Progressivism. It’s a term that gets tossed around a lot these days. But what exactly does it mean in the first place? Who were the Progressives, and when was the Progressive era? Are Progressives today the same as those in the past? We’ll work to answer these questions and more as we provide an overview and definition of progressivism.
When Was the Progressive Era?
The Progressive era was a period spanning from 1890 to 1920, which marked a reaction to rapid industrialization in America and the social and political problems that came with it.
It was known as a period of rapid social change characterized by broad social reform. The Progressive movement was largely concerned with improving equality.
Where Did Progressivism Come From?
Early progressivism emerged as a kickback to the idea of social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was a loosely organized ideological stance put forth by sociologist Herbert Spencer and others in the late 1800s who philosophically extended Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection into the realm of human social behavior to justify a liberal economic policy of minimal government interference, known as laissez-faire politics.
At the center of social Darwinism was the idea that anybody holding a position of power in society innately deserved to be occupying this position because of a inherent natural superiority, much as Darwin argued that certain plants and animals are more likely to survive and reproduce due to a superior genetic make up. Although Darwin generally did not comment on any social dimensions of his theory, this line of thought has since been used to justify eugenics, racism, unrestrained capitalism, and social inequality.
By contrast, the Progressives argued that social problems could be solved by providing high-quality social initiatives such as good education, healthy workplace environments, and safe places to live. They took an optimistic standpoint on government and believed in the potential to use the government as a tool to create positive change and progress.
Who Were the Progressives?
Most progressives were college educated middle-class city dwellers.
Famous progressives who made a name for themselves during the Progressive era include many notable authors and social activists such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Grace Abbott, Helen Keller, Jacob Riis, and Jane Addams. In its heyday, the Progressive movement even found a direct voice in government through presidents such as William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Progressive leaders and thinkers engaged themselves with encouraging everybody to vote, exposing the underbelly of bridled laissez-faire politics and corporate greed, working to reduce prejudice, and encouraging thoughtful debate and discussion on democracy and its potential.
What Did the Progressives Accomplish?
Throughout the course of this time period, notable efforts were made to reduce corruption in positions of power and establish antitrust laws to limit the power of corporate monopolies. The Progressive era marked the emergence of limited civil rights, the women’s suffrage movement, and also prohibition, which many Progressives believed would reduce the economic clout of powerful salon owners. The Progressive era also witnessed the birth of modernization, where science and technological innovation were encouraged to replace outdated modes of thought.
However, there were some areas where the Progressive movement fell short of its lofty and ambitious ideals. Some initiatives, such as the attempt to curtail child labor, fell flat. Meanwhile despite being firmly rooted in principles of equality, the Progressive movement did little to help the plight of African or Native Americans.
The movement finally skidded to a halt at the outset of World War I, where the public became disenchanted with the clash between the real horrors of war in contrast to the idealistic rhetoric of the progressive President Woodrow Wilson.
What Was It Like to Live in the Progressive Era?
Despite birthing a number of forward thinking initiatives that today we often take for granted, the Progressive movement was a very tumultuous time.
From the late 1800s to 1900s, rapid industrialization caused the American population to almost double in a very short period of time. Meanwhile immigration increased, as did urbanization, as people began to flock from rural environments in search of work in the large-scale factories springing up everywhere in cities across the country.
As technology increased at a unprecedented rate as did economic growth. The Progressive era marked the birth of large scale corporations that exercised a previously unprecedented amount of power. Economic growth was not evenly dispersed and a small percentage of people profited exponentially while many others fell into a state of economic disparity.
Therefore, rapid urbanization lead to unprecedented levels of poverty and misery. Progressives began to notice the effects of unchallenged power and corruption and to challenge the basis of these changes.
One of the greatest legacies of the Progressive movement was to invent institutions and ways for citizens to confront and challenge government and other popular institutions. This includes the establishment of many populist groups and associations designed to protect the rights of the everyday citizens such as labor and trade unions, civic associations, and religious groups that we might easily take for granted today.
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