Progressive Movement

views updated May 11 2018

Progressive Movement



The Progressive movement is a broad label for the various economic, social, and political reform movements that took place in the United States between 1900 and 1914. Given the diversity among the reform efforts proposed or undertaken during this period, many scholars have disputed whether in fact this period should be treated as one common movement. It is true that many progressive Americans at the turn of the century supported a wide variety of reforms with different and sometimes irreconcilable goals. Nevertheless, the tendency to regard this period as a common whole is generally justified by the fact that the majority of reformers identified the same problems in America despite the wide variety of solutions they proposed. Throughout the Progressive Era, a common concern sets the tone for nearly every discussion of economic, social, and political policy: an uneasiness in the population brought about by the dramatic development of modern industry and the material and social changes it wrought in the lives of average citizens. Because of the substantial changes incurred from the emergence of large-scale mass production, the centralization of industry, the demand for greater specialization in labor, and the rise of new modes of transportation and communication, the landscape of the nation seemed suddenly transformed from a simple country of small, tightly knit communities into a complex giant of interspersed economic activities. In this new environment, the relationship of the individual to the broader economic, social, and political community took on an entirely new form.

As the United States entered the twentieth century, many progressives argued that the nations institutions and fundamental beliefs about the nature of government lagged behind the countrys dynamic economic and social growth. Railroad development had extended to nearly 200,000 miles and engulfed the nation in a dense network of trunk lines that had transformed its relatively autonomous communities and states into a single body of fluid commerce. According to many progressives, democracy had not kept pace with the national economic development of the industrial era due to its outdated understanding of federalism and the system of constitutional checks and balances. Many progressives thought that doctrines such as federalism, property rights, and separation of powers had rendered governments so inept that when state legislatures did pass regulations they proved harmful to both customers and the efficiency of business and industry, particularly railroad operations. Federal land grants to railroads and farmers during the late 1800s, made with very few contingencies out of deference to federalism, had led to reckless speculation by farmers and land owners, leaving the natural resources of the country in disarray. The rise of mass production in the steel, lumber, flour, textile, and meat industries had a major economic impact on the services provided by artisans, local mills, and jobbers, demanding an entirely new breed of legislation and regulation to handle the complex arrangements of modern industry.

The difficulty in regulating these corporations was most dramatically expressed in the case of United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895). Although E. C. Knight, a Philadelphia-based sugar-refining company, had consolidated nearly 98 percent of the nations sugar production, the U.S. Supreme Court held that refining was manufacture, not commerce, and thus could not be regulated under the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Distinctive to the Progressive Era was the belief that these obstacles to reform were not the result of temporary misjudgments by legislators or judges, but permanent defects in the institutional arrangements of American government.

From the political dilemma of government in a postindustrial age, progressivism developed along two lines: reformers bent on accomplishing concrete changes in the American system of government on the local, state, and federal levels, and intellectuals concerned with providing a revised notion of political life based on a new conception of human nature. As an intellectual movement, the Progressive Era was an intensely active period of new ideas among a diverse body of thinkers from many fields of expertise. Despite their differences, almost all of these intellectuals raised doubts about the fundamental tenets of American political thought. In contrast to the fixed principles of human naturethe self-evident truths of equality and rights articulated in the Declaration of Independencethe progressives believed that a basic understanding of human nature involved a more fluid conceptual framework, such as the concepts implied in Charles Darwins (1809-1882) theory of evolution.

The impact of Darwins Origin of Species (1859) in social theory had raised serious questions about whether human beings were indeed created equal and endowed from birth with certain unalienable rights. Social Darwinists, as they came to be known, denied that human nature could be understood from such axiomatic principles, and some even challenged the fundamental political maxim that followed: governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Enamored of the concept of natural selection and survival of the fittest, a new generation of scholars following the seminal work of William Graham Sumner (18401910) argued that political life ought to be geared toward the elevation of more talented individuals over less gifted or educated members of society, regardless of individual consent. Thinkers like the economist Irving Fisher (18671947), Sumners doctoral student at Yale, had even made the case for eugenics and the sterilization of the mentally infirm. Others, like John Dewey (18591952), while concurring with the basic premise of social Darwinism, contended that survival depended not on the elevation of certain individuals, but on a collective effort by all to overcome threats posed to the collective interests of the whole.

