The Progressive Spirit: An Era, Not a Movement


            [T]here was no such thing as a progressive movement, that is, no organized campaign uniting all the manifold efforts at political, social, and economic reform.  On the contrary, there were numerous progressive movements operating in different areas simultaneously…. [T]he progressive movement, in its political manifestations, was essentially a revolt of the middle classes…[i]


The Progressive Era is the title traditionally applied to the period from roughly 1900 through 1920 in U.S. history.  It is particularly significant because it marks the first time that our shared, fundamental values—which collectively we call the American Political Culture (APC)—were called into question and, consequently, transformed.  Although those two decades are described by the single term, Progressive Era, there was actually much less consistency to the period than its now well recognized title implies.

In fact, as the opening quote indicates, the Progressive Era comprised a number of critical issues, varied approaches to addressing those issues, and multiple interests seeking to influence the government’s response to them.  More to the point, perhaps, the Progressive Era itself was something of an outgrowth of the populist uprisings of the 1880s.


Progressive Origins: the Populist Movement of the 1890s


            For most of the first century of our nation’s existence—until the later decades of the nineteenth century—politics was fairly elitist in nature.  That is to say, while much has been written about our democratic heritage in general and about periods such as the “era of Jacksonian democracy” in particular, in fact the role of ordinary citizens in running the country was pretty limited.  Over time, however, that situation became less and less acceptable to the ordinary people who were doing the hard work that was moving the country forward but who didn’t have much of a say in deciding how the fruits of those labors got divided up and distributed among different interests in society.  The slowly spreading movement by which ordinary people began demanding more of a voice in how the political economy was run is what we call populism.  Populism, in simple terms, is a democratic revolt against the ruling powers of the well-to-do, well-positioned elites.

Common mythology has it that the populist revolts of the 1890s were, by and large, sagebrush revolutions launched by small, independent farmers.   The story holds that farmers in the upper-midwest regions of the country were being gouged by the newly developed power of the railroad trust.  The monopoly-like power of the big railroads allowed them, according to this line of analysis, to charge exorbitant rates for farmers to ship their crops to big-city markets.  While there certainly is an element of truth to this rendering of history, there also is more to the story than that simple approach conveys.

            The populist revolts of that period may have had as much to do with land speculation and the price of real estate as with the relative rates for crops and shipping.  The entrepreneurial spirit for which Americans became so well known apparently was in full swing by the last decade of the nineteenth century, including among small farmer-landowners in the rural Midwest.  Despite history’s tendency (and our political culture’s desire) to paint them as small, independent farmers in the Jeffersonian tradition—hacking out a new way of life for themselves and their families in the bounteous but untamed wilderness of the American frontier—land speculation was not uncommon among the agricultural set.  When, in the throes of the worldwide economic depression of the 1890s, the bottom fell out of the (international) agricultural real estate market, thousands of “small farmers” were left holding deeds to homesteads that were suddenly worth considerably less than they had paid for them.  And when the private market failed, panicked landholders began turning to government to help them save their real estate holdings.

            As those cries for relief mounted, America grew up.  Although the myth of the yeoman farmer would never fade away completely—indeed, it remains a critical component even in today’s political culture—subsequently the ideal would be tempered by the new economic reality of agriculture-as-ever-bigger-business.  More important for our purposes, the politics of the era underwent a fundamental change.

            Those seeking to reform the system gravitated from an insurgent (populist/third-party) political approach to a more traditional pursuit of politics by means of lobbying and pressure tactics exercised within the existing, two-party system of Republicans and Democrats.  The Populist movement reached its apex with the presidential candidacy in 1896 of William Jennings Bryan.  Thereafter, the Progressives took up the reformist cause.

            In a sense, the political unrest that characterized the populist decade was absorbed by a growing rumble in the nation’s cities.  Where the landowner-farmers who drove the populist movement had been narrowly rural in their upset, however, the newer, urban brand of reform-minded agitator was more broadly national in outlook and more professional/intellectual in background.  In short, Progressivism would be a more complex, but also a more moderate, tendency than was Populism. 

In place of angry farmers and small-town leaders would form a coalition of clergy, academics, lawyers and small professionals; all united against the growing power of both the new barons of the industrializing, increasingly concentrated economy and the recently forming labor unions that supplied a growing share of the manpower for the modern engines of American growth.  At the heart of the Progressives’ concerns was the fear that the increasingly concentrated power of the trusts and the unions would be able to drive prices ever upward.



Progressivism: A Conservative Approach in Liberal Clothing?


Seeking a Restoration of Values


            The Populists had been backward-looking insofar as they saw many of the problems facing America as arising from the impersonal nature of the modern world, with its emphasis on science and specialization; from economic concentration and social collectivization; and to a certain extent from immigration.

