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Progressive Movement

cartoon -trusts

Cartoon published in 1899 highlighting the growth of trusts as the primary threat to democracy.
Image Source: Ohio State University Department of History

The Progressive Era is a label applied to rather broad and sometime disparate attempts in the period from the 1900 through the end of World War I in 1918 to address economic and social reform. The movement included advocates in both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as members of third parties focused on specific issues. The Progressive name derived from forward-thinking or "progressive" goals that its supporters sought to advance.

immigrantsSeveral of the concerns targeted for reform by the Progressives were direct or indirect results of the great wave of immigration and industrialization around the turn of the century. In the single decade from 1900 to 1910, 8.8 million immigrants entered the United States, many of whom came from nations, ethnic groups and religions that contrasted with the traditional dominance of American immigrants from the

Ellis Island   Ellis Island arrivals
Ellis Island (left) and immigrants arriving for processing. Images Source: Library of Congress

countries of Western Europe. Immigrants from southeastern Europe provided cheap labor to support the rapid growth of major industrial centers and settled in densely-populated urban enclaves. Political parties and bosses used the voting base offered by these immigrants to pursue their own goals, often by aiding immigrant families with practical assistance in jobs, housing or other benefits. The poor housing, sanitation and health care, as well as the extensive exploitation of child labor in both factories and at home, prevalent in most immigrant communities also became a focus for reformers.

child labor  child labor at home
Children at work in factory (Image Source: Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development) and at home (Image Source: Barnard Electronic Archive and Teaching Laboratory)

Progressive leaders attacked the political and economic system for allowing these conditions to continue, and often organized their own private relief programs to provide assistance through churches, charities and other private organizations direct relief programs.

....A visitor of the relief society found Rosina aged thirteen years, helping her mother and father in the work of finishing trousers. Since the arrival of the family in the United States seven years before, neither Rosina nor Vincenza had attended school, and neither could read or write. With the father ill of tuberculosis, Vincenza no longer able to work, and four younger children, aged eleven, seven, five and two years, to be cared for. Rosina, who had helped to support the family since she was six years old, was now the chief wage earner. Her brother, Giuseppe, aged eleven years helped in the sewing after school hours. But at the price of four cents a pair, for "felling" seams, finishing linings, and sewing buttons trousers, all the workers in the family,-father, mother and two children, by united effort, could not earn more than four or five dollars a week.

When the relief society aided the family, Vincenza was sent to a hospital, and Rosina for the first time in her life began to go to school. But she continued to sew at home after school hours. A later entry in the society's records reports that "Rosina and Giuseppe were busy at work finishing. Rosina said that she went to school regularly all day sessions, and that she and her brother helped at finishing after school."

All that the law could do for Rosina was to add school work to the ceaseless toil in which she had spent her days since early childhood. In her work at home from the time she was six years old for a manufacturer of clothing no provision of the labor law was violated. After her eighth birthday, her work at home, in that it prevented her attending school, caused a violation of the compulsory education law. But the work in itself, so long as the family lived in a licensed tenement, was never at any time illegal until Vincenza developed tuberculosis. Nor was this and the danger to the public health from the presence of a communicable disease in the home workroom prevented by the Department of Labor or the Board of Health.....

Account of Child Labor in New York City Tenements from Mary Van Kleeck, Charities and the Commons, January 18, 1908

Source: TenantNet

Concerns over abuses by business and the "robber barons" who exploited labor and the lack of government regulation of the marketplace also was a prevailing theme of those seeking reform. The sharp rise in economic activity spurred by industrialization and cheap labor contributed to concentrations of economic power among large national corporations and the formation of huge "trusts" as companies sought to eliminate their prime competitors. Between 1897 and 1904, 4,227 firms merged to form 257 corporations, with the largest merger consolidating nine steel companies to create the U.S. Steel Corp. controlled by Andrew Carnegie. By 1904, 318 companies controlled about 40 percent of the nation's manufacturing output. A single firm produced over half the output in 78 industries. See The Progressive Era, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Many Progressives came from the traditional upper and middle-class establishment, and were offended by the emergence of a class of government and political professionals who threatened their own views of democratic ideals and social justice. To some Progressives, their religious beliefs and views of their social responsibilities as privileged members of society demanded that they act to improve working and living conditions for the less fortunate. To others, the need to address the economic and social problems was motivated in part by self-interest. Without the reforms that were implemented, more radical and potentially violent change may have disrupted or destroyed the economic and social class structure such as would occur in Russia in 1916. Fear of the expansion of Socialism and Marxism provoked many in the upper class to support more moderate reform efforts as a means to ease the growing tensions between rich and poor and head off more extreme threats to their privileged role in society.

Progressive, "muckraking" journalists also played key parts in highlighting specific economic and social ills that led to government action. Jacob Riis exposed the poor living conditions of the tenement slums in How the Other Half Lives (1890), which led to significant legislation establishing minimum safety and housing standards in tenements. In The Shame of the Cities(1904), Lincoln Steffens exposed the rampant political corruption in the party machines of Chicago and New York, arguing that the political machines served the interests of businessmen who sought government contracts, franchises, charters, and special privileges. The Jungle, published by Upton Sinclair in 1906, traced an immigrant family's exploitation and the unsanitary practices prevalent in Chicago's meat packing industry. The outrage provoked by the novel contributed to the enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906, the first legislation of its kind to set minimum standards for food and drug production.

