7.4 The Progressives

10 min readdecember 27, 2022

Robby May

Robby May

Caleb Lagerwey

Caleb Lagerwey



AP US History 🇺🇸

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If the Gilded Age was a box of manure covered in a thin layer of gold, the Progressives were those who tried to clean up the dirty insides. They were interested in expert rule for the good of society, sometimes whether society wanted them to do so or not. They were often contradictory: they fought corruption, racism, and sexism, yet promoted racism, eugenics, and elitism.  
🎥 Watch: AP US History - The Progressive Era

Journalist Reformers

Many Progressives were journalists, and the term muckrakers applies to many of them since they sought to expose the areas that needed reforming via magazines and newspapers. 
Muckraker / Progressive
Issue Exposed
Ida M. Tarbell
Standard Oil (Rockefeller) & Trusts
Lincoln Steffens
Boss Tweed & political corruption
Upton Sinclair
Immigration & food safety (via The Jungle)
Jacob Riis
Tenements (poorly made, crowded apartments) via How the Other Half Lives
Jane Addams
Immigration (via Hull [Settlement] House)*
Margaret Sanger
Birth Control (or lack thereof for poor women)
* this led middle and upper class, college-educated women (who were often also white and often made up large portions of the Progressive movement in general) to move into poor immigrant neighborhoods and open up social welfare organizations. It was the beginning of the social worker profession and they provided social services: child day care, kindergarten classes, English classes, citizenship test training, libraries, gyms, etc. to help assimilate immigrants into urban American culture and to deal with poverty.
These reformers were instrumental in exposing the tarnished inside of the previously perceived "gilded age." For example, Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives exposed the conditions of tenements in New York City through photojournalism. His photos of tenements, along with his implication that the "other half" doesn't know how this half lives, implies that action must be taken.

One of Jacob Riis' Photographs

Likewise, literary reformers like Upton Sinclair created significant political change through their writing. Sinclair's The Jungle, though originally targetted at capitalism as a whole, created significant discussion about the conditions of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Though fictional, The Jungle brought the public awareness about an issue in the Gilded Age through vivid imagery (seriously, the piece is disgusting) and its political and economic implications. As a result, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907 was passed and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was established to enforce food standards nationwide.

Political Changes

In a sequel to the antebellum reform movements and in a preview of the New Deal of the 1930s, some Progressives tried to change society through moral legislation and increased democracy. While there are many examples you could use, the following list includes several must-know examples (amendments) as well as other representative political changes:
🎥 Watch: AP US History - Progressive Amendments
16th Amendment
Income tax to decrease wealth inequality
17th Amendment
Direct election of senators (more democracy)
18th Amendment
Prohibition of alcohol (repealed by 21st amendment in 1933)
19th Amendment
Women’s suffrage/franchise (voting rights)
Pure Food & Drug Act
Regulated the safety of food and prescription drugs
Federal Reserve Act
Created the Federal Reserve to manage the nation’s monetary policy (economic policy relating to the money supply); regulates banking industry to limit panics
Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914
Strengthened the federal government's oversight of businesses to reduce trusts and monopolies (adds more enforcement to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890)
A political process through which voters can place a law on a ballot and vote it into existence, going around the state legislature
A political process through which voters can undo an act of a state legislature through enough votes
A political process through which voters can remove a disliked politician from office earlier than their term expiration date
Australian Ballot
Political parties could manipulate and intimidate voters by printing lists (or tickets) of party candidates and watching voters drop them into the ballot box on election day. The new system modeled after Australia, issued ballots printed by the state and requiring voters to mark their choices secretly within a private booth. 
Direct Primaries
placing the nominating process directly into the hands of the voters. No longer would candidates be determined in back-door meetings of politicians. 
Controlling Public Utilities
By 1915, 2/3 of the nation’s many cities owned their own water systems. Many cities also came to own and operate gas lines, electric power plants and urban transportation systems. 

Progressives at the State Level

In Wisconsin, Robert La Follette established a strong personal following as governor who won passage of the “Wisconsin Idea” a series of Progressive measures that included a direct primary law, tax reform and state regulatory commissions to monitor railroads, utilities, and business such as insurance.

Robert La Follette

Progressives at the National Level

Following President McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became, at the age of 42, the youngest president in U.S. history.
Roosevelt insisted on a Square Deal for labor and business. His square deal included three parts:
  • Consumer Protection
  • Business and Labor Regulation (including trust busting)
  • Conservation
🔥 Trivia: AP US History - Progressive Era and WWI Trivia

United Mine Workers Strike

The United Mine Workers demanded wage increases, an 8-hour workday, and company recognition of the union. In May 1902, 140,000 miners walked off the job. The mines closed. The strike continued for months and coal prices rose. As winter came, schools, hospitals, and factories ran short of coal. Public opinion turned against the companies. 
Roosevelt was furious complaining of the company’s arrogance and he invited both sides of the dispute to the White House for a conference. The union took a moderate tone and offered to submit the issues to arbitration. The companies again refused to budge. Roosevelt ordered the army to prepare to seize the mines and then leaked word of his intent to Wall Street leaders. 
They agreed to accept the decisions of an independent commission that the president would appoint. The workers returned to work and the commission awarded them a 10% wage increase and a cut in working hours. It recommended against union recognition. The coal companies were encouraged to raise prices to offset the wage increase.

