Study Guide

Muckrakers & Reformers Analysis

Advertisement - Guide continues below

  • Race

    Pseudo-Science and the Progressive Politics of Race

    After the Civil War, the Darwinian theory of evolution gained currency as the cutting-edge scientific discovery of the age. Popular interest in evolution extended into the topic of hereditary traits and the concept of evolution within the human species. 

    Many racial theorists mobilized pseudo-scientific methods to "prove" that evolution not only took place across the centuries, but that the Anglo-Saxon race was the most evolved of all human races: African Americans, they concluded, were the least evolved. 

    Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe also suffered from this distortion of Darwinism, as many white Protestants of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic descent considered them less evolved and therefore susceptible to laziness, drunkenness, violence, and poverty. As an overwhelmingly white, middle and upper-class movement, Progressivism emerged in this climate of pseudo-science and racial prejudice. 

    Although not all Progressives discriminated against Blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, very few favored true racial equality or recognized much value in the immigrants' cultural heritage. The histories of Progressivism, Social Darwinism, and Jim Crow were inextricably entangled. Although most Progressives never could have realized how profoundly prevailing attitudes about race would change over the course of the 20th century, their legacy as social reformers would ultimately be tarnished by the multiple inequalities embedded in their movement.

    The Melting Pot

    Some whites were willing to accept the presence of immigrants in American society if the newcomers would just conform to traditional notions of "American" culture. Usually this meant shedding most or all vestiges of their preexisting cultural and national identity. 

    To this end, the nation's leading industrialist, automaker Henry Ford, opened a special school to train his foreign-born workers in Americanism. From its opening in 1913, the Ford English School for immigrant automobile workers put its "graduates" through a highly symbolic ceremony in which workers clad in outlandish versions of their home countries' traditional garb descended into a giant papiér-mâché melting pot, only to climb out the other side wearing modern business suits and waving tiny American flags while singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." 

    Such ceremonies of assimilation were designed to encourage worker efficiency by transcending potential language barriers. But they also enforced a specific definition of American identity, one anchored to a traditional white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant perspective. The very notion of cultural pluralism—that America as a nation might benefit from its variety of distinctive but intermixing ethnicities—wasn't even a recognized concept until writer Randolph Bourne introduced it in a 1916 essay. Even after Bourne broached the idea, it never won popular consensus, and definitions of "Americanism" remain a matter of contentious debate to this day. 

    In Henry Ford's day, employees who proved unable or unwilling to completely conform to a new "American" identity, even in their home lives, could be fired from their jobs. Ford actually maintained a "sociological department" of private investigators who worked to determine whether employees were adhering to his standards. Workers at the Ford Motor Company had to open their homes to close inspections that evaluated the employees' décor, clothing, and cooking. Clearly, outreach to immigrants could sometimes morph into a coercive form of Americanization.

    "A Mess, a Quagmire"

    Progressive-era notions of Social Darwinism and race didn't only promote cultural imperialism—they provided a justification for real imperialism, helping to pave the way to the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. 

    In 1898, the United States began its military involvement in the Philippines by aiding independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo in his already two-year-old struggle for freedom from Spanish colonial rule. But after the Spanish were defeated, President McKinley argued that Americans must retain control over the island nation because its non-white people were "unfit for government" and Americans must "educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."

  • Gender

    The Ladies Step Up

    Women were actually key players during the Progressive movement. 

    Longstanding social traditions held that women were uniquely predisposed to maintain the moral center for their families. They were supposed to be purer, less vulnerable to temptation than men—especially since men were supposed to go to work in the vice-infested public sphere, while wives remained cloistered within the moral bastion of the home. Since women were also deemed responsible for raising children, they assumed the role of teachers and guardians of Christian virtues and values. 

    Though these same religious teachings implied that women should be obedient wives and subservient individuals, ironically, they also provided a socially acceptable venue in which females could assume an active role in public life. That is, women could transgress traditional gender roles in the name of safeguarding other, more sacred traditions like Christian piety and social morality. 

    In the long term, Progressive women were successful on several counts, but in their success lay unimagined troubles and complications. Progress rarely comes without pain, after all.


