Progressivism in America (1900–1919)


Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire reported on the front page of The New York World newspaper on March 16, 1911.
We turn now from the American empire abroad to the need for reforms at home. As you should remember, the United States ended the 19th century while confronting numerous problems such as

corruption in business, an economic depression, and labor unrest. Add to this other significant social problems such as legalized segregation and racial violence that often went unpunished by

local law enforcement. Punctuating these ongoing problems were horrific events that indicated the nation might be heading down the wrong path.
One was the “fire that changed America” (Von Drehle, 2003). This occurred in March 1911, when workers were ending their day at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Suddenly a fire broke

out; it spread quickly, trapping people in the upper three floors. When firemen eventually extinguished the blaze, more than 150 people were dead, mostly young women. This remained the most

tragic moment in New York history until 9/11. Many blamed the fire on the company itself for inhuman working conditions and an unsafe environment. More than 40,000 people protested,

bringing together a wave of reformers and social activists who worked prevent a similar disaster in the future.
Out of tragedy often comes moments of hope for change and reform. That is exactly what happened during this period in the United States. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was not the first,

but one of a growing line of significant social problems that spawned a new wave of activists who struggled to improve the world around them. They sought to inspire new levels of government

activism to result in social and economic change. They were known as the Progressives because they firmly believed that they could change society for the better, and even come close to a

state of perfection. They rallied against the political machines that were so dominant in the 19th century and hoped to replace them with stronger local governments, such as commissions and

city managers. In this section, we will explore the Progressive mission and their faith in government to cure the evils of the world.
Who Were the Progressives?
In April 1912, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech with the title “Who Is a Progressive?” In it he said that the ideas of Progressivism are so common that “A well-meaning man may vaguely think of

himself as a Progressive without having even the faintest conception of what a Progressive is.” To Roosevelt, anyone who had a forward-thinking vision of the future and intense convictions

qualified as a Progressive. However, these convictions had to include sympathy for the common person, as well as imagination for how to improve their lives. On the other hand, if a person

simply had “mildly good intentions,” Roosevelt considered them as “utterly useless” (Pestritto and Atto, 2008).

Ida M. Tarbell (1857–1944), muckraking journalist, best known for her McClure’s magazine articles in the early 1900s describing the monopolistic business practices of the Standard Oil Company.
As can be seen with Roosevelt’s broad and nonspecific terms, Progressivism was not one single, easily defined movement. Some have even suggested that it encompassed so many ideas, goals,

and causes that it is impossible to define it at all. It could have been as narrow as rallying against conditions found in a shirtwaist factory or as broad as novelist Upton Sinclair in his book The

Jungle exposing the significant health issues found in the meatpacking industry. Sinclair depicted the unsanitary conditions and use of rotten meat in such graphic terms that it inspired many to

seek reform of the entire industry. Journalists in Collier’s and McClure’s were also fond of exposing corruption. Theodore Roosevelt called them the muckrakers because they were dredging up

the worst muck and filth that they could find in society. These writers liked the term because they wanted to bring attention to these ills of society. Some were personally very committed to

their causes, and many of the writers took jobs in the factories or lived in the slums to try to truly understand and empathize with the struggling poor. They were also influential in bringing

these issues to a middle class that was growing larger and more powerful in their political clout (Boyer, 2008).
While these Progressives had many different faces, they all shared the common theme of activism. This included women suffragists (suffrage is the legal right to vote in a political election) who

fought to gain the right to vote and marched in the streets to voice an opinion that they were not allowed to cast at the ballot box. It also included those who believed that the nation would

be better off if alcoholic beverages were illegal and that a temperate society was a better society. There were the settlement house workers who tried to ease the struggles of new immigrants

in America. Some of the wealthiest members of society also considered themselves Progressives, such as Andrew Carnegie and his mission of philanthropic charity. While their causes were

diverse, common to all of them were an adherence and commitment to ideals of democracy, efficiency, regulation, and social justice (Tindall and Shi, 2006).
For change to take place in the political realm in any democracy, people have to rise up and make informed decisions at the ballot box. At the turn of the 20th century, women and African

Americans were not able to do this, and while the Progressive record was not as successful in these areas as some would like, they did begin the process of more inclusivity in the process of

democracy. The first step was through the direct primary, which was important because it transformed an informal caucus-convention process (often in the so-called smoky back rooms in

convention halls) to include more rigorous and open rules (Ware, 2002). This established a way for the people to directly vote on who would be candidates for their parties in larger elections

instead of having the political parties themselves simply nominate someone. Some have suggested that the implementation of this system between 1899 and 1915 was the most radical party

reform in the entire course of American history (Ranney, 1975).
Another example of Progressive reform was the recall. Though this democratic power is not often used by the people, it nevertheless gives them power to remove an elected official if it is

