American History
The Progressives

*Farmers were not the only Americans who wanted reform in the late 1800s.  Many people in cities, both workers and the middle class, wanted a more honest, efficient government that would take an interest in people’s welfare. 

*For many of them, this was partly motivated by a Christian desire to help others—an ideal known as the Social Gospel.  For others it was based on an economic desire to create a more orderly and prosperous society.  These people came to be known as Progressives, and eventually many Populists joined them.

*Many people were tired of political bosses effectively running local and often state and national politics, even though they often did help enough people to ensure they could stay in power. 

*Many people wanted the government to bust the trusts (who also tended to bribe politicians), as a matter of honesty, to allow more competition to improve prices and service, and to allow small businesses to grow (or even exist).

*Progressives were also interested in the conditions of the urban poor, which were appalling at the turn of the century, as middle-class and upper-class people began to discover through the work of the muckrakers.

*Muckrakers were writers (especially journalists) who exposed the dark and dirty side of society.  Lincoln Steffens wrote The Shame of the Cities about political corruption.  Jacob Riis, who was both a writer and a photographer, published How the Other Half Lives showing pictures of the terrible conditions of the poor.  Ida Tarbell wrote The History of Standard Oil to describe how Rockefeller crushed his opponents.  Frank Norris’s The Octopus described how the Southern Pacific Railroad controlled the lives of California farmers who depended on it for transport. 

*Perhaps the most horrifying work was a novel by Upton Sinclair called The Jungle.  It described the horrors of the meat-packing industry.  Read page 220.

*As the horrors of the workplace became more well-documented more efforts were made to improve conditions.  In 1902, Florence Kelley helped form the National Child Labor Committee to lobby for an end to child labour laws.  In 1916, most forms of child labour were outlawed by the US government.  The Supreme Court overturned that law in 1918, though, and child labour continued to be legal until 1938.

*Descriptions of the unpleasant meat-packing industry factories made some people want to improve conditions in general, as did the largest industrial disaster in the history of New York City—not counting the September 11th attacks--and one of the worst in American history.

*The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employed many women and girls (alongside some men and boys) in a modern, fireproof building.  On 25 March, 1911 cloth caught on fire.  Many of the doors inside were locked, and the stairwells began to fill with smoke.  The only fire escape on the outside of the building twisted and broke under the weight of the people trying to run down it.  The elevator stopped working, partly because people kept trying to jump down the shaft on top of it to try to escape.  In desperation women began jumping out of the upper windows, which killed 62 of them (sometimes due to crashing through plate glass windows, sometimes because they were already on fire when they jumped).  Other women suffocated or burned alive.  When the building was opened afterwards, skeletons were found hunched over sewing machines.  The owners fled to the roof and survived.  They were sued, but acquitted in criminal court although a civil court required them to pay the victims $75 per person killed (while they got money worth over $400 per person from their insurance company).  One of the owners was fined again two years later for again locking the doors of his factory.

*In some states, the Progressives managed to get the workday legally limited to 10 hours, although the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in 1905.

*Progressives also tried to reform government, making it more efficient and more responsible and responsive to the people.  One of the first major experiments was in Galveston after the hurricane of 1900 (in which 8,000 people were killed).  Galveston replaced its mayor with a five person commission.  They ran the city so efficiently that many cities created elected city commissions.  In many places they were able to break the power of the bosses.

*Progressive city governments often created public utilities to make sure private companies could not create monopolies and overcharge customers.  Public utilities often provided cleaner water and more reliable power than private companies, too.
*On the state and national level, Progressives supported direct primaries, in which the people (not the political party leaders) chose the people who would run for office on behalf of each party.  By 1916 all but four states had direct primaries.

*Progressives also supported ideas such as the ballot initiative, which allowed voters to suggest and vote on laws themselves without waiting for elected officials to pass laws.  The referendum allowed voters to approve or reject laws passed by the legislatures.  The recall allowed voters to have an anti-election, voting to remove an official from office.

*Progressives managed to amend the Constitution several times.  Two of the ‘progressive amendments’ were the XVI Amendment, creating an income tax (which was popular among the poor and middle class because originally only the very richest Americans were eligible) and the XVII Amendment, which let the people of each state vote for their senators themselves (before that the state legislatures had chosen senators).

*Many states elected Progressive governors.  Three of the most significant were Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, Theodore Roosevelt of New York, and Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, all of whom ended up having a great impact not just on their states, but on the nation.



This page last updated 27 August, 2009.