The Progressive Era
|Digital History ID 3132|
Few periods in American history witnessed more ferment than the years between the founding of Hull House and American entry into World War I. This movement touched every aspect of American life. It transformed government into an active, interventionist entity at the national level, most notably under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but also at the state and local levels. For the first time Americans were prepared to use government, including the federal government, as an instrument of reform.
Progressive reformers secured a federal income tax based on the ability to pay; formulated inheritance taxes; devised a modern national banking system; and developed government regulatory commissions to oversee banking, insurance, railroads, gas, electricity, telephones, transportation, and manufacturing.
Education also became a self-conscious instrument of social change. The ideas of the educator and philosopher John Dewey influenced the reformers. Progressive educational reformers broadened school curricula to include teaching about health and community life; called for active learning that would engage students' minds and draw out their talents; applied new scientific discoveries about learning; and tailored teaching techniques to students' needs. Progressive educators promoted compulsory education laws, kindergartens, and high schools. They raised the literacy rate of African Americans from 43 percent to 77 percent.
During the Progressive era, public health officers launched successful campaigns against hookworm, malaria, and pellagra, and reduced the incidence of tuberculosis, typhoid, and diphtheria. Pure milk campaigns also slashed rates of infant and child mortality.
Urban Progressives created public parks, libraries, hospitals, and museums. They also constructed new water and sewer systems and eliminated "red-light" districts, such as New Orleans' Storyville, in most major cities.
To bridge the gap between capital and labor, Progressives called for arbitration and mediation of labor disputes. Meanwhile, many Progressive businessmen called for a new-style "welfare capitalism" that provided workers with higher wages and pensions.
The Progressive era was one of the most creative in the realm of culture and the arts. In the hands of Alfred Stieglitz, photography became an art form for the first time. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright helped create modern architecture. The first exhibition of modern art, the Armory Show in New York in 1913, was held in the United States.
A new vocabulary characterized this era. Americans would speak about a "public interest" that was opposed by "special interests." They would also speak about "efficiency" and "expertise" in government and “morality” in foreign affairs. For the first time, Americans spoke of "social workers," "muckrakers," "trustbusters," "feminists," "social scientists," and "conservation."
To increase popular control over government, Progressive reformers lobbied successfully for direct primaries; the elimination of boss rule; the direct election of Senators; woman's suffrage; and in many state legislatures, adoption of the referendum, the initiative, and the recall. Reformers also saw adoption of the first restrictions on political lobbyists and the first regulations on campaign finances.
To modernize government finances, Progressives successfully instituted the income tax and established the Federal Reserve System to oversee the nation's economy. To regulate corporate behavior, Progressives enforced new anti-trust laws and established the country's first effective regulatory commissions. They also established licenses for such professionals as pharmacists, veterinarians, and undertakers. To improve social welfare, they lobbied for workmen's compensation laws, minimum wage laws for women workers, and old-age and widow's pensions. To improve public health, Progressive reformers successfully lobbied for water standards, state and local departments of health, sanitary codes for schools, and laws prohibiting the sale of adulterated foods and drugs.
The Progressive era also had a much more negative side. It saw the spread of disfranchisement and segregation of African Americans in the South and even in the federal government. This era also saw the enactment of reforms, such as at-large voting, that lessened the political influence of immigrant groups at a time when city budgets were increasing. Critics frequently condemned Progressives as moralistic, undemocratic, and elitist.
Progressives did not agree on a single agenda. They disagreed vehemently in their attitudes toward such subjects as immigration restriction and prohibition of alcohol. They were a diverse lot that included Republicans and Democrats, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, and urban and rural reformers. Women's organizations stood at the forefront of the social reforms and policy innovations during the Progressive era. Women activists were especially active in efforts to end child labor and to protest companies that had unsafe working conditions or produced unsafe products. For the most part, Progressives were urban and college-educated, including journalists, academics, teachers, doctors, and nurses, as well as many business people.
Uniting these various reform movements stemmed from a preoccupation with the elimination of corruption and waste and an emphasis on efficiency, science, and professional expertise as the best ways to solve social problems. A book published in 1913, Benjamin Parker De Witt's The Progressive Movement, argued that three tendencies underlay progressive reforms: the desire to eliminate political corruption, the impulse to make government more efficient and effective, and a belief that government should "relieve social and economic distress." Progressives wanted to apply the techniques of systematization, rationalization, and bureaucratic administrative control developed by business to problems posed by the city and industry.
For all its flaws and limitations, the Progressive era was instrumental in formulating the rationale for much of the welfare state, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, and aid to single parent families.