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• Introduction

Reform is a recurring theme in American history and it has been talked about most loudly during times of severe economic difficulties or after political scandals have been discovered. The reform movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a notable example. American farmers were demanding changes to improve their economic position. They asked for higher prices for their produce and a devaluation of the dollar to make it easier to repay loans. Social critics took up the plight of the city dwellers, many of them recent immigrants crowded into dirty slums. “muckraking” journalists and certain politicians exposed the poor working conditions endured by many Americans. Conservatives, liberals, moderates, and radicals agreed that something was wrong with America’s economic, social, and political scene. But the observers of this scene differed in their proposals for improving the situation.

Many of the reforms of the 1930s as well as those of more recent times, found their origins in the progressive decades around the turn of the century. By showing the similarities between current efforts to effect change and those of the past, and by discussing reform techniques—how certain techniques are tried and succeed, while others fail—Progressive, Populists, and Reform in America (1890-1917) will help make the era relevant to students’ experience.

• Objectives

Progressives, Populists, and Reform in America (1890-1917) has been designed to help student to:

• Understand the concept of reform and the related ideas of change and improvement;

• Gain an understanding of this period in American history;

• See examples of how both ordinary citizens and government leaders have attempted to improve and reform American society;

• Become familiar with such important thinkers and activists as Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, Robert M. La Follette, William Jennings Bryan, and others;

• Realize that the importance of women and organized labor in American society during this era increased;

• Practice historical interpretation and analysis;

• Understand that the significance of historical events lies in their relationship to the past and the future.

• Summary of the Program

Progressives, Populists, and Reform in America (1890-1917) is a two-part sound-filmstrip program that combines quotations from historical sources with narration and live photography with historical photographs, drawings and cartoons. To make the program more relevant to students, each part includes an exclusive interview with someone involved in a current reform movement.

Part 1 opens with the Reverend Jesse Jackson discussing the efforts of black Americans to achieve economic justice. A narrator then reviews the economic and social conditions that underlie all reform movements and presents a brief history of the so-called “gay” nineties and early nineteen hundreds, contrasting the wealth of the Morgans, Rockefellers, and Carnegies, with the desperation of the tenant farmers, immigrants, and unemployed.

Two selections from the period follow: one from the writings of Jabob Riis, who drew public attention to the visible contrasts between the rich and poor through photographs and journal articles about New York’s slums; and one about the work of Jane Addams, who attacked the problem of urban poverty by establishing a settlement house in Chicago.

The narrator goes on to describe other attempts at reform in the 1890s—violent labor strikes, Jacob Coxey’s march on Washington, and the rise of the Populist Party as the decline of the farmer’s economic situation led to protests against monopolies and the special privileges of big business. A reading from a famous speech by William Jennings Bryan and discussion of the past present meanings of the term populist follow. Part 1 concludes with the Reverend Jackson urging the creation of a Poor People’s Lobby in Washington D.C., so that the disadvantaged can obtain the same legislative benefits that other special interest groups enjoy.

Part 2 opens with an interview with Heather Booth, the director of the Midwest Academy, a school for social activists. Ms. Booth’s view that social change comes about through the day-to-day efforts of the common people contrasts with the commonly-accepted opinion that the reforms of the early twentieth century were the result of efforts by Robert La Follette, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and other progressive politicians. The program then discusses the Progressive political reforms that began in Wisconsin and then spread to other states and the federal government. Several selections from muckraking journal articles are presented to show their influence on subsequent legislation. Sequences follow in which President Theodore Roosevelt is credited with breaking up certain trusts and establishing a system of national parks and forests, and Woodrow Wilson is cited for further actions to increase competition in the marketplace and to institute an income tax.

Assessing the results of the progressive era, the narrator lists and defines such reforms as the direct primary, the initiative, the referendum, and the direct election of United States Senators. He also analyzes gains made by blacks, women, and the labor movement during the two decades before America’s entry into World War I. Concluding the program, Heather Booth urges direct action by ordinary citizens to change laws and to force business to make concessions to consumers. As an example, she shows how community groups have been fighting the banks that red-line certain neighborhoods.

• Progressivism: A Reform Movement?

Progressivism has typically been regarded as an integral part of the American reform tradition. But in recent years, some historians have begun to question, even attack, this interpretation. Far from being an example of a reform movement seeking to remedy social abuses and restore individual freedoms, Progressivism, say these historians, was a conservative and moralistic attempt to preserve outdated values and social structure. To these students of history, Progressivism was the handmaiden of the very big-business interests and corporate concentrations that the reformers were protesting against. And at least one historian, Peter Filene, claims that Progressivism was to diffuse to be considered a movement at all!

The purpose of this section is not to argue for any one viewpoint, but to present several major interpretations of Progressivism, in order that students may be encouraged to discuss the movement itself and may be stimulated to question precisely what a reform movement—past or present—really is.

After the Civil War, and particularly in the 1890s, and early 1900s, America experienced rapid industrialization. This led to the growth of very large businesses, and combinations, population shifts from rural to urban areas, and massive immigration of many different ethnic groups. To a large extent, money replaced morality in national politics; traditional values of individual initiative and free enterprise were on the decline; and municipal political abuses and corruption—based partially on the voting power of big-city immigrant blocs—was widespread.

