The American Progressive Movement

What every Conservative needs to know

Part 1 of 4

The terms “The Progressive Movement” and “Progressive” have been in magazines and in the news lately. How many of us really know what these terms mean? The following article will define and give you a better understanding of what each means and how they might affect your own particular life now and in the future. At first look this movement and label seems perfectly reasonable, who doesn’t want progress right? “Isn’t progress a good thing?” Like any other utopian philosophy it looks great on paper, but, what looks good on paper doesn’t always work out in real life.

Let me use the example of the Bumblebee, I’m sure all of us have heard the argument that technically a Bumblebee can’t fly. Scientists, Physicists, Mathematicians, Aerodynamic Engineers and Biologists have studied the bumblebee for years running numerous calculations studying the little insect in great depth. Its lift capabilities in relation to its lift to weight ratio has been studied as well as it enormous aerodynamic drag along with the energy needed to supply power to it wings has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that scientifically a bumblebee cannot fly.

The only problem with this scientific conclusion is they forgot to tell the bumblebee this and it just goes merrily on its way flying wherever it needs to go. With this simple and amusing example we can now see that not all things that at first look good in theory and on paper are in effect good ideas in reality. Let’s take a look at the Progressive Movement and Progressives with an open mind AND a little common sense.

Progressivism is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as : the principles, beliefs, or practices ofprogressives: capitalized : the political and economic doctrines advocated by the Progressives.

Where did this philosophy start and when did it begin specifically in the United States. There are generally four periods of time associated with the Progressive Era and the Progressive Movement in the United States. In this 4 Part Series we will take a good look at each period of time and the people who were instrumental in it.

PART ONE – The First Progressive Movement [1890’s to the Great Depression]

PART TWO – The Second Progressive Movement [1924]

PART THREE – The Third Progressive Movement [1947]

PART FOUR – The Current Progressive Movement [1960 to the present]

We will now examine each period of time and the people who were instrumental in it.


The First Progressive Movement [1890’s to the Great Depression]

The first or the beginning of the Progressive Movement or Era began in the mid 1800’s. Pragmatism was an American philosophy that was pioneered by John Dewey know as an American Philosopher, Psychologist and an Educational Reformer and William James. who also was a Philosopher, Psychologist and a Physician. Both men were instrumental in trying to reform the education system that existed at the time and also in later life. They were also supporters of the early liberal journalists who touted the evils of economic privilege, political corruption, and social injustice much as modern journalists of today do. During that time they were referred to as Muckrakers as their mission was to extol the evils they perceived that were forced upon the middle class and the poor. Some of the more noted journalists of the time were Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Stannard Baker and Upton Sinclair. They worked for periodicals such as Cosmopolitan, The Independent, Munsey’s and McClures. Also during this time John Dewey (1859-1952) gained prominence as an American Pragmatist.  On September 17, 1891, Philetus Sawyer who was a Republican leader at the time offered attorney Robert M. La Follette a bribe to fix a court case. La Follette was so offended and so infuriated that he spent many years traveling the state of Wisconsin speaking out against corrupt Politicians, Lumber Barons and the Railroads. He also sought and attained the office of Congressman, Governor and Senator where he worked tirelessly to change what he considered a corrupt political system that needed to be changed to reflect the Progressive beliefs. Elected to state, local and national offices,Progressives crafted a broad spectrum of reforms by enlisting faculty from the University of Wisconsin to help draft laws and serve on commissions. The “Wisconsin Idea,” as this relationship was called, held that an effective and accountable government worked best with the help of academic experts; it was sometimes expressed as, “the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” ScholarsJohn R. Commons (1862-1945) andEdwin Witte (1887-1960) worked closely with Progressive politicians to create programs that benefited workers, consumers and the disadvantaged. A new Legislative Reference Library led byCharles McCarthy (1873-1921) provided lawmakers with fast service from trained researchers, including a bill-drafting office that was emulated around the globe.

The Progressives started concentrating more and more on local governments because it was far easier to make changes to these systems than it was to change Federal and State laws and practices. By getting their followers elected onto school boards and municipal administrations they could start to institute changes that later could be championed by those who had been elected to higher offices, using the local leaders as examples of what they considered progress. The Progressives also had a large following in academia and their professors worked to change the minds of their students and thus spreading the ideas of Progressivism to a younger generation. With Progressives in place in higher governmental positions in both Federal and State governments and also at the local governmental level they, with the help of academia were able to start making changes to the basic way government looked at social issues of the time. Some of these issues were, Environmentalism,  Social Justice and what they called the “Common man’s rights of Self Governing”. Moving to early 1900’s Progressives gained the power of the Presidency first with Theodore Roosevelt the 26th President of the United States. Using his popularity gained in the “Rough Riders” he won election and furthered the the Progressive cause by championing the “New Nationalist” version of Progressivism. Taking advantage of the new cry for reform he used the power of the Presidency to pursue antitrust actions against companies and organizations like Northern Securities and the Swift Beef Trust. Throughout his Presidency Roosevelt sided with the unions and pledged to give Americans and American workers a “Square Deal”. Roosevelt was also a committed Conservationist and established many of America’s largest National Parks, National Forests, Game Preserves and National Monuments. There are so many I will just provide a link so that you may look at your leisure .

After stepping down from the Presidency in 1908 he had major disagreements with William Howard Taft and ran against him for the Republican Nomination. When this proved to be unsuccessful he started his own Progressive Party called the “Bull Moose” party. Roosevelt lost the election but stayed active in the growing Conservationist Movement. While Taft was aggressive against big business filing 90 antitrust suits against big companies such as U.S. Steel his successor  Woodrow Wilson  would become the Champion of the Progressive movement at the time. With Wilson now in the White House the Progressives agenda was moved to the front of the list of things Wilson wanted to Legislate while he had the chance. Wilson with the help of the Democrats was able to forward many of the Progressive ideals such as The Federal Reserve Act, The Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, Federal Farm Loan Act Commission, Antitrust Act, and the Income Tax Act among many others. Without a doubt President Wilson was the Progressive movement’s greatest advocate until that time. To list all of what he accomplished would take up too much space and place a heavy burden on the reader to absorb all the material at one time. I will provide quick links so you may read and investigate Wilson’s legacy at your leisure. Let us take a few moments here to look at the differences between Progressivism and other political movements and philosophies such as Conservatives, Liberals, Progressives, Socialists and Communists.

Conservatives– believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense.  Believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.Conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems.

Liberals– believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all.  It is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights.  Believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need.Liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems.

Progressives-Some of the largest issues progressives were concerned with in the early 20th century were unionization, public health, environmental protection and reduction of corruption in politics. The issues have since expanded to include civil rights concerns such as women and gay rights. Progressives support a range of other issues including abolition of the death penalty, Social Security reform and development of renewable energy.

Socialists-Socialism is a political term applied to an economic system in which property is held in common and not individually, and relationships are governed by a political hierarchy. Common ownership doesn’t mean decisions are made collectively, however. Instead, individuals in positions of authority make decisions in the name of the collective group. Regardless of the picture painted of socialism by its proponents, it ultimately removes group decision making in favor of the choices of one all-important individual.

Communists-Official ideology of the Soviet Union, characterized thereby complete government ownership of land and property, single party control of the government, the lack of individual rights, and the call for world wide revolution.

In part 2: the Progressive Movement from 1924 t0 1947.

Posted on May 15, 2012


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