Progressivism in the United States was not one single movement but a series of movements that led to reform, relief and recovery. These movements aimed at making the government more efficient, regulating banks, bettering social work and labor. The movement took hold early during the 20th century from about the end of the 1800s to the Great Depression. The idea behind the Progressive movement was to better society as a whole by engaging in all aspects of society.
One aspect of Progressivism was the idea to make the government more efficient. It aimed to remove government corruption. William U’Ren in Oregon and Robert M. La Follette in Wisconsin both passed laws to weaken the power of machine politicians and political bosses. Both worked on ending corrupt practices at the local levels.
Another example of progressive reform was the rise of the city manager. The idea behind this system was paid professional engineers ran the day-today affairs of city governments under guidelines set by the cities elected officials. This way cities were under the supervision of people trained in how to maintain infrastructure.
One of the biggest areas of reform was the regulation of large corporations and monopolies. With the advent of the railway, the economy grew at a rapid pace and corporations grew right alongside. Trust-busting was all the rage during this time. Progressives believed that monopolies suppressed competition and restricted growth and improvement. Both Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft believed in trust-busting and combined they brought down over 130 trusts during their time in office. The United States anti-trust laws aim to break up anticompetitive behavior within the economy that creates unfair business practices. A monopoly is when a corporation creates a stranglehold within the market on a service or product that prevents competition.
The idea of regulating these large corporations came into play as well. Some progressives, like Benjamin Parke De Witt, believed that not all monopolies were bad. Large corporations were able to provide services for the nation that smaller businesses just couldn’t perform. With their sheer size and resources, larger corporations were a valuable asset to the nation. It wasn’t a far off notion that these large corporations might end up abusing their power. Hence, this is why some progressives believed that these corporations should be allowed to exist but should be closely regulated by the government to prevent any type of exploitation of their power. President Roosevelt was a fan of this idea.
The economy was booming at such a rapid pace that ideas were being thrown around left and right. Corporations were developing and growing and becoming more and more powerful by the day. Without regulation, there were possibilities that these corporations could bring down the capitalist economy on itself.
An additional area of progressivism was social work, or more specifically labor laws and organized labor. Up until this point it wasn’t unusual to see children working. It was during this time that child labor laws were enacted to provide for child safety. The goals of these news laws were to give children an opportunity to not have to work but go to school and learn therefore providing the future with a brighter outlook by having more smart people around. Of course these laws didn’t sit well with business owners, like factory supervisors, because they were losing employees. Cheap labor employees at that. This was a turning point for the nation as it led to more children getting an education and in increase in new and innovative ideas for the future.
Organized labor was also on the rise during the progressive movement. Labor unions were around and grew steadily but it wasn’t until the progressive movement that things exploded. Like children working, up until this point it wasn’t unusual to see workers working sixteen hour work days, working for wages that were way below the poverty line. Labor unions aimed to better the workplace environment in a number of ways. A backer of bettering the workplace was President Teddy Roosevelt. He supported the eight-hour work day, improved safety and health conditions, workmens comp laws and minimum wage laws for women workers. Work place safety wasn’t an important issue to owners so it was important that laws were enacted to provide for workers. Since there weren’t any safety precautions in place, accidents were a regular occurrence and without and workers compensation in place if you were injured on the job and couldn’t work, you lost money. Progressive reform aimed to end of all this.