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Movements for Change: Populism and Progressivism

Movements for Change: Populism and Progressivism


Populists. The spirit of protest whether generated by radicals and labor unionists, by critics such as George and Bellamy, or by farmers reeling from low pricesani-mated third-party politics in the 1880s and 1890s. During the 1880s diverse agrarian organizations such as the Farmers Union, the Texas State Alliance, and the National Colored Farmers Alliance joined forces to form two large national organizations: the Southern Alliance and the National Farmers Alliance of the Northwest. These groups singled out several enemies, including the Eastern money interests that controlled monetary supply and policy, the network of middlemen who moved crops from field to market, the large railroad companies whose influence over the agricultural economy and national politics was widespread, industrial monopolies, and supporters of the gold standard. Eager for a solution to the many problems faced by farmers in the 1880s and 1890s, the alliances supported a broad program of political, economic, and monetary reform.

The Peoples Party. The genesis of the Peoples Party, or Populists, came in December 1889, when representatives of the two farmers alliances and labor groups met in Saint Louis with members of the Grangea militant group that had been forming farm cooperatives and fighting for government regulation of the rates charged farmers by railroads and warehousesand members of the Greenback Party, founded in 1875 by Grangers and others favoring the circulation of more paper money and opposing a return to the gold standard. The Greenback Party had unsuccessfully fielded presidential candidates in the 1876, 1880, and 1884 elections and had had some success in the congressional elections of 1878, but it had become largely defunct after 1884. The Peoples Party combined agrarian and labor protests and the farming interests of the South and West against the rich and more politically powerful East. The first statewide Peoples Party was formed in Kansas, and more soon fol-lowed. On 19 May 1891 at a gathering in Cincinnati more than fourteen hundred delegates from thirty-two states formed the national Peoples Party.

The Populist Platform. The Populists called for many of the reforms demanded by farm and labor interests, including increased coinage of silver money, a national cur-rency, governmental regulation or ownership of all transportation and communication lines, a graduated income tax, lower tariffs on manufactured goods, a postal savings bank, direct elections of U.S. senators, adoption of the secret ballot, the establishment of the initiative and the referendum (measures that allowed the introduction and passage of laws by direct vote of the people), prohibition of foreign ownership of land, a shorter workweek, and restrictions on immigration. One of the Populists more radical proposals was Southern Alliance leader Charles W. Macuniss sub-treasury system, a plan that called for government warehouses where farmers could deposit their crops and receive creditin the form of green-backsuntil the crops were sold.

Setting a National Agenda. The Populist Party proved to be an important force in national politics, with impressive showings in the 1892 and 1894 elections, and the party succeeded in bringing the issues of money supply, labor and farm grievances, anxiety about monopolies (particularly the railroads), and the unfair effects of the tariff to the national stage. Many Americans were frightened by the Populist alliance between farmers and labor-ers, seeing their ideas as radical and potentially dangerous for the country. While the Populist Party went down to defeat in the 1896 presidential election, when they endorsed the Democrats free-silver candidate, William Jennings Bryan, many of their proposals were taken over by progressive candidates in other parties, and the Populist movement continued to animate national politics until World War I.

Progressivism. By the end of the nineteenth century reformers in both major political parties were calling themselves progressives to indicate their commitment to a just and equitable society. These reformers were spurred on by accounts of urban blight written by reporters such as Jacob Riis, by political orators such as Populist and Democrat Williams Jennings Bryan, and by grassroots organizations such as the Nationalist Clubs and the Single-Tax Clubs. Furthermore, Constant agitation over the limited money supply, poor working condi-tions, the discriminatory tariff, and the restriction of women from voting, led many reformminded citizens and politicians to search for new ways to address problems spawned by rapid urbanization and industrializa-tion. Rather than a single party, progressivism was a loose coalition of reform groups and impulses that shaped national and local politics well into the twentieth century.

Cleaning up Corruption. Progressivism developed from a wide variety of pressures for modernizing society and for cleaning up corruption on local, state, and national levels. Moral reformers attacked the spoils system, political corruption, boodle, and the power of saloons. Many of these reformers worked at the municipal level, and helped to elect reform mayors and city councils in small and large cities. Other groups sought to establish a more sound political democracy, advocating direct election of senators, a secret ballot, and votes for women. Still others hoped to modernize government by bringing the navy and military up to date and by building a stronger federal government that could regulate corporations and the economy. Many hoped to take what they saw as the short-sighted, narrow-minded focus of partisan politics out of important national policy issues such as the money supply and tariffs and to create a governing class that would watch out for national rather than local and party-based allegiances.

