A Brief History of American Progressivism


History of Progressivism

Many of the issues of concern to Progressives 50 or 100 years ago remain just as important today.

There have been four largely independent progressive movements in the US over the course of its relatively brief history. The common elements among the four have included a focus on social reforms intended to improve the quality of life for the ordinary working person, a concern for the socially and politically destructive effects of excessive corporate power, suspicion of the economic motivations underlying much of US foreign policy, and efforts to protect and preserve nature.

The best progressives have long sought a place for ethics in an arena most often dominated by power politics and a morally indifferent if not morally destructive emphasis upon financial gain that has sometimes prioritized profitability above all other social values. Though Progressives have always championed environmentalism, they are especially concerned about the fate of the environment today, as it is showing unmistakable and dangerous signs of deterioration worldwide.

How these progressive movements arose, and why they are characterized by these particular concerns, can't be well appreciated without some grounding in US history.

American progressivism had its roots originally in the US transition from a nation of small, independent farmers with tremendous economic opportunities to a nation of employees and consumers at the mercy of large corporations that, moreover, systematically plundered resources, exploited labor, and corrupted the government.

The early part of this transition took place over the course of the industrial revolution in the late nineteenth century. Industrialization, with its demands for capitalization, and capitalism, with its demands for big shareholder profits, mutually reinforced one another, leading rapidly to tremendous concentrations of wealth, in some cases unsurpassed to this day.

The modern era in America begins in the years of enormous social upheaval and corruption immediately following the Civil War. In itself, the war represented a victory for northern business interests. And in Ulysses Grant the US was soon saddled with a president backed by these same selfish business interests.  (For background to this period of history, known as "Reconstruction", see The Gilded Age/Reconstruction Timeline .)

As an individual, Grant himself proved to be vindictive, petty, politically inept, and a poor judge of character. His administration was enormously corrupt, and riddled with cronyism. At the same time, the national "philosophy" of rugged individualism militated against provision of much essential post-war aid, and business tycoons aggressively promoted Social Darwinism, a dog-eat-dog ideology that seemed to provide justification for their own unethical practices. Even the supreme court had faced severe challenges from conservatives, and operated in a highly charged atmosphere. By the end of the Grant era, all of the supreme court justices were Republican.

Characteristically, however, the policy of rugged individualism, which left the individual exclusively to his own resources, didn't extend, under Grant, to businessmen. Rather, the railroad entrepreneurs received tremendous subsidies in the form of land grants (outright gifts of enormous tracts of land) and loans. Wealthy creditors benefitted from deflationary policies and a tight money supply. And — a point especially worth emphasizing in an era of globalization policy that demands of developing countries that there be no such tariffs — businesses benefitted from high protective tariffs.

To the disgust of many ordinary Americans, scandal after scandal broke over the Grant administration. As well, the administration of many of the major cities was in the hands of ultracorrupt political machines, such as that of "Boss" Tweed in New York City.

The first stirrings of Progressivism emerged during this era, embodied in reformers such as Samuel Tilden of New York, who was instrumental in the prosecution of Tweed, and Carl Schurz, a reformist Senator from Missouri. There was also much grass root organizing during this period, which saw the establishment of labor unions (which can claim credit for such benefits as the 8 hour working day, now taken for granted by nearly everyone, including anti-union conservatives), groups working for women's suffrage, and the passage of legislation advancing the rights of the newly freed slaves.  (For background on the "Progressive Era", see the Progressive Living Progressive Era Timeline, and the companion page Teaching the History of the Progressive Era.)

However, Progressives became politically dominant nationally for the first time in 1912, though they weren't always well represented by candidates who ran as progressives, particularly "progressive" presidents. Theodore Roosevelt, who was somewhat progressive, but who also had strong business sympathies, was denied the nomination of the Republican party, and so campaigned as the "Bull Moose" (Progressive Republican) party candidate. This splintered the Republicans, and threw the election to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, himself a Progressive in some ways.

Roosevelt had called for such reforms as the right of women to vote ("woman suffrage"), legislation to control monopolies, child-labor and minimum wage laws, conservation of natural resources, and so on, though, again, he also had strong business sympathies, refusing, for example, to endorse some of the important trust-busting activities of Taft, his successor.

The second Progressive movement got underway in 1924. This time the key leadership role was fulfilled by Robert M. La Follette (a more genuinely Progressive Republican). La Follette campaigned for such things as direct elections in primaries, fairer taxation, conservation of natural resources, control of lobbyists, and banking reform. He vigorously opposed both oligarchy — government by a tiny elite — and plutocracy (government of, by, and for the wealthy).

The third Progressive movement was initiated in 1947 by former Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Many progressives were uncomfortable with his religiosity, but were admirers of his call for a sort of global "New Deal".

The fourth Progressive movement is associated with the Green Party and the Nader presidential candidacy.

  • For a resource addressing all aspects of Progressivism, visit this page
  • For the first part of an ongoing timeline of Progressivism covering "The Gilded Age" (1865-1877), go here
  • For a timeline of the Progressive Era, go here
  • For a companion page to the timeline, providing resources to teach the history of the Progessive Era, go here
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  • Go to this link to see the elements of a Progressive lifestyle
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