The Progressive Era (1895–1914) for AP U.S. History
Summary: Progressivism began in the 1890s as a movement that attacked the political, social, and political inequalities of the age. Many progressives blamed capitalism for the evils of society. However, unlike the Socialists, who wanted destroy the capitalist system, the progressives wanted to fix that system. Many progressives were tied to the Social Gospel movement of the Protestant church; others wanted to reform city governments, while still others desired to instill even more democracy in the electoral process (direct primaries, more use of the referendum, etc.). Many progressives launched projects to aid the immigrant population that existed in America's cities. One example was Hull House, a settlement house that aided Chicago's poor. The high point of the progressive movement was the "Square Deal" of the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Progressives did much to reform America's cities but were less effective in aiding America's farmers and minorities.
Social Gospel movement: movement originating in the Protestant church that aimed to help the urban poor; many progressives were influenced by this movement.
Muckrakers: writers who exposed unethical practices in both government and business during this era; newspaper editors discovered that these types of stories increased circulation.
Seventeenth Amendment (1913): U.S. Constitutional amendment that allowed voters instead of state legislatures to elect U.S. senators; this amendment had been championed by progressives.
Initiative process: this progressive-supported process allowed any citizen to propose a law. If enough supporters' signatures could be procured, the proposed law would appear on the next ballot.
Referendum process: this process allowed citizens (instead of legislatures) to vote on proposed laws.
Recall process: this process allowed voters to remove an elected official from office before his or her term expired.
Direct primary: this process allowed party members to vote for prospective candidates; previously most had been chosen by party bosses.
Hull House: Settlement house in Chicago founded by Jane Addams; Hull House became a model for settlement houses around the country.
National American Woman Suffrage Association: created in 1890 by a merger of two woman suffrage organizations and led in its early years by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; was instrumental in demanding women's right to vote.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (1911): fire in New York City that killed 150 female factory workers. It was later found that the workers had been locked into the factory; as a result, many factory reforms were enacted.
The Jungle: Novel written by Upton Sinclair that highlighted numerous problems of the meat-packing industry and inspired the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.
The Origins of Progressivism
It should be emphasized that progressivism was not a unified movement in any way. There was never a unifying agenda or party; many "progressives" eagerly supported one or two progressive reforms without supporting any others. Thus, progressive reforms could be urban or rural, call for more government or less government, and on occasion could even be perceived as being pro-business.
Progressive reforms also shared some of the same critiques of society that American socialists were making at the time.
Progressives and socialists both were very critical of capitalism and wanted more wealth to get into the hands of the poor working class. However, as stated previously, progressives were interested in reforming the capitalist system, while American socialists wanted to end capitalism (by this point, by the ballot box). It should be noted that many progressive reformers had knowledge of socialism, some attended socialist meetings at some point in their careers, and a few progressives remained socialists throughout their careers. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, was both a progressive and a socialist.
Progressivism was also influenced by religious developments of the era. During this era, the Social Gospel movement flourished; this movement had its origin in Protestant efforts to aid the urban poor. The Social Gospel movement emphasized the elements of Christianity that emphasized the need to struggle for social justice; followers stated that this fight was much more important than the struggle to lead a "good life" on a personal level. Many progressive leaders (such as Jane Addams) had grown up in very religious homes and found in progressive politics a place where they could put their religious beliefs into action. The Social Gospel movement was strictly a Protestant movement.
Finally, progressives were deeply impacted by the muckrakers. Newspaper editors discovered that articles that exposed corruption increased circulation, and thus exposés of unethical practices in political life and business life became common in most
newspapers. The term muckrakers was used in a negative way by Theodore Roosevelt, but writers using that title exposed much corruption in American society. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair attacked the excesses of the meatpacking industry. Ida Tarbell wrote of the corruption she found in the Standard Oil Trust Company, while Lincoln Steffens exposed political corruption found in several American cities in The Shame of the Cities. Jacob Riis exposed life in the slums in How the Other Half Lives. Progressives wanted to act on the evils of society uncovered by the muckrakers.
The Goals of Progressives
The fact that many in the progressive movement were from the middle class greatly influenced the goals of progressivism. Progressives wanted to improve the life experienced by members of the lower classes; at the same time, most desired that the nature and pace of this improvement be dictated by them and not the workers themselves. Progressives greatly feared the potential for revolution found in socialist and anarchist writings of the era; they proposed a series of gradual reforms. Progressives, as stated previously, wanted to make existing institutions work better. Factories, they felt, could be changed so that they would be concerned with the quality of life of their workers; governments could be altered so that they would act as protectors of the lower classes.
