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 empireestablished, but not all citizens shared in the new wealth, prestige, and optimism.
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 had strong political overtones, and 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 (initiative, referendum, recall)
- 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 (16th, 17th, 18th, 19th) which provided for an income tax, 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 (political boss) system.
PROGRESSIVE ERA BIG PICTURE QUESTION
The Civil War, the most traumatic event in American history, produced three Amendments to the U. S. Constitution. The Progressive Era produced four. What was it about this time period that demanded such drastic and permanent changes in the basic structure of American society?