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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.

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