Study Guide

Progressive Era Politics Introduction

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Progressive Era Politics Introduction

You've heard the saying "judge a man by his actions, not his words." Well, the same goes for historical movements.

The Progressive Era refers to the big political trends and ideologies of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, and the group of old white dudes with mustaches that we collectively refer to as the Progressive Presidents that put these actual policies in place. That's Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, for you nosy types. 

We know policies sound more boring than a box of rocks, but they're slightly more important than rocks. They did stuff like create the American income tax system as we know it and give government a role in child welfare. 

See, it seemed a triumphant moment when the United States catapulted to the top of the world's industrial producers by the end of the 19th century. The bitter legacy of the Civil War seemed to have subsided—for whites, at least—as the country got down to the business of technological advancement, manufacturing efficiency, transportation revolution, and wealth creation.

But many Americans fell behind as the nation raced toward the future. The poor seemed to be growing in number and forming a distinct urban underclass, crammed into slums and with little hope of advancement. At the same time, industrial titans amassed great fortunes unprecedented in American history, and the gulf between "haves" and "have nots" had never seemed as wide.

Predictable resentments on the part of the poor against the rich exploded into raw class antagonism with the revelation of acts of corruption and shady dealings on the part of some businessmen. Strikes often ended in violence, and the specter of all-out class warfare loomed ominously over the country. Even as the United States surged toward a new century of industrial strength and dynamism, it seemed that the nation faced a grave danger of coming apart at the seams. 

This was the world that the Progressives sought to reform. With a vested faith in their Christian principles and in the benefits of modernity, expertise, and technological advancement, the Progressives campaigned for a series of reforms they believed would stave off social revolution by allowing social progress for most citizens.

But this is where we get to one of the most important debates of Progressive history, because all these new laws and policies and commissions and bureaus added up to a massive increase in the size of government. And unless you've been living under a rock with no internet connection, you know we're still arguing about the size of government to this very day. 

But compared to the Progressive Era, we're really arguing about big government versus bigger government. By looking at the effects of Progressive Era policies in the past, maybe you can start to make up your own mind about how big government should be. 

Like creamy vs. crunchy peanut butter, it's one of those things everyone has to have an opinion about.

What is Progressive Era Politics About and Why Should I Care?

The history of the Progressive Era touches on central themes in American history: the power of the state, the size and influence of corporations, economic regulation and free market capitalism, working conditions and the quality of life for industrial workers, and the distribution of wealth. 

The political corruption and corporate power that characterized the post-Civil War period reached such a level by 1900 that many citizens felt that core American values were threatened.

The cherished tenets of the modern world's first republic—individualism, equal opportunity, meritocracy, and republican government itself—seemed under attack. Urban political machines used bribery and patronage to maintain an anti-democratic chokehold on power in municipalities across the country. Some industrial tycoons learned they could amass unprecedented profits not only through innovation and entrepreneurship, but also through monopolization and exploitation of workers.

In short, both democracy and free-market capitalism seemed, to many, to be imperiled by an epidemic of corruption, in which powerful special interests exploited their positions of influence in government and business to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority of the American people.

The Progressive Era was the first period in American history when more workers labored in factories than on farms. The country had never before led the world in manufacturing and there had been no such thing as a billion-dollar business before U.S. Steel was capitalized in 1901.

The country was wholly unprepared for the rapidity or the ramifications of its own economic and industrial growth. Average citizens quickly reacted against what many saw as the unjust influence of the wealthy and powerful on their lives, and they demanded government intervention on their behalf.

But by 1900, Americans had already seen prior reform movements—from the National Labor Union to the Populist Party—fail for lack of organization and support, or because they were co-opted by mainstream politicians. 

Progressives were determined to do something to right the wrongs that plagued their society, and they achieved more success than any of their reformist predecessors. Yet their movement was an extremely complicated endeavor involving a diverse cross-section of people, and Progressivism ultimately—and predictably—left a mixed record of success and failure in its wake. This varied legacy should provide a telling history lesson for all future proponents of reform and progress.

Progressive Era Politics Resources


Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace (1941)
This fictional account of three generations of Slovak immigrant workers in the steel mills of Braddock, Pennsylvania is based on the actual life experiences of author Thomas Bell (originally Belejcak).

Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State (1991)
Dawley offers a comprehensive synthesis of Progressive history to date, and makes a compelling case for the broader historical significance of the period.

Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955)
Hofstadter, a brilliant synthesis historian who convincingly weaves together several secondary studies into compelling arguments, suggests psychological explanations for the Progressive movement. He attributes the middle-class support for reform to a widespread sense of status anxiety amidst the social upheaval of the industrial age.

Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (1963)
Kolko offers a new interpretation of Progressivism which focuses on the manner in which the movement was compromised or even co-opted by business interests, rather than the previous discussions of who constituted Progressives and what motivated them.

George Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt (1958)
Mowry was one of the first historians to challenge the glowing consensus on Progressivism (crafted by many Progressive historians) as a grass roots movement against special interests. He identifies some of the elitism behind certain Progressive groups, and uses this background to mount an explanation of their motives.

