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The Effects of American Reform Movements in the 1900s

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The Effects of American Reform Movements in the 1900s


Living in the United States of America is all about opportunity. The opportunity to get a good job, make money, and lead a life of good quality; in other words, the opportunity to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. However the opportunity for many people was not around through out the 1800s. Certain groups of people did not hold the basic rights that were guaranteed by the Constitution. In fact, most of the people that had opportunity were the wealthy white men, and few other people ever had any chances to lead a good life. For example, at the end of the 1800s African Americans had some rights, however a lot of their rights were severely limited by laws that were made by the wealthy white men. Also, Native Americans didn’t have any rights at all; they weren’t even considered United States citizens. So how did the United States go from a country that only benefited white men to a land of opportunity for everyone? The answer to this is through reform movements. The many reform movements through out United States History as shaped American Society and Culture to what it is today. For example, the Progressive movement saw many laws passed which are still in effect today. Also, without the Civil Rights movements we would still be living in a hypocritical, racist society.

In the late 1800’s a group of Americans decided that something needed to be done about the decline of moral and ethical values in most Americans. These people called themselves the progressives and started one of the most comprehensive reform movements in the United States to this day. Progressivism became so widespread that by the end of World War I, anyone who didn’t agree with Progressive ideals was labeled a communist. The Progressives had four major goals that they wished to accomplish. These four goals were to democratize America, to Americanize America, the humanization of capitalism and rationalization of the economy. Each goal dealt with a different aspect of America’s society that the Progressives thought needed help. The way these goals were accomplished was to get laws passed that would reform the practices of many Americans. Progressives held that in order to bring American back to its old time, rural values people would need to attend church more. One way this was accomplished was getting what were known as Sunday Blue Laws passed in many towns across the United States. These laws limited the things you could do on Sundays, and the idea behind them was that more people would go to church on Sundays. One such law prohibited the selling of alcohol on Sundays. Progressives first made this law to give people less choice about what they can do on Sundays, thus increasing the chances that they will to go to church. However, this law has stuck around, and in many places still enforced. Other reforms that are still around from the Progressive era are building safety codes, which were made to make factories and tenements in the cities safer for workers and city dwellers, School Nurses, which were hired to provide free health services to children from poor families, and public housing. However, During the Progressives’ time public housing buildings were known as settlement houses. These settlement houses were a place where people could go when they were having financial trouble. There one could get free room and board until they got back on their feet. These settlement houses have gone through many alterations through out the years to the public housing we know about today in many of the major Cities across the United State. There are many others reforms from the Progressive era such as direct primaries, Initiative Referendum and Reform, and the Meat Inspection act to name a few. Eventually the Progressive movement started spreading outside of the United States.

Many progressives believed that if we could force our values on to other countries the whole world could be as well off as the United States. One of the ways this could be accomplished was to gain territories around the globe upon which we could force Western values on to. The main way we did this was through the Spanish American War. At the surface of this war was The United States fighting to free the Cubans from Spanish rule, however when digging deeper it becomes apparent that the United States was really in this war to gain territories in which to spread our influence across the globe. The result of this war shows the ulterior motive of the Unites States. For instance the United States forced the newly independent Cuba to add clauses to it’s constitution that they could send troops to Cuba anytime without permission, and gave the United States a military base in Cuba among other things. Also the Philippines, which were acquired from Spain after the war, were made a territory of the United States. The Philippines revolted because they wanted their freedom, not to be a territory of some other country. These incidents started the Americans’ view of themselves as the defender of the free country. What this really means is the United States is the defender of White, Christian moral and ethical values. And this can be seen through out the 1900s in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf war. We weren’t fighting for ourselves in these wars; we were fighting to extend our way of life to other countries that didn’t necessarily want our way of life.

