The Politics of Progressivism


Progressives sought to enable the citizenry to rule more directly.

Learning Objectives

Describe the ways the Progressives increased democratic representation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Progressive Era saw reforms in U.S. citizens ' democratic representation.
  • Many states created laws that allowed for direct voting on legislation, open primary elections, and greater citizen influence on the political process.
  • The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution established the direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote.
  • Robert M. La Follette Sr. was a Progressive politician who, as governor of Wisconsin and a U.S. congressman, led many initiatives that expanded the democratic participation of citizens.

Key Terms

  • recall election: A procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended.
  • referendum: A direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to vote on a particular proposal.
  • initiative: A means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters can force a public vote.
  • Seventeenth Amendment: This amendment to the U.S. Constitution established the popular election of U.S. senators by the people of the states.
  • The Wisconsin Idea: A policy developed in the state of Wisconsin that fosters public universities' contributions to the state, grounding legislation in thorough research and expert involvement.

Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

Progressives sought to enable the citizenry to rule more directly and circumvent political bosses. Thanks to the efforts of Oregon Populist Party State Representative William S. U'Ren and his Direct Legislation League, voters in Oregon overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure in 1902 that created the initiative and referendum processes for citizens to directly introduce or approve proposed laws or amendments to the state constitution, making Oregon the first state to adopt such a system.

An initiative (also known as a "popular" or "citizens'" initiative) is a means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters can force a public vote (plebiscite).

The initiative may take the form of a direct initiative or an indirect initiative. In a direct initiative, a measure is put directly to a vote after being submitted by a petition. In an indirect initiative, a measure is first referred to the legislature, and then put to a popular vote only if not enacted by the legislature.

A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to vote on a particular proposal, which is the result of a successful initiative. This may result in the adoption of a new law.

The vote may be on a proposed statute, constitutional amendment, charter amendment, or local ordinance, or to simply oblige the executive or legislature to consider the subject by submitting it to the order of the day. It is a form of direct democracy.

U'Ren also helped in the passage of an amendment in 1908 that gave voters power to recall elected officials. A recall election (also called a "recall referendum" or "representative recall") is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended. Recalls are initiated when sufficient voters sign a petition.

U'Ren would also go on to establish, at the state level, popular election of U.S. senators and the first presidential primary in the United States.

In 1911, California governor Hiram Johnson established the Oregon system of "Initiative, Referendum, and Recall" in his state, viewing them as good influences for citizen participation against the historic influence of large corporations on state lawmakers. These Progressive reforms were soon replicated in other states, including in Idaho, Washington, and Wisconsin, and today, roughly half of the states have initiative, referendum, and recall provisions in their state constitutions.

Direct Election of Senators

About 16 states began using primary elections to reduce the power of bosses and machines. The Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, requiring that all senators be elected by the people (instead of by state legislatures). The main motivation was to reduce the power of political bosses who controlled the Senate seats by virtue of their control of state legislatures. The result, according to political scientist Henry Ford Jones, was that the U.S. Senate had become a, "Diet of party lords, wielding their power without scruple or restraint, in behalf of those particular interests" that put them in office.

Reformers worked toward a constitutional amendment, which was strongly supported in the House of Representatives but initially opposed by the Senate. Bybee notes that the state legislatures, which would lose power if the reforms went through, were supportive of the campaign. By 1910, 31 state legislatures had passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment allowing direct election, and in the same year, 10 Republican senators who were opposed to reform were forced out of their seats, acting as a, "wake-up call to the Senate."

Reformers included William Jennings Bryan. Bryan and the reformers argued for popular election by highlighting perceived flaws with the existing system, specifically corruption and electoral deadlocks, and by arousing populist sentiment. Most important was the Populist argument: that there was a need to, "Awaken, in the senators... a more acute sense of responsibility to the people." Election through state legislatures was seen as an anachronism that was out of step with the wishes of the American people, and one that had led to the Senate becoming, "a sort of aristocratic body—too far removed from the people, beyond their reach, and with no special interest in their welfare." The settlement of the West and continuing absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants expanded the sense of "the people."

