From the 1890s to the 1920s, there were large amounts of political and social refinement taking place in the United States. The Progressive Era ultimately presented women with the right to vote, enabled prohibition, and attempted to purify the government. This era would present individuals with fairness, pure food and drugs, and railroad regulations. The Progressive Era would include a hard crackdown on ‘trusts’ or ‘Money Monopolies’ where businesses would eliminate competition by conspiring with one another. “If you can’t beat them, join them!”
These actions were a necessary response to the problems created by recent progressions in technology and development in the US. Progressives were apprehensive that industrial capitalism with its exploitation of labor alongside a dense concentration of wealth was ultimately impeding rather than increasing the amount of freedom an individual was presented with. Mechanization decreased the amount of jobs available for skilled workers and the robotic, prison like climate of the factory floor erased an individual’s free spirit.
Industrialization brought hazardous factories that cut corners in safety for profit- including the employment of over two million children under the age of fifteen. To maximize their profits and minimize their costs corporations resorted to forcing their workers into long hours with little pay accompanied with horrible conditions. Industrialization also enabled the ‘Money Monopolies’ and political corruption in businesses, scandals arose throughout cities everywhere. Immigration and urbanization resulted in overpopulated cities with large differences between social classes, extreme discrimination based upon both race and class, and unsafe health conditions in poor income living situations and the city itself.
But communities would fight back against these hardships, Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle” amongst other propaganda regarding the meat industry helped spread awareness about the conditions of meat workers, but primarily about the treatment of the meat. Societies outrage about the meats sanitation led to both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
Workers would organize into unions in attempt to force their employers to subtract from their long hours and increase their low pay. Employers like Henry Ford recognized this and decided to increase his workers’ pay, this led to Fords annual output rising from thirty-four thousand vehicles in 1910 to seven hundred thirty thousand vehicles in 1916. Corporations weren’t pro-union but most possessed common sense and acknowledged when changes were needed.
But despite these reforms, democracy suffered in many situations throughout the Progressive Era. Progressives restricted immigrant’s participation throughout the political process by forcing individuals to register for voting and pass literacy tests. The goal of registering people to vote was to lower chances of fraud and reduce political machines power but ultimately all it created was suppressed voting. Voting lowered drastically from eighty percent of male Americans voting around the 1890s to fifty percent of eligible Americans voting in modern times. In addition, the Progressive Era did very little for African Americans, or race equality in general. In fact, the Jim Crow laws were upheld in 1896 based upon the Supreme courts “separate but equal” legal doctrine.
Ultimately the Progressive Era promoted the concept that government action may address some of the faults and insecurities that characterized the modern industrial and therefore the notion that an activist government may enhance rather than threaten individual’s rights and freedom.