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The Progressive Era

In the present, the United States is in the midst of an economic recession, and many look to Washington to enact legislation to alleviate much of the resulting distress. This expectation of the federal government, however, is a relatively recent development in the history of the United States, which can be traced to the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Prior to the Progressive Era, the main responsibilities of the federal government were the management of foreign policy, the maintenance of the military, the distribution of frontier lands, and the collection of taxes and tariffs to pay for such endeavors. It was not until the Panic (depression) of 1893 that Progressives began to utilize the government as a tool of social activism.


Progressives were typically urban, upper middle class individuals, who, as Elwyn B. Robinson -- author of History of North Dakota -- describes, “sought to make democracy work more effectively,” primarily “by the means of legislation.” This ideology was fueled both by an optimistic and firm belief in the potential of the nation, but also by the many perceived social ills that beleaguered it.

Across the nation, political power had stagnated, primarily in the hands of city bosses and corporate tycoons.  In North Dakota, the railroads were especially powerful. Huge corporations held almost monopolistic power in certain industries.  Urban slums were prevalent, and many laborers faced appalling conditions and exploitation.

Worse, by 1893 the United States had begun to slump into an economic depression.  Businesses began to fail, unemployment increased, and others lived in fear of the uncertainty of their futures. As the depression reached its depth, the destitute and hungry lingered in the streets and the farmers' economy continued to look bleak.

Though Progressives sought to remedy these ailments, they did not limit themselves to this mission, however. Many Progressives pushed for reforms and legislation for the betterment of society as a whole. Some of these measures were ultimately unsuccessful, such as the prohibition of alcohol, which had the unintended effect of also promoting bootlegging and organized criminal activity. Other reforms, however, were largely successful, and their effects can still be seen in the nation's policies today, such as laws protecting workers and food and drug regulation.  The Progressive education movement also achieved reforms that have had long-term consequences across the nation, as well as specifically in North Dakota.