Another movement that also had a large effect on the United States was the Civil Rights movement. Although the Civil Rights Movement was not as broad as the progressive movements, it’s end result was that it gave to all African Americans the basic rights that were ensured to everyone in the constitution. Even though African Americans were all ready guaranteed equal protection under the law (the fourteenth amendment), and the right to vote (the fifteenth amendment), the problem was that many states enacted codes that severely limited those rights. For example, some laws imposed much more harsh punishment for African Americans who broke the law than whites who broke the same law (RTAP, 6). Also laws were enacted in many states that kept African Americans from voting. Laws such as the grandfather clause, which said that if your grandfather could not vote than you could not vote, were common among many Southern States. Many of these laws were still in effect in the mid-1900s, and reforms were clearly needed to give African Americans their rights. The Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was perhaps the first stop towards such reforms. In this Supreme Court case the court ruled against the earlier decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. African Americans had, for years, made it known that separate but equal was not always just that, especially in public schools. In Chicago, for example, Alex Kotlowitz tells us that, “In 1964 [in Chicago] 90 percent of black children of elementary school age attended schools that were 90 percent black.” What’s more is he goes to say that, “…In predominantly minority schools, the budget for teacher salaries was only 85 percent of that for predominantly white schools, and operating expenses per pupil were only 66 percent as high” (Kotlowitz, 63). The Supreme Court agreed with this, saying that segregation of public schools has been used as a tool to make African American children feel inferior to white children and that, “…In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (ATEP, 305). This was a land-mark decision because it meant that, “Separate but equal,” was not constitutional; this in turn paved the way for the much needed reforms measures needed to give African Americans their basic, constitutional rights. Most importantly, it allowed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act gave African Americans full, indisputable rights protected by the federal Government. Among other things it made illegal all polling laws, and also made discrimination in “places of public accommodation” illegal (ATEP 311). All though these reforms did not get rid of racism, but it certainly has helped to elevate the status of African Americans in American Society.

Many reforms didn’t come out of only major reform movements, but also from political platforms, and presidential programs. The New Deal and the Great Society are two examples of this. Both were programs that were instituted by the president at the time, and both resulted in reforms that altered America for years to come. The New Deal was Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to get the United States out of the Great Depression. It consisted of three phases, which were relief, recovery and reform. Some of the reforms that came out of the new deal were so effective that they are still around today. Such reforms include the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC. The FDIC was made to insure depositors against bank failures. It’s main objective was to decrease the chances of a bank run. Another New Deal reform that is still around today is Social Security, which gives money to senior citizens. It was first created in order to help stimulate the economy. The idea was that by giving money to the elderly they would go out and buy more items thereby stimulating the economy. Once again, it worked well enough that Social security is still around today. The Great Society was also a program to help out the United States. Lyndon Baines Johnson thought up this one, and it was designed to end poverty and racial injustice. Instead of making new reforms, much of the Great Society’s “war on poverty” was about extending existing reform. For example Social Security benefits were extended to include more people, Public housing rent subsidies and Food Stamps were made available to more people. However some reforms were made, one in particular had a big effect on the United States. The Office of Economic Opportunity established some programs that are still around today and have great effects on our society. Such programs include Head Start, The Job Corps, and Upward Bound to name a few. Even though these two programs, The New Deal and the Great Society, didn’t necessarily accomplish the goals they set out to accomplish, they did come out with a great number of reforms that have stuck around and greatly affected America.

Finally, Reform movements, and presidential platforms aren’t the only things that have shaped the United States. War has played a major role in the United States since the beginning. The First World War, World War II, and the Cold War have all been major factors in United States during the twentieth Century. However, most of the laws passed during the wars, were only in effect during the war. So after the war was over many of these laws ceased to exist and therefore could not have a major impact on the United States. Also, since none of the wars were actually fought in the United States, these wars had an even smaller long-term effect on the society. There are some things, however, that had a lasting effect on the Culture of Americans. The Cold War especially had some events that effected Americans for years to come. The Cold war was a time of many government cover-ups and conspiracy. For instance, the Red Scare has often been described as a Witch-Hunt. During the Red Scare Senator Joseph McCarthy accused many government officials of being communist. His biggest Target was the State department, in one speech McCarthy says, “In my opinion, the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with Communists” (ATEP 298). These were baseless accusations; McCarthy had no way to back them up. This Red Scare led many people to distrust the government. War has had some indirect effects on the course of the Country. One example of this is the great depression. World War I was one of the causes of the great depression, this in turn led to the new deals and the many reforms which came from it. Also, World War II So, even though the wars did have some effect on American Society, it is definitely a small one compared to that of reform movements.

So, one can see here that Reform movements have had greatly impacted the course that The United States of American has steered over the past century. Many of the laws, commissions, and acts that have come out of the reform movements of the twentieth century are still around today. The fact that they are still around today shows that they have had an effect on the way things are done in the Country. For if they didn’t have an effect, they would have been replaced. War also had an effect on the country, but those effects are negligible to the role that reform movements played shaping America. From the Progressive Movement, to the New Deal, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the Great Society, reform Movements have really shaped what we now know to be America.


Works Cited

Borland, Bruce, ed. America Through the Eyes of its People. New York: Longman,
1997.

“Brown v. Board of Education.” Borland 303-5.

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Borland 311-12.

McCarthy, Joseph R., “Joseph R. McCarthy, from Speech Delivered to the Women’s
Club of Wheeling, West Virginia.” Borland 298-99.

Kotlowitz, Alex. There are no Children Here. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday,
1991.

Mangus, Michael, ed. Retrieving the American Past(RTAP). Boston: Pearson Custon
Publishing, 2001.

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