When Progressivism began, the Civil War had only been over for twenty years of less. Immigrants had come to America in droves to find streets paved with gold, only to end up in slums. Former black slaves from the South came to northern cities hoping to find prosperity and a cordial welcome from those who had fought to free them a few years before. They, too, were often disappointed. the Industrial Revolution was flourishing and many left the family farm to work in the factories of the cities, intoxicated with independence for the first time. Maybe they shouldda stayed home.
Many children were taken out of school early (or never went to school at all) so they could work long, dangerous hours in mills and factories for peanuts. With no education, they could not hope for a better life. There was no Food and Drug administration to protect people from dangerous (or otherwide nauseating) things in their food or deadly nostrums sold as cures in medicine shows.
You could lose your arm in a factory accident and be left poverty stricken with no workmen’s compensation or insurance plan. If you protested terrible work conditions you could be shot dead on the spot by the police (as in the Haymarket Riots in Chicago). There were no labor unions and no safety codes and no minimum wage. If there were a fire (as in the Triangle Shirt Factory) there was often no means of escape because there were no laws demanding them.
Massive numbers of people did not have hope of a better life for themselves or their children and the only means of escape was death. – Death at an early age frequently accomodated them. – Many lived in slums where crowding and filth (as from inadequate plumbing) caused disease to occur, then spread like wildfire.
It is understandable that somebody had to do something, but for a long time, nobody had. Aside from the more obvious reason for this, based in human greed, calousness, and exploitation, there were certain attitudes that made it easy to shrug-off others’ difficulties without guilt.
There was a smug feeling among some who were (at least ostensibly religious) that these people’s agony was theirown fault (or that they were under a generational curse). The Bible refered to the “sins of the fathers” passed on to the third or fourth generation. David had said in Psalms that he had “never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread”.
The country was founded by Puritains and still possessed a strong Judeo/Christian work ethic. Some had started in adverse conditions, yet prospered. This seemed to clearly demonstrate that the hand of God was upon them and that their diligence and purity had been rewarded. If others did not prosper, the opposite must be true.
Then there were the Social Darwinists who believed in the survival or the fittest. Some races or ethnic groups were deemed inferior. Life seemed to break these wretched people into pieces and cast them off to make way for their betters. Were they too cowardly or lazy or stupid to get out? Did they wallow in self-pity, spending their income on liquor and debauchery to escape their plight instead of providing for their families?
Scriptural discourses on the “Good Samaritan” and to “the greatest of these is charity” and to the fact that “faith without works is dead” and many other references may have been faithfully adhered to by some individuals and churches, but the massive need may have seemed too staggering to any individual or organization smaller that the federal government.
Were these tragic cases worthy of help and would they profit by it, or would they simply demand more and more and more like an insatiable, spoiled child (or animal)? If they were not supplied, would they savagely take what others had as their just compensation for past injustices?
Enter the Progressives – Part 5…