Robert M. La Follette Sr.

Portrait of Robert M. La Follette Sr.

Robert M. La Follette Sr.: Robert M. La Follette Sr. served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the governor of Wisconsin, and was a U.S. senator from Wisconsin from 1906 to 1925. He was a leader in the Progressive movement in American politics.

Robert M. La Follette Sr. (June 14, 1855–June 18, 1925) was an American Republican (and later a Progressive) politician. He served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the governor of Wisconsin, and was a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1906 to 1925. He ran for president of the United States as the nominee of his own Progressive Party in 1924, carrying Wisconsin and winning 17 percent of the national popular vote. La Follette has been called, "arguably the most important and recognized leader of the opposition to the growing dominance of corporations over the Government," and is one of the key figures pointed to in Wisconsin's long history of political liberalism. He is best remembered as a proponent of Progressivism and a vocal opponent of railroad trusts, bossism, World War I, and the League of Nations.

As governor of Wisconsin, La Follette championed numerous Progressive reforms, including the first workers' compensation system, railroad rate reform, direct legislation, municipal home rule, open government, the minimum wage, non-partisan elections, the open primary system, direct election of U.S. Senators, women's suffrage, and Progressive taxation. He created an atmosphere of close cooperation between the state government and the University of Wisconsin in the development of Progressive policy, which became known as the "Wisconsin Idea." The goals of his policy included establishing the recall, referendum, direct primary, and initiative. All of these were aimed at giving citizens a more direct role in government.

The Wisconsin Idea promoted the idea of grounding legislation in thorough research and expert involvement. To implement this program, La Follette began working with University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty. This made Wisconsin a, "laboratory for democracy" and, "the most important state for the development of Progressive legislation." As governor, La Follette signed legislation that created the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library (now Bureau) to ensure that a research agency would be available for the development of legislation.


Progressive reformers tried to apply scientific principles and rational problem-solving to social problems.

Learning Objectives

Describe how Progressives applied scientific reasoning to social and economic problems

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Progressives believed that applying scientific principles allowed for governments to institute bureaucracies that could analyze data and then distribute materials to its constituents based on that data.
  • One example of Progressive reform was the rise of the city-manager system, in which paid, professional engineers ran the day-to-day affairs of city governments under guidelines established by elected city councils.
  • Influences on this form of governing included " scientific management " developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Fordism, modeled on the factory system of Henry Ford and Ford Motors.

Key Terms

  • Fordism: A production system that involved synchronization, precision, and specialization within a company; it took the form of breaking down complex tasks into simpler ones along an assembly line.
  • Scientific Management: A theory of management intended to maximize labor productivity and economic efficiency. Also known as "Taylorism," it was developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s and 1890s, and involved the rational analysis of workflows. It attempted to adjust the time and motion of workers' activities so as to maximize their efficiency. This theory was one of the earliest attempts to apply science to the engineering of processes and to management.
  • council-manager style of government: A system in which the elected governing body (commonly called a "city council," "city commission," "board of aldermen," or "board of selectmen") is responsible for the legislative function of the municipality.

Many Progressives such as Louis Brandeis hoped to make American governments better able to serve the people's needs by making governmental operations and services more efficient and rational. Rather than making legal arguments against 10-hour workdays for women, he used "scientific principles" and data produced by social scientists documenting the high costs of long working hours for both individuals and society.

The Progressives' quest for efficiency was sometimes at odds with their quest for democracy. Taking power out of the hands of elected officials, and placing it in the hands of professional administrators reduced the voice of the politicians, and in turn reduced the voice of the people. Centralized decision-making by trained experts and reduced power for local wards made government less corrupt but more distant and isolated from the people it served. Progressives who emphasized the need for efficiency typically argued that trained independent experts could make better decisions than local politicians. Thus, Walter Lippmann in his influential Drift and Mastery (1914), which stressed the "scientific spirit" the "discipline of democracy," called for a strong central government guided by experts rather than by public opinion.


