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The Progressive Era was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States that spanned from the 1890s to the 1920s. The main objectives of the Progressive movement were eliminating problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government.
The movement primarily targeted political machines and their bosses. By taking down these corrupt representatives in office a further means of direct democracy would be established. They also sought regulation of monopolies (Trust Busting) and corporations through antitrust laws. These antitrust laws were seen as a way to promote equal competition for the advantage of legitimate competitors.
Many progressives supported prohibition of alcoholic beverages, ostensibly to destroy the political power of local bosses based in saloons, but others out of a religious motivation. At the same time, women's suffrage was promoted to bring a "purer" female vote into the arena. A third theme was building an Efficiency Movement in every sector that could identify old ways that needed modernizing, and bring to bear scientific, medical and engineering solutions; a key part of the efficiency movement was scientific management, or "Taylorism".
Many activists joined efforts to reform local government, public education, medicine, finance, insurance, industry, railroads, churches, and many other areas. Progressives transformed, professionalized and made "scientific" the social sciences, especially history, economics, and political science. In academic fields the day of the amateur author gave way to the research professor who published in the new scholarly journals and presses. The national political leaders included Republicans Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and Charles Evans Hughes , as well as Democrats William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson and Al Smith. Yet, leaders of the movement also existed far from presidential politics. Jane Addams, Grace Abbott, Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge were among the most influential non-governmental Progressive Era reformers.
Initially the movement operated chiefly at local levels; later, it expanded to state and national levels. Progressives drew support from the middle class, and supporters included many lawyers, teachers, physicians, ministers, and business people. Some Progressives strongly supported scientific methods as applied to economics, government, industry, finance, medicine, schooling, theology, education, and even the family. They closely followed advances underway at the time in Western Europe and adopted numerous policies, such as a major transformation of the banking system by creating the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Reformers felt that old-fashioned ways meant waste and inefficiency, and eagerly sought out the "one best system".
Disturbed by the waste, inefficiency, stubbornness, corruption, and injustices of the Gilded Age, the Progressives were committed to changing and reforming every aspect of the state, society and economy. Significant changes enacted at the national levels included the imposition of an income tax with the Sixteenth Amendment, direct election of Senators with the Seventeenth Amendment, Prohibition with the Eighteenth Amendment, election reforms to stop corruption and fraud, and women's suffrage through the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
A hallmark group of the Progressive Era, the middle class became the driving force behind much of the thought and reform that took place in this time. With an increasing disdain for the upper class and aristocracy of the time, the middle class is characterized by their rejection of the individualistic philosophy of the upper ten.  They had a rapidly growing interest in the communication and role between classes, those of which are generally referred to as the upper class, working class, farmers, and themselves, and sought to define these terms.  Along these lines, the founder off Hull-House, Jane Addams, coined the term "association" as a counter to Individualism, with association referring to the search for a relationship between the classes.  Additionally, the middle class (most notably women) began to move away from prior Victorian era domestic values. Divorce rates increased, and women preferring to seek education and freedom from the home. Victorianism was pushed aside in favor of the rise of the Progressives.
Magazines experienced a boost in popularity in 1900, with some attaining circulations in the hundreds of thousands of subscribers. In the beginning of the age of Mass media the rapid expansion of national advertising led to the cover price of popular magazines falling sharply to about 10 cents, lessening the financial barrier to consuming them. Another factor contributing to the dramatic upswing in magazine circulation was the prominent coverage of corruption in politics, local government and big business, especially by journalists and writers who were labeled muckrakers. They wrote for popular magazines to expose social and political sins and shortcomings. Relying on their own investigative journalism; muckrakers often worked to expose social ills and corporate and political corruption. Muckraking magazines, notably McClure's, took on corporate monopolies and crooked political machines while raising public awareness of chronic urban poverty, unsafe working conditions, and social issues like child labor. Most of the muckrakers wrote nonfiction, but fictional exposes often had a major impact as well, such as those by Upton Sinclair. In his 1906 novel The Jungle Sinclair exposed the unsanitary and inhumane practices of the meat packing industry. He quipped, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach," as readers demanded and got the Pure Food and Drug Act .
The journalists who specialized in exposing waste, corruption, and scandal operated at the state and local level, like Ray Stannard Baker, George Creel, and Brand Whitlock. Others such as Lincoln Steffens exposed political corruption in many large cities; Ida Tarbell is famed for her criticisms of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company. In 1906, David Graham Phillips unleashed a blistering indictment of corruption in the U.S. Senate. Roosevelt gave these journalists their nickname when he complained they were not being helpful by raking up all the muck.