Progressivism may be viewed, and is viewed by historians such as Eric Goldman, as a more or less straightforward attempt by American reformers to correct these abuses by extending democratic ideals and institutions to a greater number of individuals. However, it may also be viewed from any one of the following perspectives:

• As an attempt by middle-class professionals of white, “Anglo-Saxon,” “Yankee” stock to prevent their loss of social status to more recent immigrants. This was done by either persuading or forcing large numbers of immigrants and new urbanites to accept their traditional values of individual initiative, civic-mindedness, and moral behavior. According to historian Richard Hofstadter, the Progressives’ concern for social status, and their tendency to confuse form with substance, led to a number of superficial reforms of election procedures and few real changes.

• As a nativistic, bigoted, and intolerant approach to America’s new ethnic and religious diversity. This viewpoint is applied to the Populists as well as to the Progressives, and accounts for the repressive treatment of American blacks, Orientals, and other minorities at this time. Those who share this viewpoint also blame the Populists and Progressives for the increase in American imperialism during this period. In line with this viewpoint, Progressives are seen as furthering projects such as slum improvement and adult education to assuage their own guilty consciences. The Progressives are also seen as trying to “Americanize” the new immigrant cultures.

• As the handmaiden of big business interests attempting to bring order to the free-enterprise system. Historian Gabriel Kolko has asserted that monopolistic interests worked with the Progressives to pass social-welfare measures to ease discontent that could threaten their control of the industrial system.

• As a collection of persons and groups too diverse to be regarded as a “movement”—which is defined as an organized group with coherent membership, an identifiable program and values, and homogeneous supporters. However, according to historian Peter Filene, because Progressives did work during a period when many changes were taking place, their period can be labeled a Progressive era.

• Related Programs

REBUILDING THE AMERICAN NATION (1865-1890) (No. 6029) Explores the events which followed the Civil War. Explains the influences these events had on our nation’s political and economic structures.

THE RECKLESS YEARS: 1919-1929 (No. 6014) Demonstrates how corruption, government inaction and a laissez-faire economic policy contributed to the worst depression in the nation’s history. Examines the interaction of social, economic and political events of this decade.

THE GREAT DEPRESSION: 1929-1939 (No. 6024) Describes the effects of unemployment, traces Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and studies the mood of the country. Begins with Black Thursday and the panic on Wall Street, and concludes with the coming of World War II and the return of prosperity.

• Discussion Questions

Part 1

1. Define “reform.” What are some ways of accomplishing reforms?

2. What does Reverend Jesse Jackson mean when he says that black Americans do not have their “silver rights”?

3. Describe the social and economic conditions of the 1890s. Why were the 1890s a difficult period for many Americans? How did conditions in the 1890s catalyze attempts at reform?

4. What were some economic problems of the cities in the 1890s? What were some economic problems of the rural areas?

5. Why were the 1890s called the “Gay Nineties” despite the poor economic circumstances of many Americans? What traditional American values allowed a small class of wealthy men to wield such enormous political and economic power?

6. Describe the population changes taking place in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. What proportion of the U.S. population were new immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants? What percentage of the U.S. population moved to urban areas?

7. Who was Jacob Riis? For what purpose did Mr. Riis publish How The Other Half Lives and articles on the same subject? Can you think of modern journalists who have made similar attempts? Did they succeed?

8. Describe the social and economic conditions leading to Jane Addams’s establishment of Hull House. How did Hull House attempt to combat these conditions? How successful were these attempts?

9. Why does the Reverend Jesse Jackson consider Jane Addams to be a great historical figure?

10. Describe the conditions leading to the Homestead strike and the march on Washington D.C. of Coxey’s Army. What methods of reform were these groups using? Whye were these methods less successful than those of Jacob Riis?

11. Discuss the rise of the labor union movement in the 1890s. Why was there so much labor unrest during the decade?

12. Explain the economic conditions confronting the American farmer in the 1890s. How did these conditions lead to the formation of the Populist Party?

13. What was the platform of the Populist Party? Whom did the Populists view as their enemies, and why? Why were the Populists primarily a rural-based movement?

14. Why did the silver issue become so important in the Populist/Democratic campaign in 1896? How did this preoccupation with silver detract from the more radical demands of the Populist Party?

15. Is there a current politician whom you would consider a Populist?

16. Why do you think the Republican candidate, William McKinley, won the election of 1896, defeating William Jennings Bryan, the candidate of both the Democratic and the Populist parties?

17. Do you view the Populists as a radical reform movement or a conservative one? Explain your answer.

18. Why did the Populist Movement decline after the 1890s? Which of their reform proposals were later enacted, and by whom? Why were these proposals accepted only after the demise of the Populist Party?

19. What is the purpose of the Poor People’s Lobby? What type of legislation might the Poor People’s Lobby promote?

Part 2

1. What aspects of American history does Heather Booth believe are missing from most textbooks? Do you agree with her?

2. Describe the rise of the Progressive Movement. Who were some of its leaders? What were its goals? How did the leadership and orientation of the Progressives differ from that of the Populists?

