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The progressives were social reformers who believed that by combating urban bosses, promoting honest government and regulation of business, they would enable society to "progress," hence the name of the movement. They were perhaps the heirs to the populist movement of earlier days; in fact they were described by Newspaper William Allen White as populism which had:

shaved its whiskers, washed its shirt, put on a derby, and moved up into the middle class.

The mantra of the Progressive movement was that the cure for the ills of democracy was more democracy. Through the work of progressives, a number of states adopted the initiative and recall as part of their governmental structure; and Congress passed and the states ratified the seventeenth amendment which provided for direct election of Senators. They had previously been chosen by state legislators.

Progressives also worked to curb child labor and were ultimately behind the eighteenth (Prohibition) movement. The most famous progressives were of course Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, who earned a name for himself as a "trust buster," to break up business trusts, and Woodrow Wilson, who oversaw passage of the Income Tax amendment and the development of the Federal Reserve system. It was Wilson who appointed the progressive attorney, Louis Brandeis, to the Supreme Court.

A number of progressives attacked social ills through literature and the press, notably writers such as Lincoln Steffins, who attacked political corruption in The Shame of the Cities, Ida M. Tarbell who castigated John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil in History of the Standard Oil Company, and most famously Upton Sinclair who wrote The Jungle which he intended to become a social manifesto but ultimately exposed unsanitary practices in the meat packing industry. His actions led to passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. After the success of his book, Sinclair commented:

I aimed at the nation's heart, but hit it in the stomach.

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