Episode 27: Progressive Era
Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse U.S. history, and today we’re gonna talk
about Progressives. No Stan Progressives. Yes.
You know, like these guys who used to want to bomb the means of production, but also
less radical Progressives. Mr. Green, Mr. Green. Are we talking about,
like, tumblr progressive where it’s half discussions of misogyny and half high-contrast
images of pizza? Because if so, I can get behind that.
Me from the past, your anachronism is showing. Your Internet was green letters on a black
screen. But no, The Progressive Era was not like tumblr,
however I will argue that it did indirectly make tumblr and therefore JLaw gifsets possible,
so that’s something. So some of the solutions that progressives
came up with to deal with issues of inequality and injustice don’t seem terribly progressive
today, and also it kinda overlapped with the gilded age, and progressive implies, like,
progress, presumably progress toward freedom and justice, which is hard to argue about
an era that involved one of the great restrictions on freedom in American history, prohibition.
So maybe we shouldn’t call it the Progressive Era at all. I g--Stan, whatever, roll the
So, if the Gilded Age was the period when American industrial capitalism came into its
own, and people like Mark Twain began to criticize its associated problems, then the Progressive
era was the age in which people actually tried to solve those problems through individual
and group action. As the economy changed, Progressives also
had to respond to a rapidly changing political system.
The population of the U.S. was growing and its economic power was becoming ever more
concentrated. And sometimes, Progressives responded to this by opening up political
participation and sometimes by trying to restrict the vote.
The thing is, broad participatory democracy doesn’t always result in effective government--he
said, sounding like the Chinese national Communist Party.
And that tension between wanting to have government for, of, and by the people and wanting to
have government that’s, like, good at governing kind of defined the Progressive era. And also
our era. But progressives were most concerned with
the social problems that revolved around industrial capitalist society. And most of these problems
weren’t new by 1900, but some of the responses were.
Companies and, later, corporations had a problem that had been around at least since the 1880s:
they needed to keep costs down and profits high in a competitive market. And one of the
best ways to do this was to keep wages low, hours long, and conditions appalling: your
basic house-elf situation. Just kidding, house elves didn’t get wages.
Also, by the end of the 19th century, people started to feel like these large, monopolistic
industrial combinations, the so-called trusts, were exerting too much power over people’s
lives. The 1890s saw federal attempts to deal with
these trusts, such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but overall, the Federal Government wasn’t
where most progressive changes were made. For instance, there was muckraking, a form
of journalism in which reporters would find some muck and rake it.
Mass circulation magazines realized they could make money by publishing exposés of industrial
and political abuse, so they did. Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document?
I bet it involves muck. The rules here are simple.
I guess the author of the Mystery Document. I’m either correct or I get shocked.
“Let a man so much as scrape his finger pushing a truck in the pickle-rooms, and all
the joints in his fingers might be eaten by the acid, one by one. Of the butchers and
floormen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely
find a person who had the use of his thumb; time and time again the base of it had been
slashed, till it was a mere lump of flesh against which the man pressed the knife to
hold it. ... They would have no nails – they had worn them off pulling hides.”
Wow. Well now I am hyper-aware of and grateful for my thumbs. They are just in excellent
shape. I am so glad, Stan, that I am not a beef-boner at one of the meat-packing factories
written about in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. No shock for me!
Oh Stan, I can only imagine how long and hard you’ve worked to get the phrase “beef-boner”
into this show. And you finally did it. Congratulations. By the way, just a little bit of trivia: The
Jungle was the first book I ever read that made me vomit. So that’s a review. I don’t
know if it’s positive, but there you go. Anyway, at the time, readers of The Jungle
were more outraged by descriptions of rotten meat than by the treatment of meatpacking
workers: The Jungle led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
That’s pretty cool for Upton Sinclair, although my books have also led to some federal legislation,
such as the HAOPT, which officially declared Hazel and Augustus the nation’s OTP.
So, to be fair, writers had been describing the harshness of industrial capitalism for
decades, so muckraking wasn’t really that new, but the use of photography for documentation
was. Lewis Hine, for instance, photographed child
laborers in factories and mines, bringing Americans face to face with the more than
2 million children under the age of 15 working for wages. And Hine’s photos helped bring
about laws that limited child labor. But even more important than the writing and
photographs and magazines when it came to improving conditions for workers was Twitter
… what’s that? There was no twitter? Still? What is this 1812?
Alright, so apparently still without Twitter, workers had to organize into unions to get
corporations to reduce hours and raise their pay.
