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What is the Progressive Movement?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Progressive Movement was an American reform movement that occurred principally during the time between the Reconstruction after the American Civil War and the entry of America into the First World War. Between the 1890s and the 1920s was a period of time known as the Progressive Era, during which numerous people pushed for social changes that were typically humanistic in nature and “progressive” in thought and design. Among the changes that occurred were renewed focus on the well-being of workers, the women’s suffrage movement, prohibition, and regulation on massive corporate businesses.

Science and reason are generally considered to be major aspects of the Progressive Movement, with less focus on religion and the importance of God, and a renewed sense of humanity’s ability to improve the well-being of other people. Since the Progressive Movement was concurrent with much of the Industrial Revolution, there was an increased sense of what mankind was capable of, as well as ensuring that improvements in technology were not used for abuse. While many people consider the social aspects of Progressivism, the movement was equally involved in technology and promoted the use of science and innovation to improve the world.

There was a strong push among members of the Progressive Movement to regulate businesses and prevent interference by corporations in the American legislative and electoral processes. Progressives pushed through laws such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which regulated railroads in the United States (US), and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which established laws for breaking monopolies, or “trust busting.” Though opposed by big businesses, the Progressive Movement was typically supported by middle class workers such as teachers, lawyers, and doctors.

Journalists and writers of that time would often become involved in Progressive struggles and provided new perspectives on the world. Often called “muckrakers,” these writers would document what it was like to live in squalor or work in a factory without government regulations. The writer Upton Sinclair’s visceral work The Jungle is often viewed as the seminal work of this kind, and revealed the unsanitary practices of the Chicago meat industry. In response to Sinclair’s work and public reaction, the federal government established the Food and Drug Administration to oversee meat processing and handling, setting guidelines for sanitation and cleanliness to better ensure the health of American citizens.

The women’s suffrage movement was also a major aspect of the Progressive Movement, with efforts culminating in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Prohibition was promoted by many Progressives, and the ban on alcohol by the Eighteenth Amendment was another major victory for the Progressive Movement. The Progressives also pushed for the Seventeenth Amendment, which established direct voting for senators by the residents of a state, replacing the previous system in which state legislatures chose the senators.

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