The term ‘Progressive era’ in American history refers to a wide range of reforms in the country’s social, political, economic and moral aspects between 1890s and 1920s. During this period, the American society experienced a number of reforms in its economic productivity, science and technology, gender roles, roles of the democratic government, health, living standards, mass communication and the conception of American freedom. According to Keene, Cornell and O’Donnell (2013), during this era, progressives, rather than revolutionaries, were reformed, providing a number of alternatives to both socialism and communism ideologies. While reforms were observed in almost all sectors of the society, arguably, the active role of progressives saw the transformation of the government’s roles in addressing social problems, which in turn laid down the foundation for the 20th century liberalism.
According to Burt (2005), the 1912 general elections mark the beginning of the era of progressiveness. The event serves as a major point at which the American’s changed the perceptions of the government’s role in the society. The election became a critical prelude of a New Deal and a context that initiated major changes that later provided a redefinition of the meaning and role of America’s democratic government. Prior to the election, the Progressive Party had emerged, drawing much of its support from the learned and urbanized middle-class society, a group that later came to be known as ‘progressive reformers’.
Burt (2005) argues that the active role of the reformers pressed the democratic government to establish and amend a number of legislations to address social issues, including the regulation of business and corporate practices, health hazards, elimination of government corruption and improvement of working conditions. The progressives’ efforts sought to give the public the powers to be involved in direct control over the government. For instance, the public obtained the powers to nominate their preferred candidates for public office, direct election of members of the senate and the inclusion of the law allowing for referendums. In addition, the government role in addressing women and child suffrage emerged as a result of the active roles of the progressives.
The progressives redefined the government’s role in protecting the lower class from exploitation by corporations and large businesses. It was during this era that the ideology of limiting ‘big business’ emerged. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt became more instrumental in restraining the traditional practice of business monopolistic. The Roosevelt administration, under pressure from the progressives, extended the executive powers within the economy, which saw a departure from the traditional ‘laissez-faire’ attitudes of the preceding regimes. For instance, the government increased its role in supporting labor movements, as witnessed in the resolution for the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. Here, the government increasingly became more accountable to the public rather than dictating its policies to the people.
Female reforms in the social and economic sectors provide an additional role of the progressives in laying down the foundation for modern democracy in the US. For instance, the efforts of women in the elite class, most of whom were college graduates, increasingly hoped to address the influence of political bosses in urbanized areas. In turn, this initiated the ‘Americanization of immigrants’, where the government took a first-hand role in addressing the problems faced by immigrants, including provision of licenses for small business, obtaining citizenship and access to social amenities.
In addition, Jaycox (2008) cites the important role of ‘Muckraking’ journalism in transforming the government’s role in the society, especially by exposing the ills of the society, government corruption, industrial malpractices and oppression of workers. In fact, investigative journalism increasingly pressed the government to take direct roles in addressing these issues, which in turn increased the government’s accountability to the people.
In conclusion, progressive era largely reformed the government’s role in addressing social, economic and political problems. Within a short time, the progressives’ efforts proved important in addressing social ills, which in turn laid down the foundation of liberal reforms in the 20th century.
Burt, E. V. (2005). The Progressive Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1890 to 1914. New York, NY: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Jaycox, F. (2008). The Progressive Era. New York, NY: InfoBase publishing
Keene, J. D., Cornell, S., & O’Donnell, E. T. (2013). Visions of America: A history of the United States. Boston, MA: Pearson.