Era of social criticism

In domestic as well as international affairs, Roosevelt's accession coincided with a new epoch in American political life. At the turn of the century, America could look back over three generations of progress. The continent was peopled, the frontier was gone. From a small, struggling republic menaced on all sides, the nation had advanced to the rank of a world power. Its political foundations had endured the vicissitudes of civil and foreign war, the tides of prosperity and depression. In agriculture and industry, immense strides had been made. The ideal of free public education had been realized. The ideal of a free press had been maintained. The ideal of religious freedom had been cherished. Yet thoughtful Americans did not look with complacency upon their social, economic, and political situation. For big business was now more firmly entrenched than ever. Often, local and municipal government was in the hands of corrupt politicians. A spirit of materialism was infecting every branch of society.

Against these evils arose the full-throated protest which gave American politics and thought its peculiar character from approximately 1890 to the First World War. Since the early days of the industrial revolution, the farmers had been fighting a battle against the cities and against the rising industrial magnates. As far back as the 1850's, reformers had leveled heavy criticism at the prevailing system of patronage whereby successful political figures distributed government positions to their supporters. After a thirty-year struggle, the reformers achieved the passage in 1883 of the Pendleton Civil Service Bill. This law establishing a merit system in government service marked the beginning of political reform. Industrial workers had also spoken up against injustices. They had first organized to protect themselves through the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869, its membership rose in spectacular fashion to a total of 700,000 adherents in the middle eighties. This organization declined, but it was soon effectively replaced by the American Federation of Labor, a powerful combination of craft and industrial unions. By 1900, labor was a force in America that no statesman could ignore.

Almost every notable figure in this period, whether in politics, philosophy, scholarship, or literature, derives his fame, in part, from his connection with the reform movement. The heroes of the day were all reformers, voicing the needs of the times. For the practices and principles inherited from an eighteenth-century rural republic had proved inadequate for a twentieth-century urban state. The confusions which beset America in the industrial age resulted chiefly from the growing complexity and interdependence of society and the diffusion of personal responsibility through the growth of huge corporations. To correct this situation a group of young writers turned their talents. Newspapers and popular magazines led the van; novelists took up the theme, and presently the crusade was given a practical turn by aspiring political reformers, including the new President of the United States. The period of greatest reformist activity extended from 1902 to 1908. Years before, in 1873, Mark Twain had exposed American society to his careful scrutiny in The Gilded Age. Now trenchant articles appeared in McClure's, Everybody's, and Collier's magazines on trusts, finance, impure foods, railways. Upton Sinclair, using fiction as his medium, published a novel entitled The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary conditions in the great Chicago packing houses and told of the grip of the beef trust on the nation's meat supply. Theodore Dreiser's< The Financier and The Titan mad it easier to understand the machinations of big business. Frank Norris's The Pit clarified much of the agrarian protest. Lincoln Steffens' The Shame of the Cities bared political corruption. This "literature of exposure" had a vital effect in rousing the people to action.