The Progressives were avid modernizers, with a belief in science and technology as the grand solution to society's flaws. They looked to education as the key to bridging the gap between their present wasteful society and technologically enlightened future society. Characteristics of Progressivism included a favorable attitude toward urban-industrial society, belief in mankind's ability to improve the environment and conditions of life, belief in an obligation to intervene in economic and social affairs, a belief in the ability of experts and in the efficiency of government intervention. Scientific management, as promulgated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, became a watchword for industrial efficiency and elimination of waste, with the stopwatch as its symbol.
Across the nation, middle-class women organized on behalf of social reforms during the Progressive Era. Using the language of municipal housekeeping women were able to push such reforms as Prohibition, women's suffrage, child-saving, and public health.
Middle class women formed local clubs, which after 1890 were coordinated by the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC). Historian Paige Meltzer puts the GFWC in the context of the Progressive Movement, arguing that its policies:
built on Progressive-era strategies of municipal housekeeping. During the Progressive era, female activists used traditional constructions of womanhood, which imagined all women as mothers and homemakers, to justify their entrance into community affairs: as "municipal housekeepers," they would clean up politics, cities, and see after the health and well being of their neighbors. Donning the mantle of motherhood, female activists methodically investigated their community's needs and used their "maternal" expertise to lobby, create, and secure a place for themselves in an emerging state welfare bureaucracy, best illustrated perhaps by clubwoman Julia Lathrop's leadership in the Children's Bureau. As part of this tradition of maternal activism, the Progressive-era General Federation supported a range of causes from the pure food and drug administration to public health care for mothers and children, to a ban on child labor, each of which looked to the state to help implement their vision of social justice.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was an American women's rights organization formed in May 1890 as a unification of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The NAWSA set up hundreds of smaller local and state groups, with the goal of passing woman suffrage legislation at the state and local level. The NAWSA was the largest and most important suffrage organization in the United States, and was the primary promoter of women's right to vote. Carrie Chapman Catt was the key leader in the early 20th century. Like AWSA and NWSA before it, the NAWSA pushed for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women's voting rights, and was instrumental in winning the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. A breakaway group, the National Woman's Party, tightly controlled by Alice Paul, used civil disobedience to gain publicity and force passage of suffrage. Paul's members chained themselves to the White House fence in order to get arrested, then went on hunger strikes to gain publicity. While the British suffragettes stopped their protests in 1914 and supported the British war effort, Paul began her campaign in 1917 and was widely criticized for ignoring the war and attracting radical anti-war elements.
The number of rich families climbed exponentially, from 100 or so millionaires in the 1870s, to 4000 in 1892 and 16,000 in 1916. Many subscribed to Andrew Carnegie's credo outlined in The Gospel of Wealth that said they owed a duty to society that called for philanthropic giving to colleges, hospitals, medical research, libraries, museums, religion and social betterment.
In the early 20th century, American philanthropy matured, with the development of very large, highly visible private foundations created by Rockefeller, and Carnegie. The largest foundations fostered modern, efficient, business-oriented operations (as opposed to "charity") designed to better society rather than merely enhance the status of the giver. Close ties were built with the local business community, as in the "community chest" movement. The American Red Cross was reorganized and professionalized. Several major foundations aided the blacks in the South, and were typically advised by Booker T. Washington. By contrast, Europe and Asia had few foundations. This allowed both Carnegie and Rockefeller to operate internationally with powerful effect.
Many Progressives sought to enable the citizenry to rule more directly and circumvent machines, bosses and professional politicians. The institution of the initiative and referendums made it possible to pass laws without the involvement of the legislature, while the recall allowed for the removal of corrupt or under-performing officials, and the direct primary let people democratically nominate candidates, avoiding the professionally dominated conventions. Thanks to the efforts of Oregon State Representative William S. U'Ren and his Direct Legislation League, voters in Oregon overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure in 1902 that created the initiative and referendum processes for citizens to directly introduce or approve proposed laws or amendments to the state constitution, making Oregon the first state to adopt such a system. U'Ren also helped in the passage of an amendment in 1908 that gave voters power to recall elected officials, and would go on to establish, at the state level, popular election of U.S. Senators and the first presidential primary in the United States. In 1911, California governor Hiram Johnson established the Oregon System of "Initiative, Referendum, and Recall" in his state, viewing them as good influences for citizen participation against the historic influence of large corporations on state lawmakers. These Progressive reforms were soon replicated in other states, including Idaho, Washington, and Wisconsin, and today roughly half of U.S. states have initiative, referendum and recall provisions in their state constitutions.