            Progressives shared some of those concerns, but with different interpretations of the symptoms characterizing the changing American political economy.  In particular, Progressives didn’t so much fear the future as they longed for a kind of idealized past that few of them (as city-dwellers) had actually experienced.  For them, the moral/spiritual purity springing from the rugged individualism of the small, independent farmer was a loss that needed to be restored.

            Unlike their predecessors, however, Progressives were not unmindful of the benefits of the newly industrializing economy.  Thus, they didn’t seek to retard progress entirely (as had at least some of the populist strains).  Instead, the Progressives sought to insure that the increasing concentration in both economic and political life would not stifle the incentives for individual attainment; that the economic trusts and political parties would not interfere with the traditional, American value of individual opportunity via the acquisition of private property.  In that sense, rather than appear as what we would today call a “liberal” movement, Progressivism can be seen as inherently conservative in nature, in that it sought a restoration of an imagined, righteous past.

            Since the concentrated economic power of the trusts (rail, coal, steel, meat-packing, etc.) was seen by the Progressives as the major impediment to the realization of a more broadly virtuous society—they were aided immeasurably in their quest to preach the Progressive gospel to the masses by the investigative journalists (as we would call them today) known alternately as “yellow journalists” Yellow Journalism or “muckrakers”—the solution they proposed was to increase the power of governments (federal, state, and/or local, as need be) so as to put them on a more equal footing with large corporations.  The underlying goal, then, was to help those whom they saw as the victims of industrialization—but to do so in all cases without resorting to the kinds of “radical” or “socialistic” solutions that were at that time finding considerable sympathy among certain groups, particularly among the working classes.


The Place of Labor in the Progressive Universe


            In the roughly sixty-year period stretching between the Civil War and the First World War, approximately thirty million immigrants were absorbed into the United States.  The male breadwinners for an overwhelming number of those newly arrived families became the backbone of the emerging, organized labor movement in this country.

In their old countries, many of them had become personally familiar with systems of government and schemes for workplace organization that were far more progressive/socialistic than were the political and economic institutions that they encountered in their new, American home.  As a result, labor unions in the rapidly industrializing American political economy became seedbeds for revolution.  Proposals for asserting the role of common laborers in the workplace came to be heard with increasing frequency and growing intensity.  Their opposition to the emerging class of corporate titans might seem to have positioned workers to be the natural allies of the Progressives, who also sought to curtail (albeit for their own reasons, recall) the seemingly unbridled power of the business elites.

In fact, however, the largely middle-class reformers who rallied under the Progressive banner had little sympathy for organized labor—and, in some respects, actually saw their concentrated, potential strength as a threat to the restoration of individualistic virtue for which they longed.


The labor unions, being far weaker than the big businesses and

the [political party] machines, held an ambiguous place in Progressive thinking.  The Progressive sympathized with the problems of labor but was troubled about the lengths to which union power might go if labor-unionism became the sole counterpoise to the power of business.  The danger of combinations of capital and labor that would squeeze the consuming public and the small businessman was never entirely out of sight…. And wherever labor was genuinely powerful in politics … Progressivism took on a somewhat anti-labor tinge.[ii]


            Even without the sometimes overt opposition of the Progressive leadership organized labor faced problems as it sought to become a central force in the evolving, American political economy.  Although they may have shared concerns about their corporate superiors, workers in early-twentieth-century United States nevertheless were divided by ethnic, religious, and racial considerations—differences that their managers were only too willing to exploit if they allowed them to maintain control in the workplace by pitting one group of workers against another.

            The labor movement was divided, as well, along professional lines: into a more conservative class of skilled artisans—under the banner of the American Federation of Labor (AFL)—and a much larger but less prestigious group of by and large common laborers—under the banner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  It would be some years before those two groups would overcome their disagreements and merge into the AFL-CIO.

            In the end, then, the American political economic system failed to deliver the kind of welfare state that was becoming more and more common in Europe.  The United States became “exceptional” among modern, industrialized democracies for that failure.  Facing the often staunch opposition of the business community (led by the National Association of Manufacturers); led during its period of greatest potential for reform by a President (Woodrow Wilson) who exhibited no sympathy for the kind of collectivization that might have resulted in significant increases in social welfare for its most at-risk groups; and with a working class plagued by internal divisions; the U.S. failed to implement what is perhaps the bottom-line characteristic of a true “welfare state”: that male workers (i.e., “breadwinners”) should be broadly and automatically protected by social insurance as a matter of course, rather than in only scattershot fashion (as became the case here).  In the end, only mothers and their children (the so-called “deserving poor”) were targeted for public assistance.  For the rest of the working class, the rugged individualism that constituted the core of the American political culture would have to sustain them through economic hard-times.

