Progressive Notes

“a social or political movement that aims to represent the interests of ordinary people through political change and the support of government actions”.

Characteristics of the Progressive Era include purification of the government, modernization, a focus on family and education, prohibition, and women’s suffrage.

The party’s platform built on Roosevelt’s Square Deal domestic program and called for several progressive reforms. The platform asserted that “to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day”.

Progressive Era: Progressive Era Historians debate the exact contours, but they generally date the Progressive Era in response to the excesses of the Gilded Age from the 1890s to either World War I or the onset of the Great Depression.

Many of the core principles of the progressive movement focused on the need for efficiency in all areas of society.

Purification to eliminate waste and corruption was a powerful element as well as the progressives’ support of worker compensation, improved child labor laws, minimum wage legislation, a limited workweek, graduated income tax and allowed women the right to vote.

Arthur S. Link and Vincent P. De Santis argue that the majority of progressives wanted to purify politics.

According to Jimmie Franklin, purification meant taking the vote away from blacks in the South.

According to historian William Leuchtenburg, “[t]he Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government”.

Purifying the electorate: Progressives repeatedly warned that illegal voting was corrupting the political system. They especially identified big-city bosses, working with saloon keepers and precinct workers, as the culprits who stuffed the ballot boxes. The solution to purifying the vote included prohibition (designed to close down the saloons), voter registration requirements (designed to end multiple voting), and literacy tests (designed to minimize the number of ignorant voters).

All of the Southern states used devices to disenfranchise black voters during the Progressive Era.

Typically, the progressive elements in those states pushed for disenfranchisement, often fighting against the conservatism of the Black Belt whites.

A major reason given was that whites routinely purchased black votes to control elections, and it was easier to disenfranchise blacks than to go after powerful white men.

In the Northern states, progressives such as Robert M. La Follette and William Simon U’Ren argued that the average citizen should have more control over his government.

The Oregon System of “Initiative, Referendum, and Recall” was exported to many states, including Idaho, Washington and Wisconsin.

Many progressives such as George M. Forbes, president of Rochester’s Board of Education, hoped to make government in the United States more responsive to the direct voice of the American people, arguing:[W]e are now intensely occupied in forging the tools of democracy, the direct primary, the initiative, the referendum, the recall, the short ballot, commission government. But in our enthusiasm we do not seem to be aware that these tools will be worthless unless they are used by those who are aflame with the sense of brotherhood. […] The idea [of the social centers movement is] to establish in each community an institution having a direct and vital relation to the welfare of the neighborhood, ward, or district, and also to the city as a whole.

Philip J. Ethington seconds this high view of direct democracy, saying that “initiatives, referendums, and recalls, along with direct primaries and the direct election of US Senators, were the core achievements of ‘direct democracy’ by the Progressive generation during the first two decades of the twentieth century”.

Women marching for the right to vote, 1912 Progressives fought for women’s suffrage to purify the elections using supposedly purer female voters.

Progressives in the South supported the elimination of supposedly corrupt black voters from the election booth.

Historian Michael Perman says that in both Texas and Georgia “disfranchisement was the weapon as well as the rallying cry in the fight for reform”.

In Virginia, “the drive for disfranchisement had been initiated by men who saw themselves as reformers, even progressives”.

While the ultimate significance of the progressive movement on today’s politics is still up for debate, Alonzo L. Hamby asks: What were the central themes that emerged from the cacophony [of progressivism]? Democracy or elitism? Social justice or social control? Small entrepreneurship or concentrated capitalism?

And what was the impact of American foreign policy? Were the progressives isolationists or interventionists? Imperialists or advocates of national self-determination?

And whatever they were, what was their motivation? Moralistic utopianism? Muddled relativistic pragmatism? Hegemonic capitalism?

Not surprisingly many battered scholars began to shout ‘no mas!’ In 1970, Peter Filene declared that the term ‘progressivism’ had become meaningless.