The Lesson in this Unit discusses the Progressive Era from the late 1890’s through the 1912 Presidential Election. The political cartoons provided allow students to analyze opinions and economic changes that took place.
The Progressive Era began at the turn of the 20th Century and lasted through World War I. This period represented a time of economic and social reform. The landscape of America was rapidly changing from an agrarian society to an urban one. This rapid shift of industrialization caused drastic changes in the economy. Large corporations and trusts quickly arose and amassed significant power, and finally controlled the industry. An atmosphere of materialism and greed overwhelmed the market, leading to poor living conditions and long hours for working class people. The combination of poor housing, sanitation, healthcare, and exploitation of workers led to a call for immense reform. The Progressive leaders pushed for an agenda of reform for the broken political and economic system that perpetuated the disenfranchisement of the working people.
The drastic rise in economic activity at this time was mainly due to industrialization and the practice of cheap labor led by the predominant big businesses. This explosive growth in business led to the emergence of large corporations and trusts that controlled their industries by taking over smaller companies and creating a monopoly in the market. One of the most notable examples of this was the U.S Steel Corporation that was controlled by Andrew Carnegie. Between the years of 1887 and 1904, a total of nine steel companies were consolidated, and the corporation was able to practice ruthless tactics to monopolize the industry without consequences from the government.
Some people during the Progressive Era called for major social reforms and for an expanded role of the government to regulate business practices. Previously, the government promoted a free market and held a laissez-faire attitude, that meant the government would not become involved in regulating business practices. The old belief was that the market would adjust itself without the help of the government. The Progressive Era saw the corruption that stemmed from belief of a free market, and the progressives worked to create regulations of corrupt business practices in order to protect the interests of the public.
The first US president to seriously become involved in domestic economic affairs was President Theodore Roosevelt, also commonly referred to as TR. He brought a new wave of reform under the banner of “The New Nationalism.” His years in office promoted the rights of organized labor to exert its power over employers and the creation of government agencies to regulate the market. His successor, President William Howard Taft was Roosevelt’s protégé, yet he was more conservative than Roosevelt. While his presidency began with several large “trust busting” cases, he eventually resorted to a more conservative agenda which angered Roosevelt. In the presidential election of 1912 Roosevelt decided to run under the “Bull-Moose Party” in direct conflict with Taft. Alhough he did not win, he managed to split the Republican vote, which led to the Democrats winning the election and President Woodrow Wilson stepping into office. These years between Roosevelt and Wilson are now remembered as the Progressive Era and the decisions made during this period still reflect in our economy today.