Lincoln Steffens is considered to be one of the most impactful journalists during the Progressive Movement in America.
Learn about how he got his start as a writer and some of his major contributions.
Lincoln Steffens’ Early Life
Lincoln Steffens was born on April 6, 1866 at the tail end of the Civil War. Steffens’ parents were wealthy San Franciscans and, as a result, he grew up very privileged. Yet Steffens got a glimpse of social corruption even as a kid. His father frequently bet on horse races in California and won more often than not.
Steffens realized that the races were fixed, a fact that did not sit well with him.Steffens went to school at University of California at Berkeley but was very disillusioned by his education and the credibility of his professors. He begged his father to let him go to Europe to continue his studies, where he studied with renowned psychologists Wilhelm Wundt and Jean-Martin Charcot. During these European escapades, Steffens fell in love with another American student, and the two were married in secret.
Lincoln Steffens in New York City
By the time Steffens turned 26, he was ready to come home. On returning to the United States, however, he was surprised to find his dad didn’t agree. In a letter, his father explained that he believed Steffens still had some growing up and learning to do, and that he should stay in New York City. With just $100 in his pocket and a new wife on his arm, Steffens had to scramble for a career. Luckily for Lincoln, he found a job working with the New York Evening Post. He started out writing various articles about different political happenings in the city, but eventually became the paper’s first police reporter.
As a police reporter, Steffens has the chance to witness crime and corruption first-hand, an experience that truly opened his eyes to the rough underbelly of America’s cities. During this time, he became friends with a police commissioner who would go on to become a U.S.
president: Theodore Roosevelt. The two maintained some degree of friendship throughout the course of both of their careers.
Lincoln Steffens ; McClure’s Magazine
After nine years of working in the newspaper business, Steffens was ready to make a change. In 1901, he joined the team at McClure’s Magazine as the managing editor.
Owned by Sam McClure, this magazine was about to revolutionize American journalism. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was in the midst of the Progressive Movement, which was a widespread push across the country for political and social reform and a movement the aforementioned Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, helped push into the mainstream consciousness. McClure wanted to expose American corruption for two reasons: to shock American audiences and increase readership and to effect change.
McClure’s Magazine employed a group of journalists known as muckrakers. The term muckraker was actually coined by Theodore Roosevelt to describe the type of journalism they did. Muckrakers dug up the dirt on corrupt institutions and people and exposed them to the American people.
Lincoln Steffens was one of McClure’s leading muckrakers. Stemming from his time working as a police reporter, Steffens was fascinated by the corruption of America’s cities. He began traveling from city to city, always asking two questions:
- Why was the city corrupt?
- How was the city corrupt?
He reported his findings in a series of articles published in McClure’s Magazine. Audiences hung on his every word as he exposed corruption in many cities. In particular, Steffens highlighted the toxic relationship between America’s wealthy businessmen and its politicians. Steffens exposed the seedy backroom deals where industrialists, like John D. Rockefeller, lined the pockets of politicians to get what they wanted.
Steffen’s articles were eventually published in a book called The Shame of the Cities in 1904. Steffens took his message across the country as a lecturer. He continued to expose corruption and peppered his audiences with questions that shed light on the dangers of self-interest at the expense of the greater good.
Lincoln Steffens’ Later Career
Eventually, Lincoln Steffens lost interest in his crusade against American corruption. Instead of focusing on reform to change the country, he looked to revolution as a means to completely upend politics.
Steffens supported the Mexican Revolution and spent time in the Soviet Union where he witnessed the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution. He brought these ideas with him back to the United States, but by then, very few people wanted to listen. Steffens published two more books in his lifetime: Moses in Red: The Revolt of Israel as a Typical Revolution, that compared the Israelites’ plight in Egypt to the Bolshevik Revolution, and Autobiography about his life. Lincoln Steffens died on August 9, 1936.
Let’s review what we’ve learned. Lincoln Steffens was born on April 6, 1866 to a rich family in San Francisco. Steffens studied at UC Berkeley and went on to study psychology in Europe. Upon returning to the United States, Steffens went to work for New York City newspapers. While at the New York Evening Post, Steffens became the first police reporter. During that time he made friends with Theodore Roosevelt and learned of the immense political corruption in New York City.In 1901, in the midst of the Progressive Movement, a widespread push across the country for political and social reform, he became managing editor at McClure’s Magazine where he became one of the country’s leading muckrakers, which was a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt used to describe reporters who dug up the dirt on corrupt institutions and people and exposed them to the American people.
He wrote a series of articles, later published as the book The Shame of the Cities in 1904, that exposed political corruption in America’s cities. Steffens toured the country to lecture about corruption and reform. In his later life, Steffens began to focus on political revolution and supported the Mexican Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution. At this point, Steffens had lost popularity.
He published Moses in Red: The Revolt of Israel as a Typical Revolution and Autobiography before his death in 1936.