This theoretical debate over human nature had implications for the political direction of the reform movements. While some progressive intellectuals believed that the emergence of powerful corporations constituted a positive development, in which more-efficient entities capitalized on their superior capability over less-efficient organizations and modes of production, others argued that these corporations presented a challenge to the common welfare. Such a challenge could only be met by reforms in law and the countrys institutions of government.


While it is true that progressives never achieved the passage of constitutional amendments that equaled the breadth of their criticism, the movement did manage to spur a number of significant reforms at the local, state, and national levels of government. Such reforms sought to bring American government to a level of parity with the modernization that had taken place within civil society.

Municipal Reforms Progressivism was initially most successful at the level of municipal reform. Many American cities during the early twentieth century suffered from mismanagement and corruption. Under the control of party bosses and public utility magnates, city aldermen were often the stooges of special privilege rather than the guardians of urban health and safety. Through a series of reform efforts, urban dwellers managed to eliminate the most obtrusive corruption in their cities. Citing partisan politics as the main obstacle to triumph over corruption, many municipalities introduced such progressive reforms as the initiative, the referendum, and the Australian ballot to encourage greater civic participation and weaken the strong arm of political bosses. Other cities, however, took more dramatic steps during this period by replacing potentially corruptible politicians in city government with so-called nonpartisan experts in urban management.

These two approaches to municipal reform illustrate how the movements diverse and even contradictory efforts aimed at solving the same problems. Some progressives hoped to eliminate corruption through increased democratic methods, such as the initiative. Others embraced the new methods of scientific management codified by Frederick W. Taylor (18561915), author of The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), a work that spurred a movement for greater efficiency and expertise in all aspects of American life, including politics, as illustrated in such municipal reforms as the adoption of the post of city manager. While the above proposals differed, they shared the common view that democratic politics as traditionally practiced in the United States had led to corruption under the new demands of modern industrialism.

State Reforms Though less successful than municipal reformers, progressives at the state level could boast of major accomplishments in a number of states. As Wisconsin governor from 1901 to 1906, Robert M. La Follette (18551925) was probably the nations most ambitious progressive reformer, championing such state causes as railroad rate reform, procedural reforms in the legislature, progressive taxation, the open primary system, and the direct election of U.S. senators. William S. URen (18591949) pioneered the use of the initiative, recall, and referendum in Oregon, while Hiram Johnson (18661945) in California successfully campaigned for the popular election for U.S. senators and to permit candidates to register with more than one political party. Other states achieved numerous reforms aimed at greater efficiency in the administration of state governments, particularly in the area of executive and bureaucratic reorganization. By adopting higher standards for admission to civil service positions and organizing administrative offices in state government to attract greater expertise, many states were able to reduce waste and corruption, which had been an obstacle to the effective regulation of their economies.

Federal Reforms While progressivism did not produce the realignment in national politics that many political leaders had hoped for, the period did compile an impressive record of legislation at the federal level. These reforms would redefine relations between the national government and the countrys economy.

