities.
The natural bookend for this era is World War I and it’s end. In 1920 pro-business Republicans took back control of the government and the tide once more changed. Yet the spirit of progressivism never completely died. It can be seen in the New Deal of FDR, the Fair Deal of Truman, the Civil Rights movement, LBJ’s Great Society, Nixon’s establishment of the EPA, the policies of Carter, the campaign, election, and Presidency of Obama and the fervor of the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
The Long Progressive Era was slow to build to a national crescendo. When the cry for reform and progression reached that fateful decibel it was a clarion call for action across this land. As has been shown, this call for action and change took on a multitude of forms. One constant did shine through; a move to right societal ills by using the state to counter balance capitalism.
This clarion call still goes out today. The zenith of the Progressive Era was reached over one hundred years ago but still many of these issues remain unsolved. Where does that leave you? Where does that leave us? Where does that leave me?
Where does that leave me? As an educator I am uniquely positioned to impact the future and the progress or lack thereof. When I stand before my students I am not just an automaton in the front of a classroom spitting out dates, details, and data for them to memorize and regurgitate for the assessments. No I do, or attempt to do, something deeper than just give out fact and figures concerning history. Rather, I care deeply about instilling in my students a love for knowledge and a practice of disciplined inquiry in all phases of their lives. I teach this way knowing it will cause them to take what is studied and then utilize that knowledge to confront the here and now in an ongoing continuation of the “Kennedy Story”. That is who I am as an educator, I teach for my students to leave radically changed.
What, then, happens to me as a teacher when I am confronted anew with this knowledge of the late 19th & early 20th century? Do I leave my summer research just focusing on my classrooms and students? (Focusing energy on my classroom and students is an extremely and possibly most important result of these past four weeks of my life). Or do I leave changed in such a manner as I wish for my students? And if I do leave changed what do I do with that change and how?