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Making Progress: The History of the Progressive Party in the United States of America

Updated on November 19, 2012


Making Progress: The History of the Progressive Party in the United States of America will be the authors attempt to delve into the progressive party in the United States of America. In this academic composition the author will inform the reader of the history of the progressive party. Point out the important figures that were critical to both the success and creation of the party. The author will also describe the basic politics and ideologies of the progressive parties. Last, the creator of this literary composition will take a look at the progressive party of today.


To piece together this research paper, various resources from the internet, university library have been attained. Articles such as William G. Henderson’s Progressivism: An Historical Essay, which is a primary source, because it was found on JSTOR. Other sources include The Progressive a magazine that has been in publication since 1909 and the Campus Progress a progressive magazine aimed at university students.

Literature Review

It is the turn of the century, forty-two year Vice President Theodore Roosevelt would take over as President of the United States of America, after the tragic assignation of President William McKinley. From the year 1901 and on, President Theodore Roosevelt lead a whole host new and “progressive” ideals and programs. The first would be the “Square Deal,” a rampage of new social programs. [1]

President Theodore Roosevelt along with popular public opinion would coin the term “Square Deal.” It is simply a term that describes the method of governing that Roosevelt himself would invoke. The Square Deal was created to alleviate the effects of industrialization.

President Theodore Roosevelt was also a fighter for the common man. He made his mission to fight the power of corporations, he was the “Trust Buster.” At this time in United States history eighty percent of the businesses in the United States of America were owned by trust. Congress would enact the “Sherman Antitrust Act,” to stop unfair business practices. The act would be in vain, the act failed in its mission to stop unfair business practices. In 1904 the Supreme Court agreed trusts became monopoly and the court dissolved them.

President of the United States of America Theodore Roosevelt sued many trusts and won. One of the Presidents first victims was Northern Securities, which was a railroad trust. President Theodore Roosevelt would file around forty suits, all targeted at a diverse array of industries, those opponents included the beef industry, standard oil, and the tobacco industry, just to name a few.

President of the United States of America Theodore Roosevelt would run a successful in a re-election campaign. It is by this time he has earned the nick name the “Trust Buster.” In a heroic crusade to stop unfair business practice and promote government regulation in industries.

He along with such supporters as: Samuel Jones Mayor in Toledo, in Ohio, governor of South Carolina Charles Aycock, Albert Cummings of Iowa, Robert M La Follete who play a pivotal role to forming the progressive party.

Two years into his second term as the President Theodore Roosevelt, the “Hepburn Act” was passed. This gave birth to the FIC or the “Federal Interstate Commission” this agency had the power to regulate the maximum fees railroad firms could charge.

Naturalist John Muir gave Theodore Roosevelt the idea to establish fifty wildlife sanctuaries, five national parks, designated eighteen national monuments, on top of withdrawing 158 million acres of forest land from public sale, the amount of acres President had withdrawn was the equivalent to the size of Germany.

During this progressive era in American history, the “Muckraker” movement would expose the corruption in both government and business. It would involve the publications from well-known authors of the time. The name was derived from characters in John Bungan’s “Pilgrims Progress.” Upton Sinclair would stun the nation with “The Jungle” a literary work that exposed the filthy and horrible conditions of Chicago’s meat packing Industry.

Matters of public health were questioned when they became aghast at Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” It was his investigation into the sanitary conditions of the meat packing industry. In 1906 congress would adopt the “Meat Inspections Act.” There after the “Pure Food and Drug Act” soon came into play. Under this act company’s had to list contents of foods and drugs on a label. Also no more exaggerated claims could be made about that product.

Ida Tarbell would describe the tactics and strategy used in big business to defeat the competition. Born Ida Minerva Tarbell, on November 5, 1857, Ida Tarbell was the daughter of Frank Tarbell, builder of wooden oil storage tanks and later became an oil producer. During her childhood, Tarbell as well as her hometown would come to know the luxury of a lifestyle at one point of her life was foreign to her. [2]

"There was ease such as we had never known; luxuries we had never heard of… Then suddenly [our] gay, prosperous town received a blow between the eyes." – Ida Tarbell

What happened to Tarbell’s town was the “South Improvement scheme” of 1872. It was conceived in 1871 by Tom Scott president of the dominant Pennsylvania Railroad, the South Improvement Company was a secret alliance between railroads and a distinct group of large oil refineries. Their goal, stop what they deemed as “destructive” price-cutting and restoring freight charges to profitable levels. The pact would involve the railroads raising their rates, but would agree to pay rebates to Rockefeller and other large refineries thus securing steady profit. To add fuel to the fire, proceeds in the form of “drawbacks,” would fall on to nonmembers, who as a result would end up paying much higher prices for shipments of oil.[3]

When news of this exclusive pact was leaked to Pennsylvanian newspapers in the oil region of the state most devastated by this pact, it’s understandable that a number of independent oilmen were outraged.

