Progressivism Defined: Roots and Goals

Progressive Era Social Reform and Its Roots

Lillian Wald and Jane Addams
Lillian Wald and Jane Addams, 1916. Harris & Ewing / Courtesy Library of Congress

Progressivism in American politics refers to a reform movement advocating progress – change and improvement – over conservatism, preserving the status quo. The term has been used in several ways, but primarily has referred to the Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Out of the Enlightenment in Europe came the idea that both knowledge and economic growth would advance civilization and the human condition.

The philosopher Kant talked about progress from barbarism towards civilization, and to those who espoused progressivism, the movement was clearly one of ethical response to practices and conditions seen as barbarous, and towards practices and conditions seen as fostering human flourishing.

Public Housekeeping

Earlier in the 19th century, a separate spheres ideology envisioned a strict division of public and private spheres – with women in charge of the home or domestic or private sphere, and men of the public sphere, including government and business. (Of course those enslaved and often those of the poorest classes had little experience of such separation.) Some envisioned the entry of women into reform movements as an extension of their private sphere responsibilities: public housekeeping.

What Was Progressivism a Response to?

Progressivism was a reaction to the increasing economic inequality that was a product of the Industrial Revolution and virtually unregulated capitalism, including exploitation of labor.

 An influx of immigrants into the United States and a massive movement of people from farms to urban areas, often employed in the new industries at low wages and poor working conditions, created slums, poverty, child labor, class conflict, and significant potential for unrest. The end of the Civil War had two major influences on progressivism.

One was that many reformers believed that the ending of slavery, after the agitation of the abolitionists, proved that reform movements were capable of making much change.  Another was that, with the freeing of those who had been enslaved but the residual effects of a story of “natural” inferiority of those of African descent, racism and the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South began to drive many of the formerly enslaved to seek refuge in Northern cities and the growing industries, creating racial tensions that were in some ways nurtured by the powerful to “divide and conquer.”

Religion and Progressivism: the Social Gospel

Protestant theology, already evolving in the face of the growth of liberal religions like Universalism and of increasing questioning of traditional authority and ideas because of Enlightenment-rooted ideas of textual criticism, responded to the growing economic and social exploitation of many with a doctrine of the Social Gospel. This movement applied Biblical principles to social problems (see Matthew 25), and also taught that solving social problems in this life was a necessary precursor to the Second Coming.

Progress and Poverty

In 1879, economist Henry George published Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy.

The book was highly popular, and has sometimes been used as a marker for the beginning of the Progressive Era. In this volume, Henry George explained how economic poverty could grow at the same time as economic and technological expansion and growth. The book also explained how economic boom and bust cycles were generated from social policy.

Twelve Key Areas of Progressive Social Reform

There were other areas as well, but these were key areas of social reform addressed by progressivism.

  1. The “single tax” movement, rooted in Henry George’s economic writing, promoted the idea that public financing should rely primarily on a land value tax, rather than on taxing labor and investment.
  2. Conservationism: the promotion of nature and wildness had roots in Transcendentalism and the Romanticism of the earlier 19th century, but Henry George’s writings gave an economic justification as well for ideas about the “commons” and its protection.
  1. Quality of life in the slums: progressivism saw that human flourishing was less possible in the poverty conditions of the slums – from hunger to unsafe housing to lack of light in apartments to lack of sanitation to access to heat in cold weather.
  2. Labor rights and conditions: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the most dramatic of many industrial accidents in which workers perished or were injured because of poor working conditions.  Labor organizing was generally supported by the Progressive movement, and so were creation of safety codes for factories and other buildings.
  3. Shorter working days: the eight-hour day enforced by overtime requirements was a long fight on the part of the Progressive movement and the labor movement, at first with active opposition from courts which found that changes in labor laws interfered with the individual rights of corporate owners.
  4. Child labor: the progressives came to oppose permitting children at young ages could be employed in dangerous occupations, from four year olds selling newspapers in the street to children in the mines to children operating dangerous machinery in textile mills and factories.  The anti-child-labor activism continued into the 20th century, and the highest courts at first made it difficult to pass such laws.
  5. Women’s rights: though the women’s rights movement began organizing before the Progressive Era, and arguably helped begin it, the Progressive Era saw the expansion of women’s rights from child custody to more liberal divorce laws to information about contraceptives and family planning to “protective labor laws” to make it possible for women to be both mothers and workers. Women finally were able to get a constitutional amendment in 1920 removing sex as a barrier to voting.
  1. Temperance and prohibition: because, with few social programs and few women’s rights, excessive drinking could threaten the livelihood and even life of the members of the drinker’s family, many women and men fought to make it more difficult to buy and consume alcohol.
  2. Settlement houses: more educated women and men moved into poor neighborhoods and “settled” there to experiment with what was needed by the people in the neighborhood to improve their lives. Many who worked in settlement houses went on to work for other social reforms.
  3. Better government: in the face not only of increased concentrations of money into corporate hands, but also the rise of big city machine politics, reforming government to put more power into the hands of ordinary Americans was a major part of progressivism. This included establishing a primary system where voters, not party leaders, selected candidates for their party, and it included direct election of Senators, rather than having them elected by state legislatures.
  4. Limits on corporate power: busting and regulating monopolies and establishing antitrust laws were policies seen as not only benefiting more people and preventing unconscionable wealth disparities, but also as a way for capitalism to function more effectively through a more competitive market. Muckraking journalism helped expose corruption in politics and business, and motivate limits on both government and business power.
  5. Race: Some reformers worked for racial inclusion and racial justice. African Americans founded reform organizations of their own, such as the NACW, working for such issues as education, women’s rights, child labor reform. The NAACP brought together white and black reformers in response to destructive riots. Ida B. Wells-Barnett worked to end lynching.  Other progressives (like Woodrow Wilson) enforced and promoted racial segregation.

    Other reforms included the Federal Reserve system, scientific approaches (i.e. evidence-based approaches) to education and other fields, efficiency methods applied to government and business, improvements in medicine, immigration reform, food standards and purity, censorship in motion pictures and books (defended as promoting healthy families and good citizenship), and much more.