The Progressive Era Was an Era of Cultural Change in America

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By the start of the 1900s, many citizens of the nation were eager to start new advances in the country. A majority of individuals, including Tennesseans, wanted better education, clean cities, and more involvement from the government. There were advances in social movements such as the Women’s Suffrage and the 19th amendment. There was rapid population growth because of industrialization, which also created more jobs. The creation of better jobs led to the growth of big cities since families from rural areas began to move to urban areas. All of these new accomplishments are grouped into what historians call the “Progressive” era. There is no known start date of this, but most states along with the Tennessee agenda was categorized into three areas: moral, social housekeeping, and nurture.

One of the first areas of the Progressive era centered around the prohibition of the sale and manufacture of alcohol. Prohibition was enforced in Tennessee in 1909. The main cause of failure was lack of enforcement. People still found ways to buy illegal liquor which also influenced more crime such as mobs and violence in saloons. Prohibition was such a big issue in Tennessee because of the onslaught of industrialization. Without alcohol, you were seen as a better and more efficient worker. At first, The Prohibition party was organized nationally in 1869 and in Tennessee in 1883. This group led a drive to add an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution which would ban the sale and manufacture of liquors. In 1885, the General Assembly proposed this amendment.

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The Tennessee Constitution required that the legislature must re-propose the amendment before election officials could submit it to the voters of the state for ratification. Rural people opposed the sale of alcohol the most, and in response to their demands the legislature passed the Four Mile law, making the sale of liquor within four miles of a private school in a rural area illegal. Since many schools in the state were private and all communities were considered rural, the law applied to wide areas. By 1907, liquor was illegal in all of Tennessee except for Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Lafollette. World War I was a major factor in enforcing nationwide prohibition. The grains used in alcohol production were needed as a food source during the war. There was also a feeling of patriotism from staying away from alcohol. Remaining sober equals productivity, so sober was patriotic. Despite some of the support for prohibition, there was still a lot of anger and hostility against it. Banning alcohol also split up churches because of the different views on communion procedures. There was still national violence and resistance which led to the introduction of the twenty-first amendment. Tennessee was among the states that supported this which would end up appealing the eighteenth. Tennessee allowed local governments to make decisions regarding the manufacture and sale of alcohol.

Next on the state agenda was social housekeeping. Because of industrialization, more jobs were created which led to a population growth in the cities. Citizens of the major cities aimed to keep their environment cleaner and implement more roads. This would spur more economic development and bring rural Tennessee closer to the American mainstream. Without more roads, school could not stay open in the winter or make the smaller, one teacher schools into more modern buildings. On the other hand, most of rural Tennessee did not care for better roads. A vast majority of the state still used wagons and horses as the main way for transportation. An influential progressive during the Progressive era for social housekeeping was Austin Peay.

In 1923, Austin Peay became Tennessee’s first governor since the Civil War to win three consecutive terms and is regarded as one of the state’s most effective governors. He aimed to create a budget surplus and get the state out of its tremendous debt. He also created the beginning of present day Tennesse’s Department of Transportation and created Tennessee’s reputation of a tourist state. One of the most popular attractions created by him is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and several other landmarks. One of the most popular movements during the Progressive era was the Women’s Suffrage movement. Since some of the earliest times, women were that their place in society was in the house. Biblical teachings influenced male supremacy in almost all areas of life except housekeeping and children. Because of this, women in the nineteenth century were becoming tired of being controlled. The south was the most resistant to the movement because of the stereotypical male supremacy and it was understood that if women were to gain rights such as voting, then blacks were to be included. There were multiple protests and clubs for self-education, organizational skills, and practice in public speaking.

Some of these women’s clubs went as far as sponsoring orphanages and relief agencies. In Tennessee, Lida A. Meriwether formed the state’s first women’s suffrage league in Memphis. Throughout the 1890s, she traveled through the state, lecturing and organizing a suffrage league in Nashville by 1894. Stronger leaders like Sue Shelter White refused to back away from law enforcement intimidation. She was the first woman to be publicly arrested in Washington D.C but this only fueled the Suffrage movement. By 1920, women had finally won the right to vote thanks to Tennesse House of Representative’s Harry Burns. His changed vote to support women broke the tie among the representatives and made history. Tennesse became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment. Lastly, the nurturing portion of the Progressive movement focused on education reform. At the start of the twentieth century, Tennessee did not control public education and let each of the ninety-five counties run its own schools. Each county had its own terms of how schools were ran. In the bigger cities and towns, middle-class parents wanted better schools and usually received them. Most Tennesseans learned basic literacy in one or two room country schools made with wooden shacks or old cabins without indoor plumbing.

School terms were short, on average of about ninety-six days and attendance was optional. Tennessee’s education system and literacy were always ranked some of the lowest in the country. In 1909, the General Education Bill was released which called for the establishment of four normal schools: Middle Tennessee State University, East Tennessee State University, and West Tennessee State University. There was also the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal College that was established for colored students. Between 1907 and 1917, the General Assembly passed legislation replacing district school directors with county school boards, increasing education’s portion of the state’s revenues, and enacting a compulsory education bill which made it mandatory for children to go to school. Teachers were also required to have certification and each county was required to have a high school. Before this legislation, Memphis and Nashville were the only cities to have a high school. On the other hand, certified reforms often failed in the rural districts. Overall, reformers achieved a historical victory by letting the state control the state of education. This began to build a uniformed system which also formed the foundations of Austin Peay’s reforms in the 1920s. By the end of the Progressive era, Tennessee had accomplished most of its goals for the state agenda.

The main downside to the movement was the chaos and failure of the prohibition movement. It caused multiple splits between communities and churches. On the other hand, multiple schools and colleges were established and children were finally able to have a more structured education foundation. Women were finally able to take a step in furthering equality between the sexes not just in Tennessee but on a national level. The Progressive era was the age of reformers and young people taking action to create a better nation for their selves and the future generation. Tennessee continued to strive towards modern and centralized cities while building a more organized system for transportation. New roads and better schools were the main Progressive objectives to bring the ideal modern culture to Tennessee’s most isolated areas. All in all, the Progressive era was a sign of approaching cultural changes that would continue to sweep across the U.S.

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The Progressive Era Was an Era of Cultural Change in America. (2022, Aug 29). Retrieved from

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