The Duel Nature Of The Progressive Era

Essay, Research Paper

The Dual Nature of the Progressive Era

One common misconception is to view the Progressive movement as a unified core of reform-minded crusaders dedicated to improving the social welfare of American society. While this viewpoint is not entirely incorrect, it is only a partial and thereby misleading assessment of the movement that categorized the early part of the nineteenth-century. What some may fail to appreciate is the duality of the period-the cry for social welfare reforms juxtaposed against the demand for optimum efficiency through scientific controls.

Theoretically the two movements were compatible in nature, and under certain circumstances, perhaps even mutually dependent upon one another. One could argue that only a “clean”, efficient, well-organized government would be financially able to provide such services as schools, purified milk stations, and public health care. In addition, a strong moral government would also possess the legislative power to enforce such legal reforms as the eradication of child labor, the enforcement of housing regulations, and the passage of health and sanitation codes. Conversely, it would take an educated, prosperous, healthy and stable citizenry to construct such a socially conscious government.

Therefore, it would be natural to categorize the two groups under one large umbrella entitled Progressivism. Moreover, there are enough similar characteristics to warrant such a grouping. Both camps sought to bring order and stability to an increasingly complex and seemingly disorganized world; with each firmly believing that this orderliness could be achieved through a combination of strong governmental regulations, science, and an emerging class of professional experts.

However, what one may fail to recognize is that while both groups advocated the use of such measures, each intended to use them to produce very different goals. The humanitarian wanted to use government to pass stronger health and safety regulations; they saw science as a means to eradicate poverty and disease, and as professionals they sought to bring social order through the uplifting of the oppressed. They were the champions of educational programs for the immigrant, social welfare programs for the impoverished and improved health care for both. As humanitarians they sought to promote orderliness by investing in America’s greatest resource-its children.

In contrast, the proponents of scientific management wanted to use the government to impose order through an interlocking pattern of rigid rules and laws. As engineers they too saw science as the panacea for the nation’s ills; however, their vision was one of a scientifically planned community, free of wasteful spending and unnecessary expenditures. The scientific managers pictured society operating as a well oiled, highly efficient, economic machine ran by a team of educated nonpartisan experts. As professionals they were convinced that they possessed the necessary knowledge to reduce inefficiency and waste; therefore, it was up to them to impose social order upon a corrupt and often unruly populace. No two individuals epitomize these divergent views of Progressivism better than Jane Addams and Frederick Taylor.

Like most Progressives, Jane Addams was a strong supporter of science. She saw it as a means of alleviating the suffering of the poor through improved health care, better nutrition, and increased sanitary living conditions. She advocated its use to improve sewage disposal facilities and to establish a more efficient system of trash removal. It was also science that led her to follow the work of Ellen Swallow Richards; a leader of the home economics movement who advocated public kitchens as a means of improving the nutritional level of immigrants. Following Ms. Richards advice, Jane Addams set up a public kitchen at Hull House where she and her assistants organized domestic science classes to educate women about the dangers of contaminated urban foods (Addams, 26).

Ms. Addams also appreciated the benefits of social science, believing that social investigations through scientifically collected data could be used to “enlighten people on social conditions and to mobilize for change in public policy” (Addams, 32). She was not opposed to using scientifically collected data from both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor to better understand the eating habits of the immigrant (Addams, 96). Furthermore, Hull house directly employed the use of social science in its survey Hull House Maps and Papers. Not only did the survey allow Jane and her colleagues to better understand the ethnic make-up of the neighborhood, but it also revealed that only one-quarter of the area’s residents had access to a bathroom with running water (Addams, 18).

It is also safe to assume that Ms. Addams and her contemporaries-Florence Kelly, Grace Abbott, Alice Hamilton-supported and applauded the science which led to purified milk stations, diphtheria vaccinations, public nursing and industrial medicine. This was the humanitarian side of science and it was supported by those Progressives who viewed themselves as benevolent benefactors of the poor and working class-social workers, health care practitioners and to some extent the ward bosses and labor leaders (Wiebe, 175).