    Popular movements to combat "the sin of drink" had existed since the early-19th century in the United States, but had never met with much success. Though several states passed prohibition laws in the antebellum period, by the late 1860s, most had already repealed those laws. 

    When the Prohibition Party was organized and ran its first national campaign in 1872, it didn't fare well—candidate James Black drew about 0.1% of the popular vote. Though the United States was a deeply religious—and overwhelmingly Christian—nation, its voting males had grown up in a culture of strict party loyalty, so it was very rare for a person to bolt his party affiliation to join up with an independent movement, especially for the sake of a tiny party with a single-issue platform. Many men hoped that their own parties would eventually adopt prohibition as part of their platform, and others deemed temperance a "moral" issue that ought not be combated through politics. Many others simply didn't find their religious views and their taste for drink to be mutually exclusive. 

    In 1884, the Prohibition Party—which still exists today—nonetheless attracted just enough votes in New York to take the presidential election from Republican James G. Blaine and hand it to Democrat Grover Cleveland by the thinnest of margins. At its peak, which occured in the 1888 and 1892 elections, the Prohibition Party polled about 2% of the popular vote.

    Meanwhile, female temperance activists were organizing an even more powerful association. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was organized in 1874, pledging support for the Prohibitionist Party but also assuming responsibility for a range of other projects. It soon became the largest women's organization in the country, advocating a string of reforms in addition to temperance—from prison reform and public health to world peace. 

    In 1876, former educator Frances Willard assumed leadership of the WCTU. Under Willard, the organization became a key supporter of the female suffrage movement. Consequently, the liquor lobby became one of the principal opponents to women's suffrage, as it justly feared that women might use the franchise to vote to prohibit the sale of alcohol. And so, the issues of temperance and suffrage were intertwined throughout the Progressive Era, although not all suffragettes were for temperance, and vice versa. Both prohibtionists and suffragettes had to wait until after World War I to realize their goals on a nationwide scale.

    In the meantime, frustration took hold for some temperance activists. In Kansas, Carry A. Nation secured a place for herself in the history books when she ahandoned the WCTU's peaceful approach in favor of violent direct action. Nation, who was briefly married to an alcoholic in the 1860s, joined up with a growing movement of primarily female temperance activists who were enraged by the state's uneven enforcement of an 1881 "dry" law that hadn't succeeded in shuttering all of Kansas' saloons. A frustrated Nation argued, "A woman is stripped of everything by them [saloons]. Her husband is torn from her; she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food, and her virtue. [...] Truly does the saloon make a woman bare of all things!" 

    In June 1900, Nation had a dream in which a voice appeared to her and said, "Take something in your hands, and throw at these places [...] and smash them." 

    This seemingly religious sign was all the impetus that the devout Carry required to take action into her own hands. Arming herself with rocks, brickbats, axes, and a fervent religious devotion, Nation led her followers on a succession of saloon attacks between 1900 and 1910, chanting "Smash, ladies, smash!" throughout each onslaught. She was arrested 30 times but felt emboldened by her religiosity, describing herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn't like."blank">Voting Rights Act of 1965.

  • Society

    Theodore Roosevelt derisively named them after "the Man with the Muckrake, " a figure who'd "rake to himself the filth of the floor" in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

    But the unexpected consequences that plagued so many other Progressive reforms also affected the caliber of education in the United States. In high schools, an antiquated 19th-century curriculum designed for privileged elite men—geared toward classical studies like Latin and Greek—persisted in many places, contributing to high dropout rates and alienating many students who required new skills in a changing world—not fluency in ancient Greek. 

    For college-educated women, increased academic achievement didn't yield better job opportunities or salaries commensurate with their training. 

    Worst of all, African-American children were increasingly relegated to separate and unequal schooling throughout the late-19th and 20th centuries. Despite the 1896 Supreme Court verdict in Plessy v. Ferguson, which suggested that segregated public facilities could be "separate but equal," by 1910, Southern schools spent about twice as much on white students as they did on Black ones. White teachers also made twice as much as Black schoolteachers. For many whites who identified themselves as Progressives, Black schooling was something of a needless indulgence, since African Americans were expected to remain confined to menial work in the same agricultural and domestic industries that employed their parents, and weren't thought capable of ascending beyond that station in life. 

