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Progressive Era Labor Movement Essays

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.

Contextual Essay

Post Reconstruction through 1920.
Leah S. Glaser

Progressives were a curious lot—they included young female settlement house workers, corporate reformers, children's advocates, as well as southern segregationists and disenfranchisers. Progressivism might even be a misnomer; after all, what was necessarily "progressive" about the electric chair or segregation? Yet, segregation was viewed as modern, progressive, and a model of public safety and efficiency by some reformers North and South. The main elements of the movement, if we can call it that, can be found in the various reform efforts around child labor, anti-trust, worker safety and labor unions, and women's suffrage.

Reformers responded in part to the rapid advancement of new technology, the emergence out of the new industrial economy of urban and corporate dominance, the availability of natural resources as a result of western expansion, the rise of a labor class, and, finally, the loss of middle-class power between the 1880s and 1910s. Reforming efforts took place in all political, economic, and social arenas and each of these efforts repeatedly questioned the role of the federal government in addressing the issues and problems of a new economic order. Many historians argue that the rising, popular expectations of federal authority during this era foreshadowed the large and activist role government would assume during the Great Depression and after World War II.


The typical progressive reformer was young, college-educated, and middle-class. Reformers tended to value scientific studies and the recommendations of professional "experts" whether they were promoting efficiencies in society or fighting corruption in politics. Political reformism offered some of the earliest signals for a progressive movement generally and for sustained reform through the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Progressive reformers began to shed Victorian ideas about society, including some of the trappings of Social Darwinism. They understood society as an organic whole, a system with interrelated parts, rather than as a set of individuals and one-to-one relationships. Some of these ideas were fueled by the new field of sociology and the professionalization of medicine, law, psychology, anthropology, and the social sciences. Prohibition might serve as the preeminent progressive reform. Temperance reformers of an earlier generation tried to reform the individual drunk, curing him of his immorality through appeals to religion and manhood. Social Darwinists, such as Henry Graham Sumner, considered the gutter a fitting place for drunks: only the reformers saw the drunk as part of a larger system and began to target the saloons and the businesses and laws that helped lead him astray. At the same time, they saw alcoholism as a disease, something beyond the individual's moral control and able to be corrected with sustained professional help. Moreover, drinking and drunkenness was far more an individual act or responsibility, for it had wide social repercussions. It swept the family aside; it led to prostitution and venereal diseases; it slowed production in business; it choked the economy. Progressives extrapolated from one malady to another, maintaining that the extensive failings of society were interrelated. In this respect, they differed greatly from Populists, whose main concern was to solve the dispiriting problems on the American farm of the early 1890s. Progressives took on a vast array of challenges and were not content to rest until the flaws in American society were addressed in their entirety.

Social Reform

Other Progressives sought to combat industrialism' deleterious impact at a more grassroots level. Jane Addams's Hull House is the most well known of the settlement houses that aimed to help the working class, primarily the new immigrants, adjust to industrial conditions. Armed with research and energy, female reformers worked for better urban housing, increased municipal responsibility for sanitation, an end to child labor, and the rights of workers. Meanwhile, workers continued to mobilize in support of their own interests as emphasized by David Montgomery in The Fall of the House of Labor. While the American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers, helped defend male workers, ensure fair pay, and improve workplace safety through striking and collective bargaining, female reformers hoped to cross class lines by forming women's unions through organizations like the Women's Trade Union League. Other reformers focused on continuing work begun before the Civil War. Women and moral crusaders drew support from religious fronts by attacking "urban ills" like prostitution and alcohol abuse. Reviving the temperance movement, reformers saw immigrants, who tended to congregate at taverns and saloons, as the purveyors of these vices. Such moralism-and, to a large degree, nativism-would eventually lead to prohibition.

Journalists known as "muckrakers" took on a more aggressive approach, using newspapers and other publications to highlight rising corporate abuses and poor working and housing conditions. Upton Sinclair's expose novel The Jungle, exposed the life of the immigrant, the unsafe conditions of his or her workplace and the heartlessness of corporations in the city of Chicago. While Sinclair meant the novel to inspire the socialist movement in the United States, The Jungle's greatest impact was more circumscribed. It inspired progressive reformers to pass the 1906 Food and Drug Act, which ensures food safety even today-a tame and limited solution to what Sinclair saw as egregious and systematic evils in the American economic system, akin in his mind to slavery. Most muckrakers managed only to expose corporate abuses, but eventually tragic accidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City's garment district finally motivated politicians to pass sweeping reform measures regarding workplace safety and child labor. Such laws imposed strict government regulation and oversight of corporate practices. A federal law prohibiting child labor passed Congress in 1916.