One of the most notable transformations in the role of the government in the nations economy began in 1902 as Theodore Roosevelts (18581919) administration pioneered the federal conservation reform movement under the Newlands Restoration Act (1902), which empowered the federal government to regulate the countrys natural resources with the help of experts in resource management. Like many progressive reforms, proponents of these changes also hoped to use the conservation movement as a means of introducing nonpartisan scientific expertise into the governments management of the economy. Under Roosevelt, and later even more vigorously under Howard Taft (18571930), the trusts that had for years operated in violation of the antimonopoly provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) were prosecuted by the federal government. By 1914 the Sherman Antitrust Act was strengthened by the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act (1914), which prohibited discriminatory pricing, conditional sales intended to dilute competition, mergers and acquisitions that inhibit competition, and interlocking directorates. Like the reforms in conservation, the Clayton Antitrust Act was designed to incorporate nonpartisan expertise into the governments regulation of the economy. To enforce the provisions of the Clayton Antitrust Act, Congress created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1914. The FTC would be staffed with five commissioners appointed by the president, with the advice and confirmation of the Senate. Rather than specifying the type of anticompetitive activities that would be prohibited, as the Sherman Antitrust Act had done, the FTC was granted the power to determine what kind of activity was harmful to the interests of the national economy, and could regulate accordingly.

Between 1903 and 1906 the federal government also made progress toward mitigating concerns over the power of the railroads and their discriminatory practices in favor of big business. In 1903 Congress passed the Elkins Act, which prohibited rebate schemes responsible for discriminatory shipping prices that angered economically disadvantaged farmers. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt successfully negotiated the passage of the Hepburn Bill, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission power to set maximum railroad rates. Besides remedial legislation addressing economic inequalities among the public, the federal government also began protecting the health and safety of consumers. Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act (1906), which required health inspections for food-processing plants, and the first Food and Drug Act (1913), which required companies to clearly label the ingredients and contents of their products.

Not only did government expand its reach within civil society during this period, it also released its grip on foreign trade, in contrast to previous regulations that had worked to the disadvantage of consumers. Under the administration of Woodrow Wilson (18561924), Congress repealed much of the tariff support for American industries with the passage of the Underwood Tariff (1913), which stripped many industries of the economic advantages they enjoyed under the former system.

Although constitutional reforms fell far short of progressive aspirations, two important amendments were passed during this period. Both the Sixteenth Amendment establishing Congresss power to legislate for an income tax and the Seventeenth Amendment for the direct election of U.S. senators were ratified in 1913. Establishing a progressive income tax fit the long-term reform goal of equalizing the burden of federal revenue and easing the sectional antipathy that had arisen from debates over the tariff. The direct election of senators satisfied the more democratic strain of progressivism, which aimed at introducing greater democratic participation into the choosing of the nations elected officials; reformers hoped that politicians who were beholden to party machines in state legislatures would be removed from office.

Despite its achievements, progressivism ultimately waned as a movement in the United States when the publics attention shifted to the international concerns of World War I (19141918). Another explanation for the demise of the movement may have been its breadth as an umbrella for many different types of reform. Unable to identify a coherent purpose among the many ideas for political reform in the age of industrial modernization, progressives could not sustain the public attention necessary to effectuate a major realignment in American politics.

SEE ALSO Antitrust; Antitrust Regulation; Eugenics; Fisher, Irving; Inequality, Wealth; Labor Union; Modernization; Monopoly; Populism; Progressives; Public Health; Railway Industry; Regulation; Sanitation; Social Movements; Suffrage, Womens; Taylorism; Urbanization; Wilson, Woodrow


Buenker, John D. 1973. Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform. New York: Scribner.

Crunden, Robert Morse. 1982. Ministers of Reform: The Progressives Achievement in American Civilization, 18891920. New York: Basic Books.

Dewey, John. 1935. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: Putnam.

Eisenach, Eldon J. 1994. The Lost Promise of Progressivism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Ekirch, Arthur Alphonse. 1974. Progressivism in America: A Study of the Era from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson. New York: New Viewpoints.

Forcey, Charles. 1961. The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippmann, and the Progressive Era, 19001925. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hays, Samuel P. 1995. The Response to Industrialism, 18851914. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1944. Social Darwinism in American Thought, 18601915. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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

Kloppenberg, James T. 1986. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 18701920. New York: Oxford University Press.

Noble, David W. 1981. The Progressive Mind, 18901917. Rev. ed. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess.

Sklar, Martin J. 1988. The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 18901916: The Market, the Law, and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wiebe, Robert H. 1967. The Search for Order, 18771920. New York: Hill and Wang.