3. What were some of the political abuses the Progressives sought to correct? How did they propose to correct these abuses?

4. Describe the function and purpose of the following Progressive reforms: the direct primary; the referendum; the initiative; the recall of elected officials; direct election of United States senators.

5. What was muckraking? Who were some well-known muckrakers?

6. Describe specific muckraking efforts and the reforms that they led to.

7. What was the “Square Deal” of the Theodore Roosevelt administration? By what measures was it implemented?

8. Why had Progressivism become so popular by the election year of 1912? Why was it so much more successful than Populism?

9. Describe President Wilson’s “New Freedom.” By what measures was it implemented?

10. How did World War I interrupt the Progressive Era? What reforms remain unaccomplished at the end of this era?

11. What was the position of blacks during the Progressive Era? How did they and fellow reformers seek to improve this position?

12. Describe the efforts for women’s suffrage that took place during the Progressive Era. Why do you think the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the vote, was not passed until 1920?

13. Describe the development of the organized labor movement during the Progressive Era. How did organizations like Samuel Gompers American Federation of Labor differ from earlier labor movements? In membership? In goals? In the methods used to achieve these goals?

14. What is “direct action” as defined by Heather Booth?

15. How are elected officials vulnerable to pressure from social-change organizations? How are store owners vulnerable to the demands of consumers?

16. What is “red-lining”? What method has Heather Booth described to oppose red-lining?

17. Why did the impulse for reform become dormant by 1917? Why was it revived in the 1930s? How can President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal be considered the final act of the Progressive Era?

18. Describe some recent movements for reform and some methods advocated to achieve desired reforms. Compare these methods to those of the Populist and Progressive movements.

• General and Research Questions

1. Contrast the economic goals of the Populists with those of the Progressives. Which were more radical? Which were closer to socialism? Explain your answers.

2. Several historians, notably Richard Hofstadter, have labeled the Progressives as status-conscious, upper middle-class individuals more concerned with protecting the status quo than with accomplishing authentic reform. What is your opinion of these statements? How do you evaluate the Progressive movement?

3. The typical Progressive has been described as a deeply moral, highly educated person with a value system stressing fairness, personal accountability, and the right of the individual to advance on his or her own merits. Yet, during the early twentieth century, and under the Progressive Administrations of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the position of black Americans reached a critically low level, with an increase in both the number of lynchings and racial riots and the passage of discriminatory Jim Crow laws. How can this fact be reconciled with the stated goals of the Progressive movement? Were there any factors in Progressive beliefs or in the backgrounds of Progressive leadership that account for this situation? Does Progressive treatment of blacks cause you to change your overall evaluation of the Progressive movement? Why or why not?

4. Some historians, notably Gabriel Kolko, have labeled the Progressive movement as the actual tool of the big business and monopolistic interests that it seemed to oppose. Kolko claimed that regulation of railroads and other measures helped to eliminate normal competition, thus enabling large companies to concentrate on reducing the number of their smaller competitors. Comment on this opinion. Do you agree or disagree with it. Why?

5. Contrast the Populist and Progressive movements with contemporary reform movements such as Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH or attempts at “green-lining” discussed by Heather Booth. Consider beliefs or value systems, goals, and methods in your discussion.

6. How do the problems of American farmers today compare with the problems of farmers in the 1890s?

• Suggested Activities

1. Research and report on the lives and backgrounds of Populist leaders such as Thomas Watson, Ignatius Donnelly, James B. Weaver, Mary K. Lease, and William Jennings Bryan. How did they differ from that of subsequent Progressive leaders?

2. Read and report on one or more Populist novels that project into the future, such as Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Comment on some major themes of these novels, such as nativism, anti-Semitism, socialism, fantasy, and apocalypse. Compare their content to works such as George Orwells’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

3. Research and report on the lives and backgrounds of one or more Progressive leaders, such as Lincoln Steffens, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Allen White, Robert La Follette, Louis Brandeis, Tom Johnson, or George Norris. What similarities may be found in these men’s backgrounds? What differences in background are there? Did all of these leaders come from one particular social or economic class? How do their backgrounds compare to those of leading businessmen, railroad executives, and financiers of the period?

4. Read one or more Progressive muckraking works such as Lincoln Steffen’s Shame of the Cities, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, or Ida B. Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company. Compare them with modern examples of investigative newspaper or journal reporting. Has the availability of sophisticated media, particularly radio and television, changed the nature of investigative reporting? Discuss.

5. As an individual or group project, do your own piece of investigative reporting on a topic of your choice. Present your results, which can include audiovisual as well as written materials, to your class.

6. Research and report on what you would consider a contemporary “reform” movement in local or state politics. Compare its problems, issues, and methods of operation with that of a past reform movement. If possible, as part of your research interview relevant local participants in a reform movement.

7. Focus on a current reform movement and contrast its goals, orientation, and methods with those of the Progressives.

8. Atttempt to organize and carry out your own reform project on a selected issue. This can be done either as a class, small group, or individual project. The project should have some specific goal, such as changing a local ordinance.