The dawn of the 20th century in Nebraska and across the nation signaled the birth of the Progressive Movement. Supporters of the movement were found in both major political parties, Democrat and Republican. While some of the alternative parties, like the Populists, were still in existence, their experiences in the 1890s had shown how hard it is to succeed outside of the two major parties. So, proponents of the Progressive Movement tended to work within the major parties, and they advanced a whole host of issues. Reformers tried to improve social conditions by implementing forward-thinking or "progressive" goals.
The Progressive Movement was concerned
about a variety of issues,
including monopolies cornering the markets.
Many of the progressive concerns in the 20th Century had roots in our previous history.
- Suffrage. When the U.S. was founded, only white men were allowed to vote and elect representatives to government. In the new 20th Century, many women were demanding suffrage, or the right to vote.
- Prohibition. For many social reformers, alcohol was a social evil that caused the breakdown of marriages, violence and abuse. There were many in the country who wanted to prohibit liquor.
- Race. During the 1800s, African American slaves were freed and became citizens, at least in name. But as blacks began to move around the country, tensions between the races boiled over.
- Native Americans. Throughout the 1800s, native tribes were pushed west and finally onto small parcels of land "reserved" for them, the reservations. But their legal status within the United States had not been resolved.
- Children. During the 1800s, children were often forced to work long hours in back breaking jobs. The 20th Century saw a movement to outlaw child labor.
- Workers. Young and old were simply out on the street if they were injured on the job. Workers' compensation systems were devised during the early 1900s.
- Direct Elections. Before the turn of the century, members of the U.S. Senate were elected by the politicians in each state legislature. The direct election of senators by the voters was a major electoral reform.
- Political Reform. In many states, progressive reformers wanted to give more power to the people by allowing citizen groups to initiate new laws themselves — the initiative — or to review the actions of legislatures — the referendum. These reformers pushed through "Initiative and Referendum" systems that allowed citizens to circulate petitions to put issues and proposals on the ballot. The reformers in many states also pushed through systems to allow for the recall of elected officials.
- Anti-Monopoly Reforms. In the new 20th Century, many businesses were becoming big business. The U.S. was a huge marketplace with lots of potential consumers, and businesses began to try and monopolize that market. They wanted to limit or eliminate competition so they could control prices and profits. Reformers said their business practices were unfair and sought to break up the monopolies or "trusts."
In Nebraska, also, these issues had been debated for years. Suffrage for women had been a reoccurring issue in Nebraska from the territorial days and had reemerged with vigor in the early 1870s. But, it would not be until the early 1900s that the state legislature would pass legislation allowing women limited voting rights — women could vote in municipal elections and for presidential electors. A prohibition law would be passed almost at the same time as the suffrage law.
Progressives faced bitter resistance from conservatives who tended to support unregulated social and economic systems, and opposed unions, reformers, socialists, communists, and anarchists. They believed that progressive reforms would take power away from the traditional power brokers — and actually, that was precisely the point. The conservatives argued that reform would lead to the destruction of capitalism and democracy.
Yet the Progressive Movement, for all its passion and rhetoric, would not completely dominate the news in the first quarter of the 20th Century. World War I loomed on the horizon and would share the center stage. The war would have a major impact on society and politics, both locally, nationally and internationally.
The Progressive movement would leave its mark on early 20th century Nebraska, but only after facing stiff resistance from conservative forces that saw the movement as an attack on established institutions and traditions.