generally agreed upon that they have offended their oath of office (Schmidt et al., 2009). The referendum is the “Progressive cousin” to the recall, which has several functions. On the one hand, it

allows voters to prevent a particular piece of legislation from becoming law, while on the other, it is used in some states to ratify constitutional amendments and as the enacting part of the

initiative process (Lawrence, 2007). Another “institution of direct democracy” is the initiative. This allows one citizen or a group to file a bill and then demonstrate voter support by collecting

signatures. If enough are collected, then the bill qualifies to appear on a state ballot. Today, this is used extensively in California, as well as other states: 24 have a statewide initiative, 24 allow a

referendum, and 18 enable the recall of public officials (Donovan et al., 2009).
Technology in America
Wireless Radio
In the first two decades of the 20th century, wireless radio began connecting people across the nation in new ways by allowing them to hear news and entertainment broadcasts that originated

from great distances. David Sarnoff was one of the first people to envision the future of radio. He was working at Marconi Wireless Telegraph in 1915 and wrote a memo stating: “I have in mind a

plan of development which would make radio a ‘household utility’ in the same sense as a piano . . .” This statement is historically significant for two reasons. First, it pinpoints a time when home

electrical devices, other than early phonographs, simply did not exist. Second, from our current perspective, how unusual is it to think of pianos as being a standard household utility? At that

time, entertainment was not something that people listened to on the radio, watched on television, or surfed on the Internet. Instead, entertainment was something that was created

specifically in the home. The only exception to this was reading.
However, the radio was not just an entertainment device, as it also played a vital role in World War I. Though extraordinarily primitive by our current standards, wireless radio was essential for

enabling soldiers to communicate at a distance. Problems included the size and bulk of the devices and the limited range. A radio in an airplane could only communicate less than half a mile, but

this did mean that the pilot could now talk to allies on the ground immediately below the aircraft. World War I essentially served as a turning point in the history of radio, because it

demonstrated how significant the technology could be for future conflicts. Soldiers in the field no longer needed to feel isolated from larger troop movements.
It was after World War I, during the 1920s, that radios became a significant component of home use. It moved from the status of a luxury item to something of a standard necessity for families

that began to rely on it for news and entertainment. Along with this arose the commercialization of broadcasting as a new and important way for businesses to advertise and sell their products

to consumers.
For further reading see:
Barnouw, E. (1966). A tower in Babel: A history of broadcasting in the United States: to 1933. New York: Oxford University Press.
Coe, L. (2006). Wireless radio: A brief history. Jefferson, NC: Mcfarland.

Men at work on an assembly line at Ford Motor Company, 1913.
A second central theme of Progressivism was efficiency. Progressives strove to examine every aspect of life itself and determine, often through new scientific principles, how to do more work

with less energy. This was part of a broader trend in America at this time toward a new bureaucratic-minded middle class that was, for the most part, better educated because of the expansion

of higher education at the university level in the 19th century. The new middle class were urban, professional men and women who saw government as an ally in improving life and bureaucratic

administration as a path to achieve it. As historian Robert Wiebe wrote, “A bureaucratic orientation now defined a basic part of the nation’s discourse. The values of continuity and regularity,

functionality and rationality, administration and management set the form of problems and outlined their alternative solutions” (Wiebe, 1967).
This striving for efficiency became the “American way,” and one important component was the search for experts to solve problems. One of the leaders was Frederick W. Taylor and his widely

read 1895 treatise entitled Scientific Management. He argued that through time-and-motion studies of workers on the job, managers could devise new tools, machines, and processes that would

streamline business and increase productivity and profit.
Taylor and President Roosevelt himself urged everyone to answer the “question of national efficiency” and strive to achieve it. They both saw wasted effort that resulted in a country that did

not live up to its potential. Taylor’s answer was to organize and create a corporate system where workers became more efficient. When he visited businesses, he realized that “Awkward,

inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men . . . leave nothing visible or tangible behind them” (Taylor, 1911). In other words, there was no progress. He argued that a remedy for this inefficiency

was his principles of management and that these were applicable to the smallest activities and tasks performed from the individual to the largest corporation. Through his work, the ideals of

efficiency spread to the management of farms, businesses, homes, churches, government, philanthropic organizations, and universities. Taylor used stopwatches to time worker actions, cameras

to document motion, and engineers to define the most precise movements for the workers. While this was a boon to efficiency, in the process it deskilled the worker and left him in a less

powerful position because another person could be easily trained. The introduction of assembly lines at Henry Ford’s automobile plant was an example of how managers redesigned jobs. One

person was no longer responsible for building a complete product. Instead, conveyor belts brought pieces of the work to the laborers, who specialized in a repetitive task they performed so

frequently that they became efficient experts.
As we have already seen, while business in the United States grew larger, there was a greater opportunity for corruption because there were few governmental regulations. Though there were

some attempts at reform in the late 19th century, these were not as successful as hoped. The first possible solution was the laissez-faire approach, which is a French term meaning “do nothing.”

