Muckrakers and Political Reforms

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The role of muckrakers in advancing the Progressive Movement and American imperialism


Muckrakers played a crucial role in advancing the Progressive Movement by exposing corruption, social injustices, and abuses of power through investigative journalism. Their work raised public awareness and spurred reforms in areas such as labor laws, public health, and corporate regulation. While primarily focused on domestic issues, muckrakers also influenced American imperialism by highlighting the ethical and moral implications of U.S. foreign policies.

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Why were the muckrakers important to the Progressive Movement?

The muckrakers exposed, in dramatic and visceral ways, the many social ills that plagued the nation during the Gilded Age. While the effects of their efforts are difficult to measure, they created considerable popular and political momentum for reform. For example, Lincoln Steffens, in his collection of articles entitled The Shame of the Cities, described the political corruption that accompanied the rise of political machines in many American cities. Ida Tarbell exposed the abuses of John D. Rockefeller, who had amassed unprecedented wealth and power through his management of the Standard Oil Trust. Ida B. Wells-Barnett detailed the crime of lynching in the South. The photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine brought the conditions faced by tenement dwellers and child laborers, respectively, into the consciousness of comfortable middle-class Americans. Perhaps most famous was the publication in 1906 of The Jungle, a novel by Upton Sinclair that described the conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants in the lurid detail characteristic of the muckraking style. Sinclair's novel sickened many Americans, including the Progressive-minded President Theodore Roosevelt, who urged Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act in response. So the overall effect of the muckrakers' work was to draw attention to social ills that then became targets for Progressive reform.

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How did the Muckrakers promote the Progressive Movement and American imperialism?

The Muckrakers were a group of journalists who wanted to expose the darker side of capitalist growth and industrialism in late 19th century and early 20th century America. They used photography and undercover reporting to expose ills that most Americans were blind to. For example, Jacob Riis went into the tenements of the lower East side of New York and photographed the crowding and horrible conditions there, while Ida Turnball went undercover into a mental asylum. These journalists helped the Progressive movement, which advocated for more workers' rights, breaking up monopolies, helping the suffering, and curtailing capitalist excesses by exposing in very vivid and heartbreaking ways the plight of the more unfortunate people in society. This led to an upswell of support for legislation, such as food inspections (caused by Sinclair's The Jungle) that paved the way for a larger government role in society.

The Muckrakers tended, however, to support Social Darwinist theories that promoted white superiority, for example, supporting President McKinley in annexing the Philippines on the rationale that white U.S. rule would be better for the people there than self government. This clearly promoted US imperialist aims, for while the Progressives might have sincerely believed the Filipinos would become more "civilized" under US leadership, our country wanted control of the country for strategic military reasons, as well as for our own aggrandizement as an imperial power, not to help the average Filipino. 

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How did the Muckrakers promote the Progressive Movement and American imperialism?

The Muckrakers had no real role in American Imperialism; in fact they most likely would oppose it. However, they played an important role in the Progressive movement by bringing attention to corruption and social ills which they believed had been hidden from the public for too long.

The entire Progressive movement worked to promote honesty in business and government, greater social justice and democracy, regulation of businesses where necessary, and a commitment to public service. The Muckrakers (so named by Theodore Roosevelt) pointed out many of the problems that existed within American society. For instance:

  • Ida Mae Tarbell wrote History of the Standard Oil Company, which she intended to be an expose of the corrupt practices of that company and its founder, John D. Rockefeller.
  • Lincoln Steffens wrote about political corruption in municipal government in Shame of the Cities.
  • Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle which he intended to become a socialist manifesto; but more persuasively pointed out deplorable conditions in meat packing plants. His book led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both of which promoted the Progressive agenda.

Although the Muckrakers pointed out the problems of society; they seldom offered solutions. However, their efforts in bringing attention to these problems encouraged others to seek change and thereby help society "progress."

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