Now, the typical American citizen is the business man. The typical business man is a bad citizen; he is busy. If he is a "big business man" and very busy, he does not neglect, he is busy with politics, oh, very busy and very businesslike. I found him buying boodlers in St. Louis, defending grafters in Minneapolis, originating corruption in Pittsburgh, sharing with bosses in Philadelphia, deploring reform in Chicago, and beating good government with corruption funds in New York. He is a self-righteous fraud, this big business man. He is the chief source of corruption, and it were a boon if he would neglect politics. But he is not the business man that neglects politics; that worthy is the good citizen, the typical business man. He too is busy, he is the one that has no use and therefore no time for politics. When his neglect has permitted bad government to go so far that he can be stirred to action, he is unhappy, and he looks around for a cure that shall be quick, so that he may hurry back to the shop.

Excerpt from Lincoln Steffens, Shame of the Cities

Source: History 122, Northern Virginia Community College

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt Image Source: The College of New Jersey

Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed the presidency in 1901 at the age of 42 following the assassination of President William McKinley, is the most dominant personality of the Progressive Era. A member of a wealthy, aristocratic Dutch family, Roosevelt broke sharply from the pro-business policies of of his own Republican Party and targeted monopolistic business practices for reform. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to create a Bureau of Corporations to investigate and regulate big business, then brought an anti-trust suit against J.P. Morgan's Northern Securities Company, a railroad trust controlled by the Wall Street financier, with the United States Supreme Court upholding the dissolution of the trust in the case of Northern Securities Co. v. United States issued in 1904. During Roosevelt's Administration, over 40 major corporations were sued for antitrust or price-fixing violations.

Roosevelt greatly expanded the powers of the government within the economy, often by endorsing new power for organized labor to organize and exert leverage against employers. By supporting labor in the settlement of the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, Roosevelt became the first president to assume such a direct role in intervening in labor disputes, including the threatened use of the U.S. Army to seize the coal mines and operate them until the owners agreed to arbitration to settle the strike. Roosevelt left the presidency in 1908, succeeded by his vice president and hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt later split with Taft, however, claiming that the Republican Administration had departed from the progressive course to align itself again with big business interests. When Roosevelt failed to defeat Taft in securing the Republican nomination in 1912, Roosevelt ran an independent campaign under the Progressive Party, popularly known as the "Bull Moose" party after Roosevelt's boast that he was "fit as a Bull Moose" to run for the presidency, but the division of the Republican vote insured the victory of the Democratic ticket headed by New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. See Woodrow Wilson and the Election of 1912.

The Progressive Era also saw increasing conflicts within the labor movement, as the earlier unions based on workers in crafts and skilled trades competed with those oriented toward those employed in the factories of the new industrialized economy. The new industrial unions also advocated more radical economic and social reform; in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World was founded in Chicago wiith cooperation from members of the Socialist Labor Party/Socialist Trades & Labor Alliance, Socialist Party of America, Western Federation of Miners and others from labor interests with progressive political agendas. The industrial unions also introduced more aggressive, and sometimes violent, practices to bolster their organizing or negotiating positions. In 1906, the IWW coordinated the first sit-in strike when miners at the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York, refused to leave the workplace and in the next year federal troops were sent in to crush the strike of miners belonging to the IWW in Goldfield, Nevada. In 1913, the Paterson Silk Strike in New Jersey started with a spontaneous walkout at Doherty and Company, the largest mill in what was then the world center of silk manufacturing, after the company owners introduced new looms that allowed a worker who had previously tended one or two looms to work three or four simultaneously. The strike spread to other mills in the city as workers feared for their jobs if employers could produce more silk with less labor; eventually, the stike idled some 25,000 workers and shut down the textile mills for six months. By its end, two workers had been killed by private detectives hired by the mill owners and over 3,000 strikers had been arrested.

The life of a strike depends upon constant activities. In Paterson, as in all IWW strikes, there were mass picketing, daily mass meetings, children’s meetings, the sending of many children to New York and New Jersey cities, and the unique Sunday gatherings. These were held in the afternoon in the little town of Haledon, just over the city line from Paterson. The mayor was a Socialist who welcomed us. A striker’s family lived there in a two-story house. There was a balcony on the second floor, facing the street, opposite a large green field. It was a natural platform and amphitheatre. Sunday after Sunday, as the days became pleasanter, we spoke there to enormous crowds of thousands of people–the strikers and their families, workers from other Paterson industries, people from nearby New Jersey cities, delegations from New York of trade unionists, students and others. Visitors came from all over America and from foreign countries. People who saw these Haledon meetings never forgot them....