One example of Progressive reform was the rise of the city-manager system, in which paid, professional engineers ran the day-to-day affairs of city governments under guidelines established by elected city councils. Many cities created municipal "reference bureaus," which did expert surveys of government departments looking for waste and inefficiency. After in-depth surveys, local and even state governments were reorganized to reduce the number of officials and to eliminate overlapping areas of authority among departments. City governments were reorganized to reduce the power of local ward bosses, and to increase the powers of the city council. Governments at every level began developing budgets to help them plan their expenditures (rather than spending money haphazardly as needs arose and revenue became available). Governor Frank Lowden of Illinois showed a, "passion for efficiency" as he streamlined state government.

This system is part of the council-manager style of government. Under the council–manager form of government for municipalities, the elected governing body (commonly called a "city council," "city commission," "board of aldermen," or "board of selectmen") is responsible for the legislative function of the municipality such as establishing policy, passing local ordinances, determining voting appropriations, and developing an overall vision. County and other types of local government follow the same pattern, with governing body members receiving a title that matches the title of the body.

The legislative body, which is voted into office by public elections, appoints a professional manager to oversee the administrative operations, implement its policies, and advise it. The position of “mayor” present in this type of legislative body is a largely ceremonial title, and may be selected by the council from among its members or elected as an at-large council member with no executive functions.

Corruption also represented a source of waste and inefficiency in government. William U'Ren in Oregon and Robert M. La Follette in Wisconsin, as well as others, worked to clean up state and local governments by passing laws to weaken the power of machine politicians and political bosses. The Oregon System, which included a "Corrupt Practices Act," a public referendum, and a state-funded voter's pamphlet among other reforms, was exported to other states in the Northwest and Midwest. Its high point was in 1912, after which they detoured into a disastrous third party status.


A major influence on this efficient style of governing was the "Scientific Management" movement. The focus of this movement was to run organizations in an objective, scientific fashion to maximize efficiency, among other things. Scientific management, also called "Taylorism," was a theory of management that analyzed and synthesized workflows. Its main objective was improving economic efficiency, especially labor productivity. It was one of the earliest attempts to apply science to the engineering of processes and to management. Its development began with Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s and 1890s within the manufacturing industries. Its peak of influence occurred in the 1910s; by the 1920s, it was still influential but had begun an era of competition and syncretism with opposing or complementary ideas.


Assembly line: A Ford assembly line in 1913.

Another system of efficiency during the Progressive Era was Fordism, "the eponymous manufacturing system designed to spew out standardized, low-cost goods and afford its workers decent enough wages to buy them." It has also been described as, "a model of economic expansion and technological progress based on mass production: the manufacture of standardized products in huge volumes using special purpose machinery and unskilled labor." Although Fordism was a method used to improve productivity in the automotive industry, the principle could be applied to any kind of manufacturing process. Henry Ford and his senior managers did not use the word "Fordism" themselves to describe their motivations or worldview; however, many contemporaries framed their worldview as an "ism" and applied that name to it. Fordism's major success stemmed from the following three principles:

  1. The standardization of the product (nothing is handmade: everything is made through machines and molds by unskilled workers)
  2. The employment of assembly lines, which use special-purpose tools and/or equipment to allow unskilled workers to contribute to the finished product
  3. The payment of higher "living" wages to workers, so they can afford to purchase the products they make

These principles, coupled with a technological revolution during Henry Ford's time, allowed for this form of labor to flourish. It is true that his assembly line was revolutionary, but it was in no way original. His most original contribution to the modern world was breaking down complex tasks into simpler ones with the help of specialized tools. Simpler tasks created interchangeable parts that could be used the same way every time. This allowed for flexibility and created a very adaptable assembly line that could change its constituent components to meet the needs of the product being assembled.