Trust Busting

Roosevelt further increased his popularity by being the first president since the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 to enforce the poorly written law. On February 18, 1902 he instructed the Justice Dept. to bring suit against the Northern Securities Company for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
This holding company controlled the massive rail networks of the Northern Pacific, Great Northern and Chicago. J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and a bunch of other wealthy people were behind the company. The Supreme Court upheld the suit against Northern Securities and ordered the company dissolved.
Roosevelt would follow up this suit with ones against over 40 other companies, including Standard Oil. Roosevelt did make a distinction between breaking up “bad trusts” which harmed the public and stifled competition, and regulating “good trusts” which though efficiency and low prices dominated the market (these are also called natural monopolies. If you're interested, take AP Micro 😉).

The Clayton Anti-Trust Act

In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (abbreviated as SATA for this guide, but write it all out in essays!) which aimed to bring down trusts and monopolies that had dominated the Gilded Age. However, the SATA had a few small issues. For one, it specifically targetted all actions that were not conducive to "competitive markets." This meant, while monopolies where illegal, so were things like unionization and striking. In fact, for years, the only effective use of the SATA was to take down unions!
In 1895, the Supreme Court made a decision in United States v. E. C. Knight Company that effectively invalidated the Sherman Antitrust Act, which had been passed just five years prior. The case involved the American Sugar Refining Company, which was accused of violating the Act despite controlling nearly all of the sugar refining in the U.S. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the company's control of manufacturing did not equate to control of trade, effectively dismissing the allegations against it. This decision was widely criticized and had a significant impact on the enforcement of antitrust legislation in the United States.
This is where the Clayton Anti-Trust Act comes in. Passed in 1914, the CATA (again, write it out in essays!) was an updated version of the SATA that more effectively targetted monopolies and explicitly protected unions and workers' rights. This aided in trust busting under the Wilson presidency between 1916 and 1924.


There were two competing types of Progressives in the area of environmental care. The preservationists like John Muir and his Sierra Club fought for the preservation of wilderness areas without human interference.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt wanted government experts to use their expertise to use the nation’s natural resources responsibly. They both supported the creation of national parks, and presidents like Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson created agencies such as the National Forest Service and the National Park Service, respectively. 

Taft’s Presidency

The good natured William Howard Taft had served in Roosevelt’s cabinet as the secretary of war. Honoring the two-term tradition, Roosevelt refused to seek reelection and picked Taft to be his successor. He preferred the life of a judge.
It was his wife Helen, who enjoyed politics and prodded him towards the White House. Prior to this, he was a member of the House of Representatives and later in life he would become Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, making him the only president to serve in all three branches. 
Taft continued Roosevelt’s Progressive policies. As a trustbuster, he ordered the prosecution of almost twice the number of antitrust cases as his predecessor. Unlike Roosevelt, he didn’t differentiate between “good” and “bad” trusts.  Among these cases was one against U.S. Steel which included a merger approved by then President Theodore Roosevelt. An angry Roosevelt viewed Taft’s actions as a personal attack on his integrity.

The Election of 1912

Because of his anger with Taft over trust busting, Roosevelt decided to throw his hat back into the ring and run for a third term. Democrats were delighted that Taft and Roosevelt would fight for the nomination. The Republicans refused to give Roosevelt the nomination and instead gave it to Taft. 
Some anti-Taft and progressive Republicans came together to form the Progressive Party and nominated Roosevelt. The party would soon be known as the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt campaigned strenuously and even completed one speech after being shot in the chest. He said “I have a message to deliver and I will deliver it as long as there is life in my body”
The Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson. On election day, Wilson won by 2 million votes over Roosevelt (largely because the Republican vote was divided). The Democrats also won control of both houses of Congress.

Wilson’s Progressive Program

Wilson set forth a program called the New Freedom. It emphasized: 
  • business competition and small government
  • reining in federal authority
  • echoed the Progressive party’s social justice objectives
Other Reforms:
Tariff Reduction
The Underwood Tariff Act passed in 1913. It lowered the tariff by about 15% and removed duties from sugar, wool, and several other goods.
Banking Reform
Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act. It created 12 regional banks, each to serve as the bank for its district. They answered to the Federal Reserve Board, appointed by the president, which governed the nationwide system. The reserve banks were authorized to issue currency, and through the discount rate (the interest rate which they loaned money to member banks) could raise or lower the amount of money in circulation.
Business Regulation
Congress passed the Clayton Antitrust Act. The act strengthened the provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act for breaking up monopolies.

Racial Divisions

The Progressives were also deeply two-faced when it came to several aspects of democracy. Some Progressives supported Southern segregation of African Americans. Other Progressives ignored it. Some fought against it like Ida B. Wells and her anti-lynching muckraking.
Some Progressives offered help to immigrants (see Jane Addams above), but other favored racist immigration restrictions or literacy tests. The literacy tests were designed to make sure less educated people or people less proficient in English—usually racial minorities and recent immigrants, respectively—could not vote so that the government would be controlled by “experts,” in this case more Anglo-Saxon native-born Americans.
Progressives also disagreed in their approach to African Americans. Booker T. Washington, a leader of the African American community down south, famously stated in his Atlanta Compromise speech that African Americans should work first for economic success and wait for social equality.
W.E.B. DuBois, by contrast, was a Black leader who insisted upon social equality and called for a Talented Tenth of the African American community to rise up and show White people what African Americans were capable of accomplishing. In 1909, he helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a major organization fighting for black rights to this day.
🎥 Watch: AP US History - Early 20th Century Progressive Era and WWI
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