The Progressive Era (1890-1920) was a time of great reform, not only for the State of Michigan, but also for the entire nation.
The Progressives were worried about the state of the country. They had concerns over what they felt were risks to their way of life and the values they held. They were especially concerned over how cities were being operated. Progressives were concerned over prohibition, child and woman labor, woman’s suffrage, workplace safety and many other issues they felt were in need of change.
The reform that was the most successful and important was that of political reform. During this time frame, political corruption was a major source of conflict in many aspects of life. Workers often were employed for industries that bribed politicians and government officials to turn their backs on unsafe working conditions and unfair employee treatment. In order for reforms like workman’s compensation, laws requiring safer workplace conditions, and safe food and drug practices to occur (among many others), corruption between businesses and politicians needed to end. Our text states, “…We have allowed the reins of government to fall into the hands of political combines. A few have benefited at the expense of the many.” (The Great Water, 143).
Early Progressives realized that to be successful with reforms in any area, they first had to tackle the corrupt relationship that existed between many business owners and the politicians that allowed unacceptable conditions to exist in return for favors and payoffs.
Bribery was commonplace, so when muckrakers began publishing exposes in magazines like Cosmopolitan and McCall’s revealing the wrongdoings of both business and government, many people took notice and began demanding change. Once the progressive movement took hold, people began “protesting against the rule of the few and agitation gave birth to a political revolution,” (The Great Water, 143).
Corruption in politics continued to be reformed when in 1911, Chase Osborn was elected Governor of Michigan. Osborn has been labeled as “Mr. Progressive,” due to his beliefs and work towards many political and social reforms, (The Great Water, 140). Some of Osborn’s earliest work as a progressive, took place prior to him gaining office, when in 1900, he exposed a bribery scheme that had taken place during the State Republican Convention. This was risky for him since he also was a Republican.
Politics underwent many changes due to Progressivism. Activists aimed to make the public more aware of the entire political process. One of the political reforms that occurred was the idea of the direct presidential primary. This process allowed the public to pick the candidate they wanted to elect. The concepts of initiative, recall and referendum also came to be during the Progressive Era. In 1913, Woodbridge Ferris became the Governor of Michigan and under his leadership, and through the power of initiative, the people had the right to put proposed laws on a ballot as long as they had a petition with the required number of signatures. This would allow for better regulation of businesses. Through the process of recall, citizens would now have the power to remove corrupt politicians from office by petition and vote. Referendum allowed the people to vote on important political and social questions, giving the power for important reform decisions to the people.
For the many reforms that needed to occur during the Progressive Era, political reform needed to be the most successful and occur first. Politicians who turned their back on social injustice and unsafe/unfair business practices needed to be removed from office. Through the successful work of the Progressive Reformers, who brought political corruption into the light and demanded change, many other reforms were able to follow.
Thick, Matthew R. The Great Water. Lansing, Mi.: Michigan State University Press,