Also some employers started to realize on their own that one way to mitigate some of
the problems of industrialization was to pay workers better, like in 1914, Henry Ford paid
his workers an average of $5 per day, unheard of at the time. .
Whereas today I pay Stan and Danica 3x that and still they whine.
Ford’s reasoning was that better-paid workers would be better able to afford the Model Ts
that they were making. And indeed, Ford’s annual output rose from 34,000 cars to 730,000
between 1910 and 1916, and the price of a Model T dropped from $700 to $316.
Still, Henry Ford definitely forgot to be awesome sometimes; he was anti-Semitic, he
used spies in his factories, and he named his child Edsel.
Also like most employers at the turn of the century, he was virulently anti-union.
So, while the AFL was organizing the most privileged industrial workers, another union
grew up to advocate for rights for a larger swath of the workforce, especially the immigrants
who dominated unskilled labor: The International Workers of the World.
They were also known as the Wobblies, and they were founded in 1905 to advocate for
“every wage-worker, no matter what his religion, fatherland or trade,” and not, as the name
Wobblies suggests, just those fans of wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey. The Wobblies were radical socialists; ultimately
they wanted to see capitalism and the state disappear in revolution.
Now, most progressives didn’t go that far, but some, following the ideas of Henry George,
worried that economic progress could produce a dangerous unequal distribution of wealth
that could only be cured by … taxes. But, more Progressives were influenced by
Simon W. Patten who prophesied that industrialization would bring about a new civilization where
everyone would benefit from the abundance and all the leisure time that all these new
labor-saving devices could bring. This optimism was partly spurred by the birth
of a mass consumption society. I mean, Americans by 1915 could purchase all kinds of new-fangled
devices, like washing machines, or vacuum cleaners, automobiles, record players.
It’s worth underscoring that all this happened in a couple generations: I mean, in 1850,
almost everyone listened to music and washed their clothes in nearly the same way that
people did 10,000 years ago. And then BOOM. And for many progressives, this consumer culture,
to quote our old friend Eric Foner, “became the foundation for a new understanding of
freedom as access to the cornucopia of goods made available by modern capitalism.”
And this idea was encouraged by new advertising that connected goods with freedom, using “liberty”
as a brand name or affixing the Statue of Liberty to a product. By the way, Crash Course
is made exclusively in the United States of America, the greatest nation on earth ever.
(Libertage.) That’s a lie, of course, but you’re allowed
to lie in advertising. But in spite of this optimism, most progressives
were concerned that industrial capitalism, with its exploitation of labor and concentration
of wealth, was limiting, rather than increasing freedom, but depending on how you defined
“freedom,” of course. Industrialization created what they referred
to as “the labor problem” as mechanization diminished opportunities for skilled workers
and the supervised routine of the factory floor destroyed autonomy.
The scientific workplace management advocated by efficiency expert Frederick W. Taylor required
rigid rules and supervision in order to heighten worker productivity.
So if you’ve ever had a job with a defined number of bathroom breaks, that’s why.
Also “Taylorism” found its way into classrooms; and anyone who’s had to sit in rows for
45 minute periods punctuated by factory-style bells knows that this atmosphere is not particularly
conducive to a sense of freedom. Now this is a little bit confusing because
while responding to worker exploitation was part of the Progressive movement, so was Taylorism
itself because it was an application of research, observation, and expertise in response to
the vexing problem of how to increase productivity. And this use of scientific experts is another
hallmark of the Progressive era, one that usually found its expression in politics.
American Progressives, like their counterparts in the Green Sections of Not-America, sought
government solutions to social problems. Germany, which is somewhere over here, pioneered
“social legislation” with its minimum wage, unemployment insurance and old age pension
laws, but the idea that government action could address the problems and insecurities
that characterized the modern industrial world, also became prominent in the United States.
And the notion that an activist government could enhance rather than threaten people’s
freedom was something new in America. Now, Progressives pushing for social legislation
tended to have more success at the state and local level, especially in cities, which established
public control over gas and water and raised taxes to pay for transportation and public
schools. Whereas federally the biggest success was,
like, Prohibition, which, you know, not that successful.
But anyway, if all that local collectivist investment sounds like Socialism, it kind
of is. I mean, by 1912 the Socialist Party had 150,000
members and had elected scores of local officials like Milwaukee mayor Emil Seidel.
Some urban progressives even pushed to get rid of traditional democratic forms altogether.