In other words the government should sit back and let business leaders work out their own problems with no interference and rules. The second was to restructure capitalism and transform it

more toward socialism that redistributed wealth to the many and took ownership of the means of production away from the few. A third option was to have the government more aggressively

break up the largest companies with the most power. While there were proponents of each of these ideas, ultimately none presented a widely accepted solution. Instead, Progressives began to

support an idea known as regulation (Saros, 2009).
The federal regulation of railroads was an early example of this strategy—and one of the first demonstrations of the national Progressive movement (Kolko, 1965). But regulation was not just for

a single industry. Instead, it was a goal to improve all of business, with the ultimate purpose of protecting the unorganized against the organized (Harrison, 2004). In other words, businesses

used Taylor’s scientific management to become organized. One of the main questions was who would do the regulating, and with their faith in government, the Progressives believed that those

in public office were best suited for the job. (We will see some of the regulatory successes in Section 2.5). Progressives believed that government should have the power to regulate industry;

they also believed that it also had the power to create a moral uplift for the downtrodden of society.
Social Justice

Jane Addams (1860–1935), founder of Hull House and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
The final main theme of Progressivism was attention to social justice, which was a passionate concern for the well-being of the less fortunate in society. At this time, there were no government

welfare systems in place. Therefore, people who were sick, injured, or unable to work for any of a number of reasons found themselves destitute and homeless. A number of Progressives became

committed to improving and uplifting their lives through the process of social justice. By coordinating technological and governmental initiatives, Progressives believed that it was possible to

fundamentally improve the lives of the poorest Americans through education and housing. With this goal in mind, leaders adopted scientific terms and applied them toward “social experiments”

designed to achieve important results (Feffer, 1993). This had many proponents—including the Rockefeller Foundation, which donated millions of dollars to urban activists who improved health

conditions in cities; churches that espoused the “social gospel” and engaged charity work directed toward those in need; and politicians, who used the tools of government. In many ways, social

justice unified the diverse goals of all the Progressives because despite their differences they “shared a belief in society, a common good, and social justice, and that society could be changed

into a better place” (Nugent, 2010).
One of the best examples of this was Jane Addams. Born in 1860, she grew up in a wealthy family and had the privilege of pursuing a higher education, which was something that few women

enjoyed at this time. Upon her father’s death, she inherited enough money to enable her and a friend to tour Europe, where she visited a settlement house for wayward boys. When she returned

home, she decided that she wanted to devote her life to the spirit of charity and social justice and create a settlement house for girls. Addams founded the U.S. Settlement House Movement

with Hull House in Chicago. The first opened in 1889 and became a model for more than 400 similar homes in the United States by the early 20th century. It was a home where women assisted the

needy and provided social uplift for those suffering from what she called the “wrecked foundations of domesticity.” She wrote that we often “forget how new the modern city is,” and so need to

step back and analyze it. She said that that “never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk

unattended upon city streets and to work under alien roofs” (Addams, 1909).
These houses did more than simply help young women. Their leaders expanded their services to assist immigrant families who were struggling to understand American language and culture. The

settlement houses also provided an opportunity for ambitious women to have a career opportunity at a time when few options other than marriage were open to them. One notable example of

a settlement house worker who went on to notoriety was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Finally, this social justice movement evolved into the profession of social work that we know today.
Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments
The Progressive use of the amendment created lasting effects on our political system and is often considered the greatest success of the entire movement. One of the first examples was the

adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, which provided the ability for the federal government to collect an income tax from all workers. Though considered a

Progressive success that enabled government to generate revenue to carry out reforms, there were some who strongly disagreed. One lawyer from North Dakota wrote in 1915: “This amendment

was added by the people without noise, without rancor, without violence, without criticism of the Supreme Court or threat to abolish it . . . But mark you! . . . Through this same method

amendments may be added to the Constitution as many and as often as the people shall determine. Through the same method every provision of the Constitution may be changed or modified

until there is left no vestige of the original instrument. We can emerge into socialism, communism, anarchy . . .” (Estabrook, 1915).
Soon after the Sixteenth Amendment, Progressive reformers achieved another Constitutional victory with the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment. This was important because it provided

for the direct election of U.S. senators by the American people, whereas previously they gained office through state legislatures. As Christopher Hoebeke wrote, this was the “road to mass

democracy,” because more than any other act the 17th Amendment “symbolizes America’s traditional resentment of political constraints.” It was also the “culminating episode to a generation

of reforms intended to make government more ‘responsive’ to popular demands, in addition to being the logical and almost inevitable consequence of popular discontents that had been

fermenting since the earliest days of our republic” (Hoebeke, 1995).

