Sample History Paper on Progressive Era vs. New Deal Era

Progressive Era vs. New Deal Era


Both the Progressive Era and the New Deal are important milestones in the history of the United States. These eras were characterized by social activism, political reforms, and uncertainties. The period between 1890 and 1920 is famously described as the Progressive Era. The key goal of the Progressive movement was to ensure that corruption was eliminated in the government (U.S Department of State n.p.). Accordingly, various political and economic reforms took place during this period. Some of the economic reforms execute are: increased antitrust activity, expanded regulation, development of social insurance programs, and the introduction of income tax. The era also ushered in a shift towards “direct democracy”, in which the government was professionalized, and women were accorded voting rights. On the other hand, the New Deal refers to a set of programs that President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched in 1933 upon taking office in response to the effects of the Great Depression. The major goals of the New Deal included economic recovery, creation of jobs, civic upliftment, and increased investment in public works (U.S History n.p.). The era lasted between 1933 and 1943. Majority of the government leaders and planners during the New Deal era were inspired by the reforms initiated during the Progressive movement. For example they relied on the innovative campaigns developed during the Progressive era to deal with economic and social problems occasioned by the Great Depression. In addition, the Progressive movement acted as a classic example of how democratic institutions can implement gradual reforms. Again, this was borrowed from the Progressive movement

Thesis Statement

While most of the political and economic policies of the New Deal are closely related to those of the Progressive movement from which they were adopted, the two reform movements differ in a number of important ways.

Comparing the Progressive era with the New Deal movement

From a basic level point of view, both the New Deal and the Progressive movement were inspired by economic depression. The 1893 Depression led to a serious economic dislocation which prompted a re-assessment of the belief in laissez government that prevailed at this time. Employment levels were higher, with millions of Americans out of work (Fox 15). When politicians and business leaders asked these jobless Americans to be patient until economic prosperity had been attained once more, they grew increasingly frustrated. Middle class reformers, borrowing their inspiration from fear of the possible social disorder and violence and the plight of the victims of the depression, relied on social science and social planning to deal with the challenged that had bedeviled industrial America. In dealing with the Great Depression, the New Dealers saw their attempts as the result of a campaign intended to enforce order on the US economy, a process whose origins can be traced back to the 1893 Depression. The New Dealers viewed the reforms enacted during the Progressive era as having set crucial precedents for economic intervention by the government, although these reforms could still not prevent possible economic uncertainly.

Therefore, the potential threat of social unrest and economic distress urged both the New Dealers and the Progressives to reform capitalism in America. The two movements shared a common assumption that capitalism and social justice could be reconciled. While both the New Dealers and the Progressives also campaigner for economic cooperation, as well as efforts to deal with the needy in the nation neither of them suggested that coercive means be adopted to redistribute wealth (Sullivan 54).  So, they endeavored to reform capitalism by replacing it with radical alternatives. In the case of Progressives, they face a threat from revolutionary and violent anarchism.

In contrast, the New Dealers faced threat from reactionary nationalist movements. For both New Dealers and Progressives, reforming American capitalism was the way to defend democratic institutions. Another issue that is common for both the New Dealers and Progressives is the belief in the government’s ability to speed up and promote social improvement. In the face of change and great uncertainty, both New Dealers and Progressives insisted on the use of the state to attain a level of order and security (Fox 285). The confidence shown in the state points at the confidence of the New Dealers and Progressives that government representatives could utilize social science tools to make out the suitable policies needed to deal with the nation’s needs.

The New Dealers had their faith bolstered by the experience of government activism in First World War.  By the time Americans joined this war in 1917, already President Woodrow Wilson had succeeded in having the regulatory powers of the federal government expanded. This expansion was necessary in a bid to streamline financial institutions in the country. Also, a progressive income tax had also been passed where the wealthier were taxed more in comparison with the working and middle classes (Novkov 83). The government and industry cooperated, leading to improved efficiency. However, the plight of the workers was not ignored. Accordingly, the Wilson administration sought to minimize work hours, promoted adequate wages, and recognized the importance of unionisable workers. For nearly two decades prior to the United States joining First World War, a heated debate was already simmering regarding the role played by the federal government in offering protection to citizens who were incapable of protecting themselves, and in regulating the industry.

Another controversy revolved around the government’s power to control and tax corporations and individuals. However, when Americans joined the war, the federal government suddenly had its powers substantially expanded. It also became increasingly clear that the government was also capable of playing a decisive role especially when faced with a crisis (Sullivan 69). This lesson was decisive in informing many of the policies that the New Dealers adopted under President Roosevelt, where federal influence was used to coordinate, regulate, and organize the country’s economy.

Contrasting the Progressive movement with the New Deal

Despite all the above continuities and similarities shared by both Progressivism and New Dew Deal reform, one would be grossly wrong to assume that the latter is an extension of the former. This is because both reforms differ fundamentally. For example, Progressives demonstrate an increased preference to use government influence to bring social control over public behavior. A very good example of such behavior is the 18th Amendment which was passed as a means of forbidding the manufacture and sale of alcohol (Fox 18). In addition, Progressives were also intent on having the government compel immigrants to embrace the American society. Progressives were also intent on having the government compel immigrants to embrace American values and American English, out of fear that they posed a threat to American democracy. On the other hand, the New Dealers under Roosevelt envisioned and advocated for an American society governed by pluralism, and one that was characterized by civic responsibility and equality in a bid to unite Americans (Fox 18). Perhaps because the process of reforming immigrant laws adopted in the 1920s had succeeded in drastically reducing massive immigration, the issue of immigration was less polarized during the New Deal era. Nonetheless, the Roosevelt government exercised increased tolerance towards the immigrant communities in America.

