Essay on Progressivism
Thesis statement: it is hypothesized that Progressivism was a wide and varied movement that changed American values and lifestyles having everlasting impact on American history.
Progressivism, ranging from 1880 to 1920, was a well-planned and well-organized movement in the United States having wide as well as diversified goals. Leaders of progressivism movement focused on humanity element and tried to make advancements by promoting liberation to stimulate human force along with exploiting human potential to remove restraints imposed by contemporary liberalization. The paper will present an overview of Progressivism as a wide and varied movement. It will also discuss the goals of movement and mention some of the prominent people who took part in it. At the end, the significance of Progressivism to America will also be highlighted.
Progressivism - A Wide and Varied Movement
Progressivism expanded in American cities and confronted political mechanism full of monopolies and corrupt leaders. For the resolution of diversified problems existing at the local and state levels, progressivism focused on promoting idea of public ownership of government run by professional city bosses. Leaders of the movement strived to resolve the issues created by the wave of industrialization. At the time of movement the main problems confronted by the American society was the gigantic growth of cities and industries. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans started migrating to the northern cities. This huge wave of migration being main cause of growth coupled with disastrous working conditions presented a worse scenario.
The new comers strived to adapt to entirely new conditions at one hand while trying hard to maintain their distinctive culture and language system on the other creating a complex situation. Wealth concentrated in few hands and a large segment of people were caught in the vicious circle of poverty. Low wage-rates, dangerous working conditions, and long working hours were among several grave problems faced by most of the Americans. Swift technological advancements and rapid speed of industrialization altered the life styles of Americans.
In this context, progressive leaders advocated and strived to introduce reforms for solving the grave issues. Progressivism movement was wide in nature with varying goals. It introduced urban reforms and had offensive attitude towards dishonest leaders and corrupt political system. Leaders of progressive movement favored taking ownership of public utilities by government supporting different social welfare programs to resolve mainly the problems of immigrants, working class, and poor. At the state level, Progressive movement introduced specific democratic reforms. The purpose of democratic reforms was to allow American citizens to select leaders as per their choice, independently and freely.
Basically, the roots of Progressivism had been in the transitional era of United States from a nation comprising farmers to a nation of consumers and employees manipulated by large firms, exploiting and misusing resources, supported by the corrupt government. Progressive movement started with the intentions to rectify these problems. Moreover, it focused on providing solutions to the issues raised by urbanization and industrialization, as discussed above.
Progressive leaders felt that their democratic reforms were threatened by the corrupt governmental policies and dishonest leaders. Progressivism confronted ending corporate power and to abolish monopolies. Democracy, they believed, was the solution of problems faced by most of the Americans, especially lower class. They tried to protect working people and aimed to break the vicious circle of poverty by eliminating the gap between different social classes.
It is pertinent to mention that Progressive movement was wide in a sense that it included both Democrats and Republicans. The movement heavily impacted the political structure at local, state, and national levels. It had significant influence on cultural and social life of America. It was, in fact, a dynamic movement introducing reforms at varied platforms including democratic, social, and political fronts. The agenda also had variety and diversification. It comprises social as well as political agenda. However, the main aims were elimination of corruption, protecting common people especially lower- class, elimination the continuous gap between different social classes, and promoting scientific as well as technological developments ensuring welfare of people.
With varying nature and wider in scope, Progressivism concentrated on providing effective tools to build trust of people in government and business organizations. However, a small group in the Progressive movement also supported ownership of production by government. Amendments to the Constitution showed their priorities at the political front as they provided new ways for electing senators and tried to eliminate monopolies. The wide spectrum of Progressivism can be viewed from the fact that not only it focused on fighting at the political platform, the movement tried to address the problem of urbanization. It is also pertinent to highlight the shortcomings of Progressive movement as their failure in the areas of limiting child labor and not addressing racial problems of blacks especially African Americans who had migrated from South. At the end of first phase of Progressive movement ranging from 1880 to 1920, the election of 1912 was fought by contenders with Progressive approach having varied goals from different labor issues to problems at political as well as social level. More power was given to Congress in this era. Election of Senators was to be made by the public and women gained voting powers in this particular era.
Goals of Progressivism and People who Took Part in It
Progressivism was a movement starting at the end of nineteenth century (1880) and ended in the second decade of twentieth century (1920). In this era tremendous changes at the economic, social, and political level were made. People taking part in the movement had diversified backgrounds, different political views, and varied social interests. It included political leaders from both Democrats and Republicans. The movement was led by people of different groups comprising teachers, political leaders, labor leaders, religious leaders, journalists, from both genders. It included famous people like; Theodore Roosevelt- President of the United States; Woodrow Wilson- President of the United States; Robert M. La Follette, former governor of Wisconsin.
Muckrakers, a group of journalists such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, exposed corruption practices in government and highlighted business scandals. They portrayed the miserable working conditions of poor and exploitations of large industries along with issues of concentration of wealth. Henry Ford introduced a lucrative pay scale for his workers during Progressive era. Among prominent ladies were Lucy Burns- an advocate of women's rights, and Jane Adams- a social worker and first women winner of the Noble Peace Prize. As regards goals of Progressivism, one of them was 'social welfare' aiming to provide social justice to everyone irrespective of social class. It strived to eliminate differences in social classes and supported attaining social justice by promoting the idea of charity and welfare by large organizations. For this purpose a large force comprising social workers was prepared and trained to perform their task effectively. Second goal of Progressivism was 'promotion of moral improvement', for example women's Suffrage by providing women the right to vote. Certain prohibition laws were introduced, for example Progressive leaders were of the view that usage of alcohol limited thinking and working of a person. Third goal was to provide 'economic reforms' by regulating especially large corporations to ensure independence and remove restrictions imposed by capitalism. The fourth main goal of Progressivism was 'efficiency'. Among other ideas, it included creating professional city manager to run affairs at local, state, and national level more effectively. Moreover, leaders of Progressivism reduced powers given to local wards through effective organization of city governments.
Lasting Significance of Progressivism to American History
The Progressive period is known for its tremendous successful efforts having everlasting impact on American economy and society by making remarkable changes at the social, economical, and political levels. Although, reformers of this movement belonged to a diversified group from labor and religious leaders, journalists, politicians, and teachers- both men and women- one thing common among them was to protect people, especially working class, solve problems of urbanization and industrialization, and concentrate on social welfare of American people. At the end of the movement by 1920, newly formed laws at state, local, and national level changed the entire scenario of America in all three major areas; economic, social, and political, having everlasting impact on the country.
Efforts have been made in the paper to present everlasting impact of Progressivism - a wide and varied movement from 1880 to 1920- that brought tremendous changes at the economic, social, and political levels of America. Goals of the movement and people who took part in it have also been highlighted. On the basis of arguments presented in paper it is concluded that Progressivism movement had an everlasting impact on America changing American values and lifestyles.
Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.
How did railroads change American society, politics, and economy in the post–Civil War era?
Railroads completely transformed the United States socially, politically, and economically during the Gilded Age. Literally the engine of the new industrialized economy, they facilitated the speedy transportation of raw materials and finished goods from coast to coast. In addition to raw materials, these “iron horses” carried people west to settle the heartland and the frontier. As the railroads grew in power, they exerted increasing influence on local and state governments, eventually prompting Congress and reform-minded presidents to pass laws to regulate the new industry.
After the Civil War, rail tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt capitalized on the conversion of their iron tracks to steel, which allowed them to lay more track for only a fraction of the cost. As a result, by 1900, the United States boasted almost a quarter of a million miles of railroad track. In turn, steel magnates such as Andrew Carnegie benefited from the increased demand for steel and responded by producing more. As consolidation and innovation streamlined costs, it became cheaper and faster to ship raw materials, manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and oil via rail than by steamship.
Railroads transported people, too, and contributed, more than any other single factor, to the transformation and development of the West. Although more than a million Americans had moved westward in the days of “manifest destiny” before the Civil War, trains brought millions more throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Railways made it physically and economically feasible for Americans to settle Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in large numbers. At the same time, the decimated population of native grassland bison testified to the negative consequences of this drastic transformation of the Midwest.
As railroad companies grew in power, they exerted more and more influence on local politics and economics. Unscrupulous “robber barons” extorted the public by charging outrageous rates, distributing uncompetitive rebates to preferred customers, accepting bribes and kickbacks, and discriminating against small shippers. Public discontent with the railways emerged in small farming communities throughout the Midwest—a discontent that ultimately helped form the backbone of the populist movement. Populists, like the socialists of the early twentieth century, wanted to curb railroad corruption by nationalizing all lines.
Even though Populism eventually faded, cries for railroad reform did not, prompting the federal government to take action. In 1887, for example, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which supervised railroad companies that operated in more than one state by outlawing unfair rebates and ordering companies to publish fares up front. The Elkins Act of 1903 and the Hepburn Act of 1906 strengthened the ICC by restraining railroad companies further. In addition, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of James Hill’s and J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Railway in 1904.
Railroads thus transformed American society, politics, and economy unlike any other invention during the Gilded Age. They allowed big business to prosper and people to settle the West and Midwest. Ultimately, public reaction against the railroad barons’ uncompetitive business practices formed the backbone of the reform-minded Populist and Progressive movements around the turn of the century.
Many historians believe that the election of 1896 was the most critical election of the post–Civil War years. Do you agree with this assessment? How did the election change American politics?
The election of 1896 was one of the most critical elections of the nineteenth century. William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan brought an end to the Populist movement, ensured financial stability that helped industrialization, and ushered in a new era of Republican conservatism that lasted for nearly forty years. In addition, the election demonstrated the importance of money in national politics and the support of urban voters.
William Jennings Bryan’s decision to incorporate much of the Populist Party platform into the Democratic Party platform effectively put an end to the Populist movement. Particularly important was Bryan’s call for inflationary free silver to help impoverished farmers in the South and Midwest pay off their debts. Populist leaders chose to unite with Bryan and the Democrats rather than try to win with a third party candidate of their own. Although Bryan represented the best choice for winning that particular election, the Populist Party’s support of him deprived them of their own platform and ultimately pushed many farmers permanently in line with the Democratic Party. The Populist Party never recovered and eventually dissolved completely.
However, both Populists and Democrats failed to realize that farmers no longer constituted the bulk of the American population. Even though the United States had been a predominantly agrarian country since the American Revolution, the industrialization and immigration of the Gilded Age shifted the population balance toward the cities. Bryan’s appeal for inflationary silver worried urban residents, who relied on steady wages, and the free silver issue ultimately cost him the election. Consequently, the election of 1896 marked the last time a presidential candidate from a major party tried to win by appealing to agricultural interests. McKinley, on the other hand, appealed to American city dwellers, promising economic stability and a “full dinner pail” for every American. His sound money policies, which kept big business booming and the economy growing, ultimately helped the United States become the greatest industrialized nation in the world.
The election of 1896 also demonstrated the growing importance of money in American politics. With more than $15 million, McKinley had more money to spend on his campaign than any of his predecessors. He also had Mark Hanna, his wily campaign manager, who successfully convinced business tycoons to donate to the campaign. McKinley won the election in part because of his ability to spend more money, prompting many Democrats to accuse the former senator of “buying” his presidency.
Just as significantly, McKinley’s victory ushered in a period in American politics dominated by Republican conservatism. In fact, Republicans controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1897 and 1933. Their fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire attitude toward the economy helped the American economy grow even further.
What were the causes of urbanization during the Gilded Age? What consequences did this urban revolution have on politics, the economy, and society?
Rapid immigration, along with the explosion of Americans moving from farms to the cities, caused an urban boom during the Gilded Age. The growth of cities gave rise to powerful political machines, stimulated the economy, and gave birth to an American middle class.
Civil wars and persecution prompted many southern and eastern Europeans to flee their homelands in search of better lives in America between the 1880s and 1920s. During these years, approximately a million immigrants from Italy, Greece, Russia, Poland, and other countries arrived in eastern U.S. cities every year. In addition to the influx of immigrants, millions of country-dwelling Americans moved to the cities to escape poverty.
The urban explosion contributed significantly to the rise of powerful political machines that became synonymous with the Gilded Age. Political bosses like William “Boss” Tweed in New York City accumulated power and wealth by preying on insecure immigrants living in the cities’ poorest slums. In exchange for their votes, bosses promised to provide social services, new public projects, and sometimes even physical protection. These political machines grew incredibly powerful well into the twentieth century and came to dominate local politics and even influence national politics. Nearly every U.S. president between Grant and Truman could trace their roots back to local and state party machines.
The shift in population from the countryside to the cities also changed the way presidential candidates campaigned, as demonstrated by William McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan in 1896. McKinley was able to secure the urban vote, which led him to victory, whereas Bryan wrongly assumed that the majority of the voting public was still in America’s countryside.
The economy benefited greatly from the influx of immigrants and farmhands to the cities. Factory owners especially benefited from immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who, eager to make a new start in America, often worked inhumane hours for meager wages and rarely threatened to unionize. The availability of such cheap labor contributed to the economic boom during the Gilded Age and throughout the early twentieth century.
The urban explosion, furthermore, contributed to the growth of a distinctive American middle class. Not rich but not poor either, a growing number of Americans could afford to live comfortably and enjoy the modern conveniences of Gilded Age life. The increasing number of middle-class women led to the reform movement of the late nineteenth century. Many of these women strove to eliminate poverty and right other social wrongs, such as drinking, prostitution, and gambling. Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and other women founded settlement houses in urban slums to help immigrants improve their lives in the New World. This early reform movement served as the roots of the broader Progressive movement that dominated American politics after the turn of the century.
The veritable explosion in population between the 1880s and 1920s in eastern cities thus completely transformed American politics, society, and the economy. Politicians began campaigning harder in cities run by political machines, cheap labor fueled economic growth, and a distinctive American middle class emerged that would eventually spearhead the progressive movement.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Why did the Populists gain so much power in the 1880s and 1890s, and why did they disappear soon after that?
2. Compare and contrast Roosevelt’s Square Deal with Wilson’s New Freedom.
3. What were the causes and consequences of Progressivism?
4. Describe how three of the following shaped American politics in the early twentieth century: Ballinger-Pinchot AffairPayne-Aldrich TariffmuckrakersUnderwood TariffSquare DealProgressive Party