progressivism, in U.S. history, a broadly based reform movement that reached its height early in the 20th cent. In the decades following the Civil War rapid industrialization transformed the United States. A national rail system was completed; agriculture was mechanized; the factory system spread; and cities grew rapidly in size and number. The progressive movement arose as a response to the vast changes brought by industrialization.
Progressivism began in the cities, where the problems were most acute. Dedicated men and women of middle-class background moved into the slums and established settlement houses. Led by women such as Jane Addams in Chicago and Lillian Wald in New York City, they hoped to improve slum life through programs of self-help. Other reformers attacked corruption in municipal government; they formed nonpartisan leagues to defeat the entrenched bosses and their political machines. During the 1890s, reform mayors such as Hazen Pingree in Detroit, Samuel Jones in Toledo, and James Phelan in San Francisco were elected on platforms promising municipal ownership of public utilities, improved city services, and tenement housing codes. Urban reformers were often frustrated, however, because state legislatures, controlled by railroads and large corporations, obstructed the municipal struggle for home rule.
Reform on the State Level
Reformers turned to state politics, where progressivism reached its fullest expression. Robert La Follette's term as governor of Wisconsin (1901–6) was a model of progressive reform. He won from the legislature an antilobbying law directed at large corporations, a state banking control measure, and a direct primary law. Taxes on corporations were raised, a railroad commission was created to set rates, and a conservation commission was set up.
In state after state, progressives advocated a wide range of political, economic, and social reforms. They urged adoption of the secret ballot, direct primaries, the initiative, the referendum, and direct election of senators. They struck at the excessive power of corporate wealth by regulating railroads and utilities, restricting lobbying, limiting monopoly, and raising corporate taxes. To correct the worst features of industrialization, progressives advocated worker's compensation, child labor laws, minimum wage and maximum hours legislation (especially for women workers), and widows' pensions.
Reform on the National Level
As progressives gained strength on the state level, they turned to national politics. Little headway was made, however, since conservatives controlled the Senate. Some progress was made against the trusts during Theodore Roosevelt's administration, and Congress passed two bills regulating railroads, the Elkins Act (1903) and the Hepburn Act (1906). The exposés of business practices by the muckrakers aroused public opinion. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed (1906) to eliminate the worst practices of the food industry. Although Roosevelt supported the progressive drive for regulation of corporations and for social-welfare legislation, Congress remained adamant.
Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, was a determined opponent of progressive reform; in 1911 progressives, whose ranks had been swelled by middle-class professionals, small businessmen, and farmers, formed the National Progressive Republican League to prevent Taft's renomination. When this failed, progressives united in a third party (see Progressive party) and nominated (1912) Roosevelt for President. Although Roosevelt was defeated, the new President, Woodrow Wilson, sponsored many progressive measures. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 reformed the currency system; the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act (1914) extended government regulation of big business; and the Keating-Owen Act (1916) restricted child labor.
America's entry into World War I diverted the energy of reformers, and after the war progressivism virtually died. Its legacy endured, however, in the political reforms that it achieved and the acceptance that it won for the principle of government regulation of business. Most of the social-welfare measures advocated by progressives had to await the New Deal years for passage.
See G. E. Mowry, The California Progressives (1951, repr. 1963); A. S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era (1954, repr. 1963); S. P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism (1957); R. B. Nye, Midwestern Progressive Politics, 1870–1958 (1959, repr. 1965); R. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955, repr. 1963) and The Progressive Movement, 1900–1915 (1963, repr. 1986); G. Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (1963, repr. 1967); D. A. Shannon, ed., Progressivism and Postwar Disillusionment, 1898–1928 (1966); A. Davis, Spearheads for Reform (1967); R. H. Wiebee, The Search for Order (1967); D. Kennedy, ed., Progressivism (1971); B. M. Stave, ed., Urban Bosses, Machines, and Progressive Reformers (1971); J. D. Bunker, Urban Liberals and Progressive Reform (1973); M. McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (2003).