Modern history

Conclusion: The Progressive Legacy

By the end of the Progressive Era, Americans had come to expect more from their government. They were more confident that their food and medicine were safe, that children would not have to sacrifice their health and education by going to work, that women laborers would not be exploited, and that political officials would be more responsive to their wishes. As a result of the efforts of environmentalists as different as Gifford Pinchot and Gene Stratton-Porter, the nation expanded its efforts both to conserve and to preserve its natural resources. These and other reforms accomplished what Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and their fellow progressives wanted: to bring order out of chaos.

In challenging laissez-faire and championing governmental intervention, progressives did not intend to stamp out individualism or competition. These values were too embedded in the American political tradition, a system that held the allegiance of most reformers. Rather, progressives sought to balance individualism with social justice and social control. Despite cloaking many of their political reforms in democratic garb, middle- and upper-class progressives generally were more interested in augmenting their ability to advance their own agenda than in expanding opportunities for political participation for all Americans. Confident that they spoke for the “interests of the people,” progressives had little doubt that increasing their own political power would be good for the nation as a whole.

Progressivism was not for whites only, but racial boundaries shaped the progressive movement. Blacks were active participants in progressivism, whether through extending educational opportunities, working in settlement houses, campaigning for women’s suffrage, or establishing the NAACP. Nevertheless, racism was also a characteristic of progressivism. White southern reformers generally favored disfranchisement and segregation. Northern whites did not prove much more sympathetic, as Theodore Roosevelt’s handling of the Brownsville incident shows. The southern-born Woodrow Wilson provided even more ample evidence of the racist dimensions of progressivism. Immigrants also found themselves unwelcome targets of moral outrage as progressives forced these newcomers to conform to middle-class standards of social behavior. Crusades for temperance, physical hygiene, and moral reform all shared a desire to mold people deemed inferior into proper citizens, uncontaminated by chronic vice and corruption.

Progressivism was not monolithic and included a range of disparate and overlapping efforts to reorder political, social, moral, and physical environments. Except for the brief existence of the Progressive Party in 1912, reformers did not have a tightly knit organization or a fixed agenda. Leaders were more likely to come from the middle class, but support came from the rich as well as the poor, depending on the issue. Of course, many Americans did not embrace progressive principles, as conservative opponents continued to hold power and to fight against reform. Nevertheless, by 1920 a combination of voluntary changes and government intervention had cleared the way to regulate corporations, increase governmental efficiency, and promote social justice. Progressives succeeded in ameliorating conditions that might have produced violent revolution and more disorder. In time, they would bring their ideas to reordering international affairs.

Chapter Review


Identify and explain the significance of each term below.

pragmatism (p. 485)

social gospel (p. 486)

muckrakers (p. 486)

Hull House (p. 487)

civic housekeeping (p. 487)

suffragists (p. 489)

Tuskegee Institute (p. 491)

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (p. 492)

Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) (p. 494)

Hetch Hetchy valley (p. 498) bully pulpit (p. 499)

Progressive Party (p. 503)

New Nationalism (p. 503)

New Freedom (p. 503)


Answer the focus questions from each section of the chapter.

1. What late-nineteenth-century trends and developments influenced the progressives?

2. Why did the progressives focus on urban and industrial America?

3. What role did women play in the early-twentieth-century fight for social justice?

4. How did social reformers challenge discrimination against women and minorities?

5. What practices and behaviors of the poor did social control progressives find most alarming? Why?

6. What role did anti-immigrant sentiment play in motivating and shaping progressives' social control initiatives?

7. Who gained and who lost political influence as a result of progressive reforms?

8. How did a commitment to greater efficiency shape progressives' political and environmental initiatives?

9. How did the progressive agenda shape presidential politics in the first two decades of the twentieth century?

10. How and why did the role of the president in national politics change under Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson?



• Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) founded


• Jane Addams and Ellen Starr establish Hull House


• National American Woman Suffrage Association formed


• Booker T Washington delivers Atlanta address


• First commission form of government established in Galveston, Texas


• President Roosevelt settles coal strike


• National Women's Trade Union League founded


• Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act passed


• Race riot in Springfield, Illinois


• National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded


Gifford Pinchot is fired by President Taft


• Roosevelt forms Progressive Party

• Children's Bureau of the Department of Commerce and Labor established


• Sixteenth Amendment instituting a graduated income tax ratified

• Federal Reserve System created


• Harrison Narcotics Control Act passed

• Federal Trade Commission created

• Passage of Clayton Antitrust Act to benefit labor unions


• Keating-Owen Act outlaws child labor

• Workmen's Compensation Act provides disability insurance


• Eighteenth Amendment establishing prohibition ratified


• Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote ratified

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