Essay: The Progressive Era


The progressive era in the US is commonly accepted to have been from the 1890s to the 1920s but it still is influential and is still alive in the modern era.

During the Gilded Age the political parties endorsed the concept of laissez-faire. This was a belief opposing government interference in the economy. This doctrine allowed the rich and powerful to take over the economy and the US government. Progressives supported by small business, small farmers, and labor unions responded to the inefficiencies and injustices of that era. Progressives pushed through reforms for a wide range of economic, political, social, and moral issues. The concept of acceptable living standards took hold.

Progressives believed in modernization, science, and education for everyone. They also believed that the government was not the enemy, but the people’s weapon for justice and equality. People with the help of the government could improve their environment and conditions of life. It was the government’s responsibility to intervene in economic and social issues. Goals of progressives included eliminating corruption in government by reducing the power of bosses and political machines. Progressives attempted to get more people involved in the political process.

Progressives were able to enact the Sixteenth Amendment enabling the Federal government to enact an income tax. The Seventeenth Amendment which allowed for the direct election of Senators. The Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed woman’s suffrage. In 1906 the Hepburn Act was passed to Authorize the Interstate Commerce Commission to set railroad rates.

Journalists known as muckrakers were influential in the progressive movement. These muckrakers exposed waste, corruption, and scandal in government and business. Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle revealed to America the horrors of the Chicago Union Stock Yards, a huge complex of meat processing plants. The Federal Government created the Food and Drug Administration. In response to a series of articles by Ida M. Tarbell regarding the Standard Oil monopoly, the government broke up the company. Other muckrakers exposed the horrors of poverty, urban slums, dangerous factory conditions, and child labor.

The progressive movement was especially strong in certain local areas. California, Wisconsin, and Oregon often were in the lead. The citizens were involved in political participation against the influence of large corporations in government. Robert M. La Follette was a Republican progressive elected to Governor of Wisconsin in 1900. He and a progressive legislature passed a progressive income tax, unemployment compensation, bank and railroad regulations. Some say his pro-farmer and pro-worker laws were the groundwork for the New Deal. When he was elected to the US Senate he worked to control runaway corporate power. He eventually broke with the Republican party and founded the Progressive Party. In 1924 he ran for president gaining nearly one fourth of the votes.

In 1901 New York State passed the Tenement House Law. This required fire escapes in all buildings, lights in hallways, and a window in each room. The following year Maryland passed a workmens compensation law to provide benefits for workers hurt on the job.

While the Progressive Era is formally accepted to have last through the 1920s, it lived on, through the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the civil rights and voting rights acts of Lyndon Johnson. It lives on through grass roots movements across the country. Groups like the Progressive Majority are working to help citizens take control of their government. The late Paul Wellstone was a politician with progressive credentials. Jim Hightower is a syndicated columnist in the muckraker tradition.