What are the origins and nature of the Progressive Movement?
The origins of the Progressive Movement were two-pronged: first, the "Panic" (panics were later renamed depressions and then recessions) of the 1890s, in which banks and crop prices collapsed, caused widespread hardship to farmers, who were a major constituency in the nineteenth century US. Along with that, the explosive growth of cities due to industrialism and immigration caused suffering. In the first instance, organized farmers increasingly challenged the low prices they received for crops and the inflation that eroded the average person's buying power. The farmers wanted a currency that would protect against inflation and protections against what they perceived as a rapacious wealthy class. Meanwhile, the country's urban areas were increasingly filled with unsanitary and unspeakable tenements crowded with immigrants who were exploited by being paid very low wages without any job protection or benefits.
People began to speak out against these conditions. The Progressive Movement could be characterized as a largely middle class effort, in which those in more comfortable circumstances sought to ameliorate the suffering of the poorer classes and spread the society's wealth more evenly. It was influenced by intellectual movements that came from Europe, such as socialism. Wealthy people like Jane Addams started settlement houses, which provided social services lacking at the time and also sought to educate lower class people in norms of culture and beauty. Journalists like photographer Jacob Riis entered the tenements and recorded the conditions, adding shock value to the calls for help.
Many of the reforms the Progressives advocated for, such as minimum wage, a shorter workweek, and protection against child labor came to fruition in the 1930s, after the end of Progressive period, but the seeds were planted in that earlier era.
Several factors led to the rise of the Progressive Movement, including an economic depression in the 1890's which had caused considerable unrest among Americans. The depression even caused hardship for the middle class and they also became up in arms. There was a growing belief that the government should assist people in improving social conditions. An additional factor was a backlash against big business and the robber barons whom many blamed for the suffering of the masses. The Progressive Movement hoped to promote honest government, social justice, more democracy, and control of big business. This they believed would lead society to "progress," hence the name.
Simply put, the Progressives believed that the cure for the problems of a democratic society was more democracy. It was as a result of this movement that the 17th Amendment was passed which provided for direct election of senators. The movement also saw the passage of state laws regulating child labor, and female workers. Following the famous Triangle Shirt Waist Fire, Progressives pushed through laws providing for workman's compensation and stricter inspection of factories. Additionally, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed after abuses in the meat packing industry were disclosed by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle.
The Progressive Movement saw more and more regulation of big business and more and more protection for the average citizen.