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A Look at the American Progressive Era Early Twentieth Century

Updated on October 7, 2012
Jane Addams - Founder of Hull House in Chicago
Jane Addams - Founder of Hull House in Chicago | Source

Try imagining an America were women still can’t vote, the poor receive little help from others in the community, and national parks and forest preserves don’t exist. Can you picture it? It may be a little too hard to do. We’ve all grown up with these aspects being a part of our life. Our mothers and our grandmothers and even our great-grandmothers have had the right to vote. Yellowstone National Park has always been there. And we’ve all heard of or been a part of soup kitchens and shelters or habitat for humanity or even a simple fundraiser for those affected by natural disasters. So it’s probably really hard to think of a life without these innovations. Where did they come from though? All of these rights and programs have come out of or have been started during the Progressive Era of our nation’s history.

The American Progressive Era was an important part of American history during the first parts of the twentieth century. After the devastating Great War of Europe, which came to be known as World War I, the country went into a frenzy of reform movements and efforts. Not only was this movement spurred out by the depression of the 1890’s but Americans, having helped to win the Great War of Europe, were feeling a great amount of superiorism. America was also falling into its new role as a world leader. This period of American history brought the beginnings of environmental conservatism, the furthering of women’s rights, and greater welfare efforts for all. Many women stepped up to make great strides in winning women the right to vote. Theodore Roosevelt brought about many changes in our views of conservatism and protecting our environment. Jane Addams made many improvements in welfare efforts and expectations. Without the workings of these kinds of people, and everyone else that was involved in these and many other movements, our government and our policies may have been very different from what they have turned out to be today. In fact, our country could have turned out so differently that we would have hardly recognized such a place today.

When the twentieth century rolled around people were ready for a new wave of reform. The post-Civil War Reconstruction was over, and the America had aided in the winning of the Great War in Europe. We were ready for change, and we were ready for expansion, and we were ready to provide help and support to those less fortunate, both in and out of the country. Political corruption had been high and social conditions had suffered. The general public was prepared to change this, and without the voices of those who supported such changes we may have never seen the wonderful improvements in both social conditions and governmental policies. Two important aspects of the Progressive Era were changing peoples’ views against the poor and helping to improve the economy after the depression of the 1890’s. Not only had the poor been viewed negatively before, but people were often unwilling to help those who needed it. During this time that was all changing however. And by providing help to the poor, this would in theory also help the economy. By getting people back on their feet, you can get more people into jobs. Those with jobs can spend money, and that money goes back into the economy. There were many different goals of the Progressive Era, but there were certainly some that outshined others. These were the aid for the poor, approaching conservatism for the good of the environment, improving women’s rights, and through doing away with as much political corruption as possible.

Welfare Efforts and Jane Addams

Jane Addams went on to work on many other projects and in many other organizations for improving the social quality for all. In 1908 Addams founded the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Only a year later, in 1909, she was appointed president of the National Conferences of Charities and Corrections. In addition to these works, Addams also continued her public speaking efforts, as well as publishing a book of her speeches, and her work in leadership positions through multiple other organizations. Due to all of her work and efforts during her life time Jane Addams won the Noble Peace Prize of 1931. Though she was unable to receive it in person, she was gracious and knew that her efforts had done some real good. That good was not just for during her life time, but it has set a precedent for decades after her efforts.

Environmental Conservatism and Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt also played a very important role in the innovations of the Progressive Era. When questioned about the importance of the environment, Roosevelt proclaimed that it was, “[the] great material question of the day”. Roosevelt saw the importance of protecting our natural resources. One of his biggest concerns was the regulation of these resources being used by corporations. Not only did the president see the importance, he moved on it as well. In 1872, the 2-million acre Yellowstone National Park was opened. While it had harsh consequences – the displacement of Native Americans – it was a huge step towards protecting our forests and natural resources. In addition to the efforts of creating the Yellowstone National Park, the president also created fifty wildlife refuges and national parks, and set in motion policies to protect national landmarks from economic use. At the end of this movement, there had been 172 million acres of forests from timber companies through the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. Without these important decisions and acts taken by President Roosevelt during his time in office, we may have been too late in our efforts today.

Limitations of the Progressive Era

While many improvements were made during the Progressive Era, there were also many limitations and problems. First off, the disenfranchisement of African-Americans prevented them voting and having their say in the government policies and systems. Along with the challenges to African-Americans, there was a growing feeling of xenophobia towards so called “new” immigrants (Tindall et al, 741). These reactions made it hard for people to work together and find a way to achieve common goals for the good of the general public. While the poor were able to receive many benefits from the movements of the Progressive Era as well, they were unfortunately unable to have a regular participation in the movements themselves (Tindall et al, 741). Around the same time that all of this was happening, voter turnout dropped by somewhere around 6-7% (Tindall et al, 741).

The intensions of the Progressive Era were wide and all-inclusive. Women of the Progressive Era and on have been able to vote do to the women’s movements of this period. Changes were made in the welfare of the less fortunate. We gained a head start to the environmental movement of today. We were also able to overcome the Great War of Europe and come out as a world leader. While there were many challenging factors in our way, and while it may have prevented some things from getting done, we were still able to increase the wellbeing of peoples and to show that we were able to handle a period of strong reforms. The Progressive Era was an intensive battle for the greater good, and we came out victorious.

This article is the work of myself, Alyssa Barron, and was completed previously as a class assignment. I am publishing it here because I feel that it makes a good and informative article and has information that others should be interested in and able to learn from.


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