It should be noted that progressive goals and programs were not universally popular. Progressive programs for the betterment of the poor oftentimes meant that the government would have more control over their lives; many in the lower class were
vehemently opposed to this. In addition, progressives wanted to crack down on urban political machines, which in many cases did much to aid the lives and conditions of the lower classes. As a result, the very people whom progressive reforms were designed to help were oftentimes resentful of these reforms.
Historians debate the overall intent of the progressive movement. Some maintain that social reformers of the era wanted to protect Americans from the evils of contemporary society. Others maintain that the real goal of progressivism was to control Americans so that they could be functioning members of that society.
Many of the early successes of progressivism were actions taken against urban political machines. Yet again, some reforms supported by progressives put more power in the hands of those machines. Certain "reform mayors," such as Tom Johnson in Cleveland and Mark Fagan in Jersey City, were legitimately interested in improving the living and working conditions of the lower classes and improving education. In cities such as Cleveland, municipal utilities were taken over by the city to provide more efficient service. Some reform mayors also pushed citywide relief programs and established shelters for the homeless.
The Progressives at the State Level
It was at the state level that some of the most important political work of the progressives took place. Governors Robert La Follette from Wisconsin and Hiram Johnson from California introduced reforms in their states that would allow citizens to have a more direct role in the political process. These reforms included the following:
1. The adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment. Finally adopted in 1913, it allowed voters, instead of the state legislatures, to directly elect United States senators.
2. The adoption of the initiative process. This initiative allowed a citizen to propose a new law. If he or she got enough signatures, the proposed law would appear on the next ballot.
3. The adoption of the referendum process. Referendum allowed citizens to vote on a law that was being considered for adoption.
4. The adoption of the recall process, which allowed the voters to remove an elected official from office before his or her term was up.
5. The adoption of the direct primary, which allowed party members to vote for prospective candidates instead of having them handpicked by the party boss.
Women and Progressivism
Women played a major role in progressivism from the very beginning. In 1899, Florence Kelley founded the National Consumers League, an organization made up largely of women that lobbied at the state and national level for legislation that would protect both women and children at home and in the workplace. Minimum wage laws for women were enacted in various states beginning in 1911; more stringent child labor laws began to be enacted in the states one year later.
Women also played a crucial role in the creation of settlement houses. In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in Chicago, which would become a model for settlement house construction in other cities. Found at Hull House (and at many other centers) were clubs for adults and children, rooms for classes, and a kindergarten. Settlement house workers also gave poor and immigrant women (and their husbands) advice on countless problems that they encountered in the city. Some settlement houses were more successful than others in actually helping lower-class families cope with urban life. Programs at settlement houses were multidimensional, stressing art, music, drama, and dance. Classes in child care, health education, and adult literacy could be found at most settlement houses.
Women differed greatly on how they felt the urban poor could be helped. Some pushed heavily for reforms in the workplace, while others joined organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League, whose members felt that alcohol was the major cause for the woes of the lower classes. Still others became deeply involved in the suffrage movement, oftentimes attempting to get lower-class women interested in the vote as well. Women started to get the vote in individual western states beginning with Idaho, Colorado, and Utah in the 1890s. In 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was created by a merger of two woman suffrage groups. It was led in its early years by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In 1916, Alice Paul founded the more radical National Woman's Party. Both organizations would be crucial in the final push for woman's suffrage after World War I. In addition, during this era, women in public meetings first began to discuss the topic of feminism. The word was first used by a group of women meeting in New York City in 1914. Feminists wanted to remove themselves from the restraints that society had placed on them because they were female. A radical feminist of the time was Margaret Sanger, who as a nurse in New York City observed the lack of knowledge that immigrant women had about the reproductive system. Sanger devoted herself to teaching the poor about birth control and opened the first birth control clinic in the United States.
Reforming the Workplace
Horrible events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire convinced many progressives to push for reforms of safety and health conditions in factories. Progressives lobbied hard for the creation of accident insurance programs for workers in New York and elsewhere. From 1910 to 1917, many states adopted legislation that would help to protect families of those killed or injured in workplace and mine accidents.