J. David Alvis

Progressive Movement

views updated May 18 2018


PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT. The Progressive movement of the early twentieth century was an effort to form a majority coalition from interest groups alienated by the economic policy of the governing Republican Party. These groups—including farmers, a significantly immigrant working class, and middle-class consumers—hoped to sustain the successes of American industry while spreading its benefits more widely. Both of the major parties, and several of the minor ones, were home to politicians who hoped to capture this coalition. This diverse movement gave rise to a strain of political thought called Progressivism, whose creators sought to adapt the decentralized ideals of democracy to an age whose material pressures favored the concentration of money and power.

From the Civil War to 1900 the Republican Party, which dominated federal politics, adopted a strategy of national economic development favoring urban industry. A protective tariff nurtured manufacturers. The subsidized development of railroads and telegraph networks gave commerce access to the natural riches of the American continent. A commitment to a strong dollar through maintaining the gold standard kept financiers happy. The country had achieved the Republicans' goal by the turn of the century: the United States was the premier manufacturing nation in the world and was becoming the richest nation in total and per capita wealth.

But mere prosperity, unevenly spread, could not satisfy all segments of the population. Farmers objected to the tariff, which made them pay higher prices for manufactured equipment; to the gold standard, which made life harder for them as debtors; and to the policies that favored railroads, which charged far-flung rural shippers rates higher than urban producers paid. Laborers, against whom the federal government sided in every major union dispute, opposed the tariff, preferring an income tax that would raise public money from the pockets of the rich. In addition, unions sought decent working conditions and stability in employment. Also, university-educated professionals looked with alarm on the war of all against all that resulted from the encouragement of unfettered industry. Oilmen owned U.S. senators, railroad men plundered the public coffers, and public service appeared generally and increasingly beholden to private interests rather than being attentive to the national interest.

Despite this growing discontent, two major obstacles stood in the way of the Progressive movement. One was party loyalty. Even with formidable personalities seeking to woo voters away from traditional tickets, Americans tended to stick with familiar politicians. The other was the near impossibility of bringing together rural, Protestant farmers and urban immigrants who might be Catholic, Orthodox, or Jewish. Ultimately, these two factors spelled ruin for Progressivism; in 1917, anti-immigration sentiment found a home in the Democratic Party and fractured the coalition upon which reform depended. But between 1901 and 1917, the possibility of making this coalition permanent and giving it a partisan home energized politics and political thought, and generated legislation equipping the American state to manage a modern society.

The Republican Roosevelt

After William McKinley's two defeats of the Democratic and Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and 1900, conservative Republicans seemed set to perpetuate the political economy that had worked so well so far. In a speech at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in September 1901, McKinley assured his constituents that the tariff would remain the principal economic tool of his administration. But while greeting visitors there, McKinley was fatally shot by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became president, and the character of politics dramatically changed.

Had McKinley not been assassinated, historians would not now have the concept of a Progressive movement to kick around, as without Roosevelt the dissenting constituencies could more easily have found homes in the Democratic or Socialist parties. But for personal and political reasons, Roosevelt used his presidency to give dissenters a place, however uneasy or temporary, in the Republican coalition. Identifying himself variously as a Progressive, liberal, radical, or insurgent Republican, Roosevelt claimed that as the only elected official with a national constituency, the president was the steward of the public welfare. He used his public addresses to call for a long list of reforms, including anti-corruption, anti-monopoly, democratizing, regulatory, and other novel measures that would use the government to rein in industry. Above all, he tried to define a national interest that would rise above the regional or commercial particularities that had hitherto characterized Republican efforts. Trying to find a middle ground between traditional Republicanism and reformist zeal, he nearly always equivocated; in Americans (1922), Stuart Sherman gave him the title of "greatest concocter of 'weasel' paragraphs on record." But he also, Sherman allowed, was responsible for the consequential rhetorical feat of "creating for the nation the atmosphere in which valor and high seriousness live." While president, Roosevelt used his executive authority to prosecute some trusts; to arbitrate between capital and labor, as in the anthracite coal strike of 1902; and to set aside national parks, preserving them from altogether free exploitation by industry. Aided by the 1904 election—which swept western, reformist Republicans into Congress, and also made Roosevelt president in his own right—he campaigned for and sometimes got reformist legislation. Chief among these laws were three measures passed in 1906: the Hepburn Act, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the authority to set maximum railroad rates and to standardize railroad accounting; the Pure Food and Drug Act, which led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration; and the Meat Inspection Act, which empowered the Department of Agriculture to grade meat products.

