Progressive Movement - Best Essay Writing Service Reviews Reviews | Get Coupon Or Discount 2016
Free Essays All Companies All Writing Services

Progressive Movement

The period from 1890 to 1917 in the history of United States is known as Progressive era. This period is marked by an all-encompassing and intensive change in all spheres of American life viz. political, economic and social. According to Nevin and Commager, this period was “marked by revolt and reform in almost every department of American life. Old political leaders were ousted and new one enlisted; political machinery was overhauled and modernized; political practices were subject to critical scrutiny and those which failed to square with the ideals of democracy were rejected.

” (p. 382) Origin of Progressivism: Various theories have been forwarded about the origins of the Progressivism as a movement and socio-political reformation. Thelen (1969) sums up the theoretical assumptions about the factors that set an impetus for progressivism. He says in this regard; Recent historians have explained the origins of the progressive moments in several ways.

They have represented Progressivism, in turn, as a continuation of the western and southern farmers’ revolt, as a desperate attempt by the urban gentry to regain status from the new robber barons, as a thrust from the depths of slum life and as a campaign by businessmen to prevent workers from securing political power. (p. 323) He concludes that the only assumption that can attributed as the cause of progressivism is “class and status conflict of the late nineteenth century” (323) and it remains the major driving force for the progressive throughout the movement.

However, apparently progressivism can be identified as a response to the gilded age and its exploitation and a manifestation of mature American ideology. A: A Reaction to Gilded Age? The progressive leaders with faith in the traditional American ideals of democratic government, individual liberty, rule of law and protection of private rights and property, felt that Gilded Age was marked by corruption. They further felt that due to the policies and practices of the previous regimes, a privileged wealthy class has been created that had plundered the national wealth and resources. B: Manifestation of Mature American Ideology?

Prof. Ekirch (1978) explored the profound intellectual factors behind the Progressive movement. He illustrates trans-Atlantic roots of this phenomenon that starts with Darwinism. He says in this regard that it was the transformation of “the Populist and Socialist ideas of the 1890s into an American version of the state socialism or social democracy” (p. 34). Furthermore he considers it a response to industrialization of America and Imperialism invasion the world over. Still there is another viewpoint that postulates the theory that “the progressive movement never existed” (Filene, 1970.

p. 1) So these motives propelled them to create a new socio-political milieu to nurture the true American ideals. They wanted that majority of the people must be associated with the government and those ruling over the United States must be made answerable to the electorates. They also expected higher standard of professional morality and integrity from the officials. In the economic sphere they were alarmed by the growth of increased monopoly of a few entrepreneurs and exploitations of the farmers and working classes. Ideological Roots of Progressive Movement

These leaders from middle class pleaded for government regulation of big businesses to prevent exploitations pf the weaker sections. Stressing on the needs for reforms, Theodore Roosevelt said, “”No hard-and-fast rule can be laid down as to the way in which such work [reform] must be done; but most certainly every man, whatever his position, should strive to do it in some way and to some degree. ” (Roosevelt) Most of the problems that Progressives wanted to tackle was an outcome of the industrial expansion and the political-industrial coalitions of the Gilded Age.

During the Progressive almost every department of American life was overhauled and modernized. Thus Progressivism was a movement with “predominantly middle class objectives and viewpoint, deriving much of its support from small businessmen, farmers and professional people. The typical progressive leader was some lawyer, journalist or businessmen who, aroused by corruption or misgovernment in his own community, started a crusade to elect better men to office, and gradually came to the realization that what was needed was a reform of the system as well as a change of men. ” ( Parkes, p. 544)

Broadly speaking the Progressive reformists fall into two categories. The first category consists of those who had its origin in the agrarian West and concerned themselves mainly with economic issues. The prominent among these Progressives were Henry George (author of Progress and Poverty), Edward Bellamy (author of looking Backward). the chief political spokesman of this category of Progressivism was Altgald and Donnelly, Brian and La Follette. The second category consists of those Eastern Progressives who addressed themselves to the problems like the tariff reform, merit system and anti-Imperialism.

The predominant spokesmen of this category were Godkin, George William Curtis and President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard University. Its political spokesmen were Carl Schurz, Abram S. Hewitt and Woodrow Wilson. The Progressives also differed as to how the state should interfere to protect the weaker sections of the society. There were some Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt who held that the growth of business corporations were inevitable economic trend and governments should not abolish them. The government should merely concern itself with the regulation of their affairs.