About 16 states began using primary elections to reduce the power of bosses and machines. The Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, requiring that all senators be elected by the people (they were formerly appointed by state legislatures). The main motivation was to reduce the power of political bosses, who controlled the Senate seats by virtue of their control of state legislatures. The result, according to political scientist Henry Jones Ford, was that the United States Senate had become a "Diet of party lords, wielding their power without scruple or restraint, on behalf of those particular interests" that put them in office.
A coalition of middle-class reform-oriented voters, academic experts, and reformers hostile to the political machines started forming in the 1890s and introduced a series of reforms in urban America, designed to reduce waste, inefficiency and corruption, by introducing scientific methods, compulsory education and administrative innovations.
The pace was set in Detroit Michigan, where Republican mayor Hazen S. Pingree first put together the reform coalition. Many cities set up municipal reference bureaus to study the budgets and administrative structures of local governments.
Progressive mayors took the lead in many key cities, such as Cleveland, Ohio (especially Mayor Tom Johnson); Toledo, Ohio; Jersey City, New Jersey; Los Angeles; Memphis, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; and many other cities, especially in the western states. In Illinois, Governor Frank Lowden undertook a major reorganization of state government. In Wisconsin, the stronghold of Robert La Follette Sr., the Wisconsin Idea used the state university as a major source of ideas and expertise.
As late as 1920, half the population lived in rural areas. They experienced their own progressive reforms, typically with the explicit goal of upgrading country life. By 1910 most farmers subscribed to a farm newspaper, where editors promoted efficiency as applied to farming. Special efforts were made to reach the rural South and remote areas, such as the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks.
The most urgent need was better transportation. The railroad system was virtually complete; the need was for much better roads. The traditional method of putting the burden on maintaining roads on local landowners was increasingly inadequate. New York State took the lead in 1898, and by 1916 the old system had been discarded in every area. Demands grew for local and state government to take charge. With the coming of the automobile after 1910, urgent efforts were made to upgrade and modernize dirt roads designed for horse-drawn wagon traffic. The American Association for Highway Improvement was organized in 1910. Funding came from automobile registration, and taxes on motor fuels, as well as state aid. In 1916, federal-aid was first made available to improve post-roads, and promote general commerce. Congress appropriated $75 million over a five-year period, with the Secretary of Agriculture in charge through the Bureau of Public Roads, in cooperation with the state highway departments. There were 2.4 million miles of rural dirt rural roads in 1914; 100,000 miles had been improved with grading and gravel, and 3000 miles were given high quality surfacing. The rapidly increasing speed of automobiles, and especially trucks, made maintenance and repair a high priority. Concrete was first used in 1933, and expanded until it became the dominant surfacing material in the 1930s. The South had fewer cars and trucks and much less money, but it worked through highly visible demonstration projects like the "Dixie Highway."
Rural schools were often poorly funded, one room operations. Typically, classes were taught by young local women before they married, with only occasional supervision by county superintendents. The progressive solution was modernization through consolidation, with the result of children attending modern schools. There they would be taught by full-time professional teachers who had graduated from the states' teachers colleges, were certified, and were monitored by the county superintendents. Farmers complained at the expense, and also at the loss of control over local affairs, but in state after state the consolidation process went forward.
Numerous other programs were aimed at rural youth, including 4-H clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. County fairs not only gave prizes for the most productive agricultural practices, they also demonstrated those practices to an attentive rural audience. Programs for new mothers included maternity care and training in baby care.
The movement's attempts at introducing urban reforms to rural America often met resistance from traditionalists who saw the country-lifers as aggressive modernizers who were condescending and out of touch with rural life. The traditionalists said many of their reforms were unnecessary and not worth the trouble of implementing. Rural residents also disagreed with the notion that farms needed to improve their efficiency, as they saw this goal as serving urban interests more than rural ones. The social conservatism of many rural residents also led them to resist attempts for change led by outsiders. Most important, the traditionalists did not want to become modern, and did not want their children inculcated with alien modern values through comprehensive schools that were remote from local control. The most successful reforms came from the farmers who pursued agricultural extension, as their proposed changes were consistent with existing modernizing trends toward more efficiency and more profit in agriculture.