    In the South, where the vast majority of Black families struggled to survive by sharecropping on rented land, the school year was cut short for Black students who were expected to spend several months helping their parents harvest the crops. Progressive education substantially increased sholastic opportunities for white American pupils, even from the poorest families. But in education, as in most other spheres of life, African Americans found themselves largely excluded from the progress wrought by Progressivism.

  • Ideology

    Hereditary Pauperism

    In the context of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, poverty and immigration were deeply interconnected. Unlike the educated, skilled German immigrants who fled political persecution and came to America in the mid-19th century, the predominantly Southern and Eastern European immigrants of the Progressive age were mostly poor and unskilled. They took the lowest-paying jobs because they were the most desperate for work, and they occupied some of the most dilapidated inner-city housing. 

    Significantly, they also became associated with poverty, filth, and disease in the minds of many native-born American citizens who looked on the newcomers with a combination of fear and pity, much as their predecessors had viewed the starving and impoverished Irish newcomers of the 1840s and '50s. Of course, not all immigrants were poor and not all poor people were immigrants. But in the late-19th and early-20th-century climate of widespread alarm over increases in both immigration and poverty, preexisting stereotypes concerning the immigrants' culture, religion, and ethnicity combined with popular notions about poor people to shape American attitudes toward both immigrants and the poor.

    The Progressive movement actually helped to engender two diametrically opposed views of the homeless and destitute in America. Before the late-19th century, most people thought of the poor as victims of their own making. They were thought to be morally weak, or perhaps even "hereditarily predisposed" to a life of poverty—that is, laziness and poor spending habits were thought to be inherited through the generations, reflecting a very aristocratic view of the world in which people born into a certain class were destined to remain there. 

    But by the late-19th century, some Progressives—particularly those working for settlement houses, and eventually also professionals in municipal reform and welfare agencies—began to argue that the causes of poverty might be rooted in the economy and the lack of resources or opportunities available to the indigent. This new understanding of poverty consequently affected popular perceptions of many downtrodden groups, including immigrants. As historian John Higham explained, "As social workers fell into line, they too saw the immigrants not as an oppressive burden but as an oppressed minority. [...] After 1910 very few social workers who had intimate contact with foreign groups favored a further restriction of immigration."

    Jane Addams and Hull House

    Even in a climate of growing isolationism and xenophobia, some activists sought to create a more welcoming and just society for America's newcomers. 

    Jane Addams, one of the most important social reformers in American history, was perhaps the most proiminent Progressive working to alleviate the effects of urban poverty. Addams was a representative "new woman" of the Progressive Era—educated, independent, ambitious, and dedicated to reforming and improving the society around her. One of more than 80,000 women to graduate from American colleges by 1900, she was determined to put her knowledge to good use. Addams helped to create the modern social work profession and to bolster it as a respectable line of work for young women in an age where few such professions existed.

  • Politics

    Grass Roots

    In 1904, muckraker Lincoln Steffens compiled his recent periodical articles into a collection that dubbed corrupt machine politics The Shame of the Cities

    Chronicling the bribery and corruption that plagued many American municipalities, from St. Louis to New York, Steffens argued that Americans must shed their propensity for ethnic stereotyping and scapegoating if they ever hoped to effectively reform their government. While Steffens interviewed a New Yorker who blamed political corruption on the "Catholic Irish," he found the same problems in "St. Louis, a German city," and "Minneapolis, a Scandinavian city, with a leadership of New Englanders." 

    Everywhere he went, the ethnic composition of politicians changed, but the political corruption remained. For Steffens, the explanation of the true problem was a simple one: "Politics is business. That's what's the matter with it." 

    Progressives devised many innovative and sometimes substantive democratic reforms, but their well-intentioned efforts didn't always yield sure-fire results. Admirable reformist ideas were always beset by the ever-present factors of greed, corruption, and self-interested power. Not even the heralded virtues of expertise and technological development were foolproof safeguards against social problems that may, in the end, be endemic to the human condition.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...