Lecture 10: Introduction to Progressivism on the Domestic Front


I.                   A social-economic-moral-political movement known as Progressivism dominated American life in the first 20 years of the 20th Century.

a.     Progressivism was not one movement, but many.

b.     Progressivism is now most often viewed as fundamentally conservative in nature, but at the time it was viewed as liberal, even radical at times.

c.     Progressives stood for reform of American society in the arenas of politics and law, economics, civil rights, labor rights, and moral attitudes.

d.     Progressivism, like Populism, was a “ground-up” movement—it began at the local level and worked its way up to the highest levels of government. Unlike Populism, it involved both the emerging American middle class and the intellectual elites—as well as the Populist constituencies of Labor and Agriculture.

e.     Progressivism was a response to the problems created by the rapid growth and industrialization of American in the three decades following the civil war.

II.                 The first waves of the Progressive movement involved political reform and the rights of workers vis-à-vis large corporations.

a.     Municipal reform was undertaken in large cities across the county to destroy the powers of the political Machines that had long dominated city politics.

b.     Cities began developing infrastructure for providing social services to the poor and unemployed.

c.     Some of the Machines—such as Tammany Hall in New York—actually reformed themselves by allying themselves with the concerns of social reformers.

d.     At the state level, the “Wisconsin Plan,” developed in Wisconsin by Governor Robert Lafollette, served as a model for other states across the country.

e.     The Wisconsin Plan consisted of political reforms such as Direct Election of Senators, Direct Primaries, the Right of Recall, The Initiative and Referendum. 18 states would implement most of the Wisconsin plan by 1918—all states implemented parts of it.

f.       The plight of labor was another target of early progressive reform efforts. Numerous states adopted laws forbidding child labor, placing limits on the number of hours people could work (8 hour workday became law in several states), and forced companies to introduce systems of workman’s compensation—to take care of workers who were injured on the job, or the families of workers who were killed on the job.

III.              The early reform efforts were inspired and reinforced by the work of the muckrakers.

a.     Muckrakers were journalists who did sensationalistic investigative journalism into the conditions people were subjected to in their everyday and work life.                                                             

                i. In his book The Jungle, Upton Sinclair exposed the horrors of poor immigrants       working at a meat packing plant in Chicago. Eventually, the expose led to the passing of the US Clean Food and Drug Act.

                ii. Ida Tarbell, in her book, The History of Standard Oil, exposed the ruthless methods J.D. Rockefeller had used to create his huge oil empire and to drive others out of business. This led to the passage of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and eventually, the break-up of Standard Oil into seven smaller companies.

                 iii. William Allen White, in The Shame of the Cities, exposed the corruption of machine politics in US cities and the costs it imposed on everyone, especially the urban poor.

IV.            Progressivism percolated up to the national level more slowly, but eventually it found expression not only in the US Congress, but in the White House.

a.     Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson were all Progressive Presidents.

b.     While Roosevelt may have been the most vociferous, Wilson was the most effective.

V.                 National level Progressivism was focused on different areas than local.

a.     Perhaps the best way to understand Progressivism at the national level is to understand it as a “Cult of Efficiency.”

b.     Efficiency was the key word—Progressives wanted to modernize everything about the way government worked and to increase efficiency throughout society.

VI.               The National government was also key to the effort to getting the corporations under control. Numerous pieces of national legislation were passed controlling various aspects of business.

VII.            National Progressivism resulted in the implementation of effective anti-trust laws, the end of child labor, the reduction of tariffs, the creation of the Federal Reserve System, the Right to Vote for women, and Prohibition—among many other reforms.

VIII.          The Progressive movement marked the end of laissez-faire government in America and the beginning of public acceptance—indeed demand for—an active government that looked out for the welfare of common people.