The Progressive Era in the United States


The history of the world witnessed many various political movements that made attempts of reforming the system to adapt to the different newly occurred circumstances that affected the stability of the country. These circumstances could include economic, political, demographical and etc. Some movements fade and vanish with time and occasionally some movements can make a huge impact in the direction of the country’s development in such a way that the whole term of the period affected by the reformation can be called an era. This paper analyzes the era that was called the progressive era in the United States in terms of its goals, motives, impact, and the origins of its occurrence.

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Background Overview

The progressive era-the period 1900-1914 the American historians named “a progressive era”, and this era has been connected with the movement against the monopolies, developed under the slogan “Progressive transformations”. Representatives of the intelligentsia have taken part in it, farmers, small and average bourgeoisie, or “middle class” to put it briefly. Movement growth was promoted also by the activity of a group of writers and journalists exposing frauds of trusts and the corruption of government apparatus. This movement has shown the necessity of reforms.


In analyzing the progressive era, it should be pointed that most of the problems it tried to solve are connected to the period that America was going through at that time, the period that marked the beginning of the industrial age. At that time problems that the progressives tried to solve were the problems that the government was not unable to address, such as poor laborers, appalling working conditions, and the corruption that “darkened politics from the local level to the highest institutions in the land”. (Sage) The most important problem indeed is the ignorance of the government system to all the changes that the nation is going through, and as a result, the consequences that could follow could have been destructive.

If talking about the goals that progressivism set as a basis for their movement was based on the problems that were present at the time. Thus, the goals could be seen in many reforms changing the social and political landscape of America that were done such as the political reform, advancing democracy, regulation of business, social justice, and constitutional amendments. In general, the progressive era had, as a result, every possible measure of restraint of capitalism, including the labor legislation, anti-trust laws, and other regulative restrictions.

Mainly the obstacles that were present in the way of progressivism were related to the corruption in the political forces at that time and which the progressives set to clean as a primary goal. This corruption could be added to the mindset of many people who “still adhere to the doctrinaire theory of eighteenth-century individualism, and treat as a cardinal virtue the right to absolute liberty of contract–and of course, carried out logically, the theory of absolute liberty of contract simply means the legalization of all kinds of slavery.” (Theodore Roosevelt on Labor Issues)

The basis of progressivism can not be said to be new to that era, as many goals of progressivism were declared in the populist movement, so “the roots of progressivism can be found in the widespread discontent in the nation upon which the Populist Party was founded.” The reforms that were presented in the populists’ program in their first national convention “the Omaha Platform” declared many aspects that were later adopted by progressives.

Some examples are obvious in the points declared such as “the union of the labor forces of the United States this day consummated shall be permanent and perpetual”, “The interests of rural and civic labor are the same; their enemies are identical”, and “prevent the increase of the power of the national administration by the use of additional government employees.” (THE OMAHA PLATFORM) However, the populists’ movement lost its existence later when it related itself to a major political party.

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It should be said that the progressive era was essential for that period in America. Oligarchic tendencies in the political life of America have seriously weakened the value of democratic institutes and traditions. A vital question was set to be solved: whether the American democracy can prove the viability and change the balance of political forces? Between oligarchs and democracy, a serious skirmish has started which had the balance shifted from one side to another. Thus, progressivism has united in the face of the threat of economic and political domination of corporations’ different social classes and at the head of them, the educated part has acted, including Theodor Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

It could be assumed that, if the reformations did not take place at that time, and the period that preceded the progressive era (which is sometimes called the “Gilded Age”) continued, many transformations would not have occurred. The gap between the upper class and the lower class would have reached such scales that might cause a conflict that would be hard to call a peaceful one. It is obvious that the gap that would have occurred could cause many injustices and “if actions were not taken to alleviate the more glaring injustices in American society, the nation might be headed for a rebellion.”

The start of the progressive era witnessed many progressive political leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but it was Roosevelt who could be considered as the first progressive president. In presidential elections in 1900, Roosevelt becomes the vice-president. However, the murder of President McKinley makes Roosevelt the president. There were a set of unresolved problems before Roosevelt: the extension of socialist doctrines in the country, movement of the protest among farmers and strike movements grew, requirements of laws against trusts and corruption in government apparatus were strengthened.

Roosevelt understood that without carrying out the reforms he would not keep the presidential position for the second term, and has followed a way of reforms. The government has organized over twenty litigations against trusts. An excerpt from his First Annual Message to Congress says that the nation should “assume power of supervision and regulation over all corporations doing an interstate business. This is especially true where the corporation derives a portion of its wealth from the existence of some monopolistic element or tendency in its business.”

The election in 1912 proved that the nation’s mindset was fully supporting the ideas of progressivism where all of the three candidates, although politically separated between Republicans, democrats, and socialists, all of them were representing the ideas of progressivism. Although all of the three candidates won 75% of the popular vote, due to the Republican vote divided between Roosevelt and Taft the election was won by Wilson.

The Wilson policy did not differ much from Roosevelt’s as they both shared identical ideas in many aspects. For example, the opinion on the monopoly of the natural resources in Roosevelt’s THE NEW NATIONALISM speech in1910 where he said that “the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few” (THEODORE ROOSEVELT: THE NEW NATIONALISM) is similar to the opinion of Wilson in his “The New Freedom” campaign speech where he says that “Certain monopolies in this country have gained almost complete control of the raw material, chiefly in the mines, out of which the great body of manufactures are carried on, and they now discriminates when they will, in the sale of that raw material between those who are rivals of the monopoly and those who submit to the monopoly.”(The New Freedom)

Today many politicians would call themselves progressives if it comes to the issue of any reforms that are needed to make transformations to the country’s system. With every election, the call for reforms is made whether radical reforms which characterize the populist’s movement or more liberated one that characterizes the progressivism. Comparing to the past experience these movements can take lessons from history, however, as a personal opinion, they are not as powerful and effective as in the progressive era, due to different circumstances and different historical perspectives.

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Works Cited

Academic American.( 2008). “IMPORTANT DATES OF THE PROGRESSIVE ERA”. Web.

Sage, Henry J.. (2007) “The Progressive Era: The Great Age of Reform”. Web.

American Academic. (2008).” THE OMAHA PLATFORM”. Web.


Wilson, Woodrow.(2008) “Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Program: The New Freedom”. Web.

American Academic (2008).” Theodore Roosevelt on Labor Issues”. Web.

American Academic (2008). “Extract from First Annual Message to Congress”. Web.

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