Frederick Taylor was also a proponent of science and he too saw it as a means of bringing social order to an otherwise chaotic world. Taylor believed that through a careful and detailed analysis of time and motion, he could develop a worker to his highest state of efficiency and prosperity. The underlying theory of scientific management was to professionalize big business; thereby, making it more socially responsible to the citizenry. Frederick Taylor may have truly believed that more efficient corporations would raise wages and lower prices, and thus end social strife. However, the ultimate outcome of such science was the development of a rigid set of rules and laws that dehumanized the worker. In reality, scientific management was nothing more than a hard, unfeeling elitist system according to which “engineers worked out the one best way of doing a thing and then ordered workers to comply with it” (O’Neill, 83). This was a cold and emotionless science; one filled with precise measurements, economical statistics and monetary projections. This brand of science appealed to the businessman, the career city manager and to some extent the commercial farmer. While scientific development did allow for higher profits, increased productivity and more efficient governments, it left little room for human compassion and social welfare services. As Weibe so aptly pointed out the reform minded businessman desired continuous services that were both efficient and inexpensive and resented any taxes that would “take away with one hand the benefits he was just then extracting with the other” (Weibe, 175).

It is apparent that Taylor’s brand of science was not always in the best interest of the common worker, and social engineers who advocated scientific management were often quite willing to sacrifice the worker’s welfare in the name of efficiency. Jane Addams often found herself at odds with such efficiency experts. Such was the case, when she served on a public relief committee. Although the committee’s sole purpose was to provide work for unemployed laborers, they were unwilling to forgo the ideal of “efficiency”. Exasperated, Addams attempted to point out that it was not the committee’s ultimate goal to clean streets but to provide jobs in a time of high unemployment. Before resigning her post, she told fellow her fellow committee members “it is better to have men work half a day for seventy-five cents than a whole day for a dollar, better that they should earn three dollars in two days than in three” (Addams, 109).

Ms. Addams had an innate respect for the working class poor and the newly arrived immigrant. She firmly believed that in order to be of service to these individuals, that one must have intimate knowledge of their needs and a true appreciation and respect for their ethnicity. Addams took the time and effort to understand people as individuals and did not arbitrarily categorize the immigrant and worker as unintelligent or unskilled. Instead, she respected their skills and valued their handicrafts, their artwork and metal working abilities. She and her colleagues showed their respect by dedicating entire rooms of Hull House as showcases for the immigrants’ handiwork.

Furthermore, in her writings Ms. Addams displays an intuitive understanding of a man’s need to gain some type of respect and dignity from his work. Jane sadly writes of the death of an immigrant worker who despite his artistic abilities as a goldsmith, was labeled as unintelligent and consigned to the mind numbing and spiritless job of a laborer. Given no outlet for his artistic abilities the man eventually committed suicide (Addams, 142). Ms. Addams lamented that society did not always understand an individual’s need for a sense of purpose.

In contrast, a man’s sense of purpose was not highly valued in Taylor’s scientifically planned society. Scientific management did not encourage or allow for the individual contribution or direct input of the workers; instead laborers were expected to follow specific orders in a mindless and mechanical manner. To quote Taylor directly, “?you do exactly as this man tells you?when he tells you to pick up a pig and walk you walk and when he tells you to sit down and rest you rest?and no back talk”. Taylor freely admits that while this may seem “like rough talk to the educated mechanic or even the intelligent laborer it is not so when applied to the mentally sluggish”. Thus, one can safely assume that there was little respect afforded to the worker in such a scientifically managed factory. Not only were the immigrants thought of as unintelligent, but there was also little value placed upon the individual experience that each might have brought to the task.

In conclusion, there is ample evidence to support the theory that the nineteenth century Progressive movement was not a unified core of reform minded individuals. Although each sought to impose social order upon an increasingly complex and seemingly disorganized world, one group used the language of scientific management, maximum output and economic controls, while the other preached social justice, humanitarian reform and respect for the individuality of others.


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