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The progressive era refers to the period between the 1890s and 1920s when significant social and political reforms occurred in the United States (Foner, 2013). The changes were championed by individuals, lobby groups, and Federal and State organs through advocacy and legislation. The success recorded in corporate accountability, public participation in political processes, and government's role in regulating public and private life qualifies the progressive era as the second American Revolution.
Charlotte Gilman said, "When the mother of the race is free, we shall have a better world, by the easy right of birth and by the calm, slow, friendly forces of evolution" (Foner, 2013). True to her words, the progressive era saw more women play a significant role in public life. A key example is Ida Tarbell role in transforming governance in private and public sectors through the "muckrakers" movement. This group of investigative journalists used magazine publications to expose corruption. The expose by Ida Tarbell on the unethical business practices of the Standard Oil Company influenced the adoption of the Sherman Anti-trust Act to promote business ethics and stir competition. Before the Sherman Act, shareholders in some companies transferred their shares into a single set of trustees, which allowed them to earn from consolidated revenues of jointly owned companies. This move effectively killed competition and the Act dissolved such trusts. The most progressive legislation for women in that period is the Nineteenth Amendment, a culmination of the "Campaign for Women Suffrage." Earlier, women were considered second-class citizens without the political right to vote. As a result, ladies were transformed from housewives to equal citizens with the ability to participate in public life.
Progressiveness enhanced the working conditions of American workers and gave rise to labor movements. John Mitchell thoughts capture their aspiration when notes that "...real industrial liberty was not even established with the abolition of chattel slavery; because liberty means more than the right to choose the field of one's employment" (Foner, 2013, p.89). Industrial age saw many people immigrate and migrate to urban areas like Chicago and Manhattan as factory workforces. Most of them worked under in hazardous environment putting them at risk of injuries and diseases. Besides, the wages were low forcing them to live in poor and congested areas. In the face of these challenges, activists like Jane Addams became advocates for worker's rights. Addams formed the "Hull House" in Chicago to support the "immigrant's quest for freedom" in the U.S. This saw the rise of immigrant's labor unions that used collective bargaining to raise the workers' pay and negotiate for better work environments. Employees' unions and labor negotiations are now part of the American labor industry.
The progressive era is captured by Woodrow Wilson's quote when he said, "Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of the government" (Foner, 2013, p.105). During Roosevelt reign, the public pushed for substantive legislation and constitution Amendments that were revolutionary. The Sixteenth Amendment established a federal income tax allowing the government to cash on company profits and re-distribute wealth through social amenities. In the past, federal taxes were raised through tariffs with a massive burden on consumers. The amendment allowed the administration to collect taxes on incomes and this shifted the tax burden to businesses and the tycoons. Essentially the move to create the income tax funds ensured a move to a larger and active federal government that continued to play a regulatory role. The Seventeenth Amendment allowed for a transparent and accountable method of selecting Senators by the public. Before, Senators were chosen by the legislature. The progressive movement rejected this process since business interests manipulated it. This legislation drastically transformed the U.S business and political landscapes.
Lastly, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 established administration over food and drugs. This policy guaranteed the safety and purity of these products. Up to date, American consumers can purchase foodstuff and pharmaceuticals assured that they have no side effects. Woodrow Wilson's rule extended the Anti-trust regulations through the Clayton Act and expanded the role of government by introducing the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. These plans revitalized democracy by restoring market competition and continues to shield the government from the domination of mega-corporates.
Despite the positive reforms ushered by the revolution, a few outcomes were counter-revolutionary. The Wilson administration allowed racial segregation to permeate in the Federal government with Ku Klux Klan revamping its vicious attacks on African-Americans. Also, the labor unions advocated for the prohibition of immigrant workers and promoted xenophobic assaults on them. Finally, the reformist ideas holding that it was possible to engineer human nature to improve the genetic quality of human population saw them advocate for selective breeding.
Intellectuals and social reformers unveiled the progressive movement in response to the shortcomings of the industrial revolution. Progressivism marked the beginning of a new American order characterized by ethical businesses, improved living conditions and an efficient participatory government. The reforms of the era continue to influence the lives of the U.S citizens to date.
Foner, E. (2013). Give me liberty! An American history: Seagull fourth edition (Vol. 1). New York, NY: Norton & Company.
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