Carry Nation at the peak of her career in the early 1900s
One of the most significant Progressive uses of the amendment process was their work in making alcohol illegal in the United States. The temperance movement had a long history dating back to

the 18th century. It also spawned numerous colorful individuals staunchly committed to the cause. One of the most dynamic was Carry Nation (1846–1911). She led a life of diversity at a time

when women had few career options. She was a hotel manager, both a widow and a divorcee, a vaudeville performer, a suffragist, and a settlement house matron. She was profoundly religious,

and at the turn of the 20th century, she used her unconventional skills to help bring an end to the consumption of alcohol in the United States. This included wielding a hatchet and destroying

saloons in a process she called “hatchetation.” She was an imposing figure, standing nearly six feet tall. When she strode into a saloon with her axe and attacked the wooden bar with her

hatchet, onlookers stared silently in shock. Often she sang hymns while she swung her axe, and between 1900 and 1910 authorities arrested her 30 times for vandalism. While Carry Nation was her

given name, she adopted the middle initial “A,” and her name became something of a slogan to the entire prohibition movement: Carry A. Nation.

K.J. Historical/Corbis
A Prohibition political poster published by the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union
Overall, many Progressives adopted the goal of ending the evils of alcohol, though typically with much less missionary zeal than Carry Nation. Ultimately, in 1919 they were successful in

changing the Constitution of the United States with the Eighteenth Amendment, which gave Congress the power to create laws to enforce the prohibition of the “manufacture, sale, or

transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Prohibition became the stuff of cultural legend in the 1920s with bootleggers, bathtub gin, and gang wars. These stories sometimes give the impression

today that Prohibition was something that no one really took seriously. This view is reinforced because Prohibition only lasted 14 years, when the Twenty-first Amendment repealed it in 1933.

However, Prohibition was important for one central reason. It represented one of the most significant political and social achievements of the Progressive reform movement (along with the

income tax, popularly elected senators, and women’s suffrage) because it actually changed the Constitution (Kyvig, 2000). In many ways, Prohibition was emblematic of the Progressive

movement itself. It met with a remarkable success in regulating society, and like this movement itself, it would not last long.
The two words that perhaps best described the Progressives are “fierce discontent” (McGerr, 2005). It was a movement of agitation, conducted by those who sought nothing less than to bring

justice for the downtrodden and punish those who would do others harm. They used the ideals of democracy, efficiency, regulation, and social justice to try to create a better world than the

one that they found themselves living in. Clearly, they did not solve all the ills of society as any look at our communities today will attest.
So, what then is the legacy of the Progressive movement? It had a strong impact on American government through Progressives’ belief that it was the tool by which America could achieve

positive change and solve problems. In their own era, they were certainly responsible for bringing some improvement to those in need around them. Their constitutional amendments

represented some of their longest lasting reforms, as well as the implementation of institutions of democracy through the initiative, recall, and referendum. The Progressives were not always

successful, and their ideals often fell short, particularly in the realm of racial equality. But, their nearly utopian goals of creating a society that ended poverty, controlled big business, improved

gender relations, and cleansed corruption from politics inspired people throughout the nation to donate time and money to settlement houses, churches, and schools. In the long run, the

ambitious agenda fell short. It reached its zenith point during World War I (1917–1919), but the nadir of the movement was soon to come. In the meantime, two of the most significant social

problems were ongoing—racism and the exclusion of women from democracy.

Bowles, M. (2011). American History 1865-Present: End of Isolation. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc

Before answering the questions above, reflect upon the following questions (use the following questions to guide your research):

a.What, in your opinion, were the key principles of the Progressive Movement?
b.In your opinion,what were Progressivism?s most significant successes and failings?
c.Can the First World War be regarded as a particularly Progressive conflict, or did it derail the Progressive Movement?or are both of these statements true?

Should be at least 200 words in length. Support your claims with examples from at least one of the required material(s) and from the textbook. properly cite any references. You may use

additional scholarly sources to support your points if you choose.

Draw from at least one of these required sources:
a.    (2002).  The progressive era [Television series episode]. In America in the 20th Century. New York, NY: Films for the Humanities & Sciences. Retrieved from

b.    Riis, J. (1914).  How the other half lives: Studies among the tenements of New York New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons. Retrieved from

c.    Sinclair, U. (1905). Chapter nine. The Jungle. Retrieved from
d.    Steffens, L. (1904).  The shame of the cities.  New York: McClure, Philips & Co, 1–18. Retrieved from
e.    Tarbell, I. (1904).  The history of the Standard Oil Company.  New York: McClure, Phillips, and Co., 168-178. Retrieved from

f.    Wattenberg, B. (Writer), & Hicks, L. (Director). (2000).  1900-1930 [Television series episode]. In A. Walworth (Executive producer), The First Measured Century: The Other Way of Looking at

American History. Arlington, VA: PBS. Retrieved from


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