In which John Green teaches you about the Progressive Era in the United States. In the late 19th and early 20th century in America, there was a sense that things could be improved upon. A sense that reforms should be enacted. A sense that progress should be made. As a result, we got the Progressive Era, which has very little to do with automobile insurance, but a little to do with automobiles. All this overlapped with the Gilded Age, and is a little confusing, but here we have it. Basically, people were trying to solve some of the social problems that came with the benefits of industrial capitalism. To oversimplify, there was a competition between the corporations’ desire to keep wages low and workers’ desire to have a decent life. Improving food safety, reducing child labor, and unions were all on the agenda in the Progressive Era. While progress was being made, and people were becoming more free, these gains were not equally distributed. Jim Crow laws were put in place in the south, and immigrant rights were restricted as well. So once again on Crash Course, things aren’t so simple.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Episode 27: Progressive Era
Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse U.S. history, and today we’re gonna talk
No Stan Progressives.
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 intro.
Intro 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
The population of the U.S. was growing and its economic power was becoming ever more
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
But anyway, if all that local collectivist investment sounds like Socialism, it kind
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 probably do, make sure you’re
And as we say in my hometown don’t forget to be awesome…That was more dramatic than
Progressive Era –
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video