Working within the Two-Party System. Progressive reformers continued build a political power base through elections. As with the Greenback Labor Party, the Popu-lists, Henry George, and the prohibition movements, progressives attempted to gain control of political parties and to win elections on the state and national levels. Unlike earlier reformers, however, progressives worked within the Democratic and Republican Parties, lining up behind whichever candidate endorsed the reforms they supported.


Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Movement: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978);

Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Up Country, 1850-1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983);

Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Knopf, 1955);

Morton Keller, Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977).

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progressivism, in U.S. history, a broadly based reform movement that reached its height early in the 20th cent. In the decades following the Civil War rapid industrialization transformed the United States. A national rail system was completed; agriculture was mechanized; the factory system spread; and cities grew rapidly in size and number. The progressive movement arose as a response to the vast changes brought by industrialization.

Urban Reform

Progressivism began in the cities, where the problems were most acute. Dedicated men and women of middle-class background moved into the slums and established settlement houses. Led by women such as Jane Addams in Chicago and Lillian Wald in New York City, they hoped to improve slum life through programs of self-help. Other reformers attacked corruption in municipal government; they formed nonpartisan leagues to defeat the entrenched bosses and their political machines. During the 1890s, reform mayors such as Hazen Pingree in Detroit, Samuel Jones in Toledo, and James Phelan in San Francisco were elected on platforms promising municipal ownership of public utilities, improved city services, and tenement housing codes. Urban reformers were often frustrated, however, because state legislatures, controlled by railroads and large corporations, obstructed the municipal struggle for home rule.

Reform on the State Level

Reformers turned to state politics, where progressivism reached its fullest expression. Robert La Follette's term as governor of Wisconsin (1901–6) was a model of progressive reform. He won from the legislature an antilobbying law directed at large corporations, a state banking control measure, and a direct primary law. Taxes on corporations were raised, a railroad commission was created to set rates, and a conservation commission was set up.

In state after state, progressives advocated a wide range of political, economic, and social reforms. They urged adoption of the secret ballot, direct primaries, the initiative, the referendum, and direct election of senators. They struck at the excessive power of corporate wealth by regulating railroads and utilities, restricting lobbying, limiting monopoly, and raising corporate taxes. To correct the worst features of industrialization, progressives advocated worker's compensation, child labor laws, minimum wage and maximum hours legislation (especially for women workers), and widows' pensions.

Reform on the National Level

As progressives gained strength on the state level, they turned to national politics. Little headway was made, however, since conservatives controlled the Senate. Some progress was made against the trusts during Theodore Roosevelt's administration, and Congress passed two bills regulating railroads, the Elkins Act (1903) and the Hepburn Act (1906). The exposés of business practices by the muckrakers aroused public opinion. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed (1906) to eliminate the worst practices of the food industry. Although Roosevelt supported the progressive drive for regulation of corporations and for social-welfare legislation, Congress remained adamant.

Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, was a determined opponent of progressive reform; in 1911 progressives, whose ranks had been swelled by middle-class professionals, small businessmen, and farmers, formed the National Progressive Republican League to prevent Taft's renomination. When this failed, progressives united in a third party (see Progressive party) and nominated (1912) Roosevelt for President. Although Roosevelt was defeated, the new President, Woodrow Wilson, sponsored many progressive measures. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 reformed the currency system; the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act (1914) extended government regulation of big business; and the Keating-Owen Act (1916) restricted child labor.

Progressivism's Legacy

America's entry into World War I diverted the energy of reformers, and after the war progressivism virtually died. Its legacy endured, however, in the political reforms that it achieved and the acceptance that it won for the principle of government regulation of business. Most of the social-welfare measures advocated by progressives had to await the New Deal years for passage.


See G. E. Mowry, The California Progressives (1951, repr. 1963); A. S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era (1954, repr. 1963); S. P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism (1957); R. B. Nye, Midwestern Progressive Politics, 1870–1958 (1959, repr. 1965); R. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955, repr. 1963) and The Progressive Movement, 1900–1915 (1963, repr. 1986); G. Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (1963, repr. 1967); D. A. Shannon, ed., Progressivism and Postwar Disillusionment, 1898–1928 (1966); A. Davis, Spearheads for Reform (1967); R. H. Wiebee, The Search for Order (1967); D. Kennedy, ed., Progressivism (1971); B. M. Stave, ed., Urban Bosses, Machines, and Progressive Reformers (1971); J. D. Bunker, Urban Liberals and Progressive Reform (1973); M. McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (2003).

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