Populist and Progressive Reform in American History
Throughout American history, reform was common among people of a particular, race, gender, or class used to accomplish change. The emergence of the populist and progressive movements were a response to the changing climate in American society due to rapid industrialization, an ethnically diverse personality of a young nation, and birth of American imperialism. Disgruntled American farmers that wished to advance their economic position initiated the Populist movement. Progressives pushed to improve urban labor conditions, dismantle trusts and monopolies, conserve of environment, and to install an active government. Populism and Progressivism had many similarities and differences, which made them two of the most influential political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each movement used reform to achieve the change they desired, but with different supporters, actions, and results. This era influenced social, political and economic trends of the modern age. The populist and Progressive Era happened in the years following the Civil War, after the U.S. began to rapidly industrialize, in turn creating wealth, growth of big businesses, technological advances, population shifts from rural to urban centers, and large scale immigration of different ethnic groups. Within this business-oriented society money began to replace morality in national politics. The urban transformation meant new material surroundings, causing a metamorphosis of personal values, political ideas, and group identities. Massive production and the new factory system altered the character of the originally agriculturally oriented society into a consumer culture. Populism was one of the first fundamental political movements created in response to the growing changes of industrial America. Throughout the 1870s rural discontent grew among Middle Westerners and Southerners, due to crop failures, falling agricultural prices, and poor marketing and credit facilities. The agrarian sector of the economy felt that the financial interests of eastern industrialists and bankers were to blame for the depressed economy. The message of the Greenback Party, which was formed to lead the efforts for currency expansion, was dulled due to a brief return of prosperity. However, hard times quickly returned, leading to the emergence of the farmers’ alliances. The alliances’ attempts to take united political action were unsuccessful due to varied political allegiances. In 1890, when congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, a totally inadequate gesture toward currency expansion, differences were put aside in order to form the new political party. During the presidential election of 1892, neither Republicans nor Democrats addressed rural distress to the satisfaction of the farmers’ alliances, resulting in their nomination of Populist candidates, James B. Weaver and James G. Field. The Populist Party supported an array of progressive ideas and ran an unexpectedly successful campaign, but their more serious run came 4 years later. In 1896, the Populists candidate William Jennings Bryan ran a campaign dominated by the silver issue, but ultimately failed to sway the electorate outside of the farm belt. The party’s superseding goal was to right the wrongs of industry and economy, in order for farmers to obtain economic equality with business and industry. Their platform, commonly known as the Omaha platform, demanded an increase in the circulating currency, the abolition of national banks, graduated income tax, government ownership of the railroads, the direct election of senators, and other measures to strengthen political democracy. While the populist movement concentrated on industrial and economic issues, the progressive movement focused more attention on America’s social issues and creating morally correct ideas. The Progressive Movement was an effort to cure many of the ills of American society that...
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