Progressivism is the general term given to the variety of social reform movements that existed in the United States at the turn of the century. Many historians do not consider the term Progressivism to be particularly useful since reform in this period was so varied in nature, but others suggest some uniformity can be found. If we were to make this generalization, we would say that folks in the progressive movement, or “Progressives”, believed in that very concept; that society was able to progress. Although this idea was influenced by Darwinian thought, Progressives also tended to oppose Social Darwinism notions, believing that society should look out for its weaker and more vulnerable members. In general, they focused their reform efforts on building an environment conducive to social welfare and behavior, as well as attempting to limit the excesses of industrial capitalism.

To get a better sense of the mood of this period you might want to take a Quick Time virtual tour of a tenement. Progressivism has a vast legacy. It helped bring us the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Amendments. Significant political and educational reforms were implemented and some of the first business regulations were created. Our national park system was also a product of this era. While many would applaud the spirit of many reforms in this period, there is also a legacy of Progressivism that may not be viewed as warmly. Like the Dawes Act covered in our discussion of American Indians in the West, reform could also entail cultural biases enforced upon “problem elements” in US society. Typically, this would be in the form of laws targeting lower-income people,non-whites and immigrants. As you read about Progressivism consider how it falls into either a form of social justice or social control.


Oakes, Chapter 21

American Heritage, either: Anne Firor Scott’s “Saint Jane and the Ward Boss.”

OR John Watterson’s “Inventing Modern Football” 

OR T.H. Watkins’ “Father of the Forests.”

Then write an essay that discusses the text and online reading you selected. Here are some ideas you might consider as you study this topic:

1) In general, who tended to be a “progressive” and what were they responding to?

2) Progressives were active at the local, state and national level. Describe a few examples of how progressivism worked at each of these levels.

3) Discuss one of the essays from American Heritage’s web site. What is the thesis/main point of the essay? What is the relationship between the essay and your text readings? Is the essay useful in understanding Progressivism? Explain your reasoning and demonstrate knowledge of the essays’ content.

4) In your estimation, what is the significance of Progressivism? Was it an appropriate response to the times? Was it successful? Do we feel its effects today?

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