Decades later Ida Tarbell would author her most famous work The History of the Standard Oil Company, in which after years of research, would expose the illegal practices used by Rockefeller to monopolize the oil industry.

Jacob Rils would talk about life in the slums in his book How the Other Half Lives. A native of Ribe, Denmark Riis would not come to America until 1870. Riis also authored a number of books including Children of the Poor, Out of Mulberry Street, The Battle With the Slum and Children of the Tenement.[4]

Lincoln Steffens lifted the veil and exposed government corruption in city government. Lincoln Steffens was conceived in 1866, to a rich businessman soon turned California governor and his wife. Steffens spent his childhood riding around the Sacramento countryside on his

horse. As a child Steffen was a frequent attendee horse races, his father would fix. By the time he was twenty six Steffens attained a degree from Berkley. Steffens would go to work for a couple New York City newspapers. During his career Steffens was managing editor of McClure's Magazine. It is here Steffens began writing his famous muckraking articles. These articles later on were published as The Shame of the Cities. This most revealing expose’ informed readers on corruption in politics and big business.

A magazine like The Progressive has also played a role in spreading the ideal of progressivism. The Progressive is a monthly leftwing magazine conceived on January 9, 1909 when Senator from Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr. founded La Follette’s Weekly. Senator La Follete Sr. wanted his publications to be “a magazine of progress, social, intellectual, institutional.”[5]

Senator La Follette’s goal for his weekly publication as he puts it “winning back for the people the complete power over government —national, state, and municipal—which has been lost to them.”

He was not shy about attacking corporations that he believed were monopolizing and hoarding power. Like many progressives of his time, he defended public interest, social and economic justice.

1929, La Follette Weekly would change to The Progressive, for the most part the magazine stayed the same, and the message has stayed consistent for a little over a century. In 2009 The Progressive, would celebrate its 100th anniversary by publishing Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive Magazine, a timeline to the best moments in the magazines history.

Across the country many cities and states would change the form of their governments. In Galveston, Texas used a commission system of city government, this form of government became so successful that four-hundred cities from around the country would adopt these measures. The idea of instituting this form government would promote efficiency and economy through the election of commissioners’ city wide.

How does this system work? Under the commission plan voters elect a small governing commission. These commissions usually have around five or seven members. The commissioners as one body establish the lawmaking body of the city responsible for taxation, appropriations, ordinances, and other general functions. Individually, each commissioner is in charge of a specific aspect of municipal affairs, for example public works, finance, or public safety. One of the commissioners is designated either a chairman or mayor, but one’s function is mainly one of presiding at meetings and serving in ceremonies. To simply put it, the commission plan is a blend of legislative and executive functions in the same body.[6]

The state of Oregon adopted four major election reforms. The first was the “Secret Ballot,” where voters received a ballot and were allowed to vote in private booths. A second reform known as an “initiative” this gave voters the rights to put issues on ballots to vote for. “Recall” granted voters remove an official from office. Finally “Direct Primary,” voters could choose candidates for office rather than the parties. This would lead to the creation of the 17th amendment gave citizens the right to directly elect a senator.

The first signs of the progressive party could be seen in 1912. A frustrated Theodore Roosevelt defected from the Republican Party. Roosevelt was very public about his scathing opinion of then President William H. Taft. While there are other reasons, on reason Theodore was angered at President Taft, because President Taft removed Gifford Pinchot as chief forester.

On his own Theodore Roosevelt would form the Progressive Party, as a leader believing he as well his party, was as fit as a bull moose, the party was deemed the “Bull Moose Party.” The platform of the newly formed party would call for stricter regulation of industrial combinations, women’s suffrage, prohibition of child labor, and tariff reforms just to name a few.

