Progressive Political Reform

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,


5 thoughts on “Progressive Political Reform

  1. I think what Chase Osborn did as a politician in terms of bribery and social injustice were unheard of, and even today directly challenging, or exposing injustice or bribery, especially in your own party, would be unheard of. As scandal and bribery is commonplace in today’s politics I wonder who would be considered as progressive towards these issues as Osborn was, that is a politician today. I think today if someone exposed their own party they would be banished, charged with an offense, and exiled from the political spectrum.

    1. I completely agree with you. Today people in politics seem to be able to say whatever they want too, no matter how inappropriate it may be. And then, instead of being chastised or removed from office, people make excuses for their bad behavior and try to tell us why we should be thanking them for the awesome job they’ve done!

  2. Governor Chase Osborn and Governor Woodbridge Ferris played important roles in the development of politics during this time. Citizens having the power to remove corrupt politicians from office by petition and vote, and referendum allowing citizens to vote on important political and social questions is so crucial to our government today – giving the people the power. If Chase Osborn had not taken the risk of exposing his own political party, who knows how differently things could have played out.

  3. I thought that women’s suffrage was successful and important. I also see where you were coming from with the polictical reform. I would have to say that is probably the most important. As women’s right to vote was important but citizens need a safe place to work and shouldn’t be working in dangerous conditions.

  4. I liked your take on this, because I didn’t view it this way. Citizens need a hazard free work environment. Also, today citizens have the power to removed politicians that they view “corrupt” and that is a powerful thing. It does help to stop politicians from getting away with scandals.

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