In the early twentieth century, reformers worked to improve American society and counteract the effect of industrialization. 

Overview

  • The period of US history from the 1890s to the 1920s is usually referred to as the Progressive Era, an era of intense social and political reform aimed at making progress toward a better society.
  • Progressive Era reformers sought to harness the power of the federal government to eliminate unethical and unfair business practices, reduce corruption, and counteract the negative social effects of industrialization.
  • During the Progressive Era, protections for workers and consumers were strengthened, and women finally achieved the right to vote.

The problems of industrialization

Though industrialization in the United States raised standards of living for many, it had a dark side. Corporate bosses, sometimes referred to as “robber barons,” pursued unethical and unfair business practices aimed at eliminating competition and increasing profits. Factory workers, many of them recent immigrants, were frequently subjected to brutal and perilous working and living conditions. Political corruption enriched politicians at the expense of the lower and working classes, who struggled to make ends meet. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” was widening.1^1
The Progressive movement arose as a response to these negative effects of industrialization. Progressive reformers sought to regulate private industry, strengthen protections for workers and consumers, expose corruption in both government and big business, and generally improve society.2^2
Political cartoon depicting fat businessmen sitting on bags of money while working people struggle under the burdens of their trades, such as clothing, iron, and lumber.
Political cartoon criticizing the "robber barons" of industry for profiting off of workers who were poorly paid and subjected to harsh conditions. Puck magazine, February 1883. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The ideology and politics of progressivism

The worldview of Progressive reformers was based on certain key assumptions. The first was that human nature could be improved through the enlightened application of regulations, incentives, and punishments. The second key assumption was that the power of the federal government could be harnessed to improve the individual and transform society. These two assumptions were not shared by political conservatives, who tended to believe that human nature was unchanging, and that the federal government should remain limited in size and scope.3^3
Photograph of Ida Tarbell.
Ida Tarbell, pioneer of investigative journalism who published an exposé of Standard Oil's business practices. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Some of the most famous Progressive reformers were Jane Addams, who founded Hull House in Chicago to help immigrants adapt to life in the United States; Ida Tarbell, a “muckraker” who exposed the corrupt business practices of Standard Oil and became an early pioneer of investigative journalism; and Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, who both expanded the power of the federal government to impose regulations on private industry and implement protections for workers, consumers, and the natural environment.
Progressive reformers successfully influenced the passage of much substantive legislation, including several amendments to the US Constitution. The Sixteenth Amendment established a federal income tax, the Seventeenth Amendment allowed for the direct election of Senators, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited sales of alcohol, and the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote.
Legislation aimed at strengthening protections for workers and consumers included the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created the Food and Drug Administration to guarantee the safety and purity of all food products and pharmaceuticals, and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, which sought to curb business practices aimed at stifling competition.4^4

The dark side of progressivism

Though Progressive reformers achieved many noteworthy goals during this period, they also promoted discriminatory policies and espoused intolerant ideas. The Wilson administration, for instance, despite its embrace of modernity and progress, pursued a racial agenda that culminated in the segregation of the federal government. The years of Wilson’s presidency (1913-1921) witnessed a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and a viciously racist backlash against the economic and political gains of African Americans in the post-Reconstruction period.5^5
Labor unions, which were very active in Progressive politics, supported restrictions on immigration and spewed xenophobic rhetoric that blamed immigrants for low wages and harsh working conditions in factories across the nation. Federal immigration policies in the Progressive Era, including the Immigration Act of 1917 and the National Quota Law of 1921, severely limited immigration based on nationality, and excluded virtually all Asian immigrants.6^6
In line with their view of human nature as capable of being engineered and manipulated, many Progressive reformers advocated selective breeding, or eugenics. Eugenics was considered “the science of better breeding” and aimed to improve the genetic quality of the human population through policies that would encourage the more “desirable” elements of society to have more children while preventing “undesirables” from reproducing. Eugenics was based on a racial and class hierarchy that placed white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants at the top. Lower classes, ethnic minorities, recent immigrants, the mentally ill, and the developmentally disabled all occupied lower rungs on this hierarchy. In 1907, the United States became the first country to pass a compulsory sterilization law.
The genocidal policies of Nazi Germany ultimately discredited the “science” of eugenics, but not before over 60,000 American men and women were forcibly sterilized to prevent them from having children.7^7

What do you think?

How would you describe the Progressive worldview? Do you agree with the ideological assumptions of progressivism?
What were the most impressive achievements of Progressive reformers?
Overall, were the effects of progressivism more harmful or beneficial to American society?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more, see H.W. Brands, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  2. For more on the Progressive movement, see Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  3. For more on Progressive ideology, see Shelton Stromquist, Reinventing “The People”: The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem, and the Origins of Modern Liberalism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006).
  4. See Walter Nugent, Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  5. For more on Wilson’s racial policies, see Eric S. Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
  6. Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002), 3-4.
  7. For more on eugenics in the United States, see Paul A. Lombardo, A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).
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