Progressive Movement

Published 05 Dec 2016

The period from 1890 to 1917 in the history of United States is known as Progressive era. This period is marked by an all-encompassing and intensive change in all spheres of American life viz. political, economic and social. According to Nevin and Commager, this period was “marked by revolt and reform in almost every department of American life. Old political leaders were ousted and new one enlisted; political machinery was overhauled and modernized; political practices were subject to critical scrutiny and those which failed to square with the ideals of democracy were rejected.” (p. 382)

These leaders from middle class pleaded for government regulation of big businesses to prevent exploitations pf the weaker sections. Stressing on the needs for reforms, Theodore Roosevelt said, “”No hard-and-fast rule can be laid down as to the way in which such work [reform] must be done; but most certainly every man, whatever his position, should strive to do it in some way and to some degree.” (Roosevelt) Most of the problems that Progressives wanted to tackle was an outcome of the industrial expansion and the political-industrial coalitions of the Gilded Age. During the Progressive almost every department of American life was overhauled and modernized. Thus Progressivism was a movement with “predominantly middle class objectives and viewpoint, deriving much of its support from small businessmen, farmers and professional people.” ( Parkes, p.544)

At the federal level, the Progressive movement set in with the inauguration of the President Roosevelt curtailed the powers of the large organizations was epitomized through the suite against The Northern Securities Company in 1903. He introduced other legislative measures to breakdown the monopoly of the large corporations. Trust-Busting was the first radical step taken by Roosevelt that was aimed at the breaking of monopolies in any form and its abuses. Second major proponent of Progressivism at the Federal level was President William Howard Taft (1909-1913) who accomplished more progressive legislation than the Roosevelt. He introduced and enacted law to check corrupt practices during the elections.

He dissolved ninety trusts under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (these trusts were saving huge taxes in the name of charity and were involved in certain illegal activities). He strengthened the cause of democracy when he propagated the idea of direct elections for the senators and introduced 17th amendments in the U.S. constitution. Woodrow is the next in the row for progressive presidents. He introduced far-reaching economic reforms and adopted a number other progressive measure to capacitate the entire American spirit with purpose. Hs foremost priority was the revision of tariff and introduction of viable reforms. Secondly, he introduced another Act to reconstruct the monetary and banking sector. Although his program of more progressive reforms were cut short but the outbreak or WW II but two more constitutional amendment (18th and 19th) became effective in his presidency.

Progressives could not bring about the revolutionary transformation of the political and economic system. The evident disappointment of the Progressive movement was its disinclination to deal with racial discrimination. Although it had a national agenda but it was meant for Whites only. The Afro-American suffered from the victimization at the social and state level through disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and poverty. Additionally, it failed to address the questions of class conflict and ended in despair for small owners and businessmen. Yet it cannot be denied that through their reforms they tried to revitalize democracy and made the rulers responsible and accountable to the public. “Perhaps the best known results of this era are the 18th and 19th Amendments, Prohibition and woman suffrage respectively. But this legislation really came at the tail end of the period that has come to be known as the “Age of Reform.” The amendments were actually the byproducts of an immense social and political upheaval which changed forever the expectations of the role government would play in American society.” (PBS)


  • Nevins, Allan& Commager, Henry S. 1966. A short history of the United States. New York: A. Knopf.
  • Parkes, Henry B. 1959. The United States of America—A History. New York: Knopf.
  • PBS. The Progressive Era 1900-1918. On-line. Available from Internet,, accessed 23 March 2008.
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