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America's History in the Making

The Progressives

Theme 2

The increasing damage created by a burgeoning commercial and industrial economy had many convinced that only government regulations could protect the public.

By 1900, the influx of immigrants from abroad and migrants from rural areas overwhelmed the capacity of American cities to provide public services. With rapid urban growth, city leaders confronted problems relating to sanitation, overcrowding, and access to clean water. Reformers, politicians, and citizens grappled with the best approach for effectively dealing with the problems of rapid urbanization.

One group of reformers sought to create a “city beautiful” by putting in water mains and sewers, planting trees along broadened boulevards, and expanding city parks. But these projects rarely reached the city neighborhoods inhabited by the urban poor who lived in crowded tenement houses. Reformers concerned with the poor and working class worked to gather data, conduct surveys, and organize committees to show the effects of industrialization on America's cities. Their intent was to attain local and state legislation to develop building codes for tenements, abolish child labor, and improve factory safety. These laws created important improvements in public health and welfare, even if they were often evaded.

Improving public health was a major objective for many reformers, and the government responded to public pressure, mostly at the state and local levels. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle added to reform pressure and persuaded many that only the federal government had the power and resources to protect people through regulation. A combination of reformers, writers, and government officials successfully pushed for federal regulation of the meatpacking industry. Reformers built on this success with additional federal legislation that established a program of compensating workers for industrial accidents and diseases.

Primary Sources