The Progressive Era (1890 - 1913)
The Impetus for Change
The late 19th century was an era of unprecedented economic growth for the United States. US Industrialists accumulated massive amounts of wealth and power as the economic reach of the America began to expand beyond the borders of North America. Men such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan dominated the economic landscape of the day. These powerful Industrialists accumulated a degree of wealth that was unprecedented in US History. During the late 19th century 1/7 of the population owned 7/8 of the wealth for the entire country. Statisitics such as these have led historians to refer to the era as the "Gilded Age". Underneath the wealthy uppercrust of American society lay a myriad of economic, social, and economic problems. The wealth of the elite Industrialists of the day came at the expense of the working class, poor immigrant factory workers, and farmers. Men such as Rockefeller and railroad tycoons used questionable business practices to drive
competition out of the market place. The consumer, the worker, and the average citizen was beholden to the will and conscience of the American Industrial system. Despite the magnificent examples of philanthropy these men came to be known as "Robber Barons". Yet, political and social reform movements were slow to catch on and unable to influence the political landscape of the day. One such movement, Populism, attempted to gain political and economic reforms for the agricultural industry. However, the power of the Eastern political and Industrial machines was too much to overcome. The strength and political power of the "Robber Barons" continued to grow as America became on a world world Industrial and Imperial power. Populism faded into the past, but the seeds for change had been sewn.
The Birth of Progressivism
Progressivism was born out of the need for social, economic, and political reform during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The goals of the Progressive movement were 1) to protect the social welfare of the nation 2) promote moral improvement for the country and its people 3) creating economic reform and limiting the power of Big Business and 4) to foster a more efficient and responsive government. The political gains of the era would be slow and deliberate due to the power and infludence of those that had the most to lose: Industrialists, Financiers, and the powerful political machines of the day - such as Tammany Hall in New York City. The Progressive movement was not a single reform package. Rather, it was the culmination of a variety of political and
social philosophies that believed that mankind could and should move forward in step with the technological advancements of the modern Industrial Age. It was the belief that the United States should evolve into a socially and poltically responsible organism that would lead a new world order of democracy.
The legislation of the Progressive Era was key to enacting this ambitious philosophy. Theodore Roosevelt's "Square Deal" aimed at providing social justice and harmony to the American people. Roosevelt used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 to diminish the power of trusts and monopolies. Along with his "trust-busting" actions Roosevelt made signficant strides in the conservation of natural resources. Roosevelt created the National Park system to protect the natural treasures within the United States. However, Roosevelt was not the only President to use the office to advance the agenda of the Progressive movement. Roosevelt's Vice-President, and eventual successor, William Howard Taft, actually broke up more trusts than Roosevelt
(Taft broke up the powerful trust of Standard Oil, not Roosevlt). Yet, Taft fell out of favor with the progressive reformers of the day due to his support of controversial conservative tarriff trade laws. The torch of the Progressive movement was next picked up by President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson created a reform policy called "New Freedom". This policy initiative aimed at creating a more responsive and democratic government for the American people. The gains of the progressive Era can be seen in the creation of settlement houses, the direct election of Senators (17th Amendment), the right to vote for women (19th Amendment), the direct primary, and the establishment of Child Labor Laws.