Social Criticism Becomes Widespread

In domestic as well as international affairs, Roosevelt's accession coincided with a new epoch in American political life. The continent was peopled, the frontier was gone. A small, struggling republic had become a world power. The country s political foundations had endured the vicissitudes of foreign and civil war, the tides of prosperity and depression. Immense strides had been made in agriculture and industry. Free public education had been largely realized. A free press had been maintained. The ideal of religious freedom had been sustained. Yet thoughtful Americans were not complacent about 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. And a spirit of materialism was infecting every segment of society.

Against these evils arose a full-throated protest that gave American politics and thought its peculiar character from approximately 1890 to World War I. It was not altogether a new note. Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, farmers had been fighting a battle against the cities and against the rising industrial magnates. As far back as the 1850s, reformers had leveled sharp criticism at the system of patronage by which successful politicians distributed government positions to their supporters. After a 30-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 also had spoken up against injustices. The Knights of Labor, which they founded in 1869 for self-protection, had a membership of 700,000 by the middle 1880s. After that date, the organization declined, but it was soon replaced by the American Federation of Labor, a powerful organization of craft unions. By 1900, labor was a major force.

Almost every notable figure of the period, whether in politics, philosophy, scholarship, or literature, derived his fame, in part, from his connection with the reform movement. The heroes of the day were all reformers, strongly protesting practices and principles inherited from the 18th century rural republic that proved inadequate for a 20th-century urban state. The years 1902 to 1908 marked the era of greatest reformist activity. Years before, in 1873, Mark Twain had exposed Amer- ican society to critical scrutiny in The Guilded Age. Now, trenchant articles dealing with trusts, high finance, impure foods, and abusive railroad practices began to appear in the daily newspapers and in such popular magazines as McClure's, Everybody's, and Collier's. Upton Sinclair, using fiction as his medium, published The Jungle, exposing unsanitary conditions in the great Chicago meat-packing houses and the grip of the beef trust on the nation's meat supply. Theodore Dreiser in The Financier and The Titan made it easy for laymen to understand the machinations of big business. Frank Norris' 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.

The hammering impact of uncompromising writers and an increasingly aroused public spurred political leaders to practical measures. Several states enacted laws to improve the conditions under which people lived and worked. For example, child-labor laws were strengthened and new ones adopted, raising age limits, shortening work hours, restricting night work, requiring school attendance.