But as observers like Sherman noted, Roosevelt effected fewer changes in the law than he did in the atmosphere. He was the first president to identify himself with the changes that had long been brewing in city and state governments. When Robert La Follette was still in the Wisconsin statehouse and Woodrow Wilson was still a conservative Democrat who hated Bryan, Roosevelt was calling for reforms that he freely borrowed from Bryan's platform and using the government as an arbiter between capital and labor rather than a mere tool of capital. And as a Manhattanite who had lived in and identified with the West, Roosevelt straddled two streams of political thought that Progressives desperately wanted to see combined: the self-conscious consumerism of educated urban middle classes and the political rebellion of the West against eastern dominance.

The Basis for Dissent

To a considerable extent, the Progressive effort to trammel industry picked up where the strongly western Populist Party of the 1890s left off. Depression-wracked farmers identified the cozy relationship between industry and politics as the enemy of their security, and even as prosperity returned in the early twentieth century, they continued to support reforms intended to limit the influence of urban industry on government. Thus, railroad regulation and increased antitrust action enjoyed the support of congressmen representing farm districts. When Roosevelt promoted a federal income tax (which became constitutional with the Sixteenth Amendment, proposed in 1909 and ratified in 1913), he echoed farmers seeking to supplant the protective tariff as a method of funding government. Western farmers also supported the creation of a decentralized national banking system, which became law in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. Western states led in adopting democratizing reforms like the enfranchisement of women and the primary election for senators and presidential candidates. And the Populists, like the Jacksonians before them, had supported the popular election of senators, which finally became law when the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, ending the power of state legislatures to choose them. All of these measures would tend to limit the ability of extractive industry to exploit the political and financial capital of the West.

These reforms enjoyed as well the backing of urban reformers, who also sought to regulate industry. As consumers mindful of the health of their children and the children of their neighborhood, they favored health and safety codes to prevent overcrowding, the spread of disease, and the danger of fire. They pressed for public ownership of municipal utilities to prevent electric and gas companies from gouging ratepayers. And they sought to improve public education on the subject of modern political issues so as to encourage the poor to assert their rights. They favored antitrust and regulatory legislation to curb the exploitive power of industry. They supported the income tax, which recognizes actual inequalities of wealth among a people dedicated to an ideal of equality. To give greater democratic sanction to their reforms, they lobbied for the enfranchisement of women and direct democratic measures like the primary election, initiative, referendum, and recall. They also promoted a federal banking system that would limit the swings of boom and bust in business cycles, which would lead to steadier employment for nonprofessional workers. All of these measures would tend to reduce the ability of industry to exploit the cityscape without, reformers hoped, reducing American businesses' ability to make money and employ workers on a regular basis.

