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The Rise of Reform Politics

70 min


  • Students will examine the problems associated with the political machines that controlled many urban areas during the late nineteenth century.
  • Students will understand the vast array of reforms that took place between 1870 and 1920 that granted expanding power to the federal government and challenged the constitutional principles of the American Founding.
  • Students will identify several progressive reforms and analyze the impact that each reform had on the lives of American citizens.
  • Students will explore the debates on civil service reform and analyze primary sources to better understand the motivations of reformers in the early twentieth century.

  • Urbanization
  • Machine politics
  • Boss
  • Boss Tweed
  • Tammany Hall
  • Graft
  • Municipal government
  • Stalwarts
  • Civil service reform
  • Patronage
  • Spoils system
  • Mugwumps
  • James G. Blaine
  • Roscoe Conkling
  • Rutherford B. Hayes
  • James A. Garfield
  • Chester Arthur
  • Pendleton Act of 1883
  • Agrarianism
  • Populism
  • Initiative
  • Referendum
  • Recall
  • Seventeenth Amendment
  • Women’s suffrage movement
  • National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)
  • Nineteenth Amendment
  • Managerial progressivism
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Bureaucracy

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: The Rise of Reform Politics and answer the review questions.

Activity I » 45 minutes

  1. Pass out Handout B: Debating Tammany Hall and Civil Service Reform to the class. Have students analyze the primary arguments both for and against civil service reform.
  2. Split the class into two groups for a structured debate.
    1. One side will be pro-civil service reform and the other anti-civil service reform. Give each side fifteen minutes to prepare a five-minute speech in favor of their position, drawing from their readings. Each group should select one person to deliver this speech. The pro-civil service reform speaker should go first, followed immediately by the anti-civil service reform speaker. Give each side two minutes to cross-examine the other.
    2. Next, give each side five minutes to create a new speech that attacks the opposite side’s positions, without repeating points that others have already made. Different individuals should deliver this speech. Give each side two minutes to cross-examine the other.
    3. Give each side one minute of preparation time to deliver a final, one-minute speech in favor of their position, taking into account previous criticisms.
    4. After the debate is finished, conduct an anonymous poll to see which side was more persuasive.
    5. Pass out Handout C: Thomas Nast Cartoons on Boss Tweed. Discuss the meaning of each cartoon with students. Ask students the following questions:
      • How does Thomas Nast portray Boss Tweed as a corrupt and greedy politician?
      • How do the political cartoons demonstrate that Boss Tweed has an unfair grip over politics in New York?
      • What threat does Boss Tweed represent to constitutional principles and a healthy civil society as portrayed by Thomas Nast?
      • What is the role of a free press in questioning the actions of the government in the American constitutional republic?

Activity II » 25 minutes

  1. Pass out Handout D: The New Nationalism and the New Freedom with primary sources from the two progressive political ideologies of President Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson. After reading the sources in Handout D, break the students up into groups of 3-4. Distribute Handout E: Comparing the New Nationalism and the New Freedom and have the students complete the Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the two primary sources as a group after discussion.
  2. De-brief the activity by asking students to share their answers and justify them. Explore the different ideological approaches to solving the problems of American society by the two progressive presidents. Then, examine how both presidential administrations looked similar in their actual regulatory policies as shown in Handout A.

Have students write 5-7 sentences on what they learned about civil service reform and why the issue is still important to this day.

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

The Rise of American Power in the World

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