Progressive reformers regarded regulation as a cure for all sorts of socioeconomic and political problems.

Learning Objectives

Examine how Progressives argued for increased government regulation of big businesses as a means of protecting free enterprise

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Progressive reformers successfully lobbied for restrictions on immigration, limits on corporate monopolies, and laws ensuring pure or safe food and drugs, among other goals.
  • Regulations were passed in every aspect of society during the Progressive Era. Most notably, big businesses—especially the oil and railroad industries—were regulated.
  • The Sherman Act of 1890 attempted to outlaw the restriction of competition by large companies that cooperated with rivals to fix outputs, prices, and market shares, initially through pools and later through trusts.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt sued 45 companies under the Sherman Act; William Howard Taft sued 75.
  • American hostility toward big business began to decrease after the Progressive Era.
  • Progressives also sought labor reforms to protect workers, and passed laws that restricted child labor, established an eight-hour work day, and improved safety and health conditions in factories.

Key Terms

  • Federal Reserve: The central banking system of the United States.
  • regulation: A law or administrative rule, issued by an organization, used to guide or prescribe the conduct of members of that organization.
  • trust: A group of businessmen or traders organized for mutual benefit to produce and distribute specific commodities or services, and managed by a central body of trustees.
  • Sherman Antitrust Act: A law passed in 1914 that prohibits certain business activities that federal government regulators deem to be anticompetitive, and that requires the federal government to investigate and pursue trusts.

Progressive Reform

By the turn of the century, a middle class had developed that was leery of both the business elite and the radical political movements of farmers and laborers in the Midwest and West. The Progressives argued for the need for government regulation of business practices to ensure competition and free enterprise. Congress enacted a law regulating railroads in 1887 (the Interstate Commerce Act), and one preventing large firms from controlling a single industry in 1890 (the Sherman Antitrust Act ). These laws were not rigorously enforced, however, until the years between 1900 and 1920, when Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921), and others sympathetic to the views of the Progressives came to power. Many of today's U.S. regulatory agencies, including the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, were created during these years

Many Progressives hoped that by regulating large corporations, they could liberate human energies from the restrictions imposed by industrial capitalism. Pro-labor Progressives, such as Samuel Gompers, argued that industrial monopolies were unnatural economic institutions that suppressed the competition that was necessary for progress and improvement. United States antitrust law is the body of laws that prohibits anticompetitive behavior (monopolies) and unfair business practices. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft supported trust-busting.

Progressives, such as Benjamin Parke De Witt, argued that in a modern economy, large corporations, and even monopolies, were both inevitable and desirable. With their massive resources and economies of scale, large corporations offered the United States advantages that smaller companies could not offer. Yet, these large corporations might abuse their great power. The federal government should allow these companies to exist but should regulate them for the public interest. President Theodore Roosevelt generally supported this idea.

Sherman Act

The Sherman Antitrust Act is a landmark federal statute in the history of U.S. antitrust law passed by Congress in 1890. Passed under the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, the act prohibits certain business activities that federal government regulators deem to be anticompetitive, and requires the federal government to investigate and pursue trusts.

In the general sense, a trust is a centuries-old form of a contract in which one party entrusts its property to a second party. These are commonly used to hold inheritances for the benefit of children, for example. "Trust" in relation to the Sherman Act refers to a type of contract that combines several large businesses for monopolistic purposes (to exert complete control over a market), though the act addresses monopolistic practices even if they have nothing to do with this specific legal arrangement.

The law attempts to prevent the artificial raising of prices by restriction of trade or supply. "Innocent monopoly," or monopoly achieved solely by merit, is perfectly legal, but acts by a monopolist to artificially preserve that status, or nefarious dealings to create a monopoly, are not. The purpose of the Sherman Act is not to protect competitors from harm from legitimately successful businesses, nor to prevent businesses from gaining honest profits from consumers, but rather to preserve a competitive marketplace to protect consumers from abuses.



