Study Guide

The Man with the Muckrake Historical Context

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Historical Context

Prepare yourself for a big dose of deja-vu all over again.

There are so many parallels between America during the 1890s and America today that Professor Mark Brilliant over at UC Berkeley (we swear we're not making up his name) has dubbed our current historical era "The New Gilded Age." (Source)

The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain and the idea was that the age itself was gilded: it wasn't made of gold, only coated in it. It's the car that's all shiny off the lot, but when you take it home you realize it's held together by duct tape and a prayer.

Sadly, this turned out to be pretty on-point.

Urban America, or "Hell With the Lid Off"

Things definitely looked rosy on the surface: wealth was skyrocketing, cities were swelling, and the country became a host to fabulously wealthy people. However, there was a reason why these wealthy business owners earned the nickname "Robber Barons."

And—surprise!—it wasn't a good one.

They each strove to set up their own neat monopoly, buying and squeezing competing businesses out of the market and taking advantage of a lack of business regulations to have their employees working under terrible conditions. We're talking kids getting their arms crushed in machines, noxious fumes and airborne particles everywhere, fire hazard city. Mmm.

While big businesses made money hand over fist and the middle class began to emerge, a huge amount of America saw precious little of the massive economic boom that the U.S. was riding into prominence. The wealth gap in the United States was too big to be ignored; it was the great proverbial elephant in the room. Cities were at once places of glitz and glamour and terrible slums. Cramped tenement halls and opulent department stores walked hand-in-hand in cities like New York. Organized labor and businesses at the time were locked in combat.

As machines became more and more advanced and immigrants continued to pour into the United States, individual laborers were basically expendable and were used and discarded as needed like paper towels. Labor organizers emerged to give the workers some bargaining power as a unit, which put a bad taste in many businesses' mouths.

Strikes were a mainstay, and violence became a household name.

In 1892, a strike at the Homestead Steel Works in Pittsburgh turned into a massacre when Henry Clay Frick hired a bunch of men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to put the strike down. An already tense standoff turned into a bloodbath, with both sides firing in on the other. Four years later, a bomb went off at Haymarket Square in Chicago during a labor rally. There were labor organizers of all different stripes, from moderate to radical and from peaceful to violent, and strike-busters were all too willing to put the screws on them.

(Square) Deal With it

Teddy Roosevelt's presidency signaled an era shift that was brewing in the background, but was cemented by Teddy Roosevelt's reformist policies: the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era. Cities were full of problems and perceived problems, but, equipped with the Hammer of Science and the Blunt Stick of Morality, reformers sought to stomp out the worst of what cities had to offer.

TR laid out his policies as a Square Deal for the American people, where the worst of corruption was smoothed out so everyone had a fair shot.

While some progressive reforms verged on silly—like Sylvester Graham's "War on Flavor" or Teddy Roosevelt's own executive order to remove the British "U" from American English— others tackled more dire problems. You know, important stuff like pollution, workplace conditions, and needed regulations.

By the time Roosevelt's speech happened, some successes of the Progressive Era were in the books. Child labor laws had been passed, laws regulating the living conditions of tenement houses were passed, and the Interstate Commerce Act had been passed to help regulate the railroads—some of the biggest players in the whole crushing-monopoly business. Change was happening, but whether it was going too slow or not doing enough was still a matter of debate; a debate that was raging at the time of this speech.

(Bonus: for a complete breakdown of the Progressive Era, check this out.)

"The Man with the Muckrake" speech in particular came right in between the publication of journalist and writer Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a book that caused a whole lot of panic about Chicago's meatpacking industry, and the Roosevelt administration's response to the uproar, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which founded the FDA.

Hmm, just a coincidence that TR had investigative journalists on the brain when delivering this speech? Yeah, we didn't think so.

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