From education to monopoly to suffrage to prohibition, the many issues that Progressive reformers tackled reflected the variety of their ambitious goals. Some Progressives sought to restore democracy to government, others wanted to bring more opportunities to poor schoolchildren and immigrants, and still others worked to maintain fair enterprise in the business world. Progressives—primarily white, middle-and-upper-class individuals—had good intentions, for the most part, and achieved much success. Yet their victories often yielded unexpected consequences, serious limitations, and even tragic legacies, demonstrating that deep contradictions afflicted the Progressive movement. Internal differences were bound to arise within such a diverse coalition of reformers, and these internecine conflicts made it quite difficult to characterize the entire movement. From a historical perspective, the Progressive legacy has been both admired for its accomplishments and reviled for its failure to address other key problems and contradictions—like racism and nativism—that plagued America at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Recently, a New York Times editorial decried the "Biggest Beef Recall Ever." It reported on a "nauseating video" of diseased cows in filthy conditions at a Westland/Hallmark Meat Company plant, "stumbling on their way to a California slaughterhouse." The Humane Society of the United States, which randomly selected the plant for videotaping, took the footage and then distributed it nationwide via news stations and the internet. That controversial footage clearly indicated that Americans were being sold meat processed from sick animals that never, according to government food safety standards, should have become part of the food supply. In response to the resulting public outcry, the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company issued a full recall of more than 143 million pounds of beef produced over two years. This included—as the Times article noted—"37 million pounds that went to school-lunch programs."1 From all across the country, people quickly responded to the bad-meat exposé: vegetarians suggested that these sorts of catastrophes could be avoided altogether if people just stopped killing animals for food; omnivores wrote letters proposing that people should keep eating meat, but that the animals need not be mistreated while being raised for slaughter.
The whole episode unfolded just a bit more than one century exactly after the publication of Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, in 1906, which sparked the first national scandal over the meatpacking industry. Many of the issues first introduced during that Progressive-Era scandal remain live wires in today's political and social climate. How should the government effectively inspect the nation's food supply? What should the punishment be for violating government standards? How much power should food inspectors possess? What kind of safety standards are acceptable or advisable for the American food industry?.
Just as Upton Sinclair himself learned through bitter experience, reforms could produce results that differed considerably from the original intent of the reformer. The Humane Society sought to dramatize the plight of sick cows to win better treatment of animals, but early reaction to the scandal focused almost entirely on tightening standards over which animals should be blocked from entering the human food supply. No fundamental restructuring of the American beef industry today appears imminent. The economic pressures of the capitalist marketplace—the cost of land, the push to maximize output, the competition from foreign beef importers, the expense of new facilities, and the costs of removing diseased cattle from production—all work against the reformers' cause.
A century ago, Progressive reformers encountered similar setbacks. They tackled food safety along with a host of other issues: alcohol abuse, women's rights, economic concentration, corporate power, political corruption, and poverty. But they didn't solve them; tellingly, every one of these issues remains problematic in our own time. How do we, as a society, address these social challenges? Can the successes and failures of the Progressive reformers of a century ago provide us with guidance? Or should they serve as a cautionary tale?