Political and Social Movements


What was the Progressive movement?

It was a campaign for reform on every level—social, political, and economic—in the United States. It began during the economic depression that was brought on by the Panic of 1873 and lasted until 1917, when Americans entered World War I (1914–18).

During the first 100 years of the U.S. Constitution (1788), federal lawmakers and justices proved reluctant to get involved in or attempt to regulate private business. This policy of noninterference had allowed the gap to widen between rich and poor. The turn of the century was a time in America when early industrialists built fantastic mansions while many workers and farmers struggled to earn a living; when tenement houses sprang up in urban areas to meet (albeit horribly inadequately) the housing needs made present by a steady stream of immigrants; and when labor unions, which had only recently begun to organize, were beset by outbreaks of violence, hurting their fight for better treatment by employers. Observing these problems, progressive-minded reformers, comprised largely of middle-class Americans, women, and journalists (the so-called “muckrakers”), began reform campaigns at the local and state levels, eventually effecting changes at the federal level.

Progressives favored many of the ideas that had previously been espoused by the Populists, including antitrust legislation to bust up the monopolies and a graduated income tax to more adequately collect public funds from the nation’s well-to-do businessmen. Additionally, Progressives combated corrupt local governments; dirty and dangerous working conditions in factories, mines, and fields; and inner-city blight. The minimum wage, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and Chicago’s Hull House (which served as “an incubator for the American social work movement”) are part of the legacy of the Progressive movement.


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