As opposed to viewing the prevailing ethnic tradition as a danger to the very identity of Americans, the New Dealers instead chose to embrace the ethnic cultures in the country as its source of creativity and strength. Such high level of tolerance over ethnic diversity can perhaps be found in the policies adopted by the New Dealers in their responsiveness to African Americans and Native Americans (The Living New Deal n.p.). However, the New Dealers’ desire to commit to pluralism had its own limits. For example, Roosevelt permitted political convenience to restrict his attempts in place of racial justice.

Since Roosevelt desired the backing of white congressmen from the South, he was reluctant to implement civil rights legislation. Also, during the Second World War, Roosevelt’s government did not pay attention to the civil rights of Japanese Americans; they were assumed to be a source of danger to national security (U.S. Department of State n.p.). However, the Roosevelt administration had them interred in relocation camps. However, such regrettable and conspicuous lapses are just but a few exceptions of the nature of tolerance that the New Dealers demonstrated in regards to the nation’s diversity. Another aspect in which the New Dealers differed form the Progressives is in the manner in which they pursued a foreign policy. In this case, the American administration during the Progressive era (and more so under Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson) appeared to draw inspiration from the superiority of American democracy and public institutions.  This saw them partake in imperialistic adventures in such areas as the Caribbean basin.  The Wilson government regarded the success that the Bolsheviks enjoyed during the Russian Revolution as a potential threat to global democracy. Accordingly, it mobilized global support to oppose the revolution.

In contrast, the New Dealers pursued diplomatic relationships with the communist government.  This decision hinged on a need to find a market for its goods in the Soviet Union. At the same time, Roosevelt’s administration, under the direction of Crodell Hull, the then Secretary of State, reversed an earlier policy in which the nation had decided against meddling into South American affairs. The United States continued with its support of dictators in Central America as they had promised to not only uphold stability in the region,  but to also preserve the U.S’ economic interests. However, Roosevelt was also instrumental in championing for the Good Neighbor policy whose major goal was to ensure that American forces in Nicaragua and Haiti were removed (U.S. Department of State n.p.). His promise that the United States would cease to meddle into the external and internal affairs of nations in the hemisphere was a strong statement that his administration had broken the precedent set earlier by his predecessors, during the Progressive era.

Like the Progressive movement before it, the New Deal reformers were also fearful that direct or strong government interferences into the business world would result in undesirable consequences. Therefore, both movements   decided to increase the client of the state, as opposed to trying to reduce the power of the private sector. Actually, the New Deal agenda did not contain much of the anti-business rhetoric evident in the Progressive doctrine. However, during the New Deal, government activity seemed somewhat less.  In fact, the anti-business rhetoric that had characterized a good bit of Progressive doctrine tended to be missing from much of the New Deal agenda.  At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, government activity during the New Deal was less conspicuously supportive of the plight of businesses. Even as the political-rhetorical outlook of the Progressives often hindered policies that were meant to enhance the productive capability of big businesses (McGerr 34), the New Dealers appeared to be more intent on integrating the role played by consumers in the economy. What this means is that demand-side strategies reined supreme over supply-side policies. There seemed to be increased concern on the need to compensate individuals and families suffering due to the effects of a new economic crisis.

However, this is not an indication that the New Deal gave businesses the freedom to do as they wished. Actually, the New Deal era represented until then, the greatest level of business regulation. It is also important to note that compare with the Progressive era, the New Deal realized more reforms. This is partly the case because during the Progressive era, government power was somewhat concentrated at the national level, as opposed to the state level.  Since businesses had to deal with one source of regulatory authority, it meant that moving from one state to another in search of less stringent regulations was not an option (Fox 286). As a result, the corporate world had no choice but to develop such sophisticated and effective techniques as lobbying as a means of handling government institutions. Consequently, even though business interests during the New Deal era did not enjoy full autonomy in the facing of the prevailing cultural-political reforms, they nonetheless managed to uphold their influence and independence to an appreciable level.


Both the Progressive and the New Deal reforms happened at two different eras but are nonetheless inter-connected in more ways than one. In this case, Progressivism appears to have laid the foundation upon which the New Dealers launched their political and economic agendas. Another point of similarity is that both reforms came in the wake of economic depression in the United States. In the case of the Progressive movement, this was preceded by the 1893 Depression, while the New Deal reforms came about after the aftermath of the 1933 Great Depression. In both the Progressive movement and the New Deal reforms, it was felt that the government should be actively involved in promoting democracy and social justice, as well as in ensuring national security.   However, the New Deal appears to have set its own course, as opposed to following what was set by the Progressive movement. For example, unlike during the Progressivism era, the New Dealers were more receptive of the idea of the United States as a pluralist nation. In addition, the New Dealers were more tolerant of the ethnic diversity in the United States, as well as the plight of immigrants. This is an indication that the New Dealers did not just duplicate the reforms started by the Progressive era but instead, endeavored to embrace policies that aligned with the prevailing economic and political needs. Since the New Dealers had learned from the mistakes and lessons made by the Progressive movement before, it realized more success in its reforms.


Works Cited

Fox. Cybelle. Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to

the New Deal. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012. Print.

McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in

America 1870-1920. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010. Print.

Novkov, Julie. Constituting Workers, Protecting Women: Gender, Law and Labor in the

            Progressive Era and New Deal Years. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2001.


Sullivan, Patricia. Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. 1 st Edition. North

Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Print.

The Living New Deal. The New Deal. 2012. Web. 01 May 2015.


U.S Department of State. The Progressive Movement and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1890-1920s.

  1. Web. 02 April 2015.

U.S History. An Evaluation of the New Deal. 2014. Web. 01 May 2015.