The Progressive movement grew at the turn of 20th century in response to the economic, social, and political problems of the Gilded Age -- the time of great economic expansion in the United States between the 1870s and 1900. Progressives feared the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few wealthy industrialists and bankers that began at this time, resulting in exploitation of workers and preventing grassroots political movements like Populism from succeeding. The Progressives, however, successfully responded to these problems through social reform and political action.
The Gilded Age
From 1865 until the early 1900s, America experienced a rapid industrialization centered on railroads, which led to the rise of industries like oil, steel and banking, each with immense political influence that led to corruption. An early example was the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1872, when several members of Congress bought discounted shares of Credit Mobilier, the construction company they had given exclusive rights to construct the Union Pacific Railroad. This increasingly cozy relationship between government and industry and the corruption that resulted was what Progressives feared about the consolidation of economic and political power.
Progressives also feared the increasing worker suppression during the Gilded Age. The growth of railroads was accomplished through the exploitation of workers, many of whom were either underpaid, former slaves, or immigrants. Many Chinese immigrants, for example, were used to construct the Central Pacific Railroad, working under slave-like conditions and without representation in unions. Though labor movements tried to form unions at this time, many of their strikes, such as the anti-railroad Pullman Strike of 1894, were put down by U.S. government troops, highlighting the way the government was effectively in the pocket of the industrial barons.
This concentration of power had a severe political impact, especially in the election of 1896, which would help galvanize the Progressive Movement. The Populist movement, which emerged from farmers discontented with railroads being built through their lands and with the oppressive gold standard that benefited bankers, sought to elect Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan to the presidency. Bryan's famous "cross of gold" speech underlined the problems faced by farmers and workers in the expansion of industry. Yet despite his popularity, Bryan lost in 1896 to Republican William McKinley, a result that killed the Populist movement. McKinley had the support of industry, and was able to spend five times more money than Bryan on his campaign.
In 1901 McKinley was assassinated and political newcomer Theodore Roosevelt became president. Roosevelt, though a Republican like McKinley, considered himself a Progressive. Under his administration, he curbed the growth of industry by breaking up monopolies, often took the side of the workers, helped pass the Food and Drug Act, and was a proponent of environmental conservation. Roosevelt's views reflected the overall mood of the country, which by 1901 had recognized that the unprecedented concentration of economic and political power seen in the Gilded Age was hurting workers and farmers and perpetuating an already excessive income inequality.
The Progressive Movement, however, was more than just the work of Theodore Roosevelt. Investigative journalists such as Upton Sinclair helped alert the public to the dangerous working conditions in factories. Jane Addams, a prominent social worker and activist who later received a Nobel Prize for her work, founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889 to provide a space for immigrants and the poor and helped launch the settlement house movement across the U.S. The Progressives also passed constitutional amendments that created an income tax, allowed for the direct election of senators, banned alcohol and gave women the right to vote, a successful response to the problems of their time.
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