The Origins of the Progressive Spirit in America

A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1901, President William McKinley is assassinated, and Theodore Roosevelt assumes the presidency; an illustration of McKinley's assassination is shown. In 1906, the Meat Inspection Act passes, and the Pure Food and Drug Act is enacted. In 1910, an interracial coalition founds the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire triggers the first inspection laws; a photograph of firefighters hosing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze is shown. In 1912, Roosevelt founds the Progressive Party; a photograph of Roosevelt is shown. In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment authorizes the federal income tax, and the Seventeenth Amendment subjects U.S. senators to a popular vote. In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibits the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, and the Nineteenth Amendment guarantees women the right to vote; a photograph shows Speaker of the House Frederick Gillett signing a bill providing for the Nineteenth Amendment.

The Progressive Era was a time of wide-ranging causes and varied movements, where activists and reformers from diverse backgrounds and with very different agendas pursued their goals of a better America. These reformers were reacting to the challenges that faced the country at the end of the nineteenth century: rapid urban sprawl, immigration, corruption, industrial working conditions, the growth of large corporations, women’s rights, and surging anti-black violence and white supremacy in the South. Investigative journalists of the day uncovered social inequality and encouraged Americans to take action. The campaigns of the Progressives were often grassroots in their origin. While different causes shared some underlying elements, each movement largely focused on its own goals, be it the right of women to vote, the removal of alcohol from communities, or the desire for a more democratic voting process.