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What is Progressivism? - Definition, History & Goals

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  • 0:00 Definition Of Progressivism
  • 1:25 What Did Progressives Want?
  • 3:10 How Did They Achieve…
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
The Progressive era changed U.S. society permanently; every aspect of modern American life still shows the impact of the reformers of the era. But what did they want? And why did they want it? The belief of all Progressives - that we really could end all human suffering - was the inspiration for a massive overhaul of American life.

Definition of Progressivism

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. The factory workers, most of them immigrants, nearly all women, ran for the doors to exit, only to find them locked from the outside. The workers crowded to the rooftops and on window ledges as fire engines arrived only to find that neither their hoses nor their ladders could reach high enough to help. Many of the workers (60, by one estimate) chose to jump to their deaths rather than face the fire inside.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. The idea that 248 people might die in such a senseless, seemingly preventable way was a matter of outrage for many Americans. Why had the doors been locked? How could this have happened? The calls to action that followed were emblematic of a spirit of reform that had swept across the U.S. around the turn of the century. This movement, 'Progressivism', would go on to fundamentally change the nation, as well as create a permanent shift in what Americans expected from their governments.

As an idea, Progressivism generally refers to the belief that government or people acting on its behalf can be used to address social problems, inequalities, or inequities facing the nation. As a political term, the Progressive Party was born in 1912 in light of this idea.

What Did Progressives Want?

Whether you were a Progressive only in spirit or a member of the political organization of the same name, you shared several major goals:

Ending corruption - Progressives wanted consumer rights, the ending of monopolies (often called 'trusts,' which called for 'trust-busting'), and clean government.

Efficiency and perfection - Progressives held the belief that we really could eradicate most social failings and problems. At the minimum, if we couldn't end these problems, we could streamline our solutions to provide the most efficient solutions.

There were several policies that had leverage with both Progressives and everyday Americans including:

Child Labor - Prior to the Progressive era, child labor was depressingly common. Factory owners often preferred child workers since they were more manageable (that is, less likely to strike) and cheaper. Children in factories often worked 16-hour days in highly dangerous conditions.

Temperance - Many Progressives were interested in root causes of social problems, the factors they thought that, by removing, they could cure the malady for good. They believed that alcohol addiction was one of the chief problems of the era.

Equal Treatment - The political disenfranchisement of African Americans and women was a major issue for all Progressive groups.

Education - The virtue of public education wasn't just to provide a 'way out' for poor minorities or immigrants, as it's often viewed today. Instead, it was viewed as a civilizing force by Progressives, a social mechanism for creating new, industrious Americans.

Urbanization and Labor Reform - The plight of urban areas was brought to light by reformers who tried to show Americans what their major cities were really like.

A New York City Sweatshop, 1900
Sweatshop

How Did Progressives Achieve Their Goals?

Progressives worked hard to bring the social issues they were passionate about to light. Possibly the most impactful Progressive-era reformers were found in the world of journalism. Ida Tarbell was unique on two fronts; she was one of the few female national reporters during this era and she was a groundbreaking investigative journalist, what Theodore Roosevelt termed a 'muckraker'.

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