To the extent that the western agrarian agenda corresponded with the urban consumer agenda, Progressive reform provided a plausible basis on which to construct a political coalition, and because this constellation of interests crossed traditional party lines, it required a new definition of common interests to unify them. Journalists, politicians, and intellectuals inspired by Roosevelt's energy and by the political philosophy of the day stepped into the breach, giving rise to a variety of political thought called Progressivism. Whether categorized as journalist Herbert Croly's New Nationalism or as the contrapuntal New Freedom of lawyer Louis Brandeis, Progressive political thought deployed the same basic idea, namely that when more Americans lived in cities, when concentrations of capital and labor fought over the spoils of industry, the government had to stand above all as an agent of the public interest. Influenced by pragmatic philosophers like William James and John Dewey, Progressives believed the public interest could only emerge from the colloquy of individual citizens seeking to transcend their particular interests and open to the lessons of experience. Because social conditions were constantly changing, democratic opinion had to change, too, and a progressive democracy must be willing endlessly to experiment with social policy. As Croly argued, societies became democratic by acting as if they were democratic, and learning from the results. Even Christian theorists of the social gospel like Walter Rauschenbush argued that all earthly victories were conditional. In this era inflected by Darwinian thinking, adaptive ability was paramount. Fixed ideologies prevented creatures from adapting to new circumstances, so all arrangements were open to improvement.

The formulation that described most actual Progressive reforms was "Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends," the paradoxical principle that those with authority and power must use more of it to produce more nearly democratic conditions: they must use their power so as ultimately to diminish it. Consequently, Progressives were especially optimistic about education and improved childrearing as models for reform: the relationship between teachers and pupils or between parents and children matched their idea of the ideal relationship between the powerful and the powerless, between the government and its citizens. If government could modify the market principle that all buyers, although not equally equipped, must equally beware, and instead interpose its own judgment, then a truer equality might result. This idea underwrote the educational functions of government agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which publicized and judged the fairness of business practices, and also of private efforts like the philanthropically funded settlement houses, in which educated middle-class women set themselves up as parents and teachers to the immigrant poor. All such enterprises, from bureaus of municipal information to experimental schools, operated on the principle that if people knew better, they could truly see their own interests and govern themselves.

Elections sorely tried this faith, as voters continued to exhibit party loyalty, irrespective of what reformers regarded as the public interest. But the Roosevelt presidency created a national nexus for Progressives of the urban and rural varieties, who formed countless organizations based on these principles. With an interlocking web of personnel and ideas developed in the United States and borrowed from similarly reformist European or Antipodean societies, these groups included the General Federation of Women's Clubs (1890), the Sierra Club (1892), the National Consumers League (1899), the National Conference on City Planning (1909), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909), among others, dedicated to enlightening the public on its interest in a particular set of issues.

During the presidency of William Howard Taft, Progressives found themselves excluded from the White House, although they constituted a growing presence in Congress, especially after the elections of 1910 sent control of the Senate to an informal coalition of Progressive Republicans and Democrats. Congress passed the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, which strengthened railroad regulation more than Taft wanted, and entirely without his help put before the country the Sixteenth Amendment for a federal income tax and the Seventeenth Amendment for the direct election of senators.

Both amendments, ratified by the states in 1913, yoked together key elements of the Progressive coalition and also showed how fragile and fleeting it was to be. Urban and rural consumers alike supported both measures because they diminished business influence on politics. But key support for the Seventeenth Amendment came from the heavily immigrant industrial cities and a coalition depending upon the common interests of immigrants and farmers could not hold. The campaign for Prohibition, which became law after the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in 1919, served as a stalking horse for anti-immigrant sentiment and foretold the end of Progressivism.

The 1912 Election and the Wilson Presidency

In the two decades around the turn of the twentieth century, the United States took in some fifteen million immigrants. Progressive attitudes toward immigrants varied from the urbanely condescending approaches of intellectuals who valued diversity to the racist attitudes of labor unions and intellectuals who sought to exclude peoples who, they believed, were bred to live cheaply. Both attitudes tended to generalize unduly about immigrants. Some, like Russian Jews, hoped to make accommodations with American culture and rear their descendants in the United States; many others, like Italian peasants, hoped to make as much money as possible and go home as little tainted by American culture as possible. Return rates among some immigrant populations ran as high as 50 percent.

