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The Progressive Movement marked an era of political activism. Reformers sought to strengthen democracy, eliminate corruption and protect laborers. This lesson explains the movement and how it increased political participation.

The Progressive Movement

Imagine life in the early 20th century. The women’s suffrage movement was in full swing.

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President McKinley was assassinated, and Teddy Roosevelt became president. The first World Series was played. We entered World War I. Those were some exciting times!This general time period is known as the Progressive Movement, or Progressive Era. It’s a period of time during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when many Americans supported government reform. Those involved in the movement were known as Reformists or Progressives. They were mostly urban, middle-class citizens.

The movement was popular! The Progressives even formed their own political party in 1912. Republican Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft and Democratic President Woodrow Wilson each openly supported the Progressive Movement.The movement began in the 1890s and lasted until around 1920. Note that this time period came after our country saw rapid urbanization and industrialization.

This meant the country faced new challenges. The movement is known as Progressive because its adherents advocated progress, change and reform to address the new America. They wanted to switch up the way the government had been doing things. The Progressives wanted the government to become more active in certain areas, like regulating big businesses and offering public welfare.

The Progressives had three main goals:

  • Strengthening democracy
  • Eliminating corruption
  • Protecting laborers

Let’s take a closer look at each of these goals.

Strengthening Democracy

First, the Progressives sought to strengthen democracy. They wanted to give citizens more control over their local governments. The Progressives accomplished this goal by introducing several new procedures that allowed the public to participate more directly in the political process.

The first of these is known as a referendum. A referendum is a direct popular vote on a proposed law or constitutional amendment. Progressives used referendums in order to give citizens a direct voice in these matters. Before the use of referendums, only state legislators could enact state law.

However, referendums allow citizens to enact legislation when legislators are unwilling or unable to do so.The Progressives also introduced the use of initiatives. An initiative is an issue to be voted on, brought to a ballot through petition.

This was also a new concept. Citizens could now choose to address the issues that were important to them. In order to have an initiative included on a ballot, citizens must first circulate a petition to garner enough support. Once the petition has a specified number of signatures, the initiative will be placed on a ballot for a public vote.For example, let’s say the citizens of Ourtown want to enact a curfew.

They don’t want anyone out on the streets past midnight. They circulate a petition to gather the necessary signatures so that their issue can appear on a ballot. The curfew issue is an initiative. Once the initiative is placed on a ballot, it will be offered for a public vote.

The vote is a referendum.The Progressives also instituted recalls. A recall is a political process that gives voters the power to remove elected officials from office before the official’s term has ended. In order to recall an official, citizens must first circulate a petition to garner enough support to put the recall on a ballot. Once the recall is on a ballot, it will be offered for a public vote.Notably, the end of the Progressive Movement saw the passing of the 19th Amendment.

Passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920, this amendment gave women the right to vote and vastly increased political participation.

Eliminating Corruption

The Progressives’ next goal was to eliminate political corruption. Progressives wanted to weed out dishonesty and fraudulent practices, especially at the local government level. They accomplished this goal by creating new organizations to monitor city governments. For example, Galveston, Texas replaced its mayor and city council with a commission of nonpartisan administrators.

This change came in 1900, after a devastating hurricane and flood destroyed most of the city. Galveston was looking for an efficient way to rebuild.The new administrators headed each of the city’s municipal departments and served as managers. They ran the city services much like a business corporation. This led to the city manager system used in many cities today. It also led to the growth of municipally owned utilities, such as water, gas and electricity. Privately owned utilities and public services became subject to government regulations and were supervised by regulatory commissions, such as the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC).

The RRC is one of the oldest regulatory agencies in the country, and was established to manage Texas’ rail industry during a time when railways were rapidly expanding.Across the country, city governments were changed in order to reflect efficiency and accountability. In an effort to curb political corruption, local governments also instituted the direct primary.

A direct primary is a preliminary election that allows all members of a political party the opportunity to take part in that party’s nomination. If you’ve ever voted in a primary election, then you’ve participated in a direct primary.However, that’s not the way the nomination process used to be. Before the Progressive Movement, political candidates were nominated by the party’s leaders.

Other citizens had no say. Party leaders often nominated friends, family members and business partners. The reform process was echoed in our national government, too, through the addition of the 17th Amendment. The amendment allows the direct election of senators, rather than selection by state legislatures.

Protecting Laborers

Lastly, the Progressives sought to protect laborers, children and women. They created innovative labor regulations and social provisions that are still in place today.

Prior to the Progressive Movement, child labor was common. The National Child Labor Committee orchestrated a well-publicized campaign using pictures of children as young as eight working in factories. By 1910, many states had legislation setting minimum work ages. Around this same time, states also enacted worker’s compensation statutes to pay workers or their families when a death or disability occurred on the job.

Most changes, however, occurred after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. This tragedy was a largely preventable New York factory fire that killed 145 people, mostly immigrant women. Most workers died as a result of neglected safety measures. The disaster brought widespread attention to the sweatshop conditions of many factories and led to new regulations.

New York enacted factory safety laws, set a 54-hour workweek for women and prohibited children under the age of 14 from working. Other states quickly followed suit.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The Progressive Movement, or Progressive Era, is a period of time during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when many Americans supported government reform.

It’s called Progressive because the people advocated progress, change and reform.The Progressives had three main goals:

  • Strengthening democracy
  • Eliminating corruption
  • Protecting laborers

They strengthened democracy through the use of new procedures including:

  • Referendum, which is a direct popular vote on a proposed law or constitutional amendment
  • Initiative, which is an issue to be voted on, brought to a ballot through petition
  • Recall, which is a political process that gives voters the power to remove elected officials from office

They eliminated corruption by:

  • Creating new organizations to monitor city governments
  • Direct primary, which is a preliminary election that allows all members of a political party the opportunity to take part in that party’s nomination

They protected laborers through:

  • Minimum work ages
  • Maximum work hours
  • Workers’ compensation
  • Safety regulations

Learning Outcomes

Finishing this lesson should prepare you to:

  • Discuss the Progressive Movement and its three main goals
  • Summarize how the Progressives accomplished their three goals
  • Define referendum, initiative, recall, and direct primary
  • Describe the 19th Amendment, the 17th Amendment, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

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