Progressivism was a national movement to reform political processes and to make improvements in city life. Progressivism had its roots in a rising social consciousness that spread throughout the United States in the 1880s. People began to think that everyone had to have the same opportunities for education, health care, political access, and a good quality of life. There were many divisions among the progressives.Progressives, with a small “p,” should not be mistaken for Progressive Republicans. Progressive Republicans were members of the North Dakota Republican Party who were dismayed by the corrupt practices of the McKenzie, “or stalwart,” Republicans. Progressive Republicans were also called “insurgents.” The Progressives embraced many progressive issues, particularly pure food and drug laws, and initiative, referendum, and recall. Some concentrated on food quality, others focused on children and education. Many progressives believed that government had to be reformed so that voters had more direct control over political processes.
In big cities, progressives wanted city-owned utilities so that people did not have to pay excessively high prices for water, gas, and electricity. Urban progressives also took an interest in education and supported compulsory education laws.
In North Dakota, progressives supported pure food and drug laws, even though little food manufacturing took place here. Political reform was the most important area of concern for North Dakota progressives. Political reform included primary elections, direct election of Senators and presidential electors, initiative, referendum, and recall.
Many historians consider the progressive movement to have had its strongest support among urban people. However, farmers were influenced by the progressive movement and started their own organizations to promote reform. Farmers were interested in political reform and more regulation of grain markets and railroad rates. Farmers were also interested in some social reforms particularly in the area of women’s political and social equality. However, few farmers were interested in child labor laws. Most progressive-era laws on child labor excluded farms and farmers’ children from child labor regulation.
Reformers gained national political power when Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901. During Roosevelt’s administration several progressive laws were passed to protect the public lands, to regulate the contents of processed foods, and to regulate large corporations.
World War I, also known as the Great War (1914–1918), temporarily halted the progressives. However, some progressives found ways to revive political and social issues after the war. Woman suffrage gained ground because of the war. Other progressive issues were revived in the 1930s under the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt.