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Muckrakers & Reformers Terms

Assimilation, Assimilated

The process through which a particular immigrant group abandons its ethnic traditions to adopt the cultural mores of mainstream America.

Christian Messianism

Messianism is the belief that a particular religion is destined to save the world, so Christian messianism is obviously the belief that Christianity will triumph. By tying her settlement house movement to the work of Jesus Christ (to help and uplift the poor, for example) Jane Addams employed an effective argument with her late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century audiences.

Cultural Pluralism

The idea, first introduced by Randolph Bourne in a 1916 essay, that America might benefit from (rather than be injured by) its diverse variety of distinctive but intermixing ethnicities. The worldview of cultural pluralism stands in opposition to the assimilationist outlook of nativists, who worry that an excessively diverse population will lead to a loss of social cohesion and national unity.

Dumbbell Tenements, Dumbbell Tenement, Dumbbell Tenement House, Dumbbell Tenement Houses

A style of tenement housing that became quite widespread in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Dumbbell tenements were named for the shape of their floor plans; the buildings were as wide as their lots at the front and back, but narrower in the middle, leaving lightwells between neighboring tenements to allow a certain amount of fresh air to reach the interior of the structures. While the dumbbell tenements were supposed to be more healthy than their predecessors (which often filled their entire lots, leaving many apartments with no windows to access to light or fresh air), the dumbbell tenements often became badly overcrowded with immigrant tenants crowded into tiny living spaces in unsanitary conditions.

The Franchise

The right to vote.

Free-market Principles

Principles that favor an unregulated (or minimally regulated) economic market, thus allowing the forces of supply and demand to control the course of events. Also known as a laissez faire perspective (from the French for "to allow to do"). Most Progressives supported free-market capitalism, though they also desired government reforms in specific areas like child labor, liquor sales, and prostitution. Beyond the "vice" industry and the regulation of female and child labor, Progressives generally favored a free-market capitalist economy and viewed monopolies as aberrations in restraint of free trade.


This term has been used in reference to both the abolition movement against slavery and the suffrage movement that later came out of it. It began with radical activists like David Walker and William Lloyd Garrison, who demanded an immediate end to slavery, while other antislavery figures sought a gradual phasing out of the institution over the generations. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, immediatist suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony agitated just as urgently for the franchise, going so far as to get arrested for trying to vote. The Quaker activist Alice Paul and her friend Lucy Burns took an immediatist stance in the early twentieth century, organizing the National Woman's Party (NWP) as a more aggressive counterpoint to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NWP members picketed the White House, were often arrested, went to jail rather than acknowledge any wrongdoing by paying fines, and several of them—including Paul—staged hunger strikes once they were in prison. Such activities garnered quite a bit of attention for them (which was the point, after all), and contributed to a shift in public opinion that—when combined with wartime pressures and the more subtle political maneuvering of NAWSA—ultimately led to ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920.

Isolationism, Isolationist, Isolationists

After World War I, the United States entered a period of isolationism that lasted throughout the 1920s and even up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. This turn away from the "foreign entanglements" of alliances with other nations came in part because of the disillusionment of the war's end, when the European Allies demanded heavy concessions from Germany. World War I was hardly the "war to end all wars" or the universal flourishing of democracy that President Wilson and other Progressives had envisioned. Republicans in Congress led the movement to reject the Treaty of Versailles, thereby rejecting President Woodrow Wilson's entire postwar vision for America. Wilson and his supporters had envisioned the U.S. as a participant in the international League of Nations that would facilitate diplomacy between countries and preempt any future conflicts. Yet the public turned against this vision and a succession of conservative Republican presidents soon followed, occupying the White House throughout the 1920s.

Prison Reform

One of the Progressives' many causes. Prisons themselves had been designed since the 1790s in the U.S. as places where criminals could be reformed and rehabilitated. In the late nineteenth century, Progressives began movements to "reform" these "reforming" institutions by creating special and separate facilities for female and juvenile convicts. By the turn of the century, states like Illinois had developed the first juvenile court systems. New prisons were also built, but in the South officials tended to employ the convict-lease system instead of building new prisons (this was for a number of reasons, including a lack of funding in contrast with northern municipalities, and some political corruption whereby contractors could "purchase" convict labor on the cheap by bribing prison officials).

Progressive, Progressives

This capitalized noun is not to be confused with the lower-case adjective form—progressive—which can be applied to any time period and which means "moving forward; advancing," or "promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies." Of course, the reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries called themselves "Progressives" because they associated themselves with the adjective. Progressives are usually associated with the Progressive Party, which began in 1912, but the broad term can refer to any person who "favors or strives for progress toward better conditions, as in society or government" during the Progressive Era.

Prohibition, Prohibitionist, Prohibitionists

The term usually referring to the time period during which the production, transport, and sale of alcohol was outlawed in the United States by the Eighteenth Amendment (ratified in 1918). Prohibition technically lasted from 1920 (when legislation enforcing the Amendment went into effect) to 1933, when the Twenty-First Amendment overturned the Eighteenth. Prohibition was the ultimate goal of the temperance (or prohibition) movement, which was active in the U.S. from the 1830s, if not earlier. Temperance activists associated alcohol with most social vices, including domestic violence, laziness, poverty, sinfulness, and insanity. Prohibitionists were typically middle-class and oftentimes native-born whites who often associated drunkenness with poor immigrant "races."


The principle that the citizens of a nation should be able to choose their own form of government through democratic processes.

Social Darwinism, Social Darwinist

An extension and adaptation (or manipulation) of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory. Popular from about 1887 until World War II, Social Darwinism posited that human civilization evolves through conflict and competition among groups (especially races). By this reasoning, the social elite—who were overwhelmingly wealthy and powerful white Anglo-Saxon Protestant people—were the most evolved members of society, and minorities like blacks or southern Europeans (who were usually confined to the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder) were poor and ignorant because they were from "inferior" racial stock.

Social Workers, Social Work

Social workers provide counseling and support to disadvantaged members of society. The profession developed formal credentialing methods and training programs in America during the early twentieth century. Social workers were at the forefront of several Progressive initiatives, including work with improving sanitation and safety measures for impoverished immigrants in urban areas, and the establishment and operation of settlement houses in the midst of those immigrant neighborhoods. Social workers were typically white, educated women from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds, but the profession also became an important employment base for black women.


The right to vote.

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