Progressive Era (from abc-clio)

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Progressive Era (from ABC-CLIO)

The Progressive Era encompassed the 20 or so years surrounding the turn of the 20th century and is generally identified as the years 1890-1913. The era was notable for the attempts of its most influential thinkers and activists to improve U.S. society—that is, to progress— through reforms, both legislative and social. While an American phenomenon, Progressivism had its roots in European social reform. German thinkers were especially influential in the transportation of reform ideals across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. This wide-ranging movement encompassed the efforts of a variety of social sectors. Primarily, though, the Progressives can be characterized as middle-class, white American men and women who shared a concern about threats to society. The source of those threats, they believed, was the change wrought by industrialization and urbanization.

Those forces fundamentally and permanently altered the nature of life in the United States; by the turn of the 20th century, the nation had been utterly transformed. Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, the number of people living in urban centers increased exponentially, forever changing the demographic makeup of the previously rural nation. Additionally, the Industrial Revolution that had begun in the United States before the Civil War reached a crescendo during the years 1865-1900, the period known as the Gilded Age.

As a result of those two trends, profound problems emerged that were previously unknown in the United States. In the developing urban centers, scores of people crowded into tenement houses, sometimes several families to one or two small, overcrowded, and

rodent-infested rooms. Embryonic municipal governments failed to address adequately such severe problems as lack of sewage removal and insufficient—often nonexistent—public health care programs and facilities. Further, the emerging factory system in which many of these people worked was highly dangerous, providing little or no protection to employees or the families of employees hurt, maimed, or killed on the job. Complicating all those things was the surge in European and Asian immigration that reached its height at the same time. The physical makeup of the nation, the way in which citizens lived and worked, and increased ethnic and racial tensions combined to make the United States a seemingly completely different nation than it had been in the early decades of the republic.

All those changes led many Americans, particularly those educated in the country's new universities, to worry about the nation's social and moral fabric. Those reformers sought to rectify the problems in a number of ways, both individually and in groups. They worked through voluntary organizations and state and federal governmental agencies, in what one historian has called a "search for order" amid the chaos. The most prominent Progressive reforms took place in the areas of labor protection, health care services, urban living, and environmental protection. Eventually Progressive activists were able to pressure governmental bodies to enact legislative protections in all those areas.

In the area of labor reform, the most prominent issues included child labor and workers' compensation. In the latter part of the 19th century, child labor became very common in the United States, as children provided a cheap and easily dominated workforce. By the early years of the 20th century, an estimated 4 million children aged 10 to 15 made up a substantial part of the nation's workforce. As the number of children in the workplace skyrocketed, so too did the number of children injured or killed at work. The blatant exploitation of children by employers angered reformers, who aggressively lobbied state legislatures and the federal government to curb the access of employers to children, who, they argued, should be spending their time in the schoolhouse and not in the workhouse. Employers forcefully resisted those efforts, as did many parents who relied on the money earned by their children. Convinced of the immorality of child labor, the Progressives—or "child savers" as they were often labeled—persisted and eventually secured some restrictions on child employment. The most famous law passed as a result of those efforts, the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, did not last very long but was nonetheless an important first step in protecting children.

The issue of workers' compensation was equally important to Progressives, and on this issue, too, they met with the intransigent opposition of employers and conservative legislators who were openly pro-business. Despite the fact that the U.S. workplace by the 19th century's end was an extremely dangerous place, those powerful opponents maintained that government intervention in the economy—one of the hallmarks of the Progressive agenda—was inappropriate.

In New York, however, reformers found early success with the 1911 passage of the nation's first workers' compensation law. The measure, which other state legislatures soon emulated, provided for the protection of employees through safety measures and stricter oversight and maintenance of machinery. It also created a system of benefits for those who were injured or maimed by machinery, and it provided some welfare for the families of victims of workplace fatalities. Prominent Progressives spearheaded those employee victories, but they were also made possible by the burgeoning labor movement, as union members, in the largest numbers to that time, became more vociferous in their demands that the U.S. government protect the nation's workforce from exploitative and powerful business interests, including the fiercely antilabor National Manufacturers' Association.

In addition to taming the workplace, Progressive reformers worked to "civilize" the city. By the turn of the 20th century, the number of Americans living in urban centers had swelled to nearly half of the country's total population. The speed with which that happened startled many and wrought tremendous problems for those unfortunate enough to be living in new, poorly planned, and often squalid cities. One approach the Progressives used to solve urban problems was the famous settlement house movement.

