As the United States advanced into the twentieth century, the Populists and Progressives saw numerous economic, political, and social problems in need of reform. The Populist movement was a result of a campaign by the Farmer’s Alliance. Their chief organizer was a man named Ignatius Donnelly whose proposals were passed into law in the Progressive era. The Omaha Platform was adopted by the newly formed party and it called for the free coinage of silver. From an economic standpoint, the Populists hoped that this inflationary measure would eradicate the financial burden that plagued the nation’s farmers. It also demanded reformation of the banking system, the graduated income tax, the secret ballot, the direct election of senators, and the eight-hour workday.
Similarly, the Progressive movement called for solutions to many economic ills in need of reform. The goal of most progressives was government regulation of business. Just as the populists had proposed years earlier, the progressives supported a graduated income tax, and a system to control currency. In order to establish a system to control currency, the populists demanded the free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold at a ratio of sixteen to one, and that the circulating medium should be increased to at least fifty dollars per capita. At the height of progressivism, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Underwood Tariff into law.
The Underwood Tariff, which reduced taxes on imported goods, also included an income tax. As a result of the passing of the sixteenth amendment, the progressives used the federal income tax amendment to justify a graduated income tax. The income tax was first supported by Robert La Follette, the governor of Wisconsin, and it raised state taxes on corporations. In bank reformation, a major exception in proposed solutions occurred since the populists demanded that the government establish a postal savings bank whereas the progressives still supported the reformation of private banks. In final analysis, Wilson supported efforts to destroy monopolies, reformed banks, and enforced the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The Progressive movement also sought out ways to curb corruption and other political problems. The populists and progressives shared the knowledge that voting should be done by secret ballot, and both supported the direct election of senators. The progressives believed that corrupt politics could destroy the democracy of the United States, and, therefore, it was their duty to democratize elections. The progressives tried to put an end to the influence of political machines. Every political machine in the country had offered services, primarily to the working class, in return for votes. The populists had instituted the idea of referendum, which called for people to play more of a factor in the political process. Some western states adopted the initiative referendum, and the recall to help the people get more say in politics.
The initiative allowed citizens to get a petition signed and force the legislature to vote on the bill. The referendum allowed proposals to be placed on the ballot so they could be voted on come election time. The recall allowed a petition by voters to remove an official from office. The populists had pushed the government to enact the direct election of senators. The enactment, though idealized by the populists, was passed into law during the Progressive era with the passage of the seventeenth amendment. The significance of this amendment is that it rid states of appointed senators, and gave the political choice back to the urban workers.
In the same way, the progressives and the populists saw much need for social and labor reform. With workers facing long hours, dangerous conditions, and poor pay, the populists and progressives sought out to resolve the problems created by industrialization. The populists established the eight-hour workday in an effort to curb long hours. The progressives sought to cut worker’s hours also, but they also strove to end child labor, cut worker’s hours, and introduce a minimum wage. In the case of Muller v. Oregon, the court upheld an Oregon state law that limited women factory workers to a ten-hour workday, and other states soon began to regulate the hours worked by women.
Workmen’s compensation first materialized in the Progressive era. After New York’s Triangle Fire of 1911, numerous women died when they where forced to jump from a burning factory. As a result of the tragedy, many people urged the government to pass higher safety standards in factories, and the event inevitably led to zoning laws and building codes.
In order to bridge the gap between social classes, John Dewey introduced progressive education, which taught working class children about Victorian morals, democracy, and capitalism. Another social reform of much merit was the establishment of settlement houses. These settlement houses offered services to the urban poor, and the immigrants that composed this social class. Unlike the progressives, the populists viewed immigrants as the equivalent to aliens, and they treated them as such. All in all, Jane Addams, the cofounder of the Hull House and a vanguard for progressivism, provided adult education classes and recreational sports for children and adults.
Ultimately, class played a primary role in the failure of the populists and the success of the progressives. The populists failed for a wide variety of reasons. First, they did not get the support of the island communities. Secondly is the fact that free coinage of silver leads to inflation, which hurts urban workers. Yet another reason is that the crop lien system was being damaged by the Subtreasury Plan. Finally, they lost the support of the urban upper class because of the nationalization of railways, and Postal Saving Banks. On the other hand, the progressives enjoyed many successes during their tenure as a major political party. In conclusion, the progressives succeeded because they won the support of the middle class, island communities, and working class people.