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The Progressive Era

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


  • 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
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
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
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

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
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
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

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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Robert Novitsky
    How did the U.S. congress allow sterilization? Who decided who would be sterilized? How did they force people (at gun point?? Jail time?)?
    (40 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user margarethholcomb
      The idea of sterilization was based in part on a misunderstanding of Darwinism and natural selection. White Supremacists adhered to "Social Darwinism"- a construed way of thinking that espouses the idea that certain races and classes are more evolved than others. Unfortunately those who held to these views confused the difference between beautifully unique and equal cultures with a biological deficit. In practice this meant that if someone was not a white, middle-class protestant they were biologically inferior and needed to be rooted out via "survival of the fittest" (misconstrued) ideology. The purpose of eugenics was to eliminate "undesirable" attributes from the human race. Since poverty, mental illness, and different racial and ethnic backgrounds were considered biologically undesirable traits, the process of sterilization was used as an unethical means to "cleanse" humanity of biological weaknesses.

      Many congressmen held to the above mentioned ideals and therefore had no ethical qualms about passing this hurtful legislature. The congressmen believed that doing so was a service to the advancement of society.

      Choosing who would be sterilized was an extremely discriminatory and subjective process. Ethnic minorities, immigrants, convicted felons, the mentally handicapped, and the poor were the main targets of this procedure since their "weaknesses" were evidence of biologically undesirable traits that should be bred out of the human race.

      From what I understand people were coerced into sterilization through a variety of social incentives and threats. Immigrants were promised preferential assistance if they underwent the procedure, and felons were not given any sort of choice in the matter. Sadly, in each story of institutionalized sterilization the individuals were not given the necessary information and options to make an informed choice about their lives.

      I hope that this helps clear things up! :)
      (114 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Mark Lee
    Why did people even want to get sterilized! Isn't that just ... well, you would know if you were forced to.
    (5 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      Not necessarily! A lot of people who underwent involuntary sterilization were told that they were getting a routine surgery and put under and only discovered later that they had been sterilized. (This was happening as late as the 1970s in states like California and North Carolina).

      Many of those who were sterilized suffered from mental retardation or mental illness, so it may have been difficult for them to understand what had happened after a sterilization procedure.
      (43 votes)
  • hopper happy style avatar for user Eden Fleming
    if the Klu Klux Klan was hurting the african-americans and people helped them, then why didn't the president and government try to stop the Klu Klux Klan?
    (8 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Juliette Kudrick
      There's also the problem of overwhelming racism during this period. Even white 'progressives' like Roosevelt didn't concern themselves with matters of equality. Many believed that lynch law was a form of social justice, and that segregation was a brilliant plan to avoid strife. For most white politicians racial equality wasn't really a prime concern, so sadly, things like the KKK and racial violence were just overlooked for other matters that were considered 'more important'
      (22 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Caleb Reynolds
    I would say that every major movement in society has its pros and cons. While the progressive movement pushed us forward from a agrarian society to an industrial society and paved the way for greater technology and achievements it also paved the way for eugenics. They got so caught up in trying to push our society forward that many were willing to dispose of people they considered "undesirable" in order to do that. I personally believe that the American eugenics movement was where the Nazis got the majority of their ideas of eugenics which they ultimately used to kill millions of people.
    (12 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
      I'd say it was a mixture of pro and con. How can anyone be against the Pure Food and Drug Act? We still today depend on that to be able to buy groceries that are safe to eat, and to buy pharmaceuticals that won't have terrible side effects. Labor unions and collective bargaining raised the pay for all workers, but it was misused in preventing some people from joining a union or doing certain types of work. Eugenics was definitely a downside, but the intentions of those who used it were mistaken. Passing an income tax, which initially was only on very high earners, was good in that many of the services it pays for are a good thing.
      (7 votes)
  • old spice man green style avatar for user Chase Webber
    To be honest I'm not completely understanding the "sterilization" what is it exactly? And I wonder how an act like that was passed even know people in powerful positions at that time were mostly white males.
    (7 votes)
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  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Tyrone Reid
    Are there still more robbers barons today
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Angmayala25
    Do you think that WWI was an extension of the progressive era?
    (4 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user Alex
      You could argue both sides. Personally, I find that WWI marked the end of the Progressive Era, as acts like the Sedition Act ended civil liberties that were crucial to women's groups, pacifists, labor unions, etc; many of the Progressive groups also lost popular and governmental support due to their anti-war efforts.
      (8 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user LM
    why though? why couldnt they have children?
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user L. E.
      I'm assuming you're referencing this quote: "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."

      Well, they couldn't have children because they were sterilized (I'm not going to go into detail here, but think spaying and neutering, except for humans-- awful).

      If you mean why they implemented eugenics, they thought that restricting the reproduction of the disabled, "subhumans/undesirables" etc. would ultimately make for a "healthier" society, preventing the passing on of undesirable traits, and the dilution of their "master race."
      (8 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user RIALIKESTURTLES
    people were forcefully WHAT?!?!?!So that they couldn't have babies?!?! because of the color of their skin?!?!? And or because of where their blood comes from?!?!?EXCUSE ME. and people say we're living in some "interesting times these days. goodness
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user kristi delgado
    Why is this era called the Progressive Era? What does progressive mean in terms of this time period?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user Alex
      "Progressive" during the Progressive Era means both progress in passing a great amount of economic, political, social, and environmental reforms, as well as the advancement of people's thoughts with "muckraking" and more liberal ideas towards workers and women. Hope that I helped.
      (4 votes)