The Philippines were acquired by the United States in 1899, after victory over Spanish forces at the Battle of Manila Bay and a long series of controversial political debates between the senate and President McKinley and was considered the largest colonial acquisition by the United States at this time.
While anti-imperialist sentiments had been prevalent in the United States during this time, the acquisition of the Philippines sparked the relatively minor population into action. Voicing their opinions in public, they sought to deter American leaders from keeping the Asian-Pacific nation and to avoid the temptations of expansionist tendencies that were widely viewed as “un-American” at that time.
Philippines was a major target for the progressive reformers. A 1907 report to Secretary of War Taft provided a summary of what the American civil administration had achieved. It included, in addition to the rapid building of a public school system based on English teaching, and boasted about such modernizing achievements as:
steel and concrete wharves at the newly renovated Port of Manila; dredging the River Pasig; streamlining of the Insular Government; accurate, intelligible accounting; the construction of a telegraph and cable communications network; the establishment of a postal savings bank; large-scale road-and bridge-building; impartial and incorrupt policing; well-financed civil engineering; the conservation of old Spanish architecture; large public parks; a bidding process for the right to build railways; Corporation law; and a coastal and geological survey.
In 1903 the American reformers in the Philippines passed two major land acts designed to turn landless peasants into owners of their farms. By 1905 the law was clearly a failure. Reformers such as Taft believed landownership would turn unruly agrarians into loyal subjects. The social structure in rural Philippines was highly traditional and highly unequal. Drastic changes in land ownership posed a major challenge to local elites, who would not accept it, nor would their peasant clients. The American reformers blamed peasant resistance to landownership for the law's failure and argued that large plantations and sharecropping was the Philippines' best path to development.
Elite Filipina women played a major role in the reform movement, especially on health issues. They specialized on such urgent needs as infant care and maternal and child health, the distribution of pure milk and teaching new mothers about children's health. The most prominent organizations were the La Protección de la Infancia, and the National Federation of Women's Clubs.
Across the South black communities developed their own Progressive reform projects. Typical projects involved upgrading schools, modernizing church operations, expanding business opportunities, fighting for a larger share of state budgets, and engaging in legal action to secure equal rights. Reform projects were especially notable in rural areas, where the great majority of Southern blacks lived.
Although there were some achievements that improved conditions for African Americans and other non-white minorities, the Progressive Era was the nadir of American race relations. While white Progressives in principle believed in improving conditions for minority groups, there were wide differences in how this was to be achieved. Some, such as Lillian Wald, fought to alleviate the plight of poor African Americans. Many, though, were concerned with enforcing, not eradicating, racial segregation. In particular, the mixing of black and white pleasure-seekers in 'black-and-tan' clubs troubled Progressive reformers. The Progressive ideology espoused by many of the era attempted to correct societal problems created by racial integration following the Civil War by segregating the races and allowing each group to achieve its own potential. That is to say that most Progressives saw racial integration as a problem to be solved, rather than a goal to be achieved. As white progressives sought to help the white working-class, clean-up politics, and improve the cities, the country instated the system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow.
Legal historian Herbert Hovenkamp argues that while many early progressives inherited the racism of Jim Crow, as they begin to innovate their own ideas, they would embrace behaviorism, cultural relativism and marginalism which stress environmental influences on humans rather than biological inheritance. He states that ultimately progressives "were responsible for bringing scientific racism to an end".
Progressives believed that the family was the foundation stone of American society, and the government, especially municipal government, must work to enhance the family. Local public assistance programs were reformed to try to keep families together. Inspired by crusading Judge Ben Lindsey of Denver, cities established juvenile courts to deal with disruptive teenagers without sending them to adult prisons.
During the progressive era more women took work outside the home. For the working class this work was often as a domestic servant. Yet working or not women were expected to perform all the cooking and cleaning. This “affected female domestics’ experiences of their homes, workplaces, and possessions, While the male household members, comforted by the smells of home cooking, fresh laundry, and soaped floors, would have seen home as a refuge from work, women would have associated these same smells with the labor that they expended to maintain order.” With increased in technology some of this work became easier. The “introduction of gas, indoor plumbing, electricity and garbage pickup had a significant impact on the homes and the women who were responsible form maintaining them.” With the introduction of new methods of heating and lighting the home allowed for use of space once used for storage to become living spaces. Women were targeted by advertisements for many different products once produced at home. These products were anything from mayonnaise, soda, or canned vegetables.
