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The Progressive Movement

The Progressive Movement was an effort to cure many of the ills of American society that had developed during the great spurt of industrial growth in the last quarter of the 19th century. The frontier had been tamed, great cities and businesses developed, and an overseas empire established, but not all citizens shared in the new wealth, prestige, and optimism.

Efforts to improve society were not new to the United States in the late 1800s. A major push for change, the First Reform Era, occurred in the years before the Civil War and included efforts of social activists to reform working conditions and humanize the treatment of mentally ill people and prisoners.

Others removed themselves from society and attempted to establish utopian communities in which reforms were limited to their participants. The focal point of the early reform period was abolitionism, the drive to remove what in the eyes of many was the great moral wrong of slavery.

The second reform era began during Reconstruction and lasted until the American entry into World War I. The struggle for women`s rights and the temperance movement were the initial issues addressed. A farm movement also emerged to compensate for the declining importance of rural areas in an increasingly urbanized America.

As part of the second reform period, progressivism was rooted in the belief, certainly not shared by all, that man was capable of improving the lot of all within society. As such, it was a rejection of Social Darwinism, the position taken by many rich and powerful figures of the day.

Progressivism also was imbued with strong political overtones, and it rejected the church as the driving force for change. Specific goals included:

  • The desire to remove corruption and undue influence from government through the taming of bosses and political machines
  • the effort to include more people more directly in the political process
  • the conviction that government must play a role to solve social problems and establish fairness in economic matters.
  • The success of progressivism owed much to publicity generated by the muckrakers, writers who detailed the horrors of poverty, urban slums, dangerous factory conditions, and child labor, among a host of other ills.

    Successes were many, beginning with the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890). Progressives never spoke with one mind and differed sharply over the most effective means to deal with the ills generated by the trusts; some favored an activist approach to trust-busting, others preferred a regulatory approach.

    A vocal minority supported socialism with government ownership of the means of production. Other progressive reforms followed in the form of a conservation movement, railroad legislation, and food and drug laws.

    The progressive spirit also was evident in new amendments added to the Constitution (text), which provided for a new means to elect senators, protect society through prohibition and extend suffrage to women.

    Urban problems were addressed by professional social workers who operated settlement houses as a means to protect and improve the prospects of the poor. However, efforts to place limitations on child labor were routinely thwarted by the courts. The needs of African Americans and Native Americans were poorly served or served not at all — a major shortcoming of the progressive movement.

    Progressive reforms were carried out not only on the national level, but in states and municipalities. Prominent governors devoted to change included Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin and Hiram Johnson of California.

    Such reforms as the direct primary, secret ballot, and the initiative, referendum, and recall were effected. Local governments were strengthened by the widespread use of trained professionals, particularly with the city manager system replacing the frequently corrupt mayoral system.

    Formal expression was given to progressive ideas in the form of political parties on three major occasions:

  • The Roosevelt Progressives (Bull Moose Party) of 1912
  • The La Follette Progressives of the 1920s
  • The Henry Wallace Progressives of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

  • See also Constitution (narrative) .

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