The Progressive Era
by William L. Anderson
by William L. Anderson
The Myth and the Reality
One of the most enduring set of myths from U.S. history comes from the political and social developments in what is called the “Progressive Era,” a period lasting from the late 1800s to the end of World War I. (Of course, one could argue, convincingly, that the Progressive Era never has ended.) The prevailing story told in textbooks, the editorial pages of the New York Times, and the typical classroom holds that this was the time when people began to use the mechanism of government to create the conditions for a better life for all and to begin the arduous process of reining in the excesses of capitalism.
According to the pundits, by the late 1800s many businesses in the United States had grown to gigantic proportions, monopolizing much of the economy. In response to this growing emergency, the government adopted new and “progressive” policies of regulatory agencies and antitrust laws.
Besides regulating business activity, Progressives, through coalitions of intellectuals, political figures, and activists, saw to it that government also began the process of regulating the extraction of natural resources through executive action. (Progressives considered the legislative procedure to be a waste of time that needed to be replaced with a mechanism that permitted the executive branch of government to seek “needed” shortcuts around the give-and-take that accompanied the legislature at work.)
Through Progressive prodding, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created the Food and Drug Administration and expanded government regulation of food and the workplace. Progressives also secured the right of women to vote and ended the state legislatures’ stranglehold on the national electoral process by mandating the direct election of U.S. senators (which until 1913 were chosen by state legislatures).
Socially, the Progressives were humanitarians who sought to better the lives of ordinary people, with their greatest “triumph” being passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which ushered in the era of Prohibition. (Most modern Progressives are not particularly proud of this “achievement” by their forbears, but the prohibitionist spirit is much more alive than they would like to admit. Today, Progressive lawyers have been busy suing tobacco companies and the liquor industry and attempting to ban products such as silicon breast implants that feminists and other modern Progressives think are not proper things for people to have.)
Last, the Progressive Era trumpeted science and the “enlightened” Social Gospel, which became the religion of choice for religious skeptics who questioned the core doctrines of the Christian faith. From the implementation of “scientific” principles to govern politics, business, and social relationships, Progressivism helped to create a rational basis for modern society. From the creation of the Federal Reserve System to the Sixteenth Amendment that brought about the national income tax, Progressives were able to do away with the impediments created by the U.S. Constitution, which according to them stood in the way of progress.
If there was a downside to the Progressive Era, its modern supporters say, it was that Progressives were not able to do enough before “reactionary” post–World War I forces set in. “Reforms” such as the banning of child labor, minimum wages, the welfare state, further regulation of business, and a completion of the process of transferring legislative power from the Congress to the executive branch would have to wait until the Great Depression, when the nation had supposedly had its fill of laissez faire. Also, in spite of the best efforts of the Progressives, segregation laws institutionalized racism, which worsened strife between whites and blacks.
While Progressivism has captured the hearts and minds of modern intellectuals and others, there is another story to tell about this era, a much darker tale than what generally is told. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that Progressivism helped to destroy, not preserve, the constitutional order. Far from ushering in the social peace, justice, and prosperity that Progressives promised, Progressivism helped to create the conditions for the Great Depression and helped plunge the country into one war after another. Perhaps the only positive thing we can say about the Progressive Era was that it did not do all of the damage that it could have done.
In taking this look at the Progressive Era, I will be examining a number of social and economic initiatives that took place during that time. I begin with the social policies and laws that came about during that era and dissect Progressivism’s long and sorry legacy.