The purity of food, milk and drinking water became a high priority in the cities. At the state and national levels new food and drug laws strengthened urban efforts to guarantee the safety of the food system. The 1906 federal Pure Food and Drug Act, which was pushed by drug companies and providers of medical services, removed from the market patent medicines that had never been scientifically tested.
With the decrease in standard working hours, urban families had more leisure time. Many spent this leisure time at movie theaters. Progressives advocated for censorship of motion pictures as it was believed that patrons (especially children) viewing movies in dark, unclean, potentially unsafe theaters, might be negatively influenced in witnessing actors portraying crimes, violence, and sexually suggestive situations. Progressives across the country influenced municipal governments of large urban cities, to build numerous parks where it was believed that leisure time for children and families could be spent in a healthy, wholesome environment, thereby fostering good morals and citizenship.
Some Progressives sponsored eugenics as a solution to excessively large or underperforming families, hoping that birth control would enable parents to focus their resources on fewer, better children. Progressive leaders like Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann indicated their classically liberal concern over the danger posed to the individual by the practice of Eugenics. The Catholics strongly opposed birth control proposals such as eugenics.
The Progressives fixed some of their reforms into law by adding amendments 16, 17, 18, and 19 to the US Constitution. The 16th amendment made an income tax legal (this required an amendment due to Article One, Section 9 of the Constitution, which required that direct taxes be laid on the States in proportion to their population as determined by the decennial census). The Progressives also made strides in attempts to reduce political corruption through the 17th amendment (direct election of U.S. Senators). The most radical and controversial amendment came during the anti-German craze of World War I that helped the Progressives and others push through their plan for prohibition through the 18th amendment (once the Progressives fell out of power the 21st amendment repealed the 18th in 1933). The ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, which recognized women's suffrage was the last amendment during the progressive era. Another significant constitutional change that began during the progressive era was the incorporation of the Bill of Rights so that those rights would apply to the states. In 1920, Benjamin Gitlow was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices decided that the First Amendment applied to the states as well as the federal government. Prior to that time, the Bill of Rights was considered to apply only to the federal government, not the states.
Prohibition was the outlawing of the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol. Drinking itself was never prohibited. Throughout the Progressive Era, it remained one of the prominent causes associated with Progressivism at the local, state and national level, though support across the full breadth of Progressives was mixed. It pitted the minority urban Catholic population against the larger rural Protestant element, and Progressivism's rise in the rural communities was aided in part by the general increase in public consciousness of social issues of the temperance movement, which achieved national success with the passage of the 18th Amendment by Congress in late 1917, and the ratification by three-fourths of the states in 1919. Prohibition was essentially a religious movement backed by the Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Scandinavian Lutherans and other evangelical churches. Activists were mobilized by the highly effective Anti-Saloon League. Timberlake (1963) argues the dries sought to break the liquor trust, weaken the saloon base of big-city machines, enhance industrial efficiency, and reduce the level of wife beating, child abuse, and poverty caused by alcoholism.
Agitation for prohibition began during the Second Great Awakening in the 1840s when crusades against drinking originated from evangelical Protestants. Evangelicals precipitated the second wave of prohibition legislation during the 1880s, which had as its aim local and state prohibition. During the 1880s, referendums were held at the state level to enact prohibition amendments. Two important groups were formed during this period. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed in 1874. The Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893, uniting activists from different religious groups.
The third wave of prohibition legislation, of which national prohibition was the grand climax, began in 1907, when Georgia passed a statewide prohibition law. By 1917, two thirds of the states had some form of prohibition laws and roughly three quarters of the population lived in dry areas. In 1913, the Anti-Saloon League first publicly appealed for a prohibition amendment. They preferred a constitutional amendment over a federal statute because although harder to achieve, they felt it would be harder to change. In 1913, Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act, which forbade the transport of liquor into dry states. As the United States entered World War I, the Conscription Act banned the sale of liquor near military bases. In August 1917, the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act banned production of distilled spirits for the duration of the war. The War Prohibition Act, November, 1918, forbade the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages (more than 2.75% alcohol content) until the end of demobilization.
