Introduction to the Progressive Era (1890–1930)

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Introduction to the Progressive Era (1890–1930)

The Progressive era received its name from the forward-thinking, or “progressive,” reformers who addressed a variety of social, economic, and political ills. They lived in all parts of the country, were often professionals from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, and belonged to both the Democratic and Republican parties. Many of the problems they sought to fix resulted from the rapid industrialization and urbanization and the huge surge of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century. They also sought to correct what they saw as the injustices of the Gilded Age (1870–1900), when corporations, along with corporate profits, grew, resulting in an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Progressives intended to make the United States more democratic, so they focused on political reforms that took power out of the hands of the few. One result was direct election of U.S. senators, which they achieved with ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913. Previously, state legislatures chose senators and controlled how they voted. Similarly, Progressives pushed for women’s right to vote. The suffrage movement had started in the mid-nineteenth century; by the Progressive era it had become highly organized. In 1920, with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, twenty-six million women—half the population—suddenly became voters who could effect change.

Perhaps no one personified the progressive spirit more than President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), who greatly expanded the powers of the government. He was the gleeful trust-buster, eager to break up huge business conglomerates that squelched competition. He stepped into a miners’ strike and got both business and labor to agree to arbitration to solve their disputes—an involvement in the economy that no president had risked before. He also came up with a plan to manage wilderness development and save many forests and unspoiled areas.

Reform did not come easy, nor did it touch all parts of society. Political and social opportunities for African-Americans, for example, were restricted by segregation. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional. That would remain the law for fifty years.

Another failure came with Prohibition, which outlawed the manufacture, sale, import, and export of alcoholic beverages. Reformers saw it as a means of reducing domestic violence and crime, strengthening families, and increasing worker productivity. It became law with the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920. However, this “noble experiment” was repealed in 1933 because it unexpectedly led to the smuggling and sale of illicit liquor, an increase in organized crime, and widespread political corruption.

The reformers met repeated resistance from the more conservative members of society, who simply did not agree that it was government’s responsibility to regulate industry and promote socially beneficial programs. Still, across the nation the Progressive era was an undisputed time of social, political, and economic transformation. The country was moving away from the agrarian economy of its early days toward a new and sometimes painful identity as an industrialized nation and participant in world affairs.

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Introduction to the Progressive Era (1890–1930)

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Introduction to the Progressive Era (1890–1930)