Classical All-American Progressivism: A Brief History

Developing after the Civil War as a byproduct of the economic constraints of the post-Reconstruction era, Progressivism was both a widespread social movement and a historical era in American thought, society, and politics, that laid the cornerstone for the development of a burgeoning democratic practice at the height of modernity in the United States. It was an age of great social reform, in which people engaged in broad discussions and initiated projects for the government to tackle social ills, occurring in response to the so-called Gilded Age. The goal of progressivism was to reform politics, democratize the political structure and exercise greater public control over corporate power, forging a basis for the development of progressive ideals into and beyond the 20th century.

There was an ensuing expansion of government powers in the country, especially that of the federal government, in favor of developing the social good and greater equality amongst the American people. It was a time in which certain progressive policies rose to prominence and were placed at the center of American life. These included: federal regulation, women’s suffrage, stricter health and labor laws, 8-hour work days, living wages, and social insurance for health, unemployment and old age. Progressive Presidents Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson oversaw a vast expansion of federal government powers to regulate private industry and became role models for the modern American Presidency.

The Progressives, as its followers were known, manifested as a mainstream political response to the Populist movement (1891-94), and the Populist Party, which also called themselves the People’s Party. Subscribing to a leftist program, Populists critiqued banks, railroads and free market capitalism. They supported farmers and laborers and petitioned the government to crack down on industrial monopolies and the abuses caused by industrialization of the economy. Their platform was anti-elitist, opposing both industry and mainstream political parties, and it was their demands for change that set the stage for extensive federal reforms during the Progressive Era.

Populists sought great social reform in response to the “Gilded Age,” so named after Mark Twain’s book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), a novel co-written with Charles Dudley Warner satirizing greed and corruption of the day. This time was called “gilded,” because the supposed riches which were celebrated were in truth a social fiction, a veneer only experienced by a privileged few. The Gilded Age was a time of massive social inequity, overshadowed by a luxurious popular culture that had resulted from a massive economic growth in the Roaring Twenties, spearheaded by industrial giants like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. This culture was also detailed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby and was exemplified by the rising popularity of Hollywood’s silent films and their dramatic stars who descended on the public at the beginning of the 20th century. The quintessential American figure during this time were the flappers, young white women who cut their hair into bobs, danced to jazz music in clubs, and mocked conventional social standards.

The Gilded Age saw increased wages for some Americans, but at the same time a giant influx of immigrants and concentration of capital in the hands of the wealthy. The Western United States was experiencing a grand expansion due to the Gold Rush and subsequent development; its economy at the time centered on ranching, farming and mining. The economy of the Progressive era was primarily comprised of railroad construction, buildup of factories, mining, banking and finance. All of this business development led to the founding of the NYSE in 1817 where business investments were conducted and traded in the open. In the postcolonial era, corporate interests traded on globalized stock exchanges, and computer-based ones such as the NASDAQ, eventually overshadowed nation-state interests in finance, such as the East India Companies which had predominated the Age of Exploration. The founding of the stock market signaled the concentration of wealth into the hands of private interests over public ones.

The Populist Party was formed in response to both the Southern-dominated Democratic Party which emphasized states’ rights, and the Northern, industrial centered, capitalist oriented Republicans. They advocated for public ownership of railroads, transportation and utilities to better serve the public good in light of potential abuse by private interests. Populists wanted to base U.S. currency on a silver standard instead of the gold standard, because of the limited amounts of gold that were available to guarantee money and supply loans and business development. Opposing the National Bank, Populists wanted to open local banks to ensure greater access to capital and move the large numbers of people living in poverty into a middle class, which did not really exist at the time due to the income gap between poor and wealthy. They also supported the direct election of Senators, which eventually led to the passage of the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Populists’ membership initially consisted mostly of rural white, and mostly Southern Protestants, organized by a powerful and pervasive outfit called The Farmers Alliance  (1887-92), led by its national spokesman, a white Baptist minister called R.M. Humphrey, along with a significant aligned partner in the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union. The Populist movement sparked the need for three generations of organizing workers, which culminated in massive sit down strikes in the 1930s. Their tactics included the formation of trade unions and groups who organized demonstrations, such as the urban Knights of Labor (1869), led by Ralph Beaumont, which set goals for 8-hour workdays and ending child labor.

In rural areas, the Grange organization (founded after the Civil Way in 1867 and formally called The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry) hosted meetings advocating for farmers’ rights, in response to the economic threat from railroads which started to dominate the shipping, freight and rates for commodities. Populist farmers combined their resources into cooperatives to compete in commodities trading against the industrial interests and shipping companies. Farmers started to take out considerably higher levels of loans to compete with the modern production capacity of industrial machinery in the North and Northeast, but found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the pace of progress. Some of the greatest achievements of The Grange were the guarantee of free rural mail delivery and the Granger Laws, passed in several Midwestern states to make railroad shipping rates more fair for small, rural farmers. Their efforts initiated many court cases, culminating in the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, allowing for federal regulation of business across the country. As a result, railroad companies were forced to set the same rates for short and long shipping, as well as to publish their rates with the government.

