Many of the best examples of progressive reform center on how citizens interact with their government. The phrase “progressive reform” is predominantly American, and came about in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Early examples include rules governing how citizens could be hired as government workers and laws setting government oversight for consumer protection against fraud, defective products, and harmful food. A number of voting rights issues fall under the reform banner, too, particularly as concerns the election process for Senators and congressional leaders and the right to vote more generally. Local laws and city government structural issues can also be included. The movement generally sought to end political corruption, regulate the marketplace, and enforce basic human rights.
American progressive reform was driven by a loose-knit group of individuals who were focused on social and governmental change. They organized politically in 1912 to support the Progressive Party ticket of Theodore Roosevelt and again in 1924 to push the independent presidential candidacy of Robert LaFollette. Progressive supporters’ concerns varied widely, but the reform movement focused primarily on social issues related to fair wages and safe working conditions. Legislation outlawing child labor, limits on working hours, and a minimum wage for working women were important national issues of the era. Both of the progressive candidates failed to win election, at least at first, but many laws were nevertheless passed to address the social ills the movement opposed.
Civil Service Hiring
In 1883, the federal government passed the Pendleton Act to regulate federal civil service hiring. Before this act passed, federal positions were assigned to the political party in power and the winning party generally looked forward to hiring supporters. Friends and relatives also expected new, well-paying jobs. The new rules meant that the most influential jobs would be open to the best candidates, regardless of their connections.
Specifically, the Pendleton Act required potential federal employees to provide proof of their qualifications that related to the job. Competitive scores on standardized exams were also mandated, and a federal Civil Service Commission was established to enforce the provisions of the law. Later provisions were added to prohibit the demoting or firing of federal employees based on political beliefs.
The Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Act, which prohibited business monopolies and protected the public against dangerous food manufacturing practices, both passed in 1914. They outlawed price-fixing by large corporations, which was believed to negatively impact the marketplace. Artificially low prices tend to shut out small businesses and minimize competition. Once the competition was eliminated, though, higher prices were usually restored by large producers, leaving consumers with limited product choices. Members of the reform movement sought to end these practices as a matter of equity and general consumer protection.
These laws also gave the Federal Trade Commission the duty to protect the public against business fraud and set up regulations to protect consumers. The Commission is a government agency devoted to monitoring and enforcing trade rules, laws, and best practices. Though these laws didn’t completely eliminate all risk in the marketplace, they made it much more difficult for companies to sell shoddy products, harmful foods, and deceptively labeled goods.
Senatorial Election and Selection
Corruption in congressional elections was also troubling to many reformists and led to arguments for more transparent direct elections. The Constitution stipulated appointment of national senators by the state legislature, but cases of corruption and disputed elections seemed to face the US Senate after each election cycle. Progressives in Oregon led the nation in 1907 by selecting Oregon's US Senator through a direct election, and the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which was ratified in 1913, provided for the direct election of US Senators by the people of every state.
Local and state reform movements were also very successful in enacting legal changes during the height of the progressive era. The initiative, referendum, and recall, for instance, were instrumental in allowing direct public participation in government. Political innovations like the secret ballot and the direct primary also trace their roots to this era. These and similar reforms provided direct involvement of the voters, and in most cases were motivated by the desire to eliminate what many saw as rampant political corruption. In the days before progressive reform, corruption flourished under the ward voting system where party bosses courted favors from candidates in exchange for support.
The Nineteenth Amendment of 1920 guaranteeing female suffrage was another important progressive reform that gained national support. Wyoming was the only state that allowed women to vote in 1890 and Utah, Idaho, and Colorado passed female suffrage laws by 1900. A national progressive movement to collect the required two-thirds votes in the US Congress was required to send the national constitutional amendment to the states for ratification.
Structuring City Governments
City government operated by professionals, including a commissioner and manager, was another popular reform. The trained professionals did not owe any allegiance to an election machine and could make unpopular changes based on sound business practices. Galveston, Texas stands out as a progressive municipality that passed significant numbers of reforms beginning in 1900, including shifting local operation to a city manager.