R. H. Wiebe, The Search for Order (1967)
Wiebe strikes a more moderate position between the old Progressive historians and the controversial revisions of Hofstadter and Mowry. He argues that middle-class reformers sought to impose order on a society they felt had become fragmented by rapid growth and enormous change.


Various Artists, 1915: "They'd Sooner Sleep on Thistles" (2007)
This collection from the Archeophone series features sweet love tunes like Cambell and Burr's "Close to My Heart," as well as songs such as "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" and "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers" that hint at growing concern over America's role in the war escalating in Europe.

Various Artists, 1916: "The Country Found Them Ready" (2005)
With tracks from John McCormack, Anna Chandler, and Billy Murray, this collection of hits from 1916 provides a terrific aural landscape to contemplate the events leading up to America's entrance into World War I, a moment that marked the beginning of the end of the Progressive era.

Various Artists, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891–1922 (2005)
This collection, featuring pioneering African-American recording artists and musicians (as well as Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition Speech), showcases the distinctive styles of post-Civil War music and offers a powerful perspective on the early recording industry.

Various Artists, 1908: "Take Me Out with the Crowd" (2004)
Another fabulous selection from the Archeophone series, "Take Me Out with the Crowd" offers a light-hearted cross-section of tunes in honor of a time when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, the London Olympics captivated the nation, and Henry Ford introduced the Model T.

Various Artists, Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot (2003)
This compilation offers both entertaining ditties and sobering reminders of the harsh racism that characterized early-20th-century America, such as white comic Arthur Collins' performance of "All Coons Look Alike to Me" and Polk Miller's "Watermelon Party."


The President and the Naturalist
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, c. 1906.

Large Man, Not Quite Large Enough Animal
Philippine Governor General (and future president) William Howard Taft seated on water buffalo, c. 1904.

Children Laboring in the South
A child laboring as a shrimp and oyster worker, Biloxi, Miss. Photographer Lewis Hine, February 1911.

Black Workers in the Progressive Era
"Six Black workers in the Alexandria (Va.) Glass Factory." Lewis Hine, photographer. Photographic print, June 1911.

Teddy Takes the Progressive Party Stage
Theodore Roosevelt on the campaign trail in October 1912.

Fighting Bob
Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette, a Progressive leader, in April 1912 (shortly after his breakdown during the presidential campaign).

The Progressive Democrat
President Woodrow Wilson.

The Haggard and Defeated Progressive
A considerably more aged Woodrow Wilson after leaving office, on Armistice Day, 1921.

Ethnic Enclaves in Urban America
A photo of Mulberry Street, in the heart of the Italian immigrant community in New York City, in the early 1900s.

Movies & TV

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in this film adaptation of Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel about greed and faith during the early years of American oil prospecting.

New York: A Documentary Film (1999)
PBS and filmmaker Ric Burns present everything you ever thought you needed to know (plus so much more) about one of the oldest cities in America. The documentary carefully weaves specific historical events, including Progressive reform movements, that occurred within the metropolis with larger national and global developments.

Backstairs at the White House (1979)
This television miniseries, released in 1979, explores eight different presidential administrations, including the Taft and Wilson administrations of the Progressive era, through the lives of White House servants, maids, cooks, and doormen.

Teddy the Rough Rider (1940)
This short biographical film, which follows the political career of Theodore Roosevelt, is part of the Ronald Reagan Signature Collection featuring highlights from Reagan's career as a Hollywood star. Although this particular selection showcases actor Sidney Blackmer (as Teddy) rather than The Gipper, it's an entertaining nugget of historical drama. Reagan appears in a supporting role.

The Sisters (1938)
Hollywood starlet Bette Davis stars as one of three high-society sisters who attend a celebration after the inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt. TR's long term in office, at the height of the Progressive era, serves as the backdrop for three stories of love and loss.


Studying the Progressives
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History offers a number of links to primary sources on the Progressive Era.

Progressive-Era Factories
The Library of Congress has downloadable videos from inside the Westinghouse companies in 1904.

Conservation in America
The Library of Congress also offers extensive primary sources in the evolution of the Conservation Movement in the United States.

Life in New York, New York
"On the Lower East Side" provides digitized transcripts of primary sources that describe life in lower Manhattan, New York, at the turn of the 20th century.

Historical Documents

Progressive Concerns
The Progressive Party platform, November 5th, 1912.

Populist Issues
By comparison, the Populist (National People's Party) Platform, July 4th, 1892.

New Nationalism
Teddy Roosevelt's speech on the "New Nationalism," August 31st, 1910.

Wilson Begins
Woodrow Wilson's first inaugural address, March 4th, 1913.

Wilson Continues
Woodrow Wilson's second inaugural address, March 5th, 1917.

The Conservation Movement Gains Momentum
An address from Mr. J.N. Teal, Chairman of the Oregon Conservation Commission, who spoke at the 1909 National Conservation Congress.

Women in the Workplace
The Muller v. Oregon Supreme Court opinion of 1908, which upheld a ten-hour work law for women in the state of Oregon.

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