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Progressivism in America
A Brief Overview  

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Industrialization altered the fabric of American life. By the later half of the 19th Century, millions of Americans no longer expected to live in a state of economic self-sufficiency, growing or making almost everything they needed. Instead, many were increasingly mired in a state of economic dependency, beholden to others for employment as well as essential goods and services. The trend towards industrialization and increased specialization profoundly disturbed American notions about democracy and the very moral standing of the individual.1 Traditional Jeffersonian visions of democracy had envisioned a nation of politically independent, economically self-sufficient yeoman farmers. Yet how could Americans retain their political independence when they were indebted to increasingly powerful corporations for wages and vital goods and services? Worse, the decline of the Jacksonian political clout of the common man was mirrored by the meteoric rise of corporate influence in American politics. Corporations were able to spend massive amounts of money to propel favored candidates to power, for example, in the election of 1896, pro-business candidate McKinley won after being lavished with over 16 million dollars in corporate campaign contributions. His opponent, the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who worried business interests but appealed to small farmers with his inflationary notions of free silver, lost handily, having barely one million dollars in his campaign fund. Corporations meanwhile lavished lawmakers and judges with gifts, free railroad passes, meals, and downright bribes, ensuring legislation and rulings that benefited corporate interests.

Yet Americans quickly rose to counter the problem, with a series of reform movements. The 1870s saw the rise of the Grange movement in the midwest, a farmer's cooperative that served to organize the political power of farmers against the railroads and other corporate interests. This soon blossomed into the Independent Party, an agrarian political party, which sought to counter the corporate interests entrenched in the Democratic and Republican Parties. The 1890s saw the rise of the Populist Party, whose goal was the reintroduction of Jacksonianism into bloated plutocratic party politics, which drew surprisingly strong support from rural regions of the Midwest and South in the 1892 presidential election.

Urban dwellers soon followed the agrarian reformers. The turn of the century saw numerous groups hoping to reshape American life, including socialists, temperance advocates, labor unions, suffragists and conservationists. The “progressivism” movement was initially of an eclectic assortment of political advocacy groups, voluntary associations and coalitions of convenience 2. In 1912, a formal Progressive Party formed, consisting of insurgent Republicans under Theodore Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson.

Historians are increasingly finding it difficult to define “progressivism” amid the clamor of various, frequently opposing reform interests3. In general, however, the reforms that triumphed during the progressive period had three essential goals:

  1. To revamp the democratic process.
  2. To limit the power of corporations.
  3. To ease brewing class tensions.

Nationwide, a series of policies became associated with “progressivism” and reflected these essential tenets. They advocated direct democracy in the form of the initiative, referendum and recall. They demanded a de politicized municipal government, in order to free cities from corrupt political machines. They called for laws to regulate corporations: on the federal level regulatory bodies such as the revamped Interstate Commerce Commission and the newly created Food and Drug Administration. Female progressives meanwhile crusaded for public kindergartens and increased accessibility to secondary schools, believing that such educational institutions would improve the morals and mellow the anger to the working classes.

Progressivism was a decidedly urban phenomenon, separating it from the agrarian populist movement. Most populist voters were farmers, and the populist platform, based around inflationary silver, was the platform of indebted farmers hoping for greater access to specie. The progressive movement meanwhile had its origins in the cities, and stemmed from the shocking conditions of corrupt, grimy industrial metropolises. In 1904, Sacramento-born journalist Lincoln Steffens began publishing a series of articles entitled “The Shame of the Cities” in McClure's, agitating a massive popular response against the conditions of graft and corruption he described. Most progressive leaders were educated affluent middle-class men, who began their reforming activities by trying to improve their own communities. For example William Kent, who served as a progressive Congressman from Marin County, began his progressive career demolishing the slum property he inherited and building public playgrounds in its stead. 4

Many progressives were lawyers, businessmen, and publishers.5 Such men felt trapped between the burgeoning power of the corporation above, and the increasingly violent clamoring of working class labor below. 6 In many ways, they were protecting their own class's unique interests, for how could their beloved independent middle class flourish when faced with the specter of either despotic corporate control or anarchy and socialism? These men hoped for a return of old-fashioned individuality that they felt was endangered by corporate interests, labor unions, and urban political machines. For the progressives, a choice existed between “a government controlled by corporate interests, Socialism, or if we have the courage, unselfishness and determination, a government of individuals.” 7

Religious beliefs powerfully influenced the progressive mindset. “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!” Theodore Roosevelt bellowed during his 1912 Presidential campaign as a Progressive Party candidate. Religion has been the driving force behind most American reform movements, from abolition to temperance, harkening back to the attempts of the Puritans to create a model Christian society in the wilderness of the New World.

Geographically, progressivism had its roots in the Midwest, somewhat the heir to the agrarian populist movement. While the progressives shunned the dubious goal of free silver, both populists and progressives agreed with the notion thacorporationsns, especially railroads, should be controlled, and were advocates of direct democracy. While most dapper progressive leaders deeply disapproved of the hayseed populists (although Hiram Johnson began his political career as a populist candidate for Sheriff), many voters previously enamored with the populist cause transferred their loyalties to progressive candidates. In Southern California in particular, the strongest progressive voting block, Midwestern emigrants and their children accounted for roughly 60% the population in 1910. From the Midwest they brought a reforming instinct, nascent progressive notions, and a pious Protestantism.8

Despite their supposed faith in the individual, the Calvanist bent of many progressives caused them to support moral legislation and actively sought to protect people from their own vices. Hence progressive legislation against prostitution, racetrack gambling, slot machines, pre-marital intercourse, and drinking. Temperance had a particularly powerful appeal to progressives, who believed that the troubles of the working class stemmed in large part from their unfortunate habit of drowning themselves in alcohol.

All of these reforms demonstrated a deep distrust for the working class. Progressives called for a “classless” society, a society that they hoped in would be in the moral image of the sober, responsible, educated and moderate middle class. Still, many progressives were sympathetic towards the plight of working people.

Progressivism in California was a microcosm of progressive trends in the United States. The Southern Pacific Railroad was a model corporate bogey-man, San Francisco a hotbed of graft and vice, and Los Angeles was a battleground between bitter corporate elite and organized labor. Such problems called for an especially energetic progressive response and thus in no other state was progressive reform as organized and politicized as it was in California.


Go To: Early Years of California Progressivism



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