The Progressives

Author: Josh Pretlow
School: Clarke County High School
Grade Level: High School
Time Estimated: 3.5 days, 90-minute periods

This mini unit will have the students explore the Progressives in US History. Who were the Progressives? Why did they gain power at this particular period in history? What were their goals and were they successful in achieving their goals? Students will come into this with the knowledge of US History that we have discussed so far this year. Furthermore, they will have read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair before we begin the unit. We will use their reading of this novel as a basis for discussion and reference throughout this unit. As a result of this mini unit, students will be able to analyze primary sources — a novel, census data, and political cartoons – and interpret those sources to evaluate the Progressive movement. This mini unit is intended for my International Baccalaureate History of the Americas class. It is an advanced level class in which we focus not only on historical content but on analyzing documents to prepare students for the IB test.


Historical Background:

Although we speak of a Progressive movement, there was never one person, party, or issue that united all of the Progressives at a single moment in history. Instead, the Progressives should be seen as an umbrella organization under which many different reforms were carried out by many different people. That being said, the Progressive movement is a broadly defined era in American history that sought reforms in economics, politics, and society. The historical Progressive movement lasted from the mid 1890s to the mid 1910s.

In the area of politics, the Progressives sought to make our nation more democratic by putting more power in the hands of the people. This is evidenced by the passing of the 17th amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment called for the direct election of senators. On the state level, many states such as California codified the idea of a referendum, initiative, and recall. Both of these allowed the will of the people to supersede the often times corrupt legislatures that existed around the turn of the century. On the national level, the Progressives reached their height when Teddy Roosevelt was elected president. Roosevelt brought with him to Washington a desire and the energy needed to bring about many reforms that other Progressives were pushing.

Social issues were another priority for the Progressives. Industrialization had changed America greatly over the last few generations. As a direct result of industrialization, many more people were moving from the country to the cities. This created many problems such as child labor, poor working conditions for many, and a gap between the rich and poor. The injustices of this time period were exposed by muckraking journalists who printed exposes of true, but almost unbelievable, horror stories of life for the poor. A classic example of this is Sinclair’s The Jungle. In terms of social reforms, many women and women’s’ groups became active. Jane Addams established Hull House to help the transition of immigrants. Groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) grew in both and size and effectiveness during this time period. Another powerful form of media that conveyed the harsh conditions that workers faced was photography. The photos of Lewis Hine focused primarily on the horrors of child labor. Many of the social reforms that were achieved were done so through legislation. The Progressives believed that government should help to protect and even legislate morality.

Another important aspect in terms of social change was immigration. America, which has always been a land of immigrants, was changing. Before 1880, most of the immigrants coming to America were skilled workers from Western Europe. They were mainly Protestant and had some experience in representative government. These characteristics allowed them to easily assimilate into American culture. On the other hand, after 1880 most of the immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe, were unskilled, practiced the Eastern Orthodox religion, and were not educated. The number of Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe also increased. This culture gap led to the “new immigrants” not assimilating into the new American society. In turn, this produced resentment towards many foreigners.

The Progressives were also concerned with the increasing gap of wealth and poverty in the US. As more immigrants made their way to America, more Americans began to migrate toward the cities due to increased industrialization and economic opportunities. However, the reality of the situation was much different than the dreams they brought with them. The economic reforms of Progressivism manifested themselves in laws such as the Sherman and Clayton Anti-trust Laws. Although they were of varying degrees of effectiveness, these laws laid the groundwork for the destruction of both trusts and monopolies. Teddy Roosevelt is perhaps best known as being the trustbuster in American history. However, as with most of history, there is evidence to support the fact that he had little real affect in this area. Labor was an important aspect of economics also. Again, Roosevelt played an important role in this. The nascent, but ever increasing labor movement received a boost when Roosevelt supported striking miners in their labor negotiations of 1902. The coal mine owners were forced to negotiate when Roosevelt threatened to operate the mines with federal troops to keep the supply of coal coming.

Although the Progressive Movement accomplished many gains in terms of economics, politics, and society, they were not able to solve all of the nation’s problems. During this time, more and more African Americans were becoming disenfranchised in the south. Jim Crow laws were on the rise also. Ultimately, Progressivism shaped the path that America was to follow in the 20th century, be it good or bad.


Major Understanding:

The Progressives were reacting to a changing world around them. They attempted to deal with problems that America faced as it moved from an agricultural to an industrialized society. Although their methods and ideas varied, the diverse group of people labeled Progressives changed America, and their impact is still felt today.



Students will:

  1. Analyze and interpret primary sources – a novel, political cartoons, and census data – to aid in their understanding of this time period.
  2. Evaluate the success (or lack thereof) of the Progressives.
  3. Compare and contrast “old” immigrants (pre 1880) and “new” immigrants (post 1880).
  4. Appreciate literature as a way to study history.
  5. Create their own political cartoon dealing with the Progressive movement.


Standards of Learning:

VUS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to

  1. identify, analyze, and interpret primary and secondary source documents, records, and data, including artifacts, diaries, letters, photographs, journals, newspapers, historical accounts, and art to increase understanding of events and life in the United States;
  2. evaluate the authenticity, authority, and credibility of sources;
  3. (h) interpret the significance of excerpts from famous speeches and other documents.

VUS.8 The student will demonstrate knowledge of how the nation grew and changed from the end of Reconstruction through the early twentieth century by

  1. explaining the relationship among territorial expansion, westward movement of the population, new immigration, growth of cities, and the admission of new states to the Union;
  2. describing the transformation of the American economy from a primarily agrarian to a modern industrial economy and identifying major inventions that improved life in the United States;
  3. identifying the impact of the Progressive Movement, including child labor and antitrust laws, the rise of labor unions, and the success of the women’s suffrage movement.