Progressive Persuasion in the 1900s
An essay describing persuasive social documentation techniques used by journalists who supported progressive reform in the early 1900's.
Shared by: johnjorg
Jorgensen - 1 John Jorgensen Professor Rosenthal Contemporary History September 28th, 2007 Progressive Persuasion in the 1900s “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” – Sir Isaac Newton In late 19th and early 20th century America, industrialization was taking the country by storm. Inventions like the Bessemer converter and the railroad made steel, which provided the literal framework for the rapid rise of manufacturing that swept the country, easily producible and transportable. The railroad didn’t just transport building materials; with track laid across the country, Americans were introduced to a freedom of travel that was never before seen or experienced. The country’s first high-rise buildings sprang up in epicenters like New York and Los Angeles; the impossibly tall structures sent a stark message to the agrarian population: in the industrial age, cities were the place to be. Urbanization expanded these centers at a breakneck pace; by 1920, the city population accounted for more than fifty percent of those living in the United States. The sharp increase in business opportunities that arose in tandem with industrialization, combined with a large manufacturing workforce, lead to the evolvement of a labor hierarchy system known as class stratification. The lower class’ huge workforce numbers made them the essential backbone of industrialization, but they were denied all of its benefits: working conditions in the factories were poor, and for some, living conditions were worse. Jorgensen - 2 Inherent disagreements between the unskilled working class, the proficient middle class, and the ultra-wealthy robber barons began to cause widespread conflict, going so far as to incite multiple acts of violence such as the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886. Social uncertainty in industrialized America was at its peak. From the chaos, a movement began to emerge calling for order: Progressivism. Driven largely by members of the middle class, progressivism was an attempt to use tools of reform to restore a confidence in the future of America that Henry Adams announced no citizen of the time could logically have. Proponents of progressivism relied primarily on the written word to make their claims about the current state of society while outlining a case for imposed regulation. Progressive authors attempted to appeal to the mass American public in three fundamental ways: by stirring sympathy, by petitioning to reason, and by alignment with democracy. Each of these strategies will be further explored as to note exactly how these methods were utilized to tilt the average American’s view of society in a progressive direction. Appeal to emotion was a commonly used form of persuasion by writers promoting progressive reform. Take “Tenement Cigarmakers” for example, written circa 1890 by Jacob Riis. Riis was a semi-famous spokesperson for reform at the time, known for profiling poor working and living conditions through his work as a photographer and journalist. With a camera in his hand, Riis was a master at arranging all elements of a photograph to present just the right picture to viewers that would tug at their heartstrings. With a pen, Riis was just as proficient; instead of lighting and perspective, he used carefully chosen vocabulary to paint dreary accounts and descriptions of the working class’ home life. In “Tenement Cigarmakers,” Riis introduced the reader to East Tenth Street, a stretch of road in urban New York that is home to 35 families, each under contract to produce thousands of cigars per week for a wage of under $5. In it, he told stories of husbands and wives who did nothing but work to make cigars morning til’ night, only Jorgensen - 3 to wake up and do it all again the next day, seven days a week. Much of Riis’ writing portrayed a situation that was not only presently dismal, but completely devoid of hope for the future. When introducing the thirty-five families, he noted that only six individuals of the group “could speak a word of English, though many had been in the country half a lifetime” (87). Riis didn’t have to finish the sentence: the reader understood that if they have not learned the language by then, they never would. The author went on to mention that another of the men had lived and worked there fifteen years, and that yet another sat deaf and dumb putting cigars together on the same bench for the previous six. To a reader of this article, class mobility seemed out of the question. As for living conditions, Riis described one family’s space as one room with a couple windows and another without, “called a bedroom by courtesy” (87). He made note of another room in which the ceiling had partly caved in, which a boy living there told him it had been “three months since we asked the landlord to fix it” (88). Clearly, Riis’ writing was intended to stir sympathy in its readers as a hope that they will be moved to do something, anything to help improve the quality of life for their fellow human beings – the best option being progressive reform. Instead of appealing to emotion, other writers pushing for progressive order made an effort to present their arguments in a logical fashion that would hopefully be absorbed by rational thinkers. Samuel Gompers’ published article in the Labor Tribune in 1890, “What Does the Working Man Want?” utilized this approach to make an argument for the reduction of required daily labor hours. Pressing for an eight hour work day, Gompers refuted the popular assumption that if factory workers were given more leisure time they would simply use it to get drunk by stating that it is only the very rich or the hopelessly unemployed that can afford to drink their days away. However, the significant argument Gompers had to overcome had nothing to do with getting drunk, but rather a question of economic progress. The business titans of industrialization Jorgensen - 4 postulated that decreased work hours meant decreased production. Although Gompers could have tried to make a sympathy play here, lamenting about how hard their lives are made by long work schedules, Gompers wisely understood that such an attempt would be useless since his intended audience was only interested in one thing: their bottom line. Instead, Gompers explained decreased hours did not mean decreased production, it meant “great prosperity; it means a greater degree of progress for the whole people; it means more advancement and intelligence” (65). To make his case, Gompers compares the labor hours of the US and Europe to places like China, Italy and Spain, countries where men worked “ten or twelve or fourteen” (65) hours yet were behind America in terms of progress. “In all industries where the hours of labor are long,” Gompers wrote, “there you will find the least development of the power of invention … Wherever men are cheap, there you find the least degree of progress” (65, 66). Gomper’s logical arguments here were an attempt to petition to the rationality of his audience, who was in this case comprised of factory owners and industry decision makers. Apart from appealing to emotion and rationality, another method progressive authors utilized was aligning their proposed changes with the values of democracy, the form of government that had become a proud self-defining aspect of America for its citizens. In Carrie Chapman Catt’s “Address to the Woman Suffrage Association,” written in 1902, she made a case for why women should be allowed to vote. In her introduction, Catt proclaimed, “great as is the victory over conservatism which is represented in the accomplishment of man suffrage, infinitely greater will be the attainment of woman suffrage” (74). By portraying the granting of voting rights not as an event that was warmly emotional or calculatingly logical but as a political victory for the people, she set the precedent for the rest of her address: later, Catt stated that although men had traditionally worshiped women as goddesses, “he had governed her as though she were Jorgensen - 5 an idiot” (76). The reference to government was not an accident, but a way to further tie the concept of women suffrage with a just form of rule – democracy. In Catt’s closing paragraph, she spared no effort to drive this comparison home to her audience. When boldly promoting women’s independence, thereby their right to vote as well, Catt asks, “Shall the woman who enjoys the right of self-government in every other department of her life be permitted the right of self-government in the State?” By asking this rhetorical, the author engrained in her audience the point that women should be extended the same independent rights that America, in its adoption of democracy, had fought so hard to achieve. The battle to reign in the social discontent, violent uprisings and injustices brought about by industrialization was not easy. Supporters of progressivism had the task of convincing not only politicians, but the whole of America that sweeping changes needed to be made across a broad number of organizations. This campaign required those who were in favor of reform to win the “hearts and minds” of American citizens, a task that largely fell to authors and journalists. Writers such as the three profiled above utilized different techniques to make their audience empathize with their arguments; appeal to emotion, petition to reason and alignment with democracy were all useful writing techniques that each took inherently different approaches to the job of gaining supporters. Combined, they created an effective three-dimensional persuasive pull that succeeded in drawing advocates to the progressive cause, resulting in an era of unprecedented government expansion and regulation that lasted until World War I.
Shared by: John Jorgensen
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