Progressivism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Because of its political and social dominance, Progressivism shaped policies regarding immigration and the treatment of immigrants. By linking immigration to other national problems, reformers successfully advocated for new restrictions on immigration and for the rapid assimilation of immigrants already arrived.

Progressivism and immigration, two crucial components of United States history, are so tightly linked that it is difficult fully to understand one independently of the other. The Progressive Era, in which the movement’s reform ideals were ascendant in both politics and society at large, neatly coincided with the early twentieth century’s immigration surge. Furthermore, the somewhat inconsistent ideals of Progressive reform largely shaped decisions on whether and how to reduce the flow of immigration as well as decisions regarding the treatment of new arrivals.ProgressivismProgressivism[cat]THEORIES;Progressivism[04280][cat]POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT;Progressivism[04280]

The Progressive Era was marked by increasingly successful efforts to restrict immigration. Over the course of these years, several federal restriction laws were passed; early legislation barred immigrants with particular characteristics, such as certain diseases or criminal backgrounds, and later laws imposed general head taxes and literacy tests. Although the national origins Quota systems;and Progressivism[Progressivism]quota system was not passed until 1921, after the Progressive Era had ended, the idea had its roots in Progressivism, having been proposed years prior to passage.

The link between the movement and immigration restriction is the product of Progressivism’s focus on improving social conditions and restoring order following a period of rapid national industrialization and urbanization. To a degree, restriction efforts were based on blatant discrimination toward the new immigrants–southern and eastern Europeans and Asians. Some reformers saw them as culturally and physically inferior to the northern and western Europeans who constituted earlier immigration waves. Others thought that their native loyalties might represent a security threat to the United States during a time of heightened concerns over the global balance of power.

A more indirect link between Progressivism and immigration had to do with a perceived connection between immigrants and many of the other problems targeted by reformers. For example, Progressives fought municipal corruption in the form of powerful Machine politicspolitical machines and their bosses. Because the immigrant population was a key foundation of the typical machine’s power base, an argument was made that reducing immigration levels was the first step toward cleaning up politics. Relatedly, immigrants were seen as contributing to other social ills such as a lower national literacy rate (because many arrived with relatively little schooling), worker exploitation (because some were willing to accept nonunion wages), and the evils of alcohol (because many immigrants were Roman Catholic, and prohibition in America was pushed by Protestant groups). While more enlightened reformers understood that immigrants were just as likely the victims of these social conditions as native-born Americans, it became common simply to premise progress on some reduction in the immigrant surge.

Progressives also targeted immigrants already arrived, basing their efforts on a belief that rapid assimilation, through mandatory education in the English language and American culture, would diminish the deleterious impact of immigrants on society. Some Progressives, however, particularly those associated with Addams, JaneJane Addams and the Settlement house movementsettlement house movement, were more likely to treat immigrants with dignity and human kinship. These reformers, while seeking to ameliorate poverty, illiteracy, and other problems of the immigrant community, also appreciated the contributions of these newcomers and encouraged the retention of native customs and traditions.Progressivism

Further Reading
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
  • McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920. New York: Free Press, 2003.

Americanization programs

Dillingham Commission

Eugenics movement

Immigration Act of 1907

Immigration Act of 1917

Immigration Act of 1921

Literacy tests

Machine politics


Settlement houses

World War I

Categories: History