It is said that the path to hell is "paved with good intentions."22 Perhaps no one learned that lesson better than the Progressives who tried to resolve the social problems that plagued their society, only to discover major unintended consequences resulted from their actions.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of primarily middle-class reformers known as the Progressives set out to make America a better place. They wanted to stamp out drinking, which they saw as a sinful violation of Christian righteousness and a source of violence and profligacy. They also sought to win the vote for women, since women were an important part of the Progressive movement and many believed that women were inherently more ethical than men and would therefore advance the cause of temperance. Democratic reforms at the federal and local level—the commission type of government and the referendum, initiative, and recall—were other centerpieces of the Progressive agenda. Reformers sought to stamp out (or at least regulate) child labor and minimize the burdens that working women carried. This was particularly true for working mothers, who were charged with raising the next generation and instilling their children with Christian morals and American values, even while they toiled long hours in unforgiving wage labor. The Progressives wanted to break up the monopolistic companies that threatened to make a mockery of the free-market principles that were supposed to undergird American capitalism. They sought to ensure safe food, drink, and medicine for all Americans. And they wanted to incorporate the latest scientific and pedagogical advances into the public school system, to better educate their children.
These were, by and large, good intentions. In many cases, the Progressives were successful. Local and state-level democratic reforms were instituted all over the country. Women did get the vote. Alcohol was outlawed. Child and female labor were regulated. The educational system was revamped. Congress passed laws to regulate the manufacture of food and medicine. Some of the largest monopolistic trusts were taken to court and broken up.
But not all of these Progressive victories brought the social improvements that Progressives hoped for and expected, and even those reforms that did succeed yielded unexpected and sometimes disastrous results. Prohibition was an unmitigated failure. Most immigrants were not uplifted but rather simply banned from entering the country. Many monopolies stayed in business. Many workers still labored in brutal conditions for terrible pay. Some of the democratic reforms backfired.
Why did this happen, when the Progressive movement had enjoyed such a popular groundswell of support? By the second decade of the twentieth century, the movement had won the support of both Democrats and Republicans—along with its own Progressive Party, and even fringe parties like the Socialists—for many (if not all) aspects of the Progressive cause. (In the 1912 elections, all three major candidates—Republican William Howard Taft, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and "Bull Moose" Teddy Roosevelt—could be fairly considered Progressives.) Progressivism seemed to embrace a wide range of social improvements that appealed to a broad cross-section of the American electorate. Progressivism promised substantive remedies and offered an attractive alternative to both the stagnation of status-quo conservatism and the extremes of radicalism. But in this very moderation lay considerable problems and paradoxes for the Progressive cause. Progressives wanted to curb the influences of wealth and power while keeping the larger social structure intact. They wanted to bolster capitalism by eradicating monopolies, to revive the free-market competitive conditions that economist Adam Smith had originally theorized as necessary to liberty and prosperity. But, in modern practice, that very capitalist system ensured that competition for profits would continue to prompt both legitimate and illicit business practices, creating a mixture of innovation and exploitation that required constant regulation in order to maintain a level playing field for entrepreneurs. In the American capitalist economy, wealth would continue to exert its influence over local, state, and federal government, thus necessitating continuously innovative reforms in order to guarantee the public as much of a democratic process as possible. Progressives worked to make the world a better place, but recoiled from basic challenges to the existing social order; in this moderation lay the roots of both their successes and failures.
Progressivism was also plagued with internal contradictions and prejudices. Progressives sought to uplift struggling new European immigrants, but often wound up patronizing the new arrivals or trying to assimilate forcibly them into a rigid white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant notion of "American" identity. Progressives worked to better the condition of the poor, but many were virulent racists who reinforced a violent system of white supremacy that oppressed African-Americans. Progressives supported democratic reforms, but many acquiesced to the egregious civil liberties violations of the government's First World War-era Espionage and Sedition Acts, and some also supported the government repression of all dissidents and radical labor unionists. Progressives fought for female suffrage, but many espoused a separatist conception of female identity that defined women as inherently and biologically unequal to men; females were supposedly more ethical but weaker, more "pure" but less sexual. Each of these contradictions plagued the Progressive movement and, in the end, contributed to its downfall. They also haunted its legacy and contributed to the many unintended consequences of Progressive achievements.