Progressives and labor unions oftentimes did not see eye to eye. However, one issue that some progressives and unions did agree on was the need to restrict further European immigration, especially from southeastern Europe. Immigrants were not union supporters, and increased immigration would cause a larger supply of labor, thus driving down wages. By not bringing in more immigrants who were "unlike ourselves," supporters stated that city life and morale in the workplace would improve. To some, opposing immigration was a progressive reform. More than anything, this demonstrated that "progressivism" meant very different things to different people.
The Square Deal of Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt's ascending to presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley brought to office a man unafraid to use the power of the government to address the evils of society. In 1902, Roosevelt helped mediate a strike between the United Mine Workers and the coal companies. Roosevelt stated that the agreement was a "Square Deal" for both sides. This term would be used throughout his time in office to emphasize that government intervention could help the plight of ordinary Americans. Roosevelt was reelected in 1904, and, in 1906, Roosevelt supported legislation that was progressive in nature. He supported the Hepburn Act, which gave teeth to the Interstate Commerce Act, designed to further regulate interstate shippers, and the creation of the pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. The writings of many muckrakers, including Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, highlighted many of the problems of the food industry addressed in these bills.
Roosevelt also used the federal government to aggressively investigate and prosecute illegal trusts and holding companies (both described in Chapter 16). The Sherman Antitrust Act had been in place since 1890, yet neither President Cleveland nor President McKinley had ordered its enforcement on a regular basis. To many Americans, it appeared that a small group of Wall Street bankers controlled the entire American economy (this complaint would be echoed many times in the twentieth century). Roosevelt had the Justice Department sue Standard Oil, the American Tobacco Company, and the Northern Securities Company, a holding company that controlled many American railroads. All were partially broken up as a result of these government actions. By the end of his time in office, Roosevelt had taken on 45 major American corporations. It should be emphasized that Theodore Roosevelt was not anti-business; however, he did strongly believe that corporations who abused their power should be punished.
Roosevelt also enacted other measures applauded by progressives. In 1905, he created the United States Forest Service, which soon acted to set aside 200 million acres of land for national forests. The Sixteenth Amendment, enacted in 1913, authorized the collection of federal income taxes, which could be collected largely from the wealthy (the income of the federal government had been previously collected from tariffs; progressives argued that to pay for them the prices of goods sold to the working classes were artificially high). In the end, the "Square Deal" was based on the idea of creating a level playing field. Roosevelt was not against trusts; he opposed trusts that were harmful to the economy. He supported Standard Oil, for example, because of the benefits he said it brought to America.
Progressivism Under William Howard Taft
Many historians regard Taft as the real trustbuster. More antitrust lawsuits went to court when he was president than during the Roosevelt presidency, although some of them had begun during the Roosevelt administration. In the 1908 presidential election, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt's handpicked successor, defeated three-time candidate William Jennings Bryan. In the campaign, Bryan continually came across as supporting more progressive measures than Taft did. Taft did promise to follow Roosevelt's progressive legacy, and to some degree he followed through on this; during his presidency, the Sherman Antitrust Act was used against another 95 corporations.
reforms. His support of the Payne-Adrich Tariff Act of 1909 further angered progressives, who usually viewed tariffs as hurting the lower classes (since to pay for them the prices of goods were usually higher).
Progressives in the Republican party finally took action against Taft after the Ballinger- Pinchot Affair. Richard A. Ballinger was Secretary of the Interior under Taft and allowed private business interests to gain access to several million acres of land in Alaska. A close friend of Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, headed the Forest Service. When Pinchot protested against Ballinger's actions in front of a congressional committee, Taft proceeded to fire him. Progressives now labeled Taft as being anti-environment.
Progressive Republicans began to campaign against Taft and the "old guard" of pro-business Republicans. In the 1910 congressional primaries, Taft campaigned against several of these progressives. Theodore Roosevelt, just back from an extended trip to Africa, campaigned for a number of these Republican progressives. His speeches called for more progressive reforms, especially in the workplace. Roosevelt called his program for reform the New Nationalism. Roosevelt called again and again for a greatly expanded role of the federal government. As a result of the 1920 congressional elections, progressives dominated the United States Senate. The 1912 Presidential Election
By early 1912, Theodore Roosevelt decided that the policies of President Taft were not progressive enough and announced he was running for president. The single event that several biographers say pushed Roosevelt to run was the decision of Taft to go after United States Steel because it had purchased Tennessee Coal and Iron back in 1907. Taft knew that Roosevelt had personally approved this deal. As might be expected, Taft's followers controlled the Republican party machinery, thus allowing Taft to easily win the 1912 Republican nomination.
