Muckrakers and Political Reforms

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The role and contributions of muckrakers

Summary:

Muckrakers were investigative journalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who exposed social injustices, corruption, and abuses of power. Their work led to significant public awareness and spurred legislative reforms, including improved labor laws, health regulations, and antitrust actions. Prominent muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, and Lincoln Steffens played crucial roles in advocating for progressive changes in society.

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Who were the muckrakers and what contributions did they make?

Muckrakers were journalists of the Progressive Era (late 19th early 20th century) who wrote articles in major magazines exposing corruption in business, government, even the stock market. They were given the name "muckraker" by Theodore Roosevelt from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in which Bunyan described a man who could only look downward with a muckrake in his hands. A muckrake is a rake used to clean muck--a combination of straw and excrement--from horse stables. Theodore Roosevelt said of them

the muckrakers are indispensable to . . . society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.

Among the more notable muckrakers:

  • Jacob Riis who wrote How the Other Half Lives, a description of the horrible living conditions in New York City, particularly those areas occupied by immigrants.
  • Ida Mae Tarbell wrote A History of the Standard Oil Company. It was not a true "history" but rather a polemic of the ruthless business practices of John D. Rockefeller.
  • Henry Demarest Lloyd: Wealth against Commonwealth, a description of large corporate concerns who answered to no one and even corrupted governments when it suited their purposes.
  • Upson Sinclair: The Jungle which was written as a Socialist Manifesto, but is more famous for describing the squalid conditions in Chicago's meat packing industry. Sinclair once said of the book,

I aimed for the nation's heart, but I hit it in the stomach.

Most muckrakers were better at pointing out problems rather than suggesting solutions; however The Jungle did lead to major reform. Theodore Roosevelt read the book, and sent inspectors to meat packing plants to see if the conditions described in the book were true. It turns out they were. The inspectors wrote:

We saw meat shoveled from filthy wooden floors, piled on tables rarely washed, pushed from room to room in rotten box carts, in all of which processes it was in the way of gathering dirt, splinters, floor filth, and the expectoration of tuberculous and other diseased workers

As a result, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the pure food and drug act.

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What is a muckraker?

In United States history, the term “muckraker” is used to refer to a member of a group of journalists from the Progressive Era who were concerned with uncovering bad deeds and bad conditions in society.  The muckrakers wanted to let the public know about the bad things so that pressure could be put on the government to do something about them.

During the Progressive Era, reformers were interested in trying to fix what they saw as the ills of society.  They were unhappy about things like the power of monopolies, the conditions in which workers worked, the quality of the food that was being sold by large companies, the conditions in which poor people lived, and many other issues.  They believed that the government should get involved in putting an end to these ills.  The muckrakers were a group of journalists who wrote magazine articles, books, and other things to try to expose the problems.  One example of a muckraker was Upton Sinclair, who wrote the fictional novel The Jungle to expose the poor treatment of workers in the meatpacking industry and the unsanitary conditions in which the meat was processed and packed.  Another muckraker was Jacob Riis, who took photographs and wrote articles that detailed the plight of the urban poor. 

The muckrakers got their name from a derisive reference by President Theodore Roosevelt.  He thought they concentrated too much on the bad and ignored the good.  Therefore, he compared them to a character in John Bunyan’s religious classic The Pilgrim’s Progress.  That character was so obsessed with muck and filth that he never looked up and noticed that he could have all the glories of Heaven.  Roosevelt thought the muckrakers were too interested in the “muck” and that they needed to know when to stop turning it over.

The muckrakers are typically credited with being a major force in the Progressive Era.  Historians say that the muckrakers made Americans more aware of the problems in their society.  This led them to put more pressure on the government to fix those problems through the reforms of the Progressive Era.

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