The Progressive Era: Definition & Amendments

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

The Progressive Era was a period of significant change in the United States that lasted for roughly the first two decades of the 20th century. In this lesson, you'll learn about the four amendments that came from this period of reform.

What Does It Mean to Be Progressive?

You've probably heard the terms 'Progressive Movement' or 'Progressive Era,' but what exactly does it mean to be progressive? The most basic definition of 'progressive' means to gradually change something over time. When you look at the word from a historical standpoint, progressive usually describes a person or group of people who tries to reform or change things to make them better for society as a whole.

The Progressive Era

The Progressive Era is generally considered to be the first two decades of the 20th century, roughly 1900 to 1920. Take a few moments to picture life during that time. When the colonists first arrived in America, they were farmers, but that all changed during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Millions of people flocked to cities to find jobs. Factories were noisy, dangerous, and spewed toxic gases that polluted the air and clouded the sky. Small children worked 12-hour days and risked life and limb to climb across dangerous machinery. Cities became the breeding ground for not only disease, but also crime and poverty.

Rich industrialists, referred to as 'robber barons,' made their fortunes from the hard work of underpaid employees. They used that money to line the pockets of politicians to get what they wanted at the expense of the American people. Political machines controlled local and national politics, and corruption was rampant.

Progressive Era political cartoon depicting the influence of a major oil company on state and federal legislatures
Progressive Era political cartoon, depicting the influence of a major oil company on state and federal legislatures

Sounds pretty awful, right? People during that time thought the same thing and were ready to make a change. Activists, called progressives, began pushing for social, political, and economic reform across the country. Many reform movements started locally and gained national attention. The Progressive Era touched nearly every facet of American life, including labor reform, increased government regulation, and expansion of democracy.

Perhaps the most significant reflection of Progressive Era reforms comes from the Constitution. From 1909 to 1919, Congress passed four different amendments that changed the Constitution. By 1920, each of the amendments was ratified by the states, fundamentally changing American life.

16th Amendment

Originally, income tax (the amount of money the government takes from your salary) was based on your state's population. Each year, the government determined how much money it needed to collect from the people, then looked at the total population of each state. Let's say you come from New York. If New York's total population was 10% of the entire country's population, then New York was responsible for paying 10% of the national income tax. This system is called apportionment. It might sound reasonable, but in reality this was a problem for many Americans.

In states where agriculture was the main occupation, farmers often struggled to pay their taxes, especially when crops failed or prices dropped. The 16th Amendment did away with apportionment and created a direct income tax based on how much money each person makes each year. The amendment was passed by Congress on July 2, 1909, and ratified on Feb. 3, 1913.

16th Amendment Joint Resolution

17th Amendment

The 17th Amendment allowed for the direct election of U.S. senators. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they were afraid of putting too much power in the hands of uneducated voters. To prevent this from happening, they created two houses of Congress. The House of Representatives was elected directly by the people, but the Senate was a different story. The electorate in each state voted for people to represent them in their state legislature (their state's government), and the state legislature was then responsible for electing that state's two senators.

During the Progressive Era, one of the biggest sticking points was government corruption, and the election of senators was not immune from this! If a state legislature couldn't agree on who to elect, some states might go months or even years without having senators. This meant the state was not actually represented in the federal government! In other cases, political machines, or a small group of people that control politics by giving favors, took over state legislatures and picked their own candidates. Thanks to the 17th Amendment, Americans were given the power to vote directly for the people who represented them in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The 17th Amendment was passed by Congress on May 13, 1912, and ratified by the states on April 8, 1913.

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