The party would nominate Roosevelt for president and Hiram Johnson would participate on the ticket for Vice President. The Progressives finished the elections ahead of the republicans, but were defeated in an electoral battle versus the Democrats and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt would return to the Republican Party in 1916, the progressive party would temporarily disappear.

In 1924 liberals were at ends with conservative control of both major political parties, out of frustration the “League of Progressive Political Action,” otherwise known as the “Progressive Party” was formed. Senator La Follette a republican at the time chose to run for president as an independent, but later accepted the nomination from the Progressive Party. Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a Democrat from Montana would join La Follette on the ticket as a candidate for vice president. [7]

Their platform involved government ownership of public utilities and such labor reforms as collective bargaining, farm relief measures, lower taxes for people with modest incomes. The tandem would only receive 17 percent of the popular vote, La Follette was only able to get Wisconsin’s electoral vote.

La Follette’s sons would try to keep the progressive party alive by forming a progressive party in his home state of Wisconsin. Robert La Follette Jr. was elected to the senate, but eventually met defeat at the hands of Joseph McCarthy.

The year 1948, democrats who were associated with the New Deal are upset with the policies of Harry Truman. Wanting a change and a party they could call their own, another progressive party was formed. The party’s platform included rights for minorities, curbs on monopolies and the repeal of the Taft-Harley Act.

The party would nominate Henry A. Wallace for president and Glen H. Taylor for vice president. Like attempts from progressive parties of past, the two would fail miserably, receiving 2.4 percent of the popular vote and carried no state. What put a nail in the coffin for these two is that the party received support from the communist. This was used against them by both parties.

The party again experienced turbulence, when they spoke out in opposition to America’s decision to fight in Korea. Wallace was in full disagreement with the party’s leadership on the issue and would resign from the party. The party would completely evaporate after the 1952 election.


The modern day progressive party is somewhat similar to those of past, while having more of a grassroots energy about bringing social and political change. The party today is not so much a party as it is a part of the engine of the Democratic Party and the Green Party. Some of the more notable politicians who are progressives include Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich, Barney Frank, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Maxine Waters, John Lewis, and Paul Wellstone.

Politicians who want to dodge the label of “liberal” adopt the term “progressive,” to describe their political stance.

This brings up a good point, the author like many other progressives around the country run into this question. “What is the difference, between a progressive and a liberal?” Fair question this is as on the surface the two seem the same. However, look closer.

As The Center for American Progress founder John Podesta would describe the difference between liberals and progressives in this manner, “Liberals tend to care more about individual freedom, while progressives care more about the public good.”

Being a progressive our dynamics on issues can change. Most would believe that progressives are in favor of big government, this is not the case. The government is essentially an elected representation of the people and the government should be more responsive to the needs of the people.


Bailyn, Bernard. The Great Republic. Lexington: DC Heath Co, 1985.

Brands, H.W. T.R.: The Last Romantic. New York: BasicBooks, 1997.

Lowrie, Arthur L. IDA TARBELL Life and Works. February 12, 1997. (accessed October 22, 2011).

Ohio History Central. "Progressive Party". July 1, 2005. (accessed October 12, 2011). People & Events: Ida Tarbell, 1857-1944. August 24, 2011. (accessed September 17, 2011). History and Mission . July 7, 2011. (accessed September 22, 2011).

Rice, Bradley R. "COMMISSION FORM OF CITY GOVERNMENT," Handbook of Texas Online. November 5, 2011. (accessed November 27, 2011).

Spartacus Educational. Spartacus Educational. March 25, 2011. (accessed September 17, 2011). May 3, 2011. (accessed October 13, 2011).

[1] Brands, H.W. T.R.: The Last Romantic. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

[2] People & Events: Ida Tarbell, 1857-1944. August 24, 2011. (accessed September 17, 2011).

[3] Lowrie, Arthur L. IDA TARBELL Life and Works. February 12, 1997. (accessed October 22, 2011).

[4] Spartacus Educational. Spartacus Educational. March 25, 2011. (accessed September 17, 2011).

[5] History and Mission. July 7, 2011. (accessed September 22, 2011).

[6] Rice, Bradley R. "COMMISSION FORM OF CITY GOVERNMENT," Handbook of Texas Online. November 5, 2011. (accessed November 27, 2011).

[7] May 3, 2011. (accessed October 13, 2011).


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