The Progressive Movement was a widespread reform effort to cure the many social and political ills in America after the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the United States of America underwent tremendous change. One of the principal changes was the shift from a predominantly agricultural economy to a much more industrialized one. This change also brought stark social changes to the United States. Now millions of Americans relied on other people—business owners—for their livelihood. Oftentimes, the employers reinvested profits back into the company, rather than paying workers a fair wage. These business owners also had tremendous power within the federal government. Many Americans believed that the business owners had undue influence over the government and that the employers had no desire to relinquish any power to middle and working-class Americans.
By the 1890s, a group of reformers, known as the Progressives, emerged to combat some of the ill effects of these changes. Most Progressives came from middle-class backgrounds. Many of them were college educated. Progressives generally believed that industrialization was good for the United States, but they also contended that human greed had overcome industrialization's more positive effects. They hoped to instill in Americans moral values based upon Protestant religious beliefs. The Progressives wanted employers to treat their workers as the bosses wanted to be treated. They also hoped that, if working conditions improved, Americans would not engage in immoral activities, like drinking and gambling, to forget the difficulties that they faced.
Progressives sought better pay, safer working conditions, shorter hours, and increased benefits for workers. Believing that only education would allow Americans to lead successful lives, Progressives opposed child labor, wanting children to attend school rather than working in mines and factories. They supported Prohibition and succeeded in enacting a ban on the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol with the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1919. Progressives also sought to reclaim government from the business owners and corrupt politicians partly by supporting the direct election by the people of United States Senators. The Progressives succeeded in attaining this reform with the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1913. Other reforms included Initiative, which allowed voters to pass legislation on their own, Referendum, which allowed voters to repeal laws that they did not support, and Recall, which allowed voters to remove elected officials from office. Many Progressives supported women's suffrage, helping women secure the right to vote through the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1919. Progressives also battled against city bosses, including Cincinnati, Ohio's George Cox, by hiring city managers.
While Progressives enacted numerous positive reforms, some of their goals were questionable. They did seek to make the United States government more democratic and to protect American workers, but they also sought to force their social and political beliefs on others. Progressives opposed immigration and enacted several immigration restrictions during the 1920s. Progressives also tried to force immigrants to adopt Progressive moral beliefs. One way they tried to accomplish this was through settlement houses. Settlement houses existed in most major cities during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. They were places where immigrants could go to receive free food, clothing, job training, and educational classes. While all of these items greatly helped immigrants, Progressives also used the settlement houses to convince immigrants to adopt "American" or Progressive beliefs, causing the foreigners to forsake their own culture. During the 1920s, many Progressives also joined the Ku Klux Klan, a self-proclaimed religious group that was to enforce morality—based on Progressive beliefs—on other people. Due to such the Progressives' participation in Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, and immigration restrictions, many Americans stopped supporting the Progressive Movement. While aspects of its beliefs remain today, as a functioning and clearly identifiable group, the Progressive Movement began to weaken by the late 1920s and the early 1930s.