You are on page 1of 3

Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea - Wisconsin Historical Society

Turning Points

Turning Points > The Progressive Era > Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea




Turning Points Home Advanced Search Lesson Plans Staff Favorites Dictionary of Wisconsin History Reference Maps Introduction Printing Documents Using Primary Sources About This Site

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Wisconsin leaders began to seek new answers to problems caused by an increasingly industrial and technological society. To a people born and raised mostly on farms, the explosive growth of cities, rising importance of large-scale industry, transformation of the workforce by new immigrants and rigid class stratification, and the overall speed of daily life brought uncertainty and confusion. In other states social movements such as the Greenback Party and Populist Party tried to address these changes, but little was accomplished in Wisconsin until after the year 1900 when "Progressives" gained control of the Republican Party. The Republicans were the party of Lincoln and the Union Army, and in the decades following the Civil War, they held a virtual monopoly on state government by organizing and satisfying the needs of Civil War veterans. Until the 1890s, a few party leaders tightly controlled Wisconsin's legislative agenda. At the same time, the rise of big business after 1870 had concentrated economic power in the hands of a few privileged individuals. These two groups, party leaders and business leaders, often overlapped, personally and pragmatically, as the interests and actions of government and business converged. Progressive Republicans, in contrast, believed that the business of government was to serve the people. They sought to restrict the power of corporations when it interfered with the needs of individual citizens. The Progressive Movement appealed to citizens who wanted honest government and moderate economic reforms that would expand democracy and improve public morality. In their crusade for reform on a state and national level, Progressive Republicans were led by Robert La Follette, Wisconsin's governor from 1901 to 1906, and U.S. Senator from 1906 to 1925. In Wisconsin, La Follette developed the techniques and ideas that made him a nationwide symbol of Progressive reform and made the state an emblem of progressive experimentation. The Wisconsin Idea, as it came to be called, was that efficient government required control of institutions by the voters rather than special interests, and that the involvement of specialists in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most effective government. Faculty from the University of Wisconsin, therefore, played a significant part in Progressive reform efforts, helping legislators draft laws and serving as experts on governmental commissions. While advocating for more scientific and efficient government, many of these specialists were equally persistent in their efforts to expand educational opportunities. University President Charles Van Hise, for example, sought to extend the services of the University throughout the state by means of a new Extension Division. The state's Legislative Reference Library, led by Charles McCarthy, was a similar product of the impulse toward educational opportunity and access. Created in 1901, the Legislative Reference Bureau (or LRB, as it came to be known) assisted legislators in their search for facts on which to which to base improved laws. Providing legislators with fast service from trained research talent, McCarthy's LRB added a bill-drafting service in 1907 that was emulated in countries around the globe. Although he was widely associated with the Progressive Movement, by no means were all of Wisconsin's progressive achievements the work of La Follette himself. Wisconsin's Progressive movement began as a small faction within the Republican Party that grew in strength by drawing support from a variety of constituencies. There were even factions within factions, each with leaders who were influential in enlisting different groups of citizens to Progressive causes. The complex program associated with Wisconsin progressive reform therefore required the efforts and support of many politicians and interest groups. Germans and organized labor, who had not supported the Progressive movement in its early years, became important later as the composition of the movement changed.[4/25/2012 3:45:24 AM]

Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea - Wisconsin Historical Society

What did the Progressive Movement accomplish in Wisconsin? During James Davidson's terms as governor, from 1906 to 1911, considerable progressive legislation was enacted, including laws proving for state control of corporation stock issues, an extension of the power of the railroad commission to regulate transportation, a fixing of railroad fares, and stricter regulation of insurance companies. The most important and influential progressive legislation, however, was passed during the next (1911) session, under the governorship of Francis McGovern. The 1911 legislature created the nation's first effective workers' compensation program to protect people injured on the job. It passed laws to regulate factory safety, encouraged the formation of cooperatives, established a state income tax, formed a state life insurance fund, limited working hours for women and children, and passed forest and waterpower conservation acts. While La Follette was the most powerful Progressive political leader in Wisconsin, he was never able to gain complete control over the state's Republican Party or even Wisconsin Progressives. The opening decades of the 20th century were a time of contentious political strife and debate, and not everyone agreed about the goals and strategies of the Progressive program. Progressivism appealed to voters who favored orderly change, rather than a fundamental shift in the economic and social order. Many of the reforms were moderate and thus acceptable to a large number of people who might not otherwise have supported the movement, such as businessmen. Other Wisconsin citizens viewed Progressive reforms as excessive state interference, while many others wanted more sweeping changes such as those advocated by the Socialist Party. By the 1930s, when depression and unemployment dominated American public life, the assumptions of the Wisconsin Progressives had penetrated deeply into national politics. Much of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation was drafted by Wisconsin citizens, such as Edwin Witte (author of the 1935 Social Security act), who had been trained by Progressive Wisconsin economics professor John R. Commons. In fact, the momentum of La Follette and his allies rippled down through the decades into John Kennedy's "New Frontier" and Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs. [Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); McCarthy, Charles. The Wisconsin Idea. Wisconsin Electronic Reader (online at]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

A survey of progressive politics in Wisconsin, 1934 A journalist reviews Progressive achievements, 1900-1930. Wisconsin passes the nation's first worker's compensation law, 1911. Charles McCarthy, architect of progressive reforms, is recalled. A survey of socialist viewpoints, 1918 Wisconsin voting and civil rights legislation, 1846-1929. Campaign literature from Robert La Follette A water glass used by Teddy Roosevelt after being shot, 1912 A miniature kit teaches mothers about safe homebirths, 1938 A short history of prison industries, 1852-2002 A brief summary of women's suffrage legislation in the U.S. and abroad, 1907 A Milwaukee woman urges woman and child labor reform, 1899. Progressive Era educators design the ideal school, 1907 The "Traveling Libraries" program in Wisconsin, 1897 Conditions in state prisons, schools, and hospitals, 1955 A guide to Progressivism for women voters, 1922 Madison women produce a cookbook to help poor children, 1894 Lawmakers try to end prostitution in 1914 Francis E. McGovern, Progressive Era governor. The lumber company makes its case against Deitz, 1906[4/25/2012 3:45:24 AM]

Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea - Wisconsin Historical Society

"Aunt Nellie" offers advice to farm women, 1912-1918 John Deitz makes his case, 1906 A co-operative creamery spurs the growth of dairying in Prentice Wisconsin State Capitol Home of John R. Commons

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

"The Wisconsin Idea" (1912) A Republican politician describes changes in government regulating powers The autobiography of John R. Commons (1934) State regulations for women workers, 1920 Wisconsin Blue Books Labor and truancy laws for women and children, 1912 A history of women's education at the University of Wisconsin What girls need to know to contribute to society in 1913 Documents relating to child welfare organizations

Related Links
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online. Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network. Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights Read more about Wisconsin's role in the Progressive Movement A timeline of Wisconsin labor, 1883 to the present

Questions about this page? Email us Email this page to a friend Bookmark this page

Share This Page |

Home | Support Us | Contact Us | Feedback | Site Index | Copyright | Syndicate This Site (RSS)

1996-2012 Wisconsin Historical Society 816 State Street, Madison, WI 53706[4/25/2012 3:45:24 AM]