In short, they stood for greater governmental control over large enterprises and industrial units. To undo justices to the weaker sections and labor, they stood for extension of great privileges and compensations to the working classes as well as the strengthening of trade unions, which they believe would counteract the powers of big corporations and their corrupt practices. There was still another group of Progressive, supported by Woodrow Wilson, who emphasized the need of prohibiting monopoly, protecting small business and enforcing effecting competition. In other orders they were more in line with liberalism.

Progressive Reforms A: Progressivism at local level The first battle of reforms were fought by the Progressives at the Municipal and state level. This was so because the states under American constitutional system had jurisdiction over almost all matters of social character i. e. working hours, wages of labor, conditions of workplace, welfare of women and children, education, health, suffrage etc. So it was in the states that most national reforms were initially tested at the rudimentary stages. Furthermore these states also served as the testing grounds for reformers who later undertook the reforms at the national level.

Thus Roosevelt got his training at New York city and Albany. La Follett learned the economies of railway and trust regulation in Wisconsin and Woodrow Wilson earned the reputation of a great reformer as a liberal Governor of New Jersey. B: Progressivism at State Level However, the most spectacular reforms in this period were accomplished at state Level by Robert Marion La Follette of Wisconsin (although the spade work for reforms at the state level was done John P. Altgald of Illinois and Hazen S. Pingree in Michigan). He consistently fought for the democratic ideals and was opposed to domination of Government by the business interests.

During his Governorship, he gave concrete shape to his Wisconsin Idea”. He enlarged democracy through the direct primary initiative and referendum. He accomplished potation on campaigns expenditures, municipal home rule, civil service reforms and creation of bureau of experts to advise the administration. With a view to protect the people against exploitations by large business corporations, La Follette set up commissions to regulate Railway and other public utility services. He further enforced the law that compelled the rail companies and timber corporations to pay their share of taxes.

Additionally, he introduced several reforms that changed the socio-economic set-up of the whole state. Progressive Leader and their contributions A: Theodore Roosevelt At the federal level, the Progressive movement set in with the inauguration of the President Roosevelt, who was the first of the three Progressive Presidents i. e. Taft and Woodrow Wilson. His first act to curtail the powers of the large organizations was epitomized through the suite against The Northern Securities Company in 1903. He introduced other legislative measures to breakdown the monopoly of the large corporations.

Elkins Act of 1903, Hepburn Act of 1906 are only some examples. Trust-Busting was the first radical steo taken by Roosevelt that was aimed at the breaking of monopolies in any form and its abuses. His administration filed suit against the major monopolies and several giant companies were dissolved into smaller companies. In all his term he brought forty four such cases, and thus won the reputation of trust-buster. This action was necessary to keep down the monopolies and large corporations. Summing up the achievements of Roosevelt, Prof. Blum and others observe;

The goals Roosevelt defined and the principals he enunciated were the chart and compass of progressives in 1908 and for many years thereafter. He did not invent them, but he recognized their importance, gave them effective expression, but the dignity of his high office at their service, and converted to them the thousands who felts the integrity and the vitality of his person. Before he left the White House, he drew the lines of battle and recruited the legions for form. He did with a faith in the progress that conserves; a belief that power properly inheres in the Federal Government rather than in any private group; (Blum et al.

p. 530) This analysis further reflects the ideology and philosophy of the progressives and highlights their objectives and actions. B: Howard Taft Second major proponent of Progressivism at the Federal level was President William Howard Taft (1909-1913) who accomplished more progressive legislation than the Roosevelt. He introduced and enacted law to check corrupt practices during the elections. He dissolved ninety trusts under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (these trusts were saving huge taxes in the name of charity and were involved in certain illegal activities).

He strengthened the cause of democracy when he propagated the idea of direct elections for the senators and introduced 17th amendments in the U. S. constitutions that provided for direct elections of the members of the Senate instead being elected by the State legislatures. Furthermore, he wanted to reduce tariffs because he felt hat the Dingley Act of 1897 was much too high and enabled the entrepreneurs to charge exorbitant prices. It is often alleged that Taft was not a true Progressive but it remains the fact that more progressive legislation was enacted during his presidency.

Making an assessment of Taft’s progressive policy and his contribution toward progressivism, Prof. Morison says; “Nevertheless, more of Roosevelt’s programme as enacted in the Taft administration than in the Roosevelt administration”. (p. 831) C: Woodrow Wilson Woodrow is the next in the row for progressive presidents. He introduced far-reaching economic reforms and adopted a number other progressive measure to capacitate the entire American spirit with purpose. Hs foremost priority was the revision of tariff and introduction of viable reforms. He was successful to get “The Underwood Tariff Act (1913) passed.

