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
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:
procedure whereby ordinary citizens could propose laws for consideration
by their state legislatures or by the voters directly.
procedure whereby citizens could vote directly on whether to approve
- Recall-A procedure
by which a public official could be removed from office by a direct
vote of the citizens.
- Secret Ballot-A
procedure by which citizens could keep their votes secret. Previously,
voting was a public act witnessed by others. The voting records
of individual citizens were recorded and made public. Many progressives
argued that public voting allowed for voter intimidation. An employer,
for instance, might require his employees to vote for certain
candidates on pain of losing their jobs.
- Direct primary-A
procedure whereby political party nominations for public office
were made directly by a vote of rank-and-file members of the party
rather than by party bosses.
- Direct election of U.S. Senators-A
procedure to allow the citizens in each state to directly elect
their Senators. Previously, Senators were chosen by the state
legislatures. Direct election of Senators was achieved with the
addition of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S.
- Women's Suffrage-Granting
to women the right to vote. Women's Suffrage was achieved with
the addition of the Nineteenth Amendment to the
U.S. Constitution (1920).
The progressives achieved their greatest and most
enduring successes in the effort to make governments more democratic.
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:
- Elite, professional administrators-Many
progressives argued that governments would function better if
they were placed under the direction of trained, professional
administrators. One example of progressive reform was the rise
of the city manager system, in which paid, professional
administrators ran the day-to-day affairs of city governments
under guidelines established by elected city councils.
- Centralization of decision-making process-Many
progressives sought to make government more rational through centralized
decision-making. Governments were reorganized to reduce the number
of officials and to eliminate overlapping areas of authority between
departments. City governments were reorganized to reduce the power
of local wards within the city and to increase the powers of the
city council. Governments at every level began developing budgets
to help them plan their expenditures (rather than spending money
haphazardly as needs arose and revenue became available). The
drive for centralization was often associated with the rise of
- Movements to eliminate governmental corruption-Corruption
represented a source of waste and inefficiency in government.
Many progressives worked to cleanup local governments by eliminating
the power of machine politicians and urban political bosses. Often
this was associated with the effort to restructure the ward system.
Power was transferred from urban bosses to professional administrators.
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
Regulation of Large Corporations
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
progressives argued that marketplace forces were the best regulators
of all. A company which paid low wages or maintained an unsafe
work environment would be forced to change its policies by the
loss of workers. A company which made an unsafe product would
eventually lose customers and go bankrupt. In the long run, a
free market would best protect the public interest.
progressives argued that industrial monopolies were unnatural
economic institutions which suppressed the competition which was
necessary for progress and improvement. The federal government
should intervene by breaking up monopolies into smaller companies,
thereby restoring competition. The government should then withdraw
and allow marketplace forces once again to regulate the economy.
progressives argued that in a modern economy, large corporations
and even monopolies were both inevitable and desirable. With their
massive resources and economies of scale, large corporations offered
the U.S. advantages which smaller companies could not offer. Yet,
these large corporations might abuse their great power. The federal
government should allow these companies to exist but regulate
them for the public interest.
progressives believed that privately owned companies could never
be made to serve the public interest. Therefore, the federal government
should acquire ownership of large corporations and operate them
for the public interest.
The laissez-faire and socialist approaches were less
popular among progressives than the trust-busting and regulatory
Many progressives supported both private and governmental
action to help people in need (such action is called social justice).
Social justice reforms included:
- Development of professional social workers-The
idea that welfare and charity work should be undertaken by professionals
who are trained to do the job. (Notice again the progressives'
concern for efficiency through professionalism.)
- The building of Settlement Houses-These
were residential, community centers operated by social workers
and volunteers and located in inner city slums. The purpose of
the settlement houses was to raise the standard of living of urbanites
by providing schools, day care centers, and cultural enrichment
- The enactment of child labor laws-Child
labor laws would prevent overwork of children in the newly emerging
industries. The goal of these laws was to give working-class children
the opportunity to go to school and to mature more naturally,
thereby liberating the potential of humanity and encouraging the
advancement of humanity.
- Support for the goals of organized labor-Progressives
often supported such goals as the eight-hour work day, improved
safety and health conditions in factories, workman's compensation
laws, minimum wage laws, and unionization.
- Prohibition laws-Progressives
adopted the cause of prohibition. They claimed the consumption
of alcohol limited mankind's potential for advancement. Progressives
achieved success in this area with the enactment of the Eighteenth
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919.