Standard Oil refinery no. 1 in Cleveland, Ohio: Photograph of a Standard Oil refinery. Standard Oil was a major company broken up under U.S. antitrust laws.

Public officials during the Progressive Era put passing and enforcing strong antitrust policies high on their agenda. President Theodore Roosevelt sued 45 companies under the Sherman Act, and William Howard Taft sued 75. In 1902, Roosevelt stopped the formation of the Northern Securities Company, which threatened to monopolize transportation in the Northwest (see Northern Securities Co. v. United States).

One of the most well-known trusts was the Standard Oil Company; John D. Rockefeller in the 1870s and 1880s had used economic threats against competitors and secret rebate deals with railroads to build a monopoly in the oil business, though some minor competitors remained in business. In 1911, the Supreme Court agreed that in recent years (1900–1904) Standard had violated the Sherman Act. It broke the monopoly into three dozen separate competing companies, including Standard Oil of New Jersey (later known as Exxon and now ExxonMobil), Standard Oil of Indiana (Amoco), Standard Oil Company of New York (Mobil, which later merged with Exxon to form ExxonMobil), and so on. In approving the breakup, the Supreme Court added the "rule of reason." Not all big companies, and not all monopolies, are evil; and the courts (not the executive branch) are to make that decision. To be harmful, a trust had to somehow damage the economic environment of its competitors.

Labor Reform

Progressives also enacted laws that regulated businesses to protect workers.

Child-labor laws were designed to prevent the overworking of children in the newly emerging industries. The goal of these laws was to give working-class children the opportunity to go to school and to mature more naturally, thereby liberating the potential and encouraging the advancement of humanity.

After 1907, the American Federation of Labor, under Samuel Gompers, moved to demand legal reforms that would support labor unions. Most of the support came from Democrats, but Theodore Roosevelt and his third party, the Bull Moose Party, also supported such goals as the eight-hour work day, improved safety and health conditions in factories, workers' compensation laws, and minimum-wage laws for women.

In the years between 1889 and 1920, railroad use in the United States expanded sixfold. With this expansion, the dangers to the railroad worker increased. Congress passed the Federal Employers Liability Act ( FELA ) in response to the high number of railroad deaths in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Under FELA, railroad workers who are not covered by regular workers' compensation laws are able to sue companies over their injury claims. FELA allows monetary payouts for pain and suffering, decided by juries based on comparative negligence rather than pursuant to a predetermined benefits schedule under workers' compensation.

The United States Employees' Compensation Act is a federal law enacted on September 7, 1916. Sponsored by Senator John W. Kern (D) of Indiana and Representative Daniel J. McGillicuddy (D) of Maine, the act established the distribution of compensation to federal civil-service employees for wages lost due to job-related injuries. This act became the precedent for disability insurance across the country and the precursor to broad-coverage health insurance.

The Prohibition Movement

Prohibition was a major reform movement from the 1840s into the 1920s. Its goal was to prohibit the manufacture or sale of alcohol.

Learning Objectives

Analyze Prohibition and its effect on American society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Prohibition was promoted by the "dry" crusaders, a movement led by rural Protestants and social Progressives in the Democratic and Republican parties, and was coordinated by the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Prohibition was instituted with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on January 16, 1919. It prohibited the, "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States."
  • Congress passed the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919, to enforce the law, but most large cities were uninterested in enforcing the legislation, which left an understaffed federal service to go after bootleggers.
  • The sale of alcohol was illegal, but alcoholic drinks were still widely available.
  • Prohibition was repealed during the Depression in order to collect taxes on liquor sales.
  • Many deem Prohibition a failure, although it has an important legacy in the United States and reflected changing social attitudes.

Key Terms

  • Volstead Act: A law that set down the rules for enforcing the ban on alcohol and defined the types of alcoholic beverages that were prohibited during Prohibition.
  • Prohibition: A law forbidding the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol.


Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, or sale of alcoholic beverages that remained in place from 1920 to 1933. It was promoted by the "dry" crusaders, a movement led by rural Protestants and social Progressives in the Democratic and Republican parties, and was coordinated by the Anti-Saloon League, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the first mass organization among women devoted to social reform with a program that, "linked the religious and the secular through concerted and far-reaching reform strategies based on applied Christianity." The purpose of the WCTU was to further the temperance movement and to create a, "sober and pure world" through abstinence, purity, and evangelical Christianity.

Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, who became the national president of the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1879, and remained president for 19 years, was an American educator, temperance reformer, and women's suffragist. Her influence was instrumental in the passage of the Eighteenth (Prohibition) and Nineteenth (Women Suffrage) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Photograph of three men dumping a barrel full of alcohol down a manhole as a number of men (including three officers) look on.

Dumping liquor: Disposal of liquor during Prohibition.

Prohibition was mandated under the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Volstead Act set the rules for enforcing the ban and defined the types of alcoholic beverages that were prohibited. For example, religious uses of wine were allowed. Private ownership and consumption of alcohol were not made illegal under federal law; however, in many areas, local laws were stricter, with some states banning possession outright.

Although alcohol consumption did decline as a whole, there was a rise in alcohol consumption in many cities along with significant increases in organized crime related to its production and distribution. The sale of alcohol was illegal, but alcoholic drinks were still widely available. People also kept private bars to serve their guests. Large quantities of alcohol were smuggled in from Canada overland, by sea along both ocean coasts, and via the Great Lakes. The government cracked down on alcohol consumption on land within the United States. It was a different story on the water, where vessels outside of the three-mile limit were exempt. Legal and illegal home brewing was popular during Prohibition. "Malt and hop" stores popped up across the country and some former breweries turned to selling malt extract syrup, ostensibly for baking and "beverage" purposes.


Economic urgency played no small part in accelerating the advocacy for repeal. The number of conservatives who pushed for prohibition in the beginning decreased. Many farmers who fought for prohibition now fought for repeal because of the negative effects it had on the agriculture business. Prior to the 1920 implementation of the Volstead Act, approximately 14 percent of federal, state, and local tax revenues were derived from alcohol commerce. When the Great Depression hit and tax revenues plunged, the governments needed this revenue stream. Millions could be made by taxing beer. There was controversy about whether the repeal should be a state or nationwide decision. On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, known as the "Cullen-Harrison Act," allowing the manufacture and sale of 3.2 percent beer and light wines. The Volstead Act previously defined an intoxicating beverage as one with greater than 0.5 percent alcohol. Upon signing the Cullen-Harrison Act, Roosevelt made his famous remark: "I think this would be a good time for a beer."

The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933, with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


Prohibition marked one of the last stages of the Progressive Era. During the nineteenth century, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling addiction, and a variety of other social ills and abuses led to activism targeted at curing the perceived problems in society. Among other things, this led many communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to introduce alcohol prohibition, with the subsequent enforcement in law becoming a hotly debated issue. Prohibition supporters, called "drys," presented the ban as a victory for public morals and health. Anti-prohibitionists, known as "wets," criticized the alcohol ban as an intrusion of mainly rural Protestant ideals on a central aspect of urban, immigrant, and Catholic life.

Although popular opinion is that Prohibition failed, it succeeded in cutting overall alcohol consumption in half during the 1920s, and consumption remained below pre-Prohibition levels until the 1940s, suggesting that Prohibition did socialize a significant proportion of the population in temperate habits, at least temporarily. Some researchers contend that its political failure is attributable more to a changing historical context than to characteristics of the law itself. A persistent criticism is that Prohibition led to unintended consequences such as the growth of urban crime organizations and a century of Prohibition-influenced legislation. As an experiment, it lost supporters every year, and lost tax revenue that governments needed when the Great Depression began in 1929.

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