Theodore Roosevelt displayed his vigorous campaigning style before the newsreel cameras
Credit: Library of Congress
There are in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, business, or social life. —President Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man with the Muck-Rake,” 1906
Progressive reform in the early decades of the twentieth century depended upon journalism as an important tool to raise public awareness of serious societal problems. Investigative journalists, such as the socialist Upton Sinclair, played an important role in this movement. Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle (1906), based on his newspaper reporting, exposed the inner workings of the meat packing industry. The outrage that the book caused has often been singled out as the main reason for the passage of legislation to protect consumers.
Public outrage over Sinclair’s book strengthened the hand of Progressive reformers within the federal government such as Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief chemist at the United States Department of Agriculture, who had long been at work advocating for legislation to protect consumers. Wiley found a key ally in President Theodore Roosevelt, who championed a more aggressive government policy against those who would harm the public good.
Lesson One introduces students to journalist Upton Sinclair and his controversial novel, The Jungle, then moves to Washington DC to introduce the vision of President Theodore Roosevelt and the work of Harvey Washington Wiley.
In Lesson Two, students read several investigative newspaper articles leading to the landmark legislation of the Roosevelt Administration. There is also an optional excerpt from Roosevelt’s “Man with the Muck-Rake” speech from which this style of investigative journalism gets its name. These documents provide an opportunity for close reading of complex informational texts as well as understanding the historical and political context of reform.
Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.
By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
The Progressive movement flourished during the first two decades of the twentieth century. A diverse group of thinkers, journalists, legislators, and middle-class citizens (the Progressives) grappled with the dramatic social and economic transformations produced by the Industrial Revolution. They opposed Gilded Age abuses and promoted salutary reforms. In a rapidly changing world, they took the side of the exploited and the weak and sought to make political institutions more responsive to popular will.
The most well-known group among Progressives were the journalists who through their graphic and sometimes sensational reporting opened Americans’ eyes to dangerous working conditions in factories. Upton Sinclair was one such journalist. Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle,was published in early 1906 and created an international sensation with his expose of the unsafe and unsanitary inner workings of the meat packing industry.
Ironically, the socialist Sinclair had set out to write a “consciousness raising” novel about the miserable lives of factory workers—the “wage slaves of the Beef Trust”—hoping to do for wage slavery what Harriet Beecher Stowe had done for chattel slavery. But readers largely ignored the story of his workers and seized on the graphic descriptions of the disgusting things that went into their meat. Sinclair was disappointed at the public’s reaction. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he later said, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Although President Theodore Roosevelt was a proud Progressive, he had mixed feelings about journalists, as he made clear in a speech known as “The Man with the Muck-Rake.” On the one hand he praised the virtues and benefits of hard-hitting investigative journalism, when it is necessary to expose scandal, corruption, or other evil; but on the other, he found such journalism problematic when it besmirched the good character of public figures and undermined faith in public institutions
After reading Lewis’s novel, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered an investigation. The result, he said, was “hideous” and he threatened to publish the entire “sickening report” if Congress did not act. Meat sales plummeted in the United States and Europe. Demand for reform grew. Alarmed, the meatpackers themselves supported a reform law.
A second measure the Pure Food and Drug Act had been championed by Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, the chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture. Over the years, to bring conditions to the public attention, Wiley had organized a volunteer group of young men called the Poison Squad who tested the effects of chemicals and adulterated foods on themselves.
The sensation caused by the novel, echoed by newspaper reports by Sinclair and others and backed up with President Roosevelt’s threats to release his report, overwhelmed opponents of the bills in the House. On June 30, 1906, two bills were passed: the Meat Inspection Act which set rules for sanitary meatpacking and government inspection of meat products, and the Pure Food and Drugs Act, which banned foreign and interstate traffic in adulterated or mislabeled food and drug products. Wiley, who had written the latter act, was appointed to oversee the administration of both laws through the Bureau of Chemistry, later renamed the Food and Drug Administration in 1930. The federal government was now permanently in the business of protecting American consumers from unsafe food and drugs
A writing assignment will serve as the summative assessment. Students will be asked to write a well-crafted essay in response to this prompt: Investigative journalism was emerging as a necessary tool for prompting government action and public outrage. Discuss how this lesson has helped you to understand the tool better, including how this tool should be used and how it might be abused.
This unit can be expanded by using other Progressive Era topics that resulted in change. Some possibilities include:
Related EDSITEment resources: