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The History and Causes of Progressive Movement


The Progressive movement or the Progressive era was a response to economic, social, and political issues created by Industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and political corruption. In the current essay, the central aim is to address the historical period in terms of its major issues and reforms. Concerning the outline of the paper, it is divided into three main parts. The first one is devoted to a brief presentation of the Progressive era. The following sections cover issues related to muckrakers, political, economic, and social reforms, and the Progressive legislation of Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson. The last section includes general findings and a conclusion.

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A Brief on the Progressive Era

The Progressive era, or as it is also called the Progressive movement, refers to a period of the United States’ history from the 1890s to the 1920s. The time is characterized by numerous social and political changes that aimed to achieve progress and improve people’s lives. The primary goal of progressives was to fight corruption in the government, and demand that elites defended the interests of citizens by solving political, economic, and social issues from Industrialization. Progressives were mostly middle-class reformers, who “at the municipal, state, and national levels addressed the Gilded Age problems,” a period of fast economic growth in the Northern and the Western United States (The Progressive Era). The rapid development of the States and existing corruption in the elites had not solved economic inequalities, environmental issues, poor working conditions, and violated women’s and children’s rights. Reformers aimed at improving and changing the current state of affairs in the above-mentioned spheres.

As Leonard states, reforms and progressives were genuinely different and never shared a common name. Some referred to this time as “liberal reforms” and “democratic liberalism,” others – as “democratic collectivism” and “welfare state liberalism” (111). The Progressive era was represented by numerous different actors each fighting for different reforms and rights, including “nativists, Social Gospelers, alcohol prohibitionists, suffragists, muckrakers, secret balloters, birth controllers, trust busters, eugenicists, social surveyors, charity reformers, settlement house workers, pacifists, city-beautiful advocates, factory inspectors, social purifiers, child-welfare advocates, and conservationists” (Leonard 111). However, all these groups with different aims shared common goals that were supposed to change the current state of affairs in the country management. First of all, they demanded that the government took responsibility for its citizens and acted on their behalf. Secondly, according to reformers, elites were to stop protecting wealthy interests that belonged to a small number of people. Thirdly, the state needed to be endowed with certain extended powers to improve ordinary people’s lives. Fourthly and lastly, the government was to become less corrupt and more proactive. These demands united different progressives by creating a definite collective agenda.

Muckrakers and Their Influence

Muckrakers are one of the main symbols of the Progressive era. This term refers to a group of investigative journalists and writers. They aimed at exposing big businesses and governmental elites to achieve social, economic, and political changes in American society. The term ‘muckraker’ was invented and employed by President Theodor Roosevelt in his speech “The Man with the Muck Rake” in 1906 (Who Were the Muckrakers). He referred to Christian allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come,” written by John Bunyan in 1678, where a man raked muck to earn a living, instead of “raising his eyes to heaven” (Who Were the Muckrakers). Regardless of the fact that Roosevelt was one of the supporters of Progressive changes, he had a negative opinion on most of the muckrakers as they went too far, exposing the government and business elites.

Even though muckrakers were not seen as favorable, they succeeded in the desire to make changes by risking their lives. They wrote about terrible working conditions, corrupt governments, and wealthy business people between 1890 and the beginning of World War I. It is vital to present several most famous muckrakers and their investigations. One of the most influential figures is Jacob Riis, an immigrant from Denmark who worked for several prestigious newspapers, including the New York Evening Post. In his books of 1890 and 1892 “How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York” and “The Children of the Poor,” he demonstrated poor living conditions in the slums. Riis’s works brought specific improvements in “sanitary sewer construction and the implementation of garbage collection” (Who Were the Muckrakers). Nowadays, Riis is considered one of the most famous muckrakers.

Another vital person among muckrakers is Ida B. Wells, an investigative journalist. Her primary work, “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892-1893-1894” provided considerable evidence that lynchings of African American men did not happen as a result of them raping white women. Even though she had not achieved a big success in accepting Federal anti-lynching legislation, she raised awareness on the issue among American citizens and the government. John Spargo was another person who attracted public attention to important issues of the time. He brought to light the poor working conditions of child labor. His investigative report “The Bitter Cry of Children” was published in 1906, and became the most widely read and influential work revealing dangerous working conditions for children.

Political, Economic and Social Reforms

Political, economic, and social changes were the core of the Progressive era. First of all, as was mentioned above, making the national government more responsive and efficient was a significant goal of progressives. One of the most essential acts that expressed the aims was the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution that was accepted in 1913 (17th Amendment). It implied that two Senators from each state were to be chosen directly by citizens instead of by the state legislatures.

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Another essential reform at the national level was the acceptance of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It was an economic and political change in the U.S. that enabled Congress to impose an income tax. The Amendment addressed two significant problems that were the focus of progressives. Firstly, it established a stable revenue source for the national government. New financial opportunities meant that ordinary people’s lives could be improved more efficiently through funding and supporting programs. Secondly, the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment solved the problem of uncontrollably increasing private wealth.

Excessive alcohol use was an issue that gained public attention even before the Progressive era. However, no significant progress in solving the matter appeared before the creation of the Anti-Saloon League in 1893. Unlike its predecessors, the new organization had changed a tactic from persuading individuals to quit drinking to prohibiting alcohol in general. Anti-Saloon League received great support from the Protestant Church and the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (The Eighteenth Amendment: Prohibition). By 1917, two-thirds of the states had prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol products. Later the same year, Congress approved the Eighteenth Amendment accepted by all states. The act meant that the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol were completely banned in the country.

Another vital governmental or economic reform refers to the monopoly of big corporations or unregulated big business. It became clear that increased governmental regulation is required in order to control corporations and protect small companies and ordinary citizens from trusts’ and monopolies’ high prices, low quality products, and poor working conditions. Trust busting campaign was performed under the control of President Theodor Roosevelt, who directed numerous antitrust lawsuits. Two most famous cases were against the Northern Securities Company, a railroad combination, and against Standard Oil Company. However, regardless of the trust busting, Roosevelt stated that the government does not oppose trusts but “wish to make them serve public good” (Roosevelt and the Trusts). The above mentioned issues led to the creation of industry regulations and general business reform.

In order to control and enforce federal laws concerning domestic trade, The Department of Commerce and Labor was created. The most significant antitrust legislation, the Clayton Antitrust Act was enacted in 1914 under Woodrow Wilson’s presidency (Clayton Antitrust Act). The act’s primary purpose was to avoid price discrimination, tie-in contracts, holding companies, and interlocking directorates. Moreover, to ensure compliance with the new legislation Federal Trade Commission Act was adopted in 1914 (Federal Trade Commission Act). The document allowed the United States government to apply all available legal opportunities against unfair and illegal practices in the marketplace.

The Industrialization led to a massive issue of child labor and unsatisfactory working conditions. To address those problems, the National Child Labor Committee was created and coordinated the Progressive movement. The above mentioned muckrakers had also played a crucial role in raising awareness of the problem by publishing a number of journalistic investigations. Moreover, the Committee used for its campaign photographs by Lewis Hine that demonstrated how 8-years-old children were working in coal mines using dangerous machines (Contrera). Using different resources, reformers were able to establish the new legislation: by 1910, most of the states set a minimum working and maximum working hours. However, it should be mentioned that compulsory education did not play the last role in changing the current state of affairs.

Reformers aimed at improving working conditions for women by limiting how long they should work and bringing attention to dangerous conditions that affected women’s health. One of the cases considered in the Supreme Court in 1908 was a catalyst for the adoption of the law that limited women’s laundry workers were working hours to ten a day (Muller v. State of Oregon). Later, different state legislators started to pay more considerable attention to the issue.

The Progressive era was also an essential time for extending and defending women’s rights. The most important event was when women got the right to vote in political elections. To demand the suffrage, the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was created in 1890 and unified numerous smaller local women’s groups. It was the most prominent association in the United States, demanding women suffrage legislation. As a result, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920 (The Nineteenth Amendment). Women got included in the country’s political life and could express their opinions.

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Progressive Legislation of Presidents Theodor Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson

President Theodor Roosevelt was one of the supporters of Progressive reforms and made a significant contribution to their development and adoption of relevant legislation. First of all, trust busting and 44 antitrust suits were his achievement and were discussed in more detail in the previous section. Secondly, Roosevelt took part in regulating foods and drugs by signing the Meat Inspection Act in 1906 (Meat Inspection Act). The law reformed the meat industry by obliging meatpackers to follow particular sanitation guidelines. Moreover, the President introduced a program of federal meat inspections that made the industry safer. Besides, under Roosevelt’s presidency, another vital law concerning the food and drug industry was adopted. Pure Food and Drug Act was signed in 1906 and forbade its delivery of false information on foods and medicines labels (The Pure Food and Drug Act). Thirdly, Roosevelt paid attention to the environmental issues that have been ignored at this time by most people. He established around 50 sanctuaries and created natural parks in order to preserve wild nature. Furthermore, the National Reclamation Act was adopted in 1902 that allowed using money from the sale of public lands to fund irrigation projects (National Reclamation Act). This Act allowed to fund Roosevelt Dam and the Shoshone Dam.

Woodrow Wilson was the last President of the Progressive era and also significantly influenced the reforms. First of all, he was a contributor to antitrust changes. Under Wilson’s presidency, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act was adopted in 1914, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was improved (Clayton Antitrust Act). Moreover, he implemented a law that controls companies from creating monopolies. Secondly, Wilson proposed the Sixteenth Amendment in the Constitution that imposed an income tax and organized a stable revenue source for government. The Amendment was addressed in detail in the previous part on reforms. Thirdly, Wilson formed the Federal Reserve that implied the country’s division into 12 districts that all have a central bank that aimed at regulating money printing and determining interest rates (Federal Reserve Act). As can be seen from the discussion, both Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson made significant achievements in establishing federal legislation and improving ordinary people’s lives. Moreover, they created a legal basis for the United States as we know them nowadays.

General Findings

The Progressive era was an essential time for the United States history. During the period the country was modernized, the existed level of corruption was reduced, freedom of speech was supported (through investigations of muckrakers), and children’s and women’s rights started being protected. Moreover, numerous legislations were established, including anti-trust, anti-monopolist, tax, and environmental laws. Some of them are still actual and well-functioning until the present days. The time between the 1890s and 1920s raised a number of questions, including environment, corruption, human rights, and the state’s role for the first time in history.


In conclusion, the current paper aimed at addressing the Progressive era by researching and presenting its significant issues and political, social, and other reforms. It was considered in detail in the three general sections, where the focus was placed on muckrakers, economic and social changes, political improvements, and Progressive legislation of Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson. All the five aspects were significant constituents of the movement and influenced one another, bringing the United States closer to the modern state of affairs.

Works Cited

“17th Amendment”. Cornell Law School, n. d., 2020. Web.

“Clayton Antitrust Act”. Britannica, n. d., 2020. Web.

Contrera, Jessica. “The Searing Photos That Helped End Child Labor in America”, The Washington Post, 2014, Web.

“Federal Reserve Act Signed by President Wilson”. Federal Reserve History, 2013, Web.

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“Federal Trade Commission Act”. Britannica, n. d., 2020. Web.

Leonard, Thomas C. “American Economic Reform in the Progressive Era: Its Foundational Beliefs and Their Relation to Eugenics”. History of Political Economy, 41.1 (2009): pp. 109-141.

“Meat Inspection Act of 1906”. Britannica, n. d., 2020. Web.

“Muller v. State of Oregon”. Britannica, n. d., 2020. Web.

“The Eighteenth Amendment: Prohibition”. U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, n. d., 2020. Web.

“National Reclamation Act”. Britannica, n. d., 2020. Web.

“Roosevelt and the Trusts”. The Ohio State University, n. d., 2020. Web.

“The Nineteenth Amendment”. Khan Academy, n. d., 2020. Web.

“The Progressive Era”. Red Hook Central Schools, n. d., 2020. Web.

“The Pure Food and Drug Act”. U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, n. d., 2020. Web.

“Who Were the Muckrakers in the Journalism Industry?”. ThoughtCo, 2019, Web.

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