A number of cities were run by commissions of experts or city managers, who would be
chosen on the basis of some demonstrated expertise or credential rather than their ability to
hand out turkeys at Christmas or find jobs for your nephew’s sister’s cousin.
Progressive editor Walter Lippman argued for applying modern scientific expertise to solve
social problems in his 1914 book Drift and Mastery, writing that scientifically trained
experts “could be trusted more fully than ordinary citizens to solve America’s deep
social problems.” This tension between government by experts
and increased popular democratic participation is one of the major contradictions of the
Progressive era. The 17th amendment allowed for senators to be elected directly by the
people rather than by state legislatures, and many states adopted primaries to nominate
candidates, again taking power away from political parties and putting it in the hands of voters.
And some states, particularly western ones like California adopted aspects of even more
direct democracy, the initiative, which allowed voters to put issues on the ballot, and the
referendum, which allows them to vote on laws directly.
And lest you think that more democracy is always good, I present you with California.
But many Progressives wanted actual policy made by experts who knew what was best for
the people, not the people themselves. And despite primaries in direct elections
of senators it’s hard to argue that the Progressive Era was a good moment for democratic
participation, since many Progressives were only in favor of voting insofar as it was
done by white, middle class, Protestant voters. Alright. Let’s Go to the Thought Bubble.
Progressives limited immigrants’ participation in the political process through literacy
tests and laws requiring people to register to vote. Voter registration was supposedly
intended to limit fraud and the power of political machines. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar,
but it actually just suppressed voting generally. Voting gradually declined from 80% of male
Americans voting in the 1890s to the point where today only about 50% of eligible Americans
vote in presidential elections. But an even bigger blow to democracy during
the Progressive era came with the Jim Crow laws passed by legislatures in southern states,
which legally segregated the South. First, there was the deliberate disenfranchisement
of African Americans. The 15th amendment made it illegal to deny the right to vote based
on race, color or previous condition of servitude but said nothing about the ability to read,
so many Southern states instituted literacy requirements. Other states added poll taxes,
requiring people to pay to vote, which effectively disenfranchised large numbers of African American
people, who were disproportionately poor. The Supreme Court didn’t help: In 1896,
it made one of its most famous bad decisions, Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that segregation
in public accommodations, in Homer Plessy’s case a railroad car, did not violate the 14th
amendment’s Equal Protection clause. As long as black railroad cars were equal
to white ones, it was A-OK to have duplicate sets of everything. Now, creating two sets
of equal quality of everything would get really expensive, so Southern states didn’t actually
do it. Black schools, public restrooms, public transportation opportunities--the list goes
on and on--would definitely be separate, and definitely not equal.
Thanks, ThoughtBubble. Now, of course, as we’ve seen Progressive ideas inspired a
variety of responses, both for Taylorism and against it, both for government by experts
and for direct democracy. Similarly, in the Progressive era, just as
the Jim Crow laws were being passed, there were many attempts to improve the lives of
African Americans. The towering figure in this movement to “uplift”
black southerners was Booker T. Washington, a former slave who became the head of the
Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a center for vocational education.
And Washington urged southern black people to emphasize skills that could make them successful
in the contemporary economy. The idea was that they would earn the respect
of white people by demonstrating their usefulness and everyone would come to respect each other
through the recognition of mutual dependence while continuing to live in separate social
spheres. But Washington’s accommodationist stance
was not shared by all African Americans. WEB DuBois advocated for full civil and political
rights for black people and helped to found the NAACP,
which urged African Americans to fight for their rights through “persistent, manly
agitation.” So I wanted to talk about the Progressive
Era today not only because it shows up on a lot of tests, but because Progressives tried
to tackle many of the issues that we face today, particularly concerning immigration
and economic justice, and they used some of the same methods that we use today: organization,
journalistic exposure, and political activism. Now, we may use tumblr or tea party forums,
but the same concerns motivate us to work together. And just as today, many of their
efforts were not successful because of the inherent difficulty in trying to mobilize
very different interests in a pluralistic nation.
In some ways their platforms would have been better suited to an America that was less
diverse and complex. But it was that very diversity and complexity that gave rise and
still gives rise to the urge toward progress in the first place. Thanks for watching. I’ll
see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by my high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and
myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café. Every week there’s a new caption for the
libertage. You can suggest captions in comments where you can also ask questions about today’s
video that will be answered by our team of historians.
Thanks for watching Crash Course. If you like it, and if you’re watching the credits you
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to be awesome...That was more dramatic than it sounded.
Progressive Era -