The drys worked energetically to secure two-third majority of both houses of Congress and the support of three quarters of the states needed for an amendment to the federal constitution. Thirty-six states were needed, and organizations were set up at all 48 states to seek ratification. In late 1917, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment; it was ratified in 1919 and took effect in January 1920. It prohibited the manufacturing, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages within the United States, as well as import and export. The Volstead Act, 1919, defined intoxicating as having alcohol content greater than 0.5% and established the procedures for federal enforcement of the Act. The states were at liberty to enforce prohibition or not, and most did not try.
Consumer demand, however, led to a variety of illegal sources for alcohol, especially illegal distilleries and smuggling from Canada and other countries. It is difficult to determine the level of compliance, and although the media at the time portrayed the law as highly ineffective, even if it did not eradicate the use of alcohol, it certainly decreased alcohol consumption during the period. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933, with the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment, thanks to a well-organized repeal campaign led by Catholics (who stressed personal liberty) and businessmen (who stressed the lost tax revenue).
The Progressives sought to reform and modernize schools at the local level. The era was notable for a dramatic expansion in the number of schools and students attending them, especially in the fast-growing metropolitan cities. By 1940, 50% of young adults had earned a high school diploma. The result was the rapid growth of the educated middle class, who typically were the grass roots supporters of Progressive measures. During the Progressive Era, many states began passing compulsory schooling laws. An emphasis on hygiene and health was made in education, with physical and health education becoming more important and widespread.
The "Flexner Report" of 1910, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation, professionalized American medicine by discarding the scores of local small medical schools and focusing national funds, resources, and prestige on larger, professionalized medical schools associated with universities. Prominent leaders included the Mayo Brothers whose Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, became world-famous for innovative surgery.
In the legal profession, the American Bar Association set up in 1900 the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). It established national standards for law schools, which led to the replacement of the old system of young men studying law privately with established lawyers by the new system of accredited law schools associated with universities.
Progressive scholars, based at the emerging research universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Michigan, Wisconsin and California, worked to modernize their disciplines. The heyday of the amateur expert gave way to the research professor who published in the new scholarly journals and presses. Their explicit goal was to professionalize and make "scientific" the social sciences, especially history, economics, and political science. Professionalization meant creating new career tracks in the universities, with hiring and promotion dependent on meeting international models of scholarship.
The Progressive Era was one of general prosperity after the Panic of 1893—a severe depression—ended in 1897. The Panic of 1907 was short and mostly affected financiers. However, Campbell (2005) stresses the weak points of the economy in 1907–1914, linking them to public demands for more Progressive interventions. The Panic of 1907 was followed by a small decline in real wages and increased unemployment, with both trends continuing until World War I. Campbell emphasizes the resulting stress on public finance and the impact on the Wilson administration's policies. The weakened economy and persistent federal deficits led to changes in fiscal policy, including the imposition of federal income taxes on businesses and individuals and the creation of the Federal Reserve System. Government agencies were also transformed in an effort to improve administrative efficiency.
In the Gilded Age (late 19th century) the parties were reluctant to involve the federal government too heavily in the private sector, except in the area of railroads and tariffs. In general, they accepted the concept of laissez-faire, a doctrine opposing government interference in the economy except to maintain law and order. This attitude started to change during the depression of the 1890s when small business, farm, and labor movements began asking the government to intercede on their behalf.
By the start of the 20th century, a middle class had developed that was leery of both the business elite and the radical political movements of farmers and laborers in the Midwest and West. The Progressives argued the need for government regulation of business practices to ensure competition and free enterprise. Congress enacted a law regulating railroads in 1887 (the Interstate Commerce Act), and one preventing large firms from controlling a single industry in 1890 (the Sherman Antitrust Act). These laws were not rigorously enforced, however, until the years between 1900 and 1920, when Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921), and others sympathetic to the views of the Progressives came to power. Many of today's U.S. regulatory agencies were created during these years, including the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. Muckrakers were journalists who encouraged readers to demand more regulation of business. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) was influential and persuaded America about the supposed horrors of the Chicago Union Stock Yards, a giant complex of meat processing plants that developed in the 1870s. The federal government responded to Sinclair's book and The Neill-Reynolds Report with the new regulatory Food and Drug Administration. Ida M. Tarbell wrote a series of articles against Standard Oil, which was perceived to be a monopoly. This affected both the government and the public reformers. Attacks by Tarbell and others helped pave the way for public acceptance of the breakup of the company by the Supreme Court in 1911.
When Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected President with a Democratic Congress in 1912 he implemented a series of Progressive policies in economics. In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified, and a small income tax was imposed on higher incomes. The Democrats lowered tariffs with the Underwood Tariff in 1913, though its effects were overwhelmed by the changes in trade caused by the World War that broke out in 1914. Wilson proved especially effective in mobilizing public opinion behind tariff changes by denouncing corporate lobbyists, addressing Congress in person in highly dramatic fashion, and staging an elaborate ceremony when he signed the bill into law. Wilson helped end the long battles over the trusts with the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. He managed to convince lawmakers on the issues of money and banking by the creation in 1913 of the Federal Reserve System, a complex business-government partnership that to this day dominates the financial world.
In 1913, Henry Ford dramatically increased the efficiency of his factories by large-scale use of the moving assembly line, with each worker doing one simple task in the production of automobiles. Emphasizing efficiency, Ford more than doubled wages (and cut hours from 9 a day to 8), attracting the best workers and sharply reducing labor turnover and absenteeism. His employees could and did buy his cars, and by cutting prices over and over he made the Model T cheap enough for millions of people to buy in the U.S. and in every major country. Ford's profits soared and his company dominated the world's automobile industry. Henry Ford became the world-famous prophet of high wages and high profits.
Labor unions, especially the American Federation of Labor (AFL), grew rapidly in the early 20th century, and had a Progressive agenda as well. After experimenting in the early 20th century with cooperation with business in the National Civic Federation, the AFL turned after 1906 to a working political alliance with the Democratic party. The alliance was especially important in the larger industrial cities. The unions wanted restrictions on judges who intervened in labor disputes, usually on the side of the employer. They finally achieved that goal with the Norris–La Guardia Act of 1932.
By the turn of the century, more and more small businesses were getting fed up with the way that they were treated compared to the bigger businesses. It seemed that the "Upper Ten" were turning a blind-eye to the smaller businesses, cutting corners where ever they could to make more profit. The big businesses would soon find out that the smaller businesses were starting to gain ground over them, so they became unsettled as described; "Constant pressure from the public, labor organizations, small business interests, and federal and state governments forced the corporate giants to engage in a balancing act." Now that all of these new regulations and standards were being enacted, the big business would now have to stoop to everyones level, including the small businesses. The big businesses would soon find out that in order to succeed they would have to band together with the smaller businesses to be successful, kind of a "Yin and Yang" effect.
The influx of immigration grew steadily after 1896, with most new arrivals being unskilled workers from eastern and southern Europe. These immigrants were able to find work in the steel mills, slaughterhouses, and construction crews of the emergent mill towns and industrial cities of the late 19th century. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 halted most transcontinental immigration, only after 1919 did the flow of immigrants resume. Starting in the 1880s, the labor unions aggressively promoted restrictions on immigration, especially restrictions on Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigrants. In combination with the racist attitudes of the time, there was a fear that large numbers of unskilled, low-paid workers would defeat the union's efforts to raise wages through collective bargaining. In addition, rural Protestants distrusted the urban Catholics and Jews who comprised most of the immigrants after 1890, and on those grounds opposed immigration. On the other hand, the rapid growth of the industry called for a greater and expanding labour pool that could not be met by natural birth rates. As a result, many large corporations were opposed to immigration restrictions. By the early 1920s a consensus had been reached that the total influx of immigration had to be restricted, and a series of laws in the 1920s accomplished that purpose. A handful of eugenics advocates were also involved in immigration restriction for their own pseudo-scientific reasons. Immigration restriction continued to be a national policy until after World War II.
During World War I, the Progressives strongly promoted Americanization programs, designed to modernize the recent immigrants and turn them into model American citizens, while diminishing loyalties to the old country. These programs often operated through the public school system, which expanded dramatically.
Foreign policy in the progressive era was often marked by a hint of moral supremacy, with assessments of Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan believing themselves to be 'Missionaries of Democracy' being accurate, with them believing that they were “Inspired by the confidence that they knew better how to promote the peace and well-being of other countries than did the leaders of those countries themselves.” Similar ideas and language had already been used previously in the Monroe Doctrine, wherein Roosevelt claimed that the United States could serve as the police of the world, using its power to end unrest and wrongdoing on the western hemisphere. Using this moralistic approach, Roosevelt argued for intervention with Cuba to help it to become a “just and stable civilization”, by way of the Platt amendment. Wilson used a similar moralistic tone when dealing with Mexico. In 1913, while revolutionaries took control of the government, Wilson judged them to be immoral, and refused to acknowledge the in-place government on that reason alone. 
