Who were the Progressives? Reformers. Middle-class citizens intent on bettering society and saving capitalism in America by curbing the worst abuses of the capitalist system. Bourgeois whites terrified of a workers' revolution and determined to thwart it by pushing through some nominal reforms. Businessmen seeking to avoid more stringent reforms by supporting watered-down federal laws. Women fighting for the right to vote. Religious women struggling to stamp out alcohol as one of society's greatest vices. Privileged idealists hoping and trying to uplift the poor.
Depending on whom you ask, any (or all) of these answers qualify. The Progressives were a loosely defined group from the start, so it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to offer a single, definitive explanation of who they all were and what they all stood for. They did not compose a single political party; they comprised several. They pushed for various democratic and workplace reforms, but often discriminated against minorities or simply patronized them as child-like dependents.
Historians' conceptions of who the Progressives were and what they were trying to accomplish have changed over time. Because several prominent historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, and Vernon L. Parrington were part of the Progressive movement, the cause was portrayed as a public outcry against corrupt politicians, greedy monopolists, and "special interests" well into the 1950s. In other words, these historians believed in the Progressive movement, casting their struggle in admirable terms so that it would be remembered for posterity as a popular effort to dismantle the unfair business practices and inordinate wealth of the so-called "special interests."
In 1951, historian George Mowry challenged the preexisting consensus by describing Progressives in California as a small group of wealthy elites. Mowry argued that these Progressives assumed a leadership role in order to reclaim their social status, which had been usurped, or at least threatened, by industrialization's newly wealthy capitalists. Four years later, Richard Hofstadter echoed this argument and expanded Mowry's interpretation to apply to Progressives across the country. Hofstadter contended that Progressive Era elites mounted a "status revolution" through Progressivism as a means of regaining their psychological confidence and their respected stature in the community. Subsequent scholars such as Samuel Hays and Robert Wiebe moderated these claims by describing Progressivism as a broad framework of bourgeois professionals who sought to improve and reorder their society and government. This middle class stood to benefit from a stable society and a prosperous economy, one that did not suffer from the tumult of worker strikes, the corruption of urban political machines, or the financial panics and crises of an unregulated marketplace undergoing rapid industrialization. Yet many—perhaps most of them—were well-intentioned people who tried to make the government more accountable to the people, sought to improve working conditions for immigrants and other poor people (especially women and child workers), and were motivated by a Christian spirit of charity and uplift.
The Progressives nonetheless remain a subject of ongoing historical debate and controversy. They coincided with the Jim Crow era, one of the lowest points in American race relations history, when thousands of black people were lynched across the South and Midwest. This was not simply a coincidence; many Progressives viewed their mission as a quest to uplift the white race and considered blacks biologically inferior. Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous Progressive presidents, reintroduced segregation among federal employees. And the infamous immigration restriction movement reemerged during the Progressive era, when many reformers championed it as the only means of preventing a "mongrel" race of poor, illiterate immigrants from reproducing at such a rate that they took over the "true" American population of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (or WASPs).
The Progressive mission failed spectacularly after World War I, when the nation turned inward and rejected the long-term international involvement that President Wilson's League of Nations represented. Government suppression and persecution of radicals and dissenters during wartime undermined the democratic aspect of the Progressive image. The European nations' insistence on heavy reparations and continued control over colonial holdings and resources made a mockery of the Progressive ambition to "make the world safe for democracy." As the 1920s dawned, Progressivism seemed increasingly relegated to a bygone era of naiveté, with only a few of its most notorious reforms in place (namely, the unpopular and unsuccessful Prohibition period). Thus, the Progressive legacy is as complex a subject as the movement's composition. The topic is likely to remain contentious and there will probably be future rounds of historical revisionism as contemporary conditions change and cause historians to cast a new eye on the past.