The Progressive Era
I’m not sure why, but the progressives always seem so boring to me. I know they’re not. Theodore Roosevelt was a ball of energy; Jane Addams was smart and savvy; World War I was horrendous; Upton Sinclair was hilarious; W. E. B. Du Bois was a genius. So why does the era seem so dull and naïve? Probably because the progressives had yet to experience WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. I want them to be modern as modernity was depressed by those events. They had yet to be morally chastened and challenged, as Reinhold Neibuhr would express and try to ethically understand.
So how do I get my students to believe, at least for a moment, the belief progressives had? And this is where I start: belief. What defines the progressive era, I think, is mass belief that the nation and world could be made better. The problems of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age could be rectified. Progress could be made through: efficiency, stability, safety, empathy, and democracy.
Efficiency: whether it’s Taylorism in the work place, or execution through electrocution, or cutting a canal through Central America, a progressive goal was to make society and the world more efficient.
Stability: whether it was TR trying to bring stability to coal strikes or to the Western Hemisphere, or whether it was the Federal Reserve Act created under Woodrow Wilson’s tenure, the goal was to bring stability to the nation’s economy, labor force, and international relations.
Safety: factories were dangerous places; cities were dangerous places; hell, the food itself was dangerous. The Pure Food and Drug Act was to make edibles more safe. Margaret Sanger wanted women to treat their bodies safely. And when the United States entered WWI, it was, as Wilson put it, “to make the world safe…”
Empathy: lots of progressives hoped that empathy could reign where disdain had ruled. Jane Addams hoped for that in Chicago. W. E. B. Du Bois hoped for that when he published The Souls of Black Folk - that somehow understanding across the color line would lead to the “contact of living souls.” Muckrakers like Upton Sinclair hoped that descriptions of everyday life (we can debate, of course, whether he got it right) would compel action and lead to greater sensitivity.
And finally, democracy was an order of the day. Enfranchising women … check (all women, no, but at least some African Americans hoped the new constitutional amendment would get black men and women to the polls in the South). Senators elected directly by citizens … check. Initiative, referendum, and recall … in some places, check, check, and check. And finally, what was Woodrow Wilson going to make safe? “the world for democracy.”
Grand goals; grand visions. Belief killed Wilson; it chastened Du Bois; and it left Addams feeling alone. But the point was belief in progress and change. The progressive era, I hope, offers my college students a little reprieve from the “gilded” focus of American history – that hope and belief matter too, and they can be historically significant.
So … as always, what am I missing here? Next week, I’ll discuss the primary documents from Major Problems and the coverage in Hist, but I’d love to hear some other viewpoints.