A touching episode occurred in one of our children’s meetings. I was speaking in simple language about the conditions of silk workers–why their parents had to strike. I spoke of how little they were paid for weaving the beautiful silk, like the Lawrence workers who made the fine warm woolen cloth. Yet the textile workers do not wear either woolen or silk, while the rich people wear both. I asked: "Do you wear silk?" They answered in a lively chorus. "No!" I asked: Does your mother wear silk?" Again there was a loud "No!" But a child’s voice interrupted, making a statement. This is what he said: "My mother has a silk dress. My father spoiled the cloth and had to bring it home." The silk worker had to pay for the piece he spoiled and only then did his wife get a silk dress!

Account of Paterson Silk Strike excerpted from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography (New York, 1955)

Source: New Jersey Women's History, Rutgers University, Scholarly Communications Center

These violent confrontations, and the illustration of the potential of labor-instigated revolutionary change demonstrated by the Russian Revolution of 1917, aided the elements of the labor movement and the politicians who sought more moderate reforms in the workplace.

Reform of the electoral process, which increasingly had become controlled by political machines and bosses, was another priority of the progressive agenda. The most famous of these machines, the Tammany Hall Democratic organization headed by William M. "Boss" Tweed in New York City, predated the Progressive Era, with Tweed brought down in 1871 and imprisoned following revelations of extensive corruption by the New York Times and the devastating cartoons of Thomas Nast published in Harper's Weekly, but the Tammany organization and similar machines in other areas continued to flourish well past Tweed's death in prison in 1878.

Everybody is talkin' these days about Tammany men growin'
rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the
distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft.
There's all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many
of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I've made a
big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin' richer every day, but
I've not gone in for dishonest graft-blackmailin' gamblers,
saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.-and neither has any of the
men who have made big fortunes in politics.

There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I
might sum up the whole thing by sayin': "I seen my opportunities
and I took 'em."

Just let me explain by examples. My party's in power in the city,
and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm
tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up
all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or
that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land,
which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit
on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that's
honest graft.

George Washington Plunkitt, quoted in William Riordan, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall Source: Project Gutenberg

Progressives like Wisconsin Governor and Senator Robert M. La Follette sought to weaken the control of political machines, which often aligned themselves with the interests of big business, and promote wider citizen participation in the electoral process. In several states, particularly in the West, progressive reformers advocated forms of direct democracy, such as authorizing citizen groups through "Initiative and Referendum" to propose new laws or to review the actions of legislatures by obtaining sufficient citizen signatures on petitions to allow voter referenda on specific issues. In 1898, South Dakota became the first state to amend its constitution to provide for popular initiative and referendum for enacting and rejecting statewide legislation. See South Dakota Secretary of State. Progressives also successfully lobbied for the direct election of U.S. senators by the voters enacted through the 17th Amendment to the Constitution ratified in 1913, replacing the former system by which members of the Senate were elected by each state legislature. Reformers in many states also pushed through systems to allow for the recall of elected officials.

Women also played critical roles in the reform movement, advocating not only their own interest in securing the right to vote but also a wide range of other progressive social issues. The long struggle for women's suffrage began well before the Civil War. In 1848, the first woman's rights convention was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, New York. Twenty years later, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded their women's rights newspaper, the Revolution, in New York City. The movement had its first real successes, however, after the turn of the century, when in 1912 suffrage referendums were approved in Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon. Finally, on August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitutution was ratified by Tennessee, granting women the franchise throughout the country. See History of Women's Suffrage, The Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership, Universityof Rochester

In addition to the right to vote, women also were leaders in other reform causes. Many women formed or joined associations pursuing political reform on specific issues and sometimes providing other social welfare services, such as the "settlement houses" that sought to provide immigrant families with various services, including guidance on proper moral behavior. The abuse of alcohol was the focus of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which succeeded in lobbying for the 18th Amendment to the Constitution mandating the prohibition of the sale of alcohol. The Nineteenth Amendment is adopted and the women of the United States are finally enfranchised. Other associations in which women activists were prominent included the Women's Trade Union League and the National Consumers' League, which worked to educate the public on issues of wages, hours, and working conditions, including through its "white label" awarded to employers whose labor practices met with the NCL's approval for fairness and safety.

While the Progressive reform agenda initiated under Theodore Roosevelt following Democrat Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912, Wilson increasingly was forced, however, to divert attention from domestic issues toward the deteriorating international situation that ultimately would bring the U.S. into World War I. See Woodrow Wilson and the Election of 1912. Progressive principles were evident, however, in the moralism that Wilson brought to the larger issues of world conflict and human rights, such as his idealistic call for the creation of a world body to mediate and prevent future wars. See After Wilson failed to gain the Senate's approval of of the League of Nations, progressive ideas lost favor as more pragmatic interests took hold both domestically and internationally during the prosperity of the early 1920s.


The Progressive Era: 1900-1918 >>

TR, the Story of Theodore Roosevelt >>

TR: An American Lion >>

"Boss" Tweed and the Tammany Hall Machine >> David Wiles, University of Albany

American Labor Museum

Educational Tools

The Progressive Era, The United States 1900-1920 >> Henry J. Sage, Northern Virginia Community College

The Progressive Era >> Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt:Teacher's Guide >>

The Progressive Movement in the 20th Century >> Nebraska Studies

America in the Progressive Era >> Robert Bannister, Swarthmore College

Progressive Movement and the 1920s >> George Burson, Aspen School District