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SAT II U.S. History: Moving through the Progressive Era

About 40 percent of the SAT II U.S. History exam covers the period from 1899 to the present, of which the Progressive Era is a small, but important, subject. The majority of questions that deal with Progressivism focus on political and economic history; social, intellectual, cultural, and foreign policy issues take a backseat to questions on power and money. On the exam, you most likely will see questions dealing with the motivations for reform as well as on what Americans attempted to do and how successful their efforts were.

During the Progressive Era, many significant national reforms occurred. You take some of these reforms for granted now, but early in the twentieth century, they were a big deal.

The 16th Amendment: Federal income tax

Before the Progressive Era, the federal government collected most of its money from customs duties and taxes on goods. As the rift between the wealthy and poor widened, numerous groups began to support the idea of a national graduated income tax (a tax that would collect a higher percentage from people who made more money) to help fund government programs and create a better balance between the rich and poor. In 1909, Congress passed the 16th Amendment, which gave the federal government the power to collect taxes from the national population. By February 1913, three-quarters of the states had ratified the amendment.

The graduated income tax provided the federal government with a massive new source of income to make up for funds it lost due to substantial cuts in the protective tariff (thus, opening up U.S. markets for foreign competition to break the power of U.S. trusts and reduce the importance of big business).

The 17th Amendment: Directly electing senators

Prior to 1913, state legislatures chose U.S. senators. This process took the power out of the hands of ordinary Americans, and Progressive leaders across the United States argued for a change to directly electing senators. Progressives also believed that big business held too much sway with state legislatures because it often had preferences for who it wanted to serve in the Senate — for their own interests, of course, which led to much corruption. In 1913, Progressives won this battle for reform with the passage and ratification of the 17th Amendment, which allowed the public to choose its representatives in the U.S. Senate.

The 18th Amendment: Prohibition

Progressives believed that alcohol, America's most abused drug, was a major cause of society's moral decay. Temperance movements (that is, those that sought to prohibit the alcohol) weren't new in America; in fact, they had been extremely popular in the nineteenth century. But as Progressivism attempted to make a better, more moral America, the idea of prohibiting alcohol gained popularity.

Reform groups advocated temperance by publicizing alcohol's connection to social ills, such as violence, domestic violence, abuse, poverty, unemployment, and disease. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), formed in 1873, led the charge for Prohibition. In 1893, the reform group, the Anti-saloon League joined the efforts of the WCTU, calling for temperance legislation at the national level.

Throughout the 1910s, a movement for Prohibition gained support across the United States. People in rural areas widely supported Prohibition, but immigrants and working-class voters in urban areas widely opposed it. Despite their opposition, by 1916, 19 states had passed Prohibition laws. When the U.S. entered World War I, Prohibition became more of a necessity. Prohibition of alcohol ensured a more efficient workforce with less absenteeism and allowed grain (from which alcohol is distilled) to be used for the war effort.

In 1917, Congress easily passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the sale and use of alcohol. By 1919, all the states except the Catholic immigrant holdout states of Rhode Island and Connecticut had ratified the amendment. Prohibition went into effect in January 1920. Prohibition, although noble in its goals, did little to curb society's use of alcohol. Instead, it led to the proliferation of gangs led by mobsters who managed the illegal production, shipping, and sale of alcohol. It also led to a large market for illegally and often dangerously produced alcohol and the proliferation of illegal saloons.

The 19th Amendment: Women's suffrage

America's entry into World War I in 1917 created an unexpected opportunity for women to prosper and make tremendous political strides. As millions of American men left to fight in Europe, women worked in factories across the country to help in the war effort.

In 1910, the movement for women's suffrage, or the right to vote, gained impressive momentum. The women's suffrage movement was extremely popular among middle-class women who claimed that a woman's voice would help end the violence of wars and provide a boost to the temperance movement. In 1910, Washington state extended suffrage to women. By 1919, 39 states allowed women to vote in some elections, and 15 states allowed women full political participation. In June 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The amendment became a law in August 1920, with more than three-quarters of the states ratifying it. This movement would inspire feminist and equal rights challenges that would emerge later in the century.

The movement for racial equality

African Americans also fought for equal rights during the Progressive Era. World War I provided African Americans in the South the opportunity to gain rights and a better life. As World War I raged in Europe, U.S. immigration restrictions coupled with increased industrial production created a demand in Northern factories for many new workers. In the years from 1910 to the early 1920s, nearly a million African Americans migrated from the South to northern industrial centers to work in the industrial factories. In the North, African Americans earned wages that were significantly higher than what they could earn farming or sharecropping in the South. This mass movement represents the beginning of the Great Migration, which would continue through World War II.

But movement to the North didn't produce equality for African Americans. Many northerners had racist mindsets to rival their southern counterparts; lynchings and race riots were common in northern cities throughout the late 1910s and 1920s. Yet for all the violence associated with the migration, African Americans carved out a new world for themselves in the North's industrial centers that would have been impossible in the South.

Tying it all together: A sample question looks at Progressive movements

The SAT II may ask you to distinguish between Progressive movements on the local, state, and national levels.

Which of the following early twentieth-century Progressive movements was initiated on the local or state level before it became a national issue?

  1. Women's suffrage
  2. The civil rights movement
  3. The Sherman Antitrust Act
  4. The Hepburn Railroad Act
  5. Prohibition of unfair trade practices

This question asks you to choose the movement that began at the local or state level before it moved to the national level. Therefore, the correct answer could be a national issue. Don't be fooled by (B); the civil rights movement began at the grassroots level, but it was a movement of the 1960s and beyond, not an early twentieth-century movement.

Answers (C), (D), and (E) are national movements and, therefore, are incorrect. Even if you were unfamiliar with the tenets of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Hepburn Railroad Act, and the cessation of unfair trade practices, you may recognize that trust, railroad, and trade issues involve interstate actions and, therefore, are more likely to be regulated by the national government. Women's suffrage became a national issue because of state efforts. So, (A) is the best answer.

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