Between 1898, when Congress failed to pass a McKinley-backed immigration-restriction bill, and 1917, when Congress passed such a bill over President Woodrow Wilson's veto, it was possible for politicians to bid plausibly for the support of both farmers and immigrants. The 1898 bill was defeated by southern congressmen hopeful that immigration might contribute to the industrialization of their region. With time it became clear that immigrants avoided the South—partly because the racial terrorism that accompanied Jim Crow was often extended to foreigners—and instead swelled the cities and the congressional districts of the North. But during the two decades it took for southern leaders to change their minds, the immigrant-farmer coalition was workable and the need to woo southern voters meant national Progressives turned a blind eye toward Jim Crow.

As the 1912 election approached, Progressive Republicans who remembered Roosevelt gathered uneasily around La Follette, now a U.S. senator from Wisconsin who had carried the insurgent torch while Roosevelt was out of politics. Although an experienced Progressive governor, the self-righteous La Follette alienated the press and his supporters early in 1912, leaving room for Roosevelt to seize the leadership of the movement that the senator had husbanded in his absence. When the Republican convention at Chicago renominated Taft, Roosevelt led the insurgents out of the GOP to form a new Progressive Party, leaving fistfights and shouting delegates in his wake.

Roosevelt's split of the Republican Party created a golden opportunity for the Democrats to win a presidential election for the first time since 1892. They nominated Wilson, the governor of New Jersey and former president of Princeton University. On the Progressive ticket, Roosevelt came nearer the presidency than any other third-party candidate. But party loyalty combined with a Progressive-looking candidate prevailed, and enough of the dissenting coalition voted for Wilson to put him in the White House.

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Originally a Virginian, Wilson had always leaned toward the states rights interpretations of the Constitution, so much that he opposed basic Progressive measures like laws preventing child labor. But his years of dealing with privileged Princetonians and New Jersey corporate interests moved him nearer the Progressive position on economic regulation and the early years of his presidency saw a flurry of Progressive legislation. The Underwood-Simmons Act of 1913 lowered import tariffs and raised, for the first time, a constitutional federal income tax. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 created a dollar regulated by a regional system of publicly supervised banks. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 included detailed provisions for prosecuting anti-competitive business, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 created a strong regulatory agency to enforce Clayton Act provisions. In the midst of the 1916 election season, almost wholly on the president's initiative, Congress passed the Adamson Act mandating an eight-hour day for interstate railroad workers.

But the 1916 election spelled the end for the Progressive coalition. Democrats carried Congress and the White House, with rural congressmen promising their constituents anti-immigration legislation and the president promising urban immigrants he would oppose such legislation. The xenophobic influence of the European war drove anti-immigrant sentiment to new heights and in February 1917 Congress passed immigration restriction legislation over Wilson's veto. Two months later Wilson sought, and got, a declaration of war from Congress, and so the war displaced Progressivism altogether in the nation's politics.

The constellation of interests that comprised the Progressive movement would not align again until immigrants, farmers, and self-conscious urban consumers backed Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In the meantime, Republican administrations, returned to office by traditional conservative constituencies, declined to enforce many Progressive laws. Aided by a Supreme Court that gutted regulatory decisions by subjecting them to judicial review, the conservative administrations and conservative judiciary of the 1920s laid Progressivism to rest. Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919 and Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in the same year. The Progressive season had passed, leaving in place a partial legislative program and an experimental political philosophy that waited fulfillment.


Hatton, Timothy J., and Jeffrey G. Williamson. The Age of Mass Migration: Causes and Economic Impact. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Kennedy, David M. "Overview: The Progressive Era." Historian 37 (1975): 453–468.

Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Kousser, J. Morgan. The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

McCormick, Richard L. "The Discovery that Business Corrupts Politics: A Reappraisal of the Origins of Progressivism." American Historical Review 86 (1981): 247–274.

Milkis, Sidney M., and Jerome M. Mileur, eds. Progressivism and the New Democracy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Rauchway, Eric. The Refuge of Affections: Family and American Reform Politics, 1900–1920. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.

———. "In Search of Progressivism." Reviews in American History 10, no. 4 (December 1982): 113–132.