In the 1940s typically historians saw the Progressive Era as a prelude to the New Deal and dated it from 1901 (when Roosevelt became president) to the start of World War I in 1914 or 1917. Historians have moved back in time emphasizing the Progressive reformers at the municipal and state levels in the 1890s.
Much less settled is the question of when the era ended. Some historians who emphasize civil liberties decry their suppression during World War I and do not consider the war as rooted in Progressive policy. A strong anti-war movement headed by noted Progressives including Jane Addams, was suppressed after Wilson's 1916 re-election, a victory largely enabled by his campaign slogan, "He kept us out of the war."  The slogan was no longer accurate by April 6 of the following year, when Wilson surprised much of the Progressive base that twice elected him and asked a joint session of Congress to declare war on Germany. The Senate voted 82–6 in favor; the House agreed, 373–50. Some historians see the so-called "war to end all wars" as a globalized expression of the American Progressive movement, with Wilson's support for a League of Nations as its climax.
The politics of the 1920s was unfriendly toward the labor unions and liberal crusaders against business, so many if not most historians who emphasize those themes write off the decade. Urban cosmopolitan scholars recoiled at the moralism of prohibition, the intolerance of the nativists and the KKK, and on those grounds denounced the era. Richard Hofstadter, for example, in 1955 wrote that prohibition, "was a pseudo-reform, a pinched, parochial substitute for reform" that "was carried about America by the rural-evangelical virus". However, as Arthur S. Link emphasized, the Progressives did not simply roll over and play dead. Link's argument for continuity through the twenties stimulated a historiography that found Progressivism to be a potent force. Palmer, pointing to leaders like George Norris, says, "It is worth noting that progressivism, whilst temporarily losing the political initiative, remained popular in many western states and made its presence felt in Washington during both the Harding and Coolidge presidencies." Gerster and Cords argue that, "Since progressivism was a 'spirit' or an 'enthusiasm' rather than an easily definable force with common goals, it seems more accurate to argue that it produced a climate for reform which lasted well into the 1920s, if not beyond." Some social historians have posited that the KKK may in fact fit into the Progressive agenda, if Klansmen are portrayed as "ordinary white Protestants" primarily interested in purification of the system, which had long been a core Progressive goal. This however ignores the violence and racism central to Klan ideology and activities, that had nothing to do with improving society, so much as enforcing racial hierarchies.
While some Progressive leaders became reactionaries, that usually happened in the 1930s, not in the 1920s, as exemplified by William Randolph Hearst, Herbert Hoover, Al Smith and Henry Ford.
What historians have identified as "business progressivism", with its emphasis on efficiency and typified by Henry Ford and Herbert Hoover reached an apogee in the 1920s. Wik, for example, argues that Ford's "views on technology and the mechanization of rural America were generally enlightened, progressive, and often far ahead of his times."
Tindall stresses the continuing importance of the Progressive movement in the South in the 1920s involving increased democracy, efficient government, corporate regulation, social justice, and governmental public service. William Link finds political Progressivism dominant in most of the South in the 1920s. Likewise it was influential in the Midwest.
Historians of women and of youth emphasize the strength of the Progressive impulse in the 1920s. Women consolidated their gains after the success of the suffrage movement, and moved into causes such as world peace, good government, maternal care (the Sheppard–Towner Act of 1921), and local support for education and public health. The work was not nearly as dramatic as the suffrage crusade, but women voted and operated quietly and effectively. Paul Fass, speaking of youth, says "Progressivism as an angle of vision, as an optimistic approach to social problems, was very much alive." International influences that sparked many reform ideas likewise continued into the 1920s, as American ideas of modernity began to influence Europe.
By 1930 a block of progressive Republicans in the Senate who were urging Hoover to take more vigorous action to fight the depression. There were about a dozen members of this group including William Borah of Idaho, George W. Norris of Nebraska, Robert M. La Follette Jr., of Wisconsin, Gerald Nye of North Dakota, Hiram Johnson of California and Bronson M. Cutting of New Mexico. While these western Republicans could stir up issues, they could rarely forge a majority, since they were too individualistic and did not form a unified caucus. Hoover himself had sharply moved to the right, and paid little attention to their liberal ideas. By 1932 this group was moving toward support for Roosevelt's New Deal. They remain staunch isolationists deeply opposed to any involvement in Europe. Outside the Senate, however, a strong majority of the surviving Progressives from the 1910s had become conservative opponents of New Deal economic planning.