A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920by Michael E. McGerr
Pub. Date: 09/15/2003
Publisher: Free Press
With America's current and ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor and the constant threat of the disappearance of the middle class, the Progressive Era stands out as a time when the middle class had enough influence on the country to start its own revolution. Before the Progressive Era most Americans lived on farms, working from before sunrise to after
With America's current and ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor and the constant threat of the disappearance of the middle class, the Progressive Era stands out as a time when the middle class had enough influence on the country to start its own revolution. Before the Progressive Era most Americans lived on farms, working from before sunrise to after sundown every day except Sunday with tools that had changed very little for centuries. Just three decades later, America was utterly transformed into a diverse, urban, affluent, leisure-obsessed, teeming multitude. This explosive change was accompanied by extraordinary public-spiritedness as reformersfrightened by class conflict and the breakdown of gender relationsabandoned their traditional faith in individualism and embarked on a crusade to remake other Americans in their own image.
The progressives redefined the role of women, rewrote the rules of politics, banned the sale of alcohol, revolutionized marriage, and eventually whipped the nation into a frenzy for joining World War I. These colorful, ambitious battles changed the face of American culture and politics and established the modern liberal pledge to use government power in the name of broad social good. But the progressives, unable to deliver on all of their promises, soon discovered that Americans retained a powerful commitment to individual freedom. Ironically, the progressive movement helped reestablish the power of conservatism and ensured that America would never be wholly liberal or conservative for generations to come.
Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent recreates a time of unprecedented turbulence and unending fascination, showing the first American middle-class revolution. Far bolder than the New Deal of FDR or the New Frontier of JFK, the Progressive Era was a time when everything was up for grabs and perfection beckoned.
- Free Press
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: THE PROGRESSIVE OPPORTUNITY
1 "SIGNS OF FRICTION": PORTRAIT OF AMERICA AT CENTURY'S END
2 THE RADICAL CENTER
PART TWO: PROGRESSIVE BATTLES
3 TRANSFORMING AMERICANS
4 ENDING CLASS CONFLICT
5 CONTROLLING BIG BUSINESS
6 THE SHIELD OF SEGREGATION
PART THREE: DISTURBANCE AND DEFEAT
7 THE PROMISE OF LIBERATION
8 THE PURSUIT OF PLEASURE
9 THE PRICE OF VICTORY
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This book discusses the social, economic, and political environment that spawned the Progressive Movement, which lasted from the Reconstruction to the end of World War I. The author characterizes the basis of progressivism as a battle between individualism and mutualism. This battle can be seen in nearly all of the main efforts of the progressives of the time. The Progressive Movement was a response to the excesses of the wealthiest upper ten and the decaying moral standards of that group. The progressives wanted to develop a Middle Class utopia where everyone was treated fair and everyone worked together toward stamping out negative attitudes and lifestyles and by building a unifying force for the future. The author lists the main progressive attempts at achieving this middle class utopia through ending class conflict, controlling big business, and by promoting segregation. The method of ending class conflict was achieved through the support and promotion of labor unions that helped to empower workers and to provide a unifying force against the individualist company owners that had their eye purely on the bottom line. Some of the individualists listed included John D. Rockefeller, Charles Schwab (steel), and J.P. Morgan (finance). Each of these captains of industry attempted to develop trusts, i.e. the Steel Trust, which controlled each industry. This eliminated competition, dissuaded foreign competition, and protected their own positions in their industry. In promoting unions, the progressives helped to level the playing field against the trusts. Through labor strikes, work slowdowns, etc. workers were able to win concessions in reduced work hours, increased pay and benefits. The methods for controlling big business in the early 1900¿s included laissez-faire, socialism, antitrust, regulation, and compensation. Laissez-faire was the level of control preferred by the trusts, which is essentially the government keeping their hands off of business and allowing the marketplace to control itself. Socialism was the opposite of laissez-faire and encouraged the government to nationalize all industries and allow working conditions to be controlled by the government with profits benefiting society as a whole. Neither of these approaches was compatible with the American system and would have led to great social unrest. As a response to the need to control big business, the progressives pursued and gained antitrust laws, which placed significant limits on trusts by promoting open competition. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was the main law that started antitrust regulation, though it was significantly hampered by Supreme Court decisions. The anti-trust movement was helped along the way by various muck-raking reporters and writers. Upton Sinclair¿s The Jungle showed a picture of the meat packing industry, including working conditions, treatment of animals, and the quality of the beef being sent to consumers. Much of the muck-raking (investigative journalism) and government investigations led to regulations such as the Pure Food and Drug Act which gave the secretary of agriculture the power to fine and imprison business for providing adulterated medicine or poisoned food. Further regulation was implemented with respect to natural resources. The progressives promoted conservation of natural resources and they had a friend in the White House in the person of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt not only looked at conservation as a means to preserve nature, but also as a means to preserve natural resources for the future growth of industry. Compensation was the movement to tax corporations at both the State and Federal levels. The States eventually started taxing corporations and provided tax incentives to businesses that invested in their State. Segregation is probably the most unacceptable outcome of the progressive movement. At the time that progressives were promoting segregation the U.S. was coming out t