Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea

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.

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 a model workers' compensation law 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

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