Sanders, Elizabeth. Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Sarasohn, David. The Party of Reform: Democrats in the Progressive Era. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Sherman, Stuart P. Americans. New York: Scribners, 1922.

Skocpol, Theda. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.


See alsoAdamson Act ; Bull Moose Party ; Elections, Presidential ; General Federation of Women's Clubs ; Hepburn Act ; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ; New Freedom ; New Nationalism ; Populism ; Pragmatism ; Sierra Club ; Social Gospel .

Progressive Movement

views updated Jun 08 2018

Progressive Movement

The Progressive Era, a term used to describe the period between approximately 1890 and 1920, witnessed an explosion of reform efforts in America. A great number of people, for a variety of reasons, participated in a vast number of diverse reforms, including women's suffrage, political reform, and prohibition. Progressive reformers initiated these changes in reaction to the increased level of, and problems associated with, urbanization and industrialization in late-nineteenth-century America. Taking advantage of new technological developments in transportation, communication, and organization, industry grew tremendously and immigrants flooded into unprepared cities for new jobs. With no government oversight or regulations, numerous problems erupted: Housing became overcrowded, dilapidated, and disease-ridden; industries failed to protect their employees financially, physically, or health-wise; and pollution became rampant.

Environmental activities formed part of progressive reformers' efforts. These environmental reformers generally viewed the environmental problems of the city in two different ways. The conservation and preservation activists, led by Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, respectively, pressed for the improvement and protection of "nature" outside the city. They worked to set aside land either as undeveloped wilderness for its aesthetic values, or to maintain resources like forests for future use by humans.

Others interested in environmental problems, however, pressed for solutions within urban areas rather than outside of them. Jacob Riis, a muckraking journalist, published photographs of slum housing and their immigrant residents. His work outraged many and produced some reforms in living conditions. Upton Sinclair, perhaps one of the most famous muckrakers of the Progressive Era, published The Jungle in 1906, a startling, thinly fictionalized exposé of the meat-packing industry. Filled with stories of vile, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions for workers, the book led to legislative action in the form of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. In addition, reformers strived to improve working conditions in factories, resulting in factory inspection laws and child-labor laws.

Women also played a pivotal role in the antipollution movement of the Progressive Era. Alice Hamilton increased public awareness of toxic chemicals and their health effects. The Settlement House movement, led by women like Jane Addams, worked to better city services and conditions within immigrant neighborhoods. Smoke pollution also greatly concerned women at this time. Reacting to their increased laundry load in filthy conditions, as well as concerns about their husbands' and children's health, women dramatically altered the general public's conceptions of smoke. Up to this time, many had conceived of smoke as either a disinfectant or the necessary cost of progress. Women educated their fellow citizens on the health dangers of smoke, and their activism led to smoke-pollution-control laws in every major city in the United States by 1912. Men took control of this issue within legislative circles, stressing technology as a way to reduce smoke or burn the coal more efficiently.

Although progressive reformers generally raised awareness of environmental problems and changed public perceptions of pollution, their activism, in fact, remained quite limited. Reformers of this time generally accepted the beliefs of capitalism and industry. This caused them to limit their search for solutions to technological means, such as finding cleaner methods of burning coal, rather than examining consumption patterns of energy or other products.

see also Activism; Addams, Jane; Environmental Movement; Hamilton, Alice; Industry; Lead; Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); Point Source; Politics; Settlement House Movement; Solid Waste; Water Pollution; Workers Health Bureau.


hoy, suellen. (1995). chasing dirt: the american pursuit of cleanliness. new york: oxford university press.

melosi, martin, ed. (1980). pollution and reform in american cities, 18701930. austin, tx: university of texas press.

stradling, david. (1999). smokestacks and progressives: environmentalists, engineers, and air quality in america, 18811951. baltimore, md: johns hopkins university press.

internet resource

library of congress, memory gallery c. "the progressive era." available from

Elizabeth D. Blum

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Progressive Movement

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