Perhaps the best-known proponent of the settlement house scheme was Jane Addams, who embodied the Progressive spirit and in many ways was representative of the movement as a whole. Like most of her counterparts, Addams was born into privilege. Her parents instilled in her a deep sense of social responsibility. A critical part of that was what was known during the Progressive Era as the social gospel, or the belief that the wealthy had a special obligation to improve society. That obligation also entailed spreading Christianity. Those dual purposes characterized the settlement house movement, a system of social reform that Addams had encountered while living in Europe. The first and most famous was Hull House, established in Chicago in 1889. The settlement houses were located in the heart of poor ethnic neighborhoods, which very often were composed primarily of immigrants. In recent years, historians have criticized the settlement house workers for imposing white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon values and cultural habits on immigrants. However, the services provided to the urban poor during the Progressive Era alleviated much of the suffering endured by those people.

For many years, the kind of individual-driven reform represented by the settlement house movement was the only source of aid to the lower classes. The Progressives were, in fact, often at odds with state and local governments. That changed in 1901 with the assassination of President William McKinley and the ascendancy of his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, to the nation's highest office. In Roosevelt, the Progressives found a powerful ally. Roosevelt, the former reformist governor of the state of New York, brought the Progressive agenda to the White House. Promising the American people a "Square Deal," Roosevelt proposed a number of legislative measures to protect the health and welfare of the public and the environment.

Roosevelt's activist approach to governing permanently changed the relationship between the federal government and the public. The government under his leadership assumed a role of protector, and the public in succeeding generations came to expect the continuation of that role. The most startling example of that change came in the early months of Roosevelt's administration when he broke with the hands-off, or laissez-faire, tradition of his predecessors. When coal miners went on strike in the West, Roosevelt intervened on their behalf, threatening to shut down the mining company if it did not negotiate with its employees. That action was a marked change from the past and illustrated the Progressive ideals of government activism and labor protection.

In another groundbreaking move, Roosevelt proposed and secured the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1904. That legislation placed stringent regulations on the food and drug industries, furthering the activist role of the government and providing a sense of safety to the public. While Roosevelt himself played a critical part in securing those changes, Progressive journalists, or "muckrakers," as the president labeled them, were often the catalysts for reform. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, for example, highlighted in ghastly detail the horrors of the meat packing industry, and Lincoln Steffens' The Shame of the Cities uncovered the plight of the urban poor. The convergence of the reformist mood exemplified by the Progressives with the Roosevelt presidency provided a unique opportunity for meaningful and lasting change.

Another area in which Roosevelt and the Progressives achieved significant reform was the environment. For generations, Americans had exploited with abandon the country's natural resources, and those calling for conservation measures met resistance or were ignored altogether. Roosevelt's presidency afforded environmental Progressives a chance to protect the environment. Roosevelt, a longtime outdoorsman, met with the famous environmentalist John Muir and began a national campaign to conserve the nation's resources and to preserve wilderness areas for future generations. Roosevelt was the first president to have lived in the American West, which was still largely undeveloped. Because of that experience, he had a profound belief in both the sacredness of the wilderness and in the need to use resources wisely. Under Roosevelt's watch, the nation's first national park was established at Yosemite in 1903.

Roosevelt, a Republican, remained in office until 1909. Three years later, he cofounded the Progressive Party, or Bull Moose Party, as it came to be known. In the 1912 presidential election, he ran on that third party's ticket against Democrat Woodrow Wilson, himself a Progressive. Wilson won the election, and his administration secured the passage of many of the ideals articulated by Roosevelt's Progressive Party.

Wilson achieved the Progressives' long-sought ideal of government regulation of the economy. He secured tariff reform and was instrumental in the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Those previously sacrosanct areas of the economy — tariffs and the money supply — allowed the government a greater measure of control over the nation's economic course and took those matters out of the hands of powerful businessmen, including the banker billionaire J. P. Morgan. Wilson's actions as president also irked more activist Progressives. He refused, for example, to step in on behalf of laborers who had long been the targets of the courts. For decades, the judges had issued injunctions barring workers from striking, thus providing a very powerful source of support for employers.

Wilson's refusal to halt the use of injunctions illustrated the limits of the Progressive movement. While driven by a desire to make U.S. society safer and provide more of a level playing field for all, the movement never sought to completely alter the existing social and economic order. Rather, Progressives advocated government intervention on behalf of those who were powerless—either in the face of abusive employers, corrupt business practices, or unsanitary and unsafe conditions. As a result, the Progressive Era was characterized sometimes by incremental change and often by abortive or unsuccessful attempts at wide-ranging reform. Nonetheless, important changes were achieved, particularly the relationship between the government and the citizenry. In this way, the efforts of activists during the Progressive Era laid the foundation for more fundamental change in later eras, especially during the New Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s.


Hofstadter, Richard, ed., The Progressive Movement, 1900-1915, 1986; Rodgers, Daniel T., Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age, 1998; Wiebe, Robert, The Search for Order, 1870-1920, 1980.

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