Roosevelt's followers marched out of the Chicago convention site, proclaimed themselves to be the Progressive party, and nominated Roosevelt for president (with California's progressive governor Hiram Johnson as his running mate). This party soon became known as the Bull Moose party. Its platform included many progressive causes, including the elimination of child labor, suffrage for women, and an eight-hour workday. Many women supported the Bull Moose party; in several states where women had the vote, women ran for local offices as members of the party.
The beneficiary of the split in the Republican Party was the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, governor of New Jersey. Wilson also campaigned as a progressive, although in his platform, called the New Freedom policy, he also cautioned against big government. Wilson argued that government was wrong to concentrate on regulating big monopolies; instead, government should be trying to break them up. Wilson won the election, but only received 42 percent of the popular vote. Roosevelt received 27 percent and Taft only 23 percent. It should also be noted that Eugene Debs ran as a candidate of the Socialist party and received 6 percent of the votes. The political will of the times is easily shown in this election: the three candidates openly calling for
progressive policies (Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs) received 75 percent of the popular vote. The Progressive Legacy of Woodrow Wilson
Much legislation was enacted under Woodrow Wilson that pleased reformers. The Underwood Tariff Act of 1913 cut tariffs on imported goods. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 was a continuation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and outlawed certain specific business practices. A key element of this act also helped the labor movement by making strikes and other labor activities legal. In 1914, the Federal Trade Commission was established; the main job of this organization was to uniformly enforce the antitrust laws. Wilson also signed legislation creating the Federal Reserve System, which established 12 district reserve banks and the creation of Federal Reserve notes. This system was designed to protect the American economy against further panics such as had occurred in the early 1890s.
Did Progressivism Succeed?
of the Reconstruction era. In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded to further the fight of blacks for political equality in America.
The outbreak of World War I in Europe turned the interests of many away from political reform. Only those reformers concerned with women's suffrage relentlessly pursued their cause during the war years.
Political, economic, and social inequities and problems existed in America in the late 1890s, and the Progressive movement developed to attempt to address some of those problems.
The Progressive movement did not have a unifying set of goals or leaders.
Progressives shared some of the same critiques of American society as the socialists, but wished to reform and not attack the American system.
Progressive reformers were closely tied to the Social Gospel movement of the Protestant church; progressivism and religious fervor often marched hand in hand.
Muckraking magazines and newspapers of the era oftentimes created and published the progressive agenda. Many progressives were determined to reform city government and the services provided by city government. Progressive political reforms included the initiative process, the referendum, recall, and the direct primary. Hull House was an example of a settlement house copied by reformers across the country.
The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt was a high point of progressivism; Roosevelt's "Square Deal" included many progressive measures.
Progressive policies were sometimes challenged by Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft; the advent of World War I blunted the progressive reform impulse for many.
Progressivism succeeded in achieving some of its goals but fell short in aiding farmers and minorities in America.
1879: Progress and Poverty by Henry George published 1888: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy published 1889: Formation of National Consumers League
1890: National American Woman Suffrage Association founded
1901: Theodore Roosevelt becomes president after the assassination of William McKinley Progressive Robert La Follette elected as governor of Wisconsin
Progressive Tom Johnson elected as mayor of Cleveland, Ohio 1903: Founding of Women's Trade Union League
1904: The Shame of the Cities by Lincoln Steffens published 1905: IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) established
Establishment of United States Forest Service 1906: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair published
Meat Inspection Act enacted Pure Food and Drug Act enacted 1908: William Howard Taft elected president 1909: Foundation of the NAACP
1910: Ballinger-Pinchot controversy 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire
1912: Progressive party (Bull Moose party) founded by Theodore Roosevelt Woodrow Wilson elected president
Establishment of Industrial Relations Committee 1913: Establishment of Federal Reserve System
Ratification of Sixteenth Amendment, authorizing federal income tax
Ratification of Seventeenth Amendment, authorizing direct election of senators 1914: Clayton Antitrust Act ratified
Outbreak of World War I in Europe