PROGRESSIVISM (1900-1920)

Overview

Progressivism was not so much an organized movement as it was a general spirit of reform embraced by Americans with diverse goals and backgrounds during the early twentieth century (1900-20). Progressives sought the advancement of humanity (progress was defined here in Darwinian terms; i.e., the actually improvement of mankind in an evolutionary sense). Progressives sought advancement through the liberation of human energies and potential from both the fading restraints of past ages and the new restraints imposed by modern industrialism. Progressivism was, thus, both forward-looking and backward-looking in its outlook.

There were four general areas in which the progressives tried to reform American society. As you are reading Tindall and Shi, America: A Narrative History, note the discussion of these areas and the specific reforms that were a part of each area:


Democracy

Many progressives hoped to make government in the U.S. more responsive to the direct voice of the American people by instituting the following institutional reforms:

The progressives achieved their greatest and most enduring successes in the effort to make governments more democratic.


Efficiency

Many progressives hoped to make American governments better able to serve the people's needs by making governmental operations and services more efficient and rational. Reforms included:

Note that the progressives' quest for efficiency was sometimes at odds with the progressives' quest for democracy. Taking power out of the hands of elected officials and placing that power in the hands of professional administrators reduced the voice of the people in government. Centralized decision-making and reduced power for local wards made government more distant and isolated from the people it served. Progressives who emphasized the need for efficiency sometimes argued that an elite class of administrators knew better what the people needed than did the people themselves.


Regulation of Large Corporations and Monopolies

Many progressives hoped that by regulating large corporations that they could liberate human energies from the restrictions imposed by industrial capitalism. Progressives disagreed over which of the following four solutions should be used to regulate corporations:

The laissez-faire and socialist approaches were less popular among progressives than the trust-busting and regulatory approaches.


Social Justice

Many progressives supported both private and governmental action to help people in need (such action is called social justice). Social justice reforms included:

 


HIS 223: Introduction to American History, 1492-1877

HIS 223: Introduction to American History, 1877-Present

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Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
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