Many Progressives believed that the concept of a perfected democracy was vital to the health of the U.S. They developed this concept in opposition to corporate influence in government and machine politics, both of which were prevalent during the Gilded Age. Progressives felt that Americans should have more control over their government. They believed that this would make government responsive to ordinary citizens, not just corporate lobbyists and party bosses. Progressives promoted this cause across the U.S., and encouraged the passage of democratic reforms.
Progressives aimed to eliminate the influence of special interests in state legislatures, and to encourage the growth of democratic processes at the state level. Among other reforms, they promoted the initiative and the referendum, which the Populist Party included in its Omaha Platform of 1892.
Progressives also supported a reform known as the recall.
Beginning in the late 19th century, Progressives across the country implemented some or (in some cases) all of the democratic reforms listed above.
EXAMPLEIn 1898, South Dakota became the first state to allow initiatives to appear on a ballot. By 1920, 20 states had adopted the procedure.
EXAMPLEIn 1910, Oregon became the first state to allow recalls. By 1920, 12 states had adopted this tool.
Progressives also promoted a democratic reform of party politics by advocating for a direct primary system.
Traditionally, only convention delegates could select candidates for elections. The direct primary system enabled all party members to vote for candidates, with the nomination going to the individual who received the most votes. This was the beginning of the current system, in which the major political parties hold primary elections before the general election.
In the southern states, where this system was first implemented, primary elections were used to exclude African Americans from the democratic process.
White southerners used the primary system to promote all-white solidarity within the Democratic Party. In each of the southern states, the Democrats implemented primaries in which only white men could vote. All-white primaries and other Jim Crow voting measures (e.g., poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses) secured the supremacy of the Democratic Party in southern politics.
In addition to their work in the states, Progressives pushed for democratic reforms at the federal level. Traditionally, state legislatures selected U.S. Senators. In 1913, Progressives successfully lobbied for the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Progressives sought to increase expertise and efficiency in city and state government, and to eliminate inefficiency, waste, and corruption.
Progressives were frustrated with the corruption and favoritism displayed by political machines in cities across the country, like New York City’s Tammany Hall. They believed that machine politics wasted enormous sums of taxpayer money and slowed progress, while enriching politicians, party bosses, and their affiliates. The Progressives looked for opportunities to change this system, and paid close attention to successful reforms in city governments across the nation.
One of the most notable successes occurred in Galveston, Texas, in 1901. Following a hurricane that claimed over 8,000 lives and contributed to the collapse of city government, citizens adopted a commission system of city government.
Following the hurricane, the citizens of Galveston elected commissioners to govern the city. Each of the commissioners was responsible for a specific administrative area (e.g., water, fire department, police, etc.). With no “boss” in charge, graft and corruption decreased.
The city manager form of municipal government, first used in Staunton, Virginia in 1908, was another notable reform.
The city manager system separated the daily operations of a city from the electoral process and party politics. Citizens elected city councilors who passed laws and handled all legislative issues. The council’s first duty was to hire a city manager, who dealt with all daily matters of operating a city. The manager was usually an engineer or businessman — not a politician — who understood how a city operated and had the expertise to oversee city workers, budgets, and projects.
At the state level, one of the greatest advocates of Progressive government was Robert La Follette. While serving as Governor of Wisconsin (1901-1906), La Follette introduced the Wisconsin Idea.
Based on expert input and supported by Wisconsin Progressives, La Follette enacted a number of reforms, including a workmen’s compensation system, a minimum wage law, and an income tax law.
As we have learned, Progressives were generally proponents of social justice (meaning improving rights, protections and opportunities for everyone). However, in attempting to promote social justice, elements of social control (limiting the rights of certain groups) were often a result. Historians can investigate the tensions between "social justice" and "social control" by examining reformers' efforts to protect women and children in the workplace during the Progressive Era.
Concern for the safety of women and children in the workplace informed the work of Progressive reformers. Women were often in the vanguard of workplace reform efforts.
Building upon the settlement house movement of the late 19th century, reformers developed an agenda that required government to protect those who were most vulnerable in the industrial economy: women and children.
In 1900, the U.S. Census reported that one out of every six children between the ages of five and ten were working. The large number of children who worked in poor conditions, earning low wages (much lower than those paid to adults), led to the formation of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1904.
Understanding the role that photography could play in encouraging support for reform, the NCLC hired Lewis Hine. He began a decade-long pictorial campaign to educate Americans about the plight of children working in factories.
A number of industries fiercely opposed any federal restriction on child labor but, in 1912, the NCLC convinced President Taft (who succeeded Theodore Roosevelt in 1908) to authorize the creation of a U.S. Children’s Bureau, led by Julia Lathrop. Julia Lathrop was a former resident of Hull House. By leading the Children’s Bureau, she became the first woman to head a federal agency.
As a branch of the Department of Labor, the Children's Bureau worked closely with the NCLC to increase awareness of the child labor issue. In 1916, research by the Children’s Bureau and pressure from the NCLC contributed to passage of the Keating-Owen Act, which prohibited the interstate trade of goods produced by child labor. The Supreme Court later declared the law unconstitutional, and it was not until 1938 that child labor was outlawed in the United States.
Another vehicle for social justice reform among women was the National Consumers League (NCL), founded in 1898 by Progressives including Jane Addams and Florence Kelley.
One of the NCL’s most notable initiatives was its support for the passage of laws limiting the number of hours for female workers. In 1908, the NCL submitted a brief that helped to convince the Supreme Court to uphold one of these laws which was being challenged in Muller v. Oregon.
Similar to way in which direct primaries were used to restrict voting rights, the NCL’s efforts on behalf of female laborers in Muller v. Oregon had far-reaching, unintended consequences. The NCL’s legal brief was developed by Florence Kelley and her staff, and argued before the Court by Louis Brandeis (a future Supreme Court Justice). Like many other Progressive documents, it relied on expert support; in this case, extensive sociological and medical data to prove that long working hours had a negative effect on women’s health. Reliance on scientific data would play a significant role in future cases concerning gender and racial equality.
In arguing that hard factory work and long hours were detrimental to women’s health, the NCL advanced assumptions that promoted gender inequality. These assumptions included a belief that women are weaker than men, and that a woman’s ability to bear children requires government to take action to support her well-being — at the expense of her right to self-determination. The Court's assertion that protecting women was necessary to ensure “the strength...of the race” indicates that the Justices agreed with these assumptions.
Muller v. Oregon demonstrates how Progressive reform efforts on behalf of social justice could backfire. In this instance and others, the outcome of reform efforts reinforced widely-held assumptions regarding race, class, or gender.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Quote from Muller v. Oregon (1908), LLI: http://bit.ly/2idqQ5W, Statistic about city manager system retrieved from http://bit.ly/2n0h8qx, Initiative and referendum statistic: http://bit.ly/2ohF2hs, Derived from Openstax tutorial 19.1 http://bit.ly/2lsDA9D, 21.1 http://bit.ly/2kT0L0n, 21.2 http://bit.ly/2k8bH5V. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.