The “muckrakers” (a term attributed to President “Teddy” Roosevelt) were an important element for the time, as journalists who served an adversarial role, digging up as much dirt as possible on the corrupt leaders and corporate influencers. McClure’s Magazine was a significant place of publication for progressive writers such as Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) is considered to be an important novel of this time, portraying exploitative social conditions of immigrants and unfair labor practices in the meat packing industry.

Though the Populist Party did not succeed in winning a Presidential election, they won several Senate seats and their ideas were adopted by and formed the basis of the Progressive movement, which was picked up by the Republican President Roosevelt. The Progressives built their agenda in response to the Populist movement on the ground, and was upheld and promulgated by three U.S. Presidents who, through sweeping reforms, advocated for an activist government in keeping with the populist thinking of the time: Theodore Roosevelt (R, 1901-1909), William Howard Taft (R, 1909-1913), and Woodrow Wilson (D, 1913-1921). The idea of progressivism crossed political party lines for over twenty years, as the country’s leaders attempted to quash monopolies and an increasing concentration of wealth within the hands of individual industrialists and their families, as well as the political graft, bribery and tax evasion that went along with it in urban centers. In addition to farmers, working people of all kinds experienced great hardship and suffering as factory and railroad workers. There were very few benefits for workers, nor incentive for companies to provide them.

The nation-state became strengthened during this time, as well as the steady rise of expanding corporations. Teddy Roosevelt’s strong presidency set the tone for a reform agenda nationwide and set a standard for the 20th century American Presidency. His “Square Deal” attempted to separate wheat from chaff–good corporations who would set fair prices for their safe products from those who were simply greedy and lawless. The Hepburn Act was passed in Congress, which regulated how much farmers could be charged by railroads by capping shipping rates and allowed the government to monitor their financial records. As a naturalist and conservationist, Roosevelt was instrumental, along with Forest Service director Gifford Pinchot, in setting aside millions of acres of natural lands for National Parks, protecting them from industrial development, farming, and urbanization.

Several significant Constitutional amendments were passed during the Progressive Era. At the state level, important reforms included the greater use of direct primary (ballot proposition) and recall elections. President Taft ordered a court case that subsequently broke up Standard Oil (1911), though he tended to only oppose those corporations which did not engage in fair competition. Taft also helped to pass the 16th Constitutional Amendment that created the graduated federal income tax, which led eventually to the 18th Amendment prohibiting the production and sales of alcohol. The Prohibition era last from 1920-1933 and led to widespread bootlegging and intense levels of organized crime revolving around alcohol.

Woodrow Wilson rose to power on a progressive agenda he had forged as a political science professor, president of Princeton, and former governor of New Jersey who defected from Republican beliefs which had him elected. He entered presidential politics on his “New Freedom” agenda, supporting individual effort and states’ rights. Wilson’s legislative agenda included lowering tariffs, increasing the money supply and establishing the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit unfair trade practices. He succeeded in prohibiting child labor and securing an eight-hour day for railroad workers. He entered his second term on a peace platform, though it was also against the backdrop of World War I and the U.S. inevitably entered the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” establishing the country as a neo-imperial partner in securing a sustained European peace and a global party to the struggles for democratic self-determination worldwide.

Though not gaining the right to vote nationwide until 1919, women played a major and very active role in the Progressive historical moment, serving at the forefront of volunteer programs and demanding state and federal laws. Feminists during this time pushed the government for laws regulating housing and labor conditions, backed maternal welfare laws, and pioneered social services for poor immigrant families. These early feminists were exceedingly active in labor organizing and founded at least 500 settlement houses for poor disenfranchised industrial workers such as Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in Chicago.

The zenith of the women’s suffrage movement for the right to vote occurred during the Progressive era. Called suffragettes, they organized across the world during the early 20th century. In the United States, suffragettes emerged out of feminist and slavery abolitionist organizing by women started in the 1870s, notably led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Canton. Their organization, the National American Women Suffrage Association, encouraged women to vote, change laws, and back the 19th amendment to the Constitution securing the right to vote for all women.

Juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Gilded Age’s cultural excesses, huge social inequities were brewing in the Progressive Age. Despite government reforms and cultural movements such as jazz, which championed the people’s rights, these social problems would only be exacerbated by the stock market crash on Black Thursday in 1929, leading to the Great Depression. Many people worldwide believed the stock market crash was the result of capitalism run amok, and one result of the Depression was the emergence of strict authoritarian and fascist political governments such as those in Germany, Italy and Japan, all of which led to the Holocaust and World War II.  Progressive organizers supported the rights of workers, equality for all, and human rights, as a way of easing social burdens and to create greater social harmony in later 19th and early 20th century. As such, their efforts can be considered foundational to our own democracy and on a global scale.

-Dr. Amy Elizabeth Champ

For Further Reading:

Flanagan, Maureen A. America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s-1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Pestritto, Ronald J. and William J. Atto (Eds.) American Progressivism: A Reader. New York: Lexington Books, 2008


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