Modern progressivism in America

Modern progressivism in America dates back into the end of the 19th century in the 1890s as the nation underwent massive changes with urbanization and an uptick in immigration. With an industrialized nation, burgeoning businesses in railroad and steel prospered. Before this period, the role of government was minimal in the life of the everyday citizen with no federal income tax levied and the absence of a large governing apparatus. However, with the growth of businesses into large trusts, partly credited to the laissez-faire culture, calls for government intervention grew. From investigative journalists and women’s rights activists to progressive politicians, the voices of the Progressive Era aimed to spread and create an expansive, interventionist agenda to enact democratic social change and bring the wants of the populace to the forefront, albeit with the use of a strong federal government. In this paper, the argument is very much in defense of Progressive thought which changed the role of government, both constitutionally and communally, and laid the groundwork for the further democratization of America.

Modern progressivism in America dates back into the end of the 19th century in the 1890s as the nation underwent massive changes with urbanization and an uptick in immigration. With an industrialized nation, burgeoning businesses in railroad and steel prospered. Before this period, the role of government was minimal in the life of the everyday citizen with no federal income tax levied and the absence of a large governing apparatus. However, with the growth of businesses into large trusts, partly credited to the laissez-faire culture, calls for government intervention grew. From investigative journalists and women’s rights activists to progressive politicians, the voices of the Progressive Era aimed to spread and create an expansive, interventionist agenda to enact democratic social change and bring the wants of the populace to the forefront, albeit with the use of a strong federal government.

In this paper, the argument is very much in defense of Progressive thought which changed the role of government, both constitutionally and communally, and laid the groundwork for the further democratization of America. A precarious development during the second half of the 1890s was the volatile growth of big business. The giant corporate names – J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, James J. Hill among others – were faces of the “Gilded Age” who had amassed massive wealth and influence behind large monopolies on rail, oil, and steel. The exploitation of children and workers at large, especially in urban areas, coupled with the worries of non-competitive small business owners brought about loud cries for reform. A rather menacing pattern was developing in which the opportunity of smaller entrepreneurs was put at risk. Perhaps, the roots of Progressivism in this era stemmed from the idea of social gospel – the idea that Christian Protestantism needed to be more sensible and aware to the wants of the poor in society.

William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1896 was an avid religious persona and an influential political figure of the time championed himself as the voice of ‘the Commoner.’ He launched a vigorous populist attack on the gold standard and large businesses during his campaign speeches. In a fiery oratory assault during a speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Bryan pits the worker against his proprietor using religious symbolism:“Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold. 

Bryan’s perfectly conveys the disposition and worry of the average American during the industrial era and the religious imagery is very much present in this excerpt. The idea of social gospel seeps through and we see one of the many iterations of Progressive thought of this time: one that involves religion and the moral responsibility one holds of caring for the struggling masses. The essence of social gospel, or some parts of it at least, spilled over into what eventually became Progressivism as advocated by reformers such as Teddy Roosevelt, Jane Addams, and ‘muckraking’ journalists. The advent of inexpensive printing in America made possible the publishing of myriad journals, issues, and monthly magazines that dealt with diverse issues. In 1899, there were more than 1,600 daily newspapers published in the United States.  The rise in reform ideals were credited to periodicals such as McClure’s Magazine which featured the works of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens among others. Tarbell’s hard-hitting exposé of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company informed everyday Americans on the ruthlessness of big oil at the expense of the laborer. Furthermore, these ‘muckrakers’ as they were infamously called, ventured out into the cities to experience the first-hand effects of urbanization and corruption in municipal politics. Under the title ‘The Shame of the Cities,’ journalist Lincoln Steffens uncovered the extensive and corrupt bond between businesses allies and city officials.

Through his travels of American cities such as New York and Minneapolis, his investigative journalism for McClure’s Magazine served the American people by bringing light to the politicians they elect into local government and their inexplicable ties to the moneyed business man:“We [the people] are responsible, not our leaders, since we follow them. We let them divert our loyalty from the United States to some “party”; we let them boss the party and turn our municipal democracies into autocracies and our republican nation into a plutocracy.” 

Steffens’ focus on the people and their culpability of continuously electing and following the faulty business man turned politician –a savior of ‘sort’ that resembles everything that the average American fails to be but desperately craves; an epitome of stature and influence.  He harkens on the idea of democratizing the urbanized cities of the 1900s but at the same time echoing a mild form of an enforced Ascriptive Americanism by big business and the fragility of American politics to corruption. In many ways, the exposés of muckraking reporters confirmed the fears of the American public. But, they also served as a smorgasbord of sort for radical political change during the Progressive Era. The structures of local politics, for example, changed drastically as a result. The governing bodies of traditional mayoral cities like Galveston, Texas were replaced by commissions as a response to the public’s wants for greater efficiency and participation in their local politics. Moreover, the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson built upon the reform sentiment created by such Progressive thought to push for a federally active government and a drastic alteration to the United States Constitution for the advancement of the people’s well-being.

Teddy Roosevelt’s rise to the American presidency was unfortunate, coming unexpectedly with the assassination of his more conservative predecessor and running mate William McKinley. Roosevelt’s aggressive regulatory agenda was a step away from the traditional Republican. His energetic presidency served to further consumer protections, robust regulation and more importantly ‘trust-busting’ for which the president became popular for. His ‘New Nationalism’ called for the greater use of the federal government to keep businesses in check:“We must have complete and effective publicity of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public.”   Roosevelt’s New Nationalism brought a series of acts that fostered accountability to boost consumer confidence and safety. The Hepburn Act and The Interstate Commerce Commission, for example, served to monitor the rates and bargaining chips of railroad companies. Furthermore his ‘Square Deal’ promised fair play for the consumer regarding food and drug goods. Roosevelt’s ideas were largely drawn from intellectuals like Herbert Croly, who resolutely advocated interventionist Hamiltonian means of big government to increase public welfare. 

Croly’s critique of American democracy is clear as he pushes the case for equal opportunity; a task which according to him “American democracy has never sought consciously to achieve.” This can easily be confused as a jab to all egalitarian institutions, however, the point that Croly emphasizes the most than any other in his works is the ineffectiveness of the American democratic system – the scheme that ran the nation before the era of Progressive reform. Thus, his critique is indirectly a call to change the American commitment to constitutional politics of limited government that dictated the country in the 19th century to further democratize the populace and their welfare. His calls for a thorough reconstruction of American constitutionalism is perfectly stated in The Promise of American Life:“Under [this] definition, on the other hand, popular government is to make itself expressly and permanently responsible for the amelioration of the individual and society; and a necessary consequence of this responsibility is an adequate organization and a reconstructive policy.”  

Such “reconstructive policy” was subject to taunts of socialism and collectivism by the opposition but nonetheless it led to significant amendments to the U.S. Constitution that furthered the cause of American democracy and the will of the masses.  The alteration of the Constitution in the Progressive Era was a massive win for reformists and an important tool in circumventing conservative roadblocks to further their democratic cause. The passage of the 16th and 17th amendments was radical in its own term; the former granting the federal government the right to levy an income tax whereas the latter established a direct election of senators by the residents of the states. These changes, particularly the direct election of senators, were the result of a transformational change in American democracy as arduously advocated by progressives. Before the 17th amendment, senators were elected by state legislatures which posed a threat to the inherent ideals of democracy to some. Public support was electrified for the amendment largely due to accounts that labeled senators as ‘out of touch’ with the public and in the pockets of industrialists. Philosopher and educational activist John Dewey was one of the most influential voices on the importance of direct democracy to the ideals of American governance. In his publication Democratic Ethics, he makes a passionate argument for the vote of the public:“The majority have the right to ‘rule’ because their majority is not the mere sign of a surplus in numbers, but is the manifestation of the purpose of the social organism. Were this not so, every election would be followed by a civil war.” 

Dewey’s ideas of the democratization of society would become broadly popular in the 1910s, largely credited to the progressive sentiment that had driven voters to elect largely liberal, in contemporary terms, presidents into the White House. Candidates from both major parties were pressured to elect progressive tickets. After Roosevelt, the Presidential Election of 1912 brought a new reformist figure into the national stage, this time from the other major party.  Woodrow Wilson’s elevation to the presidency came at the height of the Progressive movement. The influence of progressive thought was on full display in the Election of 1912 which included a bevy of contenders, most who heavily followed the country’s spirits on reform. Theodore Roosevelt had become a fiery bull-moose progressive, running as an independent on the platform of a strong presidency. Acting as a spoiler candidate, Roosevelt helped Wilson cruise to an electoral landslide. Wilson’s platform was coined “The New Freedom” and built upon Roosevelt’s regulatory policies while adding his own social welfare programs to the platform.  Wilson’s reasoning for social reforms were partly because of a changed nation and according to him, an obligation to the people that elected him. Such reasoning is the idea behind the principal theme of this paper, that progressivism in this era led to the direct broadening of the people’s interests. In one of Wilson’s New Freedom texts, he echoes this attitude:“I will submit to the majority, because I have been trained to do it, -thought I may sometimes have my private opinion even of the majority. I do not care how wise, how patriotic, the trustees may be, I have never heard of any group of men in whose hands I am willing to lodge the liberties of America in trust.”  

Wilson emphasizes his trust and responsibility as the President of the People. His tone is also different than that of Teddy Roosevelt as he takes a slightly precautious road of government intervention, yet still stressing on the idea of reconstructing the federal apparatus due to changing times. This sentiment was key to a Wilson victory in 1912 and the start of a larger shift in the Democratic Party that would follow during the Great Depression and the decades that would follow. Scholars often associate the Progressive Era as a massive response to the increase in big business. However, a storied and landmark aspect of the period included sweeping legislation for women’s and children’s rights. Throughout the industrial revolution, minors, specifically the children of immigrants, provided cheap and effective labor for businesses. Such exploitation raised eyebrows of feminists like Jane Addams who vigorously fought for an eight-hour workday, access to education for women, and most importantly suffrage for women: an idea that was a mere dream twenty years before the passage of the 19th amendment.  In a suffrage speech, Addams frivolously paints a world in which men had to demand the right to vote and stresses the important of an educated women electorate to fulfill American democracy:“Our educational needs are too great and serious to run any such risk. Democratic government itself is perilous unless the electorate is educated; our industries are suffering for lack of skilled workmen; more than half a million immigrants a year must be taught the underlying principles of republican government. Can we, the responsible voters, take the risk of wasting our taxes by extending the vote to those who have always been so ready to lose their heads?” 

In the excerpt above, Addams directly appeals to working voters for the election of progressive candidates that will lead to the educational advancement of women. In this climate of social concern, Addams also pioneered several settlement reform houses such as the Hull House to combat the social problems that plagued the American cities. She pushed Congress to create federal child labor laws, the first of which was the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which prevented the shipment of goods made in factories and mines that employed children.  The creation of such laws had massive consequences to the culture of ‘business-first’ policies that were seen post-Reconstruction. Furthermore, the fundamental questioning of big business and the consideration of for workers and women and children laid the basis for politicians appealing to the every-day working class voter. The most common argument against the advocacy of the Progressive Era was that the policies were conducive to a toxic form of elitism. After all, the myriad voices of the period were inherently better off than the average ‘commoner’ they so staunchly fought for. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was the utmost representation of the American higher class and stature. The class that he wanted to fight for were the masses below, the poor that toiled with hope and disdain.

While it is very much true that Progressive influencers of the era had almost identical backgrounds as their rivals and opposing American counterparts, looking at Progressivism in such a negative lens is counterproductive to looking at large American political trends. The influence of the era is long-term as it significantly shifted the platforms of the two major competing parties and the distinction it created served as the primary basis through which candidates differentiated themselves. Do we not still hear calls for newer versions of massive governmental programs dubbed in optimistic phrasing such as ‘The Great Society’ or ‘The Green New Deal?’ Such political tradition traces itself back to the Progressive Era, the effect of which on democratizing the populace cannot be understated. The candidates focus on the people who elect them further increased after this period. The traditional separation of powers and the notion of republican government as mentioned in James Madison’s Federalist Papers where both challenged and even put aside at times. While it’s impossible to describe the Progressive Era in one unitary framework, the great implication of its broad appeal to American politics is almost undebatable. The idea that this era – bolstered by an increased expenditure in the welfare of the other – radically changed our constitutional framework and further enabled the political participation of the public secures its overwhelming impact of broadening democracy.

The Progressive Era democratized a nation built upon the idea of limited government through a strong federal bureaucracy headed by an active executive branch. In this process, real social inequalities were addressed. Child labor continued to persevere, but at a much-decreased level. Labor unions gained legitimacy, a radical achievement considering the idea raised several eye-brows across the aisle in the 1890s.  The nation fundamentally saw a change in reducing social injustices as opposed to tolerating them. The advent of power presidencies in Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson transformed the power of the Commander-In-Chief, laying groundwork for FDR’s New Deal and the establishment of the welfare state. However, racism persisted largely in the country. The suppression of the black vote with lynching, segregation, and intimidation continued profoundly in the South. However, the country’s change of attitudes on taking care of the helpless paved way for politicians to be open to the idea of civil rights. The democratization of voting, especially with women’s suffrage, made it possible for the nation to move forward with progressive thought as marginalized Americans hoped that the equal opportunity to life, liberty, and pursuit would be guaranteed to everyone at the expense of an aggressive centralized federal government.