            The obvious question that arises is, given the agitation for change among the working classes at the time, why did the U.S. not see the formation of a true labor party?  In addition to the cultural explanation provided in the preceding paragraph, we must consider also the relative prosperity enjoyed by the typical American worker.  If not wealthy, the average worker at least was making steady material progress as the economy which he helped drive grew dramatically during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  As the economic historian Warner Sombart has so cleverly put it, “All socialistic utopias come to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.”[iii]  With their personal, financial situations improving regularly, in other words, there was not always an obvious rationale for workers to get riled up.

            But cultural and economic explanations of American “exceptionalism” provide an incomplete accounting of the situation.  It was neither natural nor inevitable, in fact, that workers would adopt a less threatening posture toward the development of corporate capitalism.  Rather, the ability of workers to band together under a common banner of worker solidarity was short-circuited—often deliberately, although not always so—by the tactics of the Progressive reformers with whom they vied for control of political economic developments of that era.

            In addition to dealing with the fallout from the corporate trusts that had come to dominate key sectors of the economy, the Progressives also were determined to weed out the political corruption that was the lubricant for the political party “machines that dominated so many major cities in the increasingly urbanized nation.  In seeking to loosen the stranglehold that the party organizations had on politics in turn-of-the-century, urban American, reformers succeeded in throwing the “baby” of political organization for the masses out with the “bathwater” of corrupt, one-party politics. 

            By instituting such reform measures as nonpartisan elections, the secret ballot, and civil service examinations as a prerequisite for holding government jobs, reformers were able to deny the machines the tools they needed to sustain their positions of privilege.  At the same time, however, those reforms tended to work against the ability of the working classes to present a united, political front against the growing alliance between big business and big government.  Political parties were the best hope of the lower classes for securing for themselves a decent share of the growing “pie” that the American economy was producing.  Lacking that institutional mechanism for realizing their shared interests under a common, partisan banner, the lower classes were more easily bought off by material rewards or diverted by racial, ethnic, or religious concerns—and the first era of significant reform in the American political culture was more easily steered in a centrist direction that was deemed acceptably safe by the barons of the new, corporate-capitalist order.


Progressivism: A Precursor of the New Deal?

The Progressive era ended clearly and decisively with the U.S.’s entry into the First World War.  The new internationalism required by that initiative cost Woodrow Wilson dearly, as the economic sacrifices required by the war effort ushered in a series of Republican presidents (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover) following the war.  With its figurehead in political retirement and with the postwar prosperity of the “Roaring ‘20s” distracting Americans’ attentions from pre-war concerns, the reform spirit dwindled and then died.

            Although it is possible to cast a retrospectively critical eye on America’s first period of political-cultural reform, we must be careful to acknowledge as well the important changes in the system that were realized as a result of the Progressive era.


Not only the extent of government intervention, but the manner in which policy was formulated and executed changed beyond recognition.  The main features were the appearance of regulatory agencies entrusted with wide discretionary powers and a consequent diminution of the role of both legislatures and courts in the conduct of economic policy.[iv]


            Government, in other words, began to take the shape that would come to characterize it in later decades: a public authority alternately allied with and antagonistic to corporate capital.  Maintained was the traditional, American allegiance to markets—i.e., to private authority—for organizing the political economy.  The driving spirit had been to restore markets, to counter-act the organizational power of the new, corporate giants that came to dominate the economy.  What was different as a result of the Progressive era was that government would exercise the police power deemed necessary to check the abuses of the new class of economic plutocrats.

            Essentially lost in the political shuffle, however, was the collective fate of millions of lower- and working-class Americans.  Although it was their plight at the hands of an apparently uncaring, corporate-capitalist order that seemed to have spurred much of the activity during the Progressive era, in fact the economic fortunes of the poor, the elderly, the working classes, and racial minorities wound up taking a back seat to the broader, institution-driven agenda of Progressive reformers.  It would fall to the next significant era of political-cultural change, the New Deal, to address those needs in any significant way.

            In an even broader sense, however, what was perhaps the Progressive era’s most fundamental goal proved to be unattainable: for it sought nothing less than the removal of politics from the decision-making processes that had come to characterize the modern political economy.  What Progressivism succeeded in doing, instead, was substituting one form of politics (bureaucratic) for another (partisan—i.e., “machine”).  As subsequent eras would demonstrate, that change made the American political system even more open to influence by special interests—an ironic outcome for America’s first, major reform era.


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[i] Arthur Link, “The Nature of Progressivism”, quoted in David Potter, Party Politics and Public

Action, 1877-1917 (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 19XX), p. 41.

[ii] Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (Knopf, 1955), p. 239.

[iii] Quoted in Robert Harrison, State and Society in Twentieth-Century America (Longman, 1997), ch. 3.

[iv] Harrison, op. cit., p. 109.