The History of Democracy

At the turn of the last Century, a new type of communal identity arose – the Progressives, with a mindset to advocate for social equality and justice. People from different cultures, classes, backgrounds, and ethnicities shared these common, yet branched roots of progressivism, which all had reactions to everything they felt was ethically wrong. Although it was over a hundred years ago, many of their legacies are still prevalent in our modern society. These men, women, workers, farmers, politicians, and journalists that were part of this 20th Century movement would come to reshape the country democratically.

Journalists in particular used their power of freedom of speech to capture true stories in forms of writing and photography, of how developing cities were divided by urbanization. Being the unofficial fourth branch of the government, journalists had a say in politics as well. Investigative reporters in the Progressive era, with a not so redolent name, were called “muckrakers.” A term coined by the progressive president Theodore Roosevelt (Kanopy, Yearning to Breathe Free, min. 16:29). Although Roosevelt knew a lot of journalists, he did not always favor the way muckrakers brought their agenda to attention into national politics (OpenStax, U.S. History, p. 602). However, the life work of muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair proved that Progressives were democratic in nature by exposing corrupted corporations and dangerous industries.

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Ida Tarbell, an American teacher, author, and journalist was a hardcore Progressive and spent years to uncover the truth about the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company (Kanopy, Yearning to Breathe Free, min. 17:16). Tarbell was encouraged by her editor at McClure’s Magazine, a leading newsprint, to write an exposé about Standard Oil Company’s monopoly in the industry. Tarbell’s father owned a small oil business and was affected by Rockefeller’s greed and need for control and power, which was probably what fueled Tarbell to take Rockefeller down (Treckel, Lady MUCKRAKER, ¶. 5). After four years of meticulous work and investigative reporting, Tarbell was able to “build her case against the great monopoly” (Treckel, Lady MUCKRAKER, ¶. 22). Tarbell exposed how Standard Oil Company used methods such as spying and industrial terrorism to achieve domination. During all this time, Rockefeller refused to meet up with Tarbell, and called her “Miss Tarbarrel” (Treckel, Lady MUCKRAKER, ¶. 23). On November 15, 1906, the Standard Oil Company and its trustees were charged for violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and were also found guilty of creating a monopoly which restrained interstate commerce by the use of railroad refunds and failing. In addition, they were indicted for controlling pipelines, using industrial espionage, and illegally destroying competition from the marketplace, which made the Supreme Court to put an end to the monopoly. Personally, Tarbell’s victory against the non-democratic activity earned her the nickname “Lady Muckraker,” and her series of articles were published in the well-known two-volume book The History of Standard Oil Company (Amazon). For democracy, Tarbell’s “raking muck” contributed to a pathway of new laws to protect competition in corporate marketplaces.

The Era of Reform, the primetime when Progressives was determined to influence and reform the country. Another well-known historical figure; muckraker and socialist is Upton Sinclair, who is mostly famous for uncovering the truth about the meat packing industry (OpenStax, U.S. History, pp. 621-622). With his book The Jungle published February 26, 1906, he wanted to shed light on a dark but true story about a Lithuanian immigrant family and their struggle for survival in Chicago’s meatpacking district (Kanopy, The 1911 Triangle Fire and Reform, ep. 18, min. 26:31). Sinclair’s attempt to get his readers to show compassion and to get rid of capitalism and share his values of socialism, failed. His interviews of workers and undercover visits to meat factories showed him the repelling ways meat was processed, which he vividly included in his book. Maybe not so surprising, the readers were disgusted by learning the truth about how their meat was produced, and did not react in the way Sinclair was striving for. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he said (Sinclair). The word had spread to President Roosevelt, and although he did not share Sinclair’s thoughts about socialism, he decided to meet up with him (OpenStax, U.S. History, pp. 621-622). They also had a few exchange of letters where Sinclair’s shares his notes from his revealing, and Roosevelt complimenting with understanding of Sinclair’s findings. (National Archive Catalogs, Sinclair’s letter to President Roosevelt & Teaching American History, Roosevelt’s letter to Upton Sinclair). Not long after, Congress addressed this scandal and Roosevelt signed a new federal law implementing the nation’s first meat inspection act, The Meat Inspection Act of June 1906. In less than four months after Sinclair’s book was published he had helped reform the country in a way that industries should be supervised and regulated by the government, for the sake of people’s health.

Whether it was deliberately like in Tarbell’s case, or accidently in Sinclair’s, as Progressives and muckrakers, they utilized and alluded to the first amendment to expose corruption and ethical misconduct. Moreover, they proved that a free press is essential to democracy. In two different centuries, a hundred years apart, social movements today such a “Black Live Matters” and “#MeToo,” are not more different from Progressive’s agenda in the 20th Century, in the aspect of what they were fighting for – Democracy.

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