Lecture 7: The Progressives


Early in the 20th century America went through a series of reforms called the Progressive Movement. This was reform, not revolution; Americans believed they could improve the country by a rationale process of deliberate change. Key leaders in the process were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. This lecture defines the nature of the reform movement, traces it through the Roosevelt-Wilson era, and discusses why this is important for later generations of Americans.



Progressivism was a middle-class reform movement, early in the 20th century, that sought to reassert the will of the people as opposed to special interests and to establish a stronger federal government that would serve the public welfare. It was a fundamental change in Americans’ expectations of government, of institutions, and of themselves.

The Spirit of Progress

Historians often focus on the political aspects of Progressivism—Teddy Roosevelt busting the trusts and all that—but the intellectual and social aspects were just as important—in fact, they made the political reforms possible.  Among the Progressive movements that captured this more general spirit of reform were ones touching religion, journalism, business, and agriculture.

Political Reforms

In politics, the Progressives proposed striking reforms: regulation of business by government, and expansion of the power of the people (by such means as the Australian ballot).  The Progressives also were characterized by a set of 20th-century beliefs: faith in scientific expertise, greater concern for labor and the poor, advocacy for consumers—but on the other hand, little sympathy for radicals or minorities.

That Damned Cowboy

Theodore Roosevelt broke the mould of lackluster presidents and became a popular hero.  He positioned himself as a Progressive reformer and challenged the Old Guard of the Republican Party.  He took action to break up trusts in business; intervened in labor disputes; and advocated conservation of natural resources.

The Square Deal

After winning election in his own right in 1904, TR implemented his program, the Square Deal.  This delivered new measures to regulate business and protect consumers.  On the other hand, TR also got into political trouble with ill-advised and controversial actions such as the Brownsville affair.  His administration was troubled, but his personal popularity as a Progressive reformer remained high.

Election of 1912

William Taft, TR’s successor, was a disappointment to Progressives.  This set up the crucial election of 1912, with Taft running for re-election; Democrat Woodrow Wilson championing reform through his own party; and TR heading a Bull Moose third-party challenging both.  A comparison of Wilson’s platform, the New Freedom, with TR’s, the New Nationalism, enlightens us as to how Progressivism changed American expectations about government.

Twilight of Progressivism

President Wilson took Progressive reform in new, important directions, especially with the creation of the Federal Reserve System.  Although his reforms were significant in the long term, at the time foreign affairs (the beginning of the Great War) diverted attention from them.  Even so, the Progressive era of TR and Wilson left us with important legacies for American democracy.

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“Why Great Revolutions Will Become More Rare”

Tocqueville can help us understand the reforms of the Progressive Movement by explaining why Americans are a reforming people. In our system we reform, that is, we make changes to the existing system by increments, rather than having revolutions. Let's discuss why.


·         So—why don't democracies have revolutions?

·         Progressivism was not revolutionary, but reformist. It sought not to overthrow the American system but to preserve it by reforming it. According to Tocqueville, then, what class of society would be most interested in such reform?


From the National Archives, Upton Sinclair's letter to President Roosevelt on meat inspection

Film Review

The Wind and the Lion

Book Review

Morris, Theodore Rex

Wonderful biography of TR

Sheldon, In His Steps

A period work of the Social Gospel

Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

TR’s own memoir of his ranching days in Dakota Territory

Sinclair, The Jungle

The stomach-turning novel about the meatpacking industry mentioned in the lecture

Arvold, The Little Country Theater

Here’s one for the Theater majors—Arvold’s vision of community theater for rural renewal