Student Question

In the Progressive Era of U.S. history, was "Progressivism" more about benevolence or social control? Use two reformist currents for your answer.

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The question you ask has many different dimensions. Historical movements viewed from the standpoint of current times would lead to a different conclusion. Try to look at the Progressive Era from the perspective of someone living during that time. Depending if you are a wealthy industrialist or a middle/lower-middle income worker or an immigrant, your perspective determines your answer.

Historians subjectively date the beginning of the American Progressive Era at about 1890, ending roughly 1930. The significant changes in the United States include the roots of globalism, a major influx of immigrants, a greater awareness of early environmental issues, the rise of industrialization and mega-corporations (Anti-trust Regulations), the stock market crash, and World War I. The impact of all the events on society produced the Progressive Movement which was the counterweight to the negative consequences of an unrestrained movement to separate workers from management—division of labor.

If you were in the camp that unrestrained capitalism and little government intervention or concern for social welfare issues, then your perspective of Progressives was they wanted to radically alter society by using the power of the federal government to force individuals to act in a certain way, reducing the power of individuals. Non-progressives view progressives as attacking a fundamental philosophy: the success of society was based upon a Puritan work ethic, or self-reliance. Social issues were not the purview of business or government, but instead they were left to churches, social agencies, and benevolent individuals.

If you were Progressive, your view would be very different. Progressives generally believed the widening gaps in education, income, and quality of life was the result of unchecked and unregulated capitalism. While progressives were tagged with an association and love for socialism, for the most part, progressives understood capitalism and were far more interested in reform than up-ending capitalism with socialism. Progressives traced the inequality of society directly to the ability of the upper class to manipulate government in their favor by either direct influence (as in campaign donations) or continually appointing people who represented their viewpoint to critical centers of power, like judges or government posts. Progressives believed they had to restore a balance, at the very minimum giving average people the same opportunity to be represented in government as the wealthier class. Progressives thought they could change society through benevolent organizations (e,g., Jane Addams), but recognized that unless the power of the government and courts were at least empathetic to the plight of the lower rungs of the economic ladder, there would be no change. Progressives wanted to exert more government control, and in that way, it can be argued they wanted more influence over the lives of ordinary people (social control).

The motivations of either camp are not merely defined as benevolent or about social control. Whether progressive or not, the one point of agreement between the two philosophical positions is that exercising power over society is a combination of benevolence and social control. The argument is not against altruism or whether there is a need for social control. The case is to what extent is one exercised over the other. This argument was one Progressives argued among themselves, and the movement split into different facets working for reforms in specific societal issues such as labor reform, women’s rights, environment, and civil rights.

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