The Progressive Era

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Was the 1900-1920 progressive movement an extension of late nineteenth-century reform ideas?

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Many of the ideas of the Progressive Era of the twentieth century started during the latter part of the nineteenth. Many localities had already endorsed temperance movements, becoming dry well before the Volstead Act in 1919. Many Western states already allowed women to vote, in order to draw more families to the area. This would eventually lead to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote in all elections.

The Populist movement started many of the ideas that were later picked up by Progressives. The notion of a progressive income tax started with the Omaha Platform of 1892. The direct election of senators also came from this convention. Populists also called for an end to bank privatization; while this idea was not picked up successfully by Progressives, Progressive presidents did advocate for more regulation of businesses and the stock market. Roosevelt pushed through legislation regulating food, medicine, and railroads; one of the arguments made by the Populists during the late 1800s was that business had become too powerful for its own good and was a threat to smaller suppliers as well as consumers. Populists also sought to regulate the workplace by insisting on eight-hour workdays; this did not come to pass during the early twentieth century, but Wilson tried to remove children from the workforce with the Keating-Owen Act. This act was later struck down as unconstitutional.

WWI and the ensuing push against anything that looked like a Leftist takeover put an end to the Progressive movement that took root in both parties during the early 1900s. It would take the Great Depression to bring back the old Populist party's idea that the government had the responsibility in to protect the average citizen.

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Many of the ideas of the Progressive era that became laws in the early 1900s had their roots in the reformers' ideas of the late 1800s. For example, the Populist Party arose from a loose network of Farmers' Alliances that developed in the late 1800s. These alliances wanted to ameliorate the conditions of farmers by such measures as controlling railroad rates.

Teddy Roosevelt's Square Deal instituted several of the ideas that had been proposed by Populists and the Farmers' Alliances, such as controlling the rates charged by railroads. Teddy Roosevelt accomplished this through the Hepburn Railroad Act of 1906, which allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroad rates. In addition, the Populists proposed the direct election of Senators (who were then chosen by state legislatures) in an effort to make the federal government more directly democratic. This idea became reality in 1913 with the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

Prohibition, disallowing the sale and transport of alcohol, was also an idea first proposed by reformers, including various temperance groups such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1875. Prohibition was passed as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, though it was later repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. During the Progressive era, many of the ideas of the earlier reformers became federal laws. 

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The Progressive Movement was an extension of the reform movements of the late 1800s. The Populist Party had been very concerned about the power of big businesses. The members of this party felt big businesses had too much power and got too many breaks from the government. The Populists wanted the federal government to control the actions of big businesses.

During the Progressive Era, the government began to control the actions of big businesses. Laws that helped workers were passed. For example, child labor laws prevented kids from working at certain ages and required kids to go to school. The Federal Trade Commission monitored the activities of businesses and could order them to stop unfair business practices. The Interstate Commerce Commission had the power to set railroad rates. Consumers were protected by the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The establishment of the Children’s Bureau helped to monitor child labor practices in the United States.

For those people in the 1800s who worked to see the end of the sale of alcohol, the Progressive Movement delivered for them. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol in the United States.

The Progressive Movement was an extension of the reform movements and their ideas of the late 1800s.

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During the last decade of the 19th century, the Populists were the most prominent reformers in the United States.  Although they died out in that same decade, some of their ideas lived on with the Progressives.  The Progressives took many of the Populists' ideas, but they went beyond those ideas to become involved in many types of reforms that the Populists did not have in mind.

The main reforms that the Progressives took up were reforms that were aimed against the powers of the big businesses.  For example, the "trustbusting" of Theodore Roosevelt came from Populist ideas.  As the "salem-history" link says, Populist

farmers believed that they were at the mercy of monopolies and speculators, and they demanded government legislation regarding the control of money, transportation, and land.

However, the Progressives went well beyond this sort of reform.  For example, they were interested in political reforms (breaking the power of urban machines) and in social reforms (Prohibition).  These were types of reforms that were not prominent in the Populist agenda.

Some of the Populist agenda (crackdowns on the power of big business) did become part of the Progressive agenda.  However, many of the Progressives' reforms were new with them and were not extensions of the previous reformers' efforts.

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