At the turn of the century, there were many middle-class reform efforts in
order to ameliorate the problems that were caused by the turbulent changes that
the United States experienced during this time. At the city level, urbanization,
immigration, and industrialization led to a need for child labor laws, women's
suffrage, banking reform, food safety, housing for the poor, and other humanitarian
reform. This movement called progressivism, reflects both a consistent movement
for change, as well as a series of contemporaneous reform efforts at the turn
of the century in United States history.
There are three areas in which progressives tried to reform American society.
One of these areas was in moral and humanitarian reform. Private and governmental
action during this time was necessary in order to help "the other half
of the population", or those in need. This was called, "social justice."
In Henry George's book entitled, Progress and Poverty, he speaks of progress,
raising living standards, education, and leisure time, despite the tough working
conditions for the working class. Reformers in this area were concerned by the
plight of women and children in labor, and assured the enactment of child labor
laws. This reform effort assisted the advancement of change and humanity by
allowing children to spend more time in school, allowing them to mature more
naturally. They also built settlement houses, which helped to raise the standard
of living by creating schools, day care centers, and cultural enrichment programs.
The eighteenth amendment to the United States Constitution in 1919 was the prohibition
amendment. Progressives embraced prohibition because they felt that the consumption
of alcohol interfered with the ability for the nation to change and advance.
Another area that progressives tried to reform in American Society was the
economy. Most of the reform in this area was focused on the regulation of monopolies
and large corporations. The antitrust acts didn't seem quite sufficient to take
care of the abuses of capitalism during this time. Some progressives adopted
a view of laissez-faire, because they felt that marketplace forces were the
best in dealing with labor, wages, and product safety. They would eventually
have to fix these issues in order to survive as a corporation. Others believed
the government should take control of the corporations and run them for the
public interest, an idea called socialism. Trusts and merging corporations were
origins of monopoly, so another scheme of the progressives was a movement toward
getting breaking down large companies into smaller ones. In either case, reform
was needed in order to cause change for the better in the economy.
The third area of reform by progressives in the United States was more political.
Progressives wanted to make the government more responsive to the direct voice
of Americans. One of the ways they tried to do this was to promote initiative
(where ordinary citizens could propose laws directly for consideration), referendum
(where citizens could vote directly on laws), and recall (where public officials
can be removed from office by vote). They also promoted secret ballot so that
people would not be intimidated to vote. They promoted direct primary election,
where ordinary members of the political party could nominate a candidate for
office, rather than party bosses. The seventeenth and nineteenth amendments,
on direct election of U.S. Senators and female suffrage respectively, were also
ways of political reform by the progressives to change. The most successful
changes in the United States from progressivism was from the political reforms
they pushed for a greater democracy.