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American History 2--HIST 2112 (OER): Chapter 20: The Progressive Era

American Yawp Chapter Summary

“Never in the history of the world was society in so terrific flux as it is right now,” Jack London wrote in Iron Heel, his 1908 dystopian novel in which a corporate oligarchy comes to rule the United States. He wrote, “The swift changes in our industrial system are causing equally swift changes in our religious, political, and social structures. An unseen and fearful revolution is taking place in the fiber and structure of society. One can only dimly feel these things, but they are in the air, now, today.”1

The many problems associated with the Gilded Age—the rise of unprecedented fortunes and unprecedented poverty, controversies over imperialism, urban squalor, a near-war between capital and labor, loosening social mores, unsanitary food production, the onrush of foreign immigration, environmental destruction, and the outbreak of political radicalism—confronted Americans. Terrible forces seemed out of control and the nation seemed imperiled. Farmers and workers had been waging political war against capitalists and political conservatives for decades, but then, slowly, toward the end of the nineteenth century a new generation of middle class Americans interjected themselves into public life and advocated new reforms to tame the runaway world of the Gilded Age.

Widespread dissatisfaction with new trends in American society spurred the Progressive Era, named for the various “progressive” movements that attracted various constituencies around various reforms. Americans had many different ideas about how the country’s development should be managed and whose interests required the greatest protection. Reformers sought to clean up politics, black Americans continued their long struggle for civil rights, women demanded the vote with greater intensity while also demanding a more equal role in society at large, and workers demanded higher wages, safer workplaces and the union recognition that would guarantee these rights. Whatever their goals, “reform” became the word of the age, and the sum of their efforts, whatever their ultimate impact or original intentions, gave the era its name. Read more from Chapter 20 of the American Yawp.

Things to Consider

Questions to be thinking about as you move through the content of this chapter

  1. What were the differences between the upper-class, working-class, and socialist reformers during the Progressive Era? 
  2. How did legislation help reformers advance their causes?
  3. How effective was “moral legislation” in the late nineteenth century?  Did this approach cause any problems?
  4. In what ways did women participate in politics in the Progressive Era?  How did this ultimately lead to women’s suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment?
  5. How did muckrakers contribute to the Progressive Era?
  6. What is meant by the term “trust busting?” 
  7. Describe the progressive reforms of the Roosevelt and Wilson administrations.  How did Taft’s administration differ from these two?
  8. Compare and contrast the two primary approaches to progressive environmentalism: preservation & conservation.
  9. Compare and contrast Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois in terms of their approaches to Civil Rights.

Learning Objectives and Assessment

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Distinguish between primary and secondary materials and decide when to use each
  • Explore the complexity of the human experience, across time and space
  • Distinguish between historical facts and historical interpretations

Course Objectives

  • The student will be able to explain the social, economic, and political impact of the second Industrial Revolution and global migration of labor at the regional and national level of the late Nineteenth-early Twentieth Centuries.
  • The student will understand the development and impact of main ideologies, reform movements, and growth of international influence in late Nineteenth Century- early Twentieth Century World War I years.
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