Secondly, he introduced another Act to reconstruct the monetary and banking sector. He introduced certain other legislative measure to minimize the effect of Gilded Age . Although his program of more progressive reforms were cut short but the outbreak or WW II but two more constitutional amendment (18th and 19th) became effective in his presidency. M. La Follette “Fighting Bob ” exercised very wide political influence over the course of political events during the progressive era. During his term of six years as a Governor of Wisconsin, he pushed through the state legislature a long series of laws which came to be known as “Wisconsin Idea”.

The laws were progressive in nature and spirit and set an impetus for other state to adopt the radical reformation measures. He enacted law that includes effective taxation of railroads and other large corporation. He introduced the devices to recognize and acknowledge public will about the socio-political issues. These devices included referendum, initiative and recall (for all except judicial officials). To protect the citizens against exploitations by large corporations, La Folette set up commissions to regulate railway and other public utility charges.

This precedent set by La Follette in Wisconsin was followed by the progressive of other states as well. Thus Prof Blum and others say that by 1906 La Follette has “Made his administrations a model of honesty and efficiency, established a fruitful liaison between the government and the state university whose distinguished faculty included many valuable advisors on public policy… (p. 520) thus La Follotte introduced a new type politics and social reform program in the American political domain. His fight was not for power or class but it was based on the cherished American ideals of democracy, equality, freedom and fraternity.

So he broke the false ideals of capitalism and accumulation of wealth in few hands. He manifested his belief in general public and their astuteness. Progressivism and Foreign Policy: Progressivism set new direction in the domain of international affairs. Although Progressive gave complete assistance to Roosevelt in his reformation programs against the monopolies like railway kings and the coal barons but it also resisted his imperial designs in the realm of foreign affairs and never adhered to the bog-stick diplomacy of Roosevelt in the world affairs.

They propounded a shift in the imperial designs of late nineteenth century and hankered after world peace and prosperity. These ideals saw their reflection in the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson’s Fourteen Points is a manifestation of progressive spirit and objectives and Wilson gave it a global orientation. These Fourteen Points gave a new conception of an international order based on the cherished American progressive principles. President Wilson pleaded in his speech that if this world were to become;

[A] fit and safe place to live; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation, which like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other people of the world as against force and selfish aggression. All the people of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to other it will not be done to us. (Wilson)

This was what Wilson hoped to get from his Fourteen Points. His objective was to reinstate a new international arrangement for everlasting peace. He further aimed at propagating the American ideal of national self-determination globally. Conclusion Though Progressives could not bring about the revolutionary transformation of the political and economic system, yet it cannot be denied that through their reforms they tried to revitalize democracy and made the rulers responsible and accountable to the public.

“Perhaps the best known results of this era are the 18th and 19th Amendments, Prohibition and woman suffrage respectively. But this legislation really came at the tail end of the period which has come to be known as the “Age of Reform. ” The amendments were actually the byproducts of an immense social and political upheaval which changed forever the expectations of the role government would play in American society. ” (PBS) The most important contribution of the progressive era was the change that they incorporated in the attitudes of the political and business leaders.

In the subsequent years, the big business corporations could not completely ignore the public and their interests. Although the Progressive era was a short one but it pioneered a new role for government. The frequency and potency of the progressivism can alone be identified by the fact that four constitutional amendments were introduced during the progressive era. The progressivism was not limited to a period of 10-20 years but it still continues in various form and manifestation.


Blum, John M.1963. The national experience; a history of the United States. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. Ekirch, Arthur A. 1974. Progressivism in America. A study of the Era from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson. New York: New Viewpoints. Filene, Peter G. 1970. An Obituary for “The Progressive Movement”. American Quarterly. 22. 1. (Spring): 20-34 Nevins, Allan& Commager, Henry S. 1966. A short history of the United States. New York: A. Knopf. Parkes, Henry B. 1959. The United States of America—A History.

New York: Knopf. PBS. The Progressive Era 1900-1918. On-line. Available from Internet, http://www. pbs. org/wgbh/amex/eleanor/peopleevents/pande08. html, accessed 23 March 2008. The Avalon Project : President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. 8 January, 1918. On-line. Available from Internet, http://www. yale. edu/lawweb/avalon/wilson14. htm, accessed 23 March 2008. Thelen, David P. 1969. Social Tensions and the Origins of Progressivism. The Journal of American History. 56. 2. (Sep. ):323-341

Sample Essay of