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Progressives were groups of reformers that worked to improve social and political problems in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Many were well educated professionals from the cities. These progressives had different ideas on how to solve the problems that the saw. Many focused on different areas that included regulating business, reforming government, improving working conditions, improving health, working for women’s rights, and improving the conservation of natural resources. There are many examples of people who were progressives. Some progressives were known as muckrakers and wrote about the problems they saw. Upton Sinclair published The Jungle to highlight poor conditions in meat packing plants which led to the Meat Inspection Act and later to the Pure Food and Drug Act. President Theodore Roosevelt was a great progressive and worked to regulate big business and worked with such naturalists as John Muir on conservation issues. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin worked to make government more honest and responsive to the people.
If one looks at the reforms progressives successfully implemented, I think one would be impressed. Some reforms include safer food with the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and The Pure Food and Drug Act. Anti-trust laws were passed to protect the consumer from unfair business practices. Women received the right to vote. A national park system was created. Political reforms such as the initiative, referendum and recall helped improve the political system in this country. And this is just a short list of the accomplishments of the progressives and progressivism.
The major theme of the Progressive era was to use the government as an agency for social welfare; that is to cure the problems society could not cure on its own. Progressive reformers frequently attacked child labor, corporate corruption, bossism, etc. Their mantra was that the cure for the ills of democracy was more democracy. It was during the Progressive Era that the initiative and referendum became popular; as well as the idea of Prohibition, which later became law under the 18th Amendment. Among the greater accomplishments of the Progressive Era was passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which provided for direct election of U.S. Senators. (They had previously been elected by State legislatures.)
Typical of the Progressive Era were the "muckrakers," writers who exposed the ills of society in a rather tabloid way. These were people such as Upton Sinclair who wrote The Jungle, Ida Mae Tarbell who wrote A History of the Standard Oil Company (it was really more of an expose than a history) and Jacob Riis, The Shame of the Cities in which he discussed the deplorable living conditions of many immigrant communities in New York.
The major theme of the Progressive Era was that the middle class were the "good" Americans and that all other kinds of people should become more like them.
In the Progressive Era, middle class reformers wanted to make the poor (and particularly poor immigrants) more like the middle class in terms of their behaviors and attitudes. They wanted to make the poor more (as they saw it) responsible and respectable. The reformers wanted to make the rich less greedy and exploitative. The reforms of the Progressive Era were all aimed at one of these two goals or at giving the middle class more power over government so that it could introduce more reforms that would be aimed at these goals.
There are many themes that were represented in the Progressive Era. One of my personal favorites is the idea of power coming from "the bottom up." The Progressive Era was one of the strongest in American History regarding the power of social activism on the most grassroots level possible. This was not a time when power was seen as flowing from government. Rather, it was a time when the word of the truth was found on the street, in reality, and using this as a rallying cry for change became one of the dominant elements of the time period. Another theme was the emergence of the news media as becoming the "fourth branch" of government. Muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Jacob Riis believed that it was their obligation and responsibility to expose corruption and collusion where it was and be able to express this to the public at large. Works like The Jungle and How the Other Half Lives speak to this. I would say that another theme that I find persuasive in the Progressive Era was that it spoke to the idea of how democracy is an unfinished experiment. The goal of "forming a more perfect union" was embodied during the Progressive time period in that social and political activists sought to speak for as many people as possible, incorporating as many voices in the political and social discourse as possible. They never relented in this for as long as one voice was being silenced, Progressive activists saw an opportunity for the promises and possibilities of America to be recognized.
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