Economic Reform

The Progressives actually viewed the corporation as a model of efficiency, heralding its use of experts and scale of operations, yet corporations' actions required oversight or the results be disastrous for the American consumer and worker. They hoped to force corporate power to evolve responsibly by creating efficient bureaucratic systems to organize and control corporate abuses. These regulatory changes, they hoped, would eventually lead to policies that would ensure a more responsible state. While they tended to oppose corporate abuse in the industrial era, Progressives embraced the technological innovation and capitalism that accompanied industrialization. While guarding against its abuses, Progressives very much embraced technology and its values. Engineers like Frederick Taylor introduced concepts of efficiency and rationality into business organization in 1911, encouraging companies to establish structured bureaucracies of managers and planners who would run the factories like finely tuned machines.

While encouraging efficient systems to run large companies, Progressives also limited their growth through antitrust laws, successfully passing the Sherman Anti-trust Act in 1890, to try and regulate how monopolies gained and maintained power, especially those that did so through abusive practices like trusts and holding companies. Progressives argued that such actions restricted, limited, and oftentimes stifled the competition essential for a democratic, capitalistic system. Opponents feared that such government regulation would stall innovation by imposing boundaries on laissez-faire economic activity.


The expansion into the western territories opened vast new areas of natural resources in areas with sparse populations. Reformers organizations like the Sierra Club, led by John Muir, advocated for the preservation of particularly beautiful land through the establishment of national forests and parks. Other environmental reformers agreed that some lands should be preserved, but they applied progressive values more through a policy of conservation. Conservationists believed that natural resource development should be managed in such a way as to benefit as many people as possible. Rather than opposing the use of natural resources, conservationists encouraged their efficient use and fought against irresponsible wastefulness. One of the best examples of this idea was the endorsement of hydroelectric power, which Progressives viewed as a clean and efficient use of irrigation water to produce much needed energy for industrial and domestic use. Both preservationists and conservations found a fervent supporter in President Theodore Roosevelt.

World War I

World War I tested many of the Progressives' theories on efficiency, conservation, and unity by placing greater demands on the American political economy. The need for higher levels of production allowed workers and their unions to leverage their growing bargaining power. Social reformers took advantage of wartime imperatives as well, as Prohibitionists used the necessities of war to shut down distilleries to conserve grain.

Women's Suffrage

More than twenty thousand women also served in the armed forces during World War I, often as nurses. Women were at least as influential, however, on the home front activity in their exercise of political power. The prominent efforts of educated women reformers like Jane Addams spilled over into political action much as it had before the Civil War at the 1848 Seneca Falls meeting, when female activists first called for women's suffrage. The movement had garnered some success since the convention on a state-by -state level, especially in the sparsely populated West, where states often needed to count women to achieve statehood and maintain adequate representation. By the twentieth century, women had altered their argument for the vote by emphasizing their differences from, rather than their equality to, men. Unlike men, female reformers argued that their natural proclivities for nurturing would encourage them to take their civic obligations seriously, and furthermore, as women, they were more equipped to address the social ills of industrial society. Embracing the patriotic fervor of the war, and applying the aggressive political pressure of the social reformers, the National Women's Party finally garnered President Wilson's support for women's suffrage. In 1919, Congress passed the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote.


The many aspects of the Progressive Era have been fruitful fodder for historical study, but the time period remains one of the most difficult to teach and understand. Over the last fifty years, historians Richard Hofstadter (1955), Robert Wiebe (1967), and Alan Dawley (1991) have each attempted to synthesize this diverse and complex time period. All agree that the Progressive Era was marked by significant reforms aimed at helping the country adjust to a rapidly changing society; where they disagree is on the motivations behind these reforms. While Hofstadter and Wiebe emphasize the social controls of one class over the other, Dawley provides a more complex version of a societal effort to readjust and create new systems. To Hofstader, Progressivism embraced a trend of reform advocated by a middle-class elite experiencing a loss of power-what he terms "status-anxiety"-while Wiebe saw the Progressives as a new urban elite who applied new forms of organization, order, and structure appropriate to urban life. Dawley regards the period as the dawn of an infant welfare state that eventually evolved into the "doctrine of security" articulated in the New Deal of the 1930s. These three conceptions highlight the difficulty of defining the Progressive Movement. The Progressives themselves are likewise not an easily identifiable group, either by background or motivation. What is clear is that their ideals and actions established a stance toward public life that would echo for decades to come.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Dawley, Alan. Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1991.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877-1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.