Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading/thinking/teaching a lot about the Progressive Era. And yes, despite what Peter Filene argues, there was such a thing as a Progressive movement and era; a quick scan of the massive amount of legislation (over 100 bills passed at the state level between 1903 and 1905) shows that something was going on. So there’s a “what”: lots of legislation, most of it pointing in the general direction of improving the quality of life (through cleaner food, better housing, better wages, shorter working hours, direct democracy, etcetera and so forth und so weiter) of a lot of Americans. There were limits, of course: to how much was done (TR’s unenthusiastic “trust-busting,” the repeal of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, etc.) [for a good explanation of why the limits, see Skowronek re: state capacity]. There were also limits to who was allowed to benefit (immigrants were eligible, but only if they strived for bourgeois Nordic-ness). That’s part of the “who”; the other part–those who drove and led Progressivism–were a diverse lot, from the new middle-class seeing an opportunity and responsibility in an industrializing/modernizing/urbanizing world (see Wiebe), to elite professionals like Pinchot who sought control, order, and efficiency (see Hays and Haskell), to ex-Populist farmers in the West (see Sanders), to women pushing for suffrage through maternalist rhetoric/ideology (see Skocpol and Sklar) or belief in the family as a model for society (see Rauchway’s first book).
For the why, look to a series of -tions: industrialization, urbanization, immigration, modernization. Through these -tions, more people were brought into more contact (direct or indirect) with more people from more widely diverse backgrounds (socio-economic, cultural, and “racial”, as the prevailing science of the day asserted). Middle class smarty-pants, for instance, got an education from European progressives (see Rodgers); Riis’s photos of the miserable pulled middle-class heart-strings; TR dealt with anarchists putting him in the presidency; capitalists dealt with the specter of the IWW. Through contact (see Rauchway’s second book) came the sense for a need for action: to stave off the revolution or temper the effects of capitalism. Which fits nicely into my metanarrative of American history (pre-19th century: Birthing American Capitalism; 19th century: Raising American Capitalism; 20th Century: Saving American Capitalism).
And then the Great War. So sad, not just for the deaths of so many, but also for the lost hopes of Progressivism (see Kennedy). They hoped for national unity; they got the Red Scare. They hoped for increased efficiency and state regulation of necessary functions; they got the railroads for a year or so and then gave up. They hoped to break the back of conservatism; they got a reinvigorated Republican party. They hoped for American democracy writ across the globe; they got American parochialism that would, perversely, lead the country back to international war (see Rauchway’s third book).
In the end, Progressives may have come from different backgrounds and may have had different objectives, but what they achieved was kinda nice. Good people.