Gilded Age and Progressive Era

The Rise of Reform Politics

Clock 120 minutes

This lesson explores state and national politics, and constitutional principles, during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  Students will explore the issues that dominated politics and the various reform movements that took shape during this period through a historical narrative, primary sources, and student activities.  Students will better understand the role of government in American society and the economy in history and today.

Founding Principles

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Separation of Powers image

Separation of Powers

A system of distinct powers built into the Constitution to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.


Inaugural Address

“We propose, on the contrary, to extend governmental power in order to secure the liberty of the wage workers, of the men and women who toil in industry, to save the liberty of the oppressed from the oppressor. Mr. Wilson stands for the liberty of the oppressor to oppress. We stand for the limitation of his liberty not to oppress those who are weaker than himself.” - William Howard Taft (March 4, 1909)


Between 1870 and 1920, the American government grew exponentially in its power and reach. At the beginning of the era, the federal government was small and citizens generally governed themselves at the state and local level with little oversight from the federal government. However, towards the end of the era, the federal government would employ ten times the number of workers and exercise much greater regulatory power. Many progressives sought to secure greater power for the federal government to attempt to provide solutions to the challenges of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. During this time, progressives would also advocate for many democratic reforms that would give citizens new ways to participate in government: initiatives, referendum, recall, party primaries, secret ballots, and the direct election of U.S. Senators through the Seventeenth Amendment. Overall, based on the belief that the American principles of limited government and limited power were outdated concepts, progressives would lay the foundations of a much larger and stronger national government that they believed could solve the problems of the twentieth century.


  • Students will examine the problems associated with the political machines that controlled many urban areas during the late nineteenth century.
  • Students will understand the vast array of reforms that took place between 1870 and 1920 that granted expanding power to the federal government and challenged the constitutional principles of the American Founding.
  • Students will identify several progressive reforms and analyze the impact that each reform had on the lives of American citizens.
  • Students will explore the debates on civil service reform and analyze primary sources to better understand the motivations of reformers in the early twentieth century.


  • Handout A: Background Essay: The Rise of Reform Politics
  • Handout B: Debating Tammany Hall and Civil Service Reform
  • Handout C: Thomas Nast Cartoons on Boss Tweed
  • Handout D: The New Nationalism and the New Freedom
  • Handout E: Comparing the New Nationalism and the New Freedom

Key Terms

  • Urbanization
  • Machine politics
  • Boss
  • Boss Tweed
  • Tammany Hall
  • Graft
  • Municipal government
  • Stalwarts
  • Civil service reform
  • Patronage
  • Spoils system
  • Mugwumps
  • James G. Blaine
  • Roscoe Conkling
  • Rutherford B. Hayes
  • James A. Garfield
  • Chester Arthur
  • Pendleton Act of 1883
  • Agrarianism
  • Populism
  • Initiative
  • Referendum
  • Recall
  • Seventeenth Amendment
  • Women’s suffrage movement
  • National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)
  • Nineteenth Amendment
  • Managerial progressivism
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Bureaucracy

Essential Virtues

  • Contribution
  • Courage
  • Initiative
  • Justice
  • Perseverance
  • Vigilance


National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • 1) Thematic Standards
    • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    • VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
    • VII. Production, Distribution, and Consumption
    • VIII. Science, Technology, and Society
    • X. Civic Ideals and Practices
  • 2) Disciplinary Standards
    • 1. History
    • 3. Civics and Government
    • 4. Economics

Center for Civic Education

  • 9-12 Content Standards
    • V. What are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy?

UCLA Department of History (NCHS)

  • US History Content Standards
    • United States Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870 – 1900)
    • United States Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890 – 1930)

Background 30 minutes

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: The Rise of Reform Politics and answer the review questions.

Activities 70 minutes

Activity I » 45 minutes

  1. Pass out Handout B: Debating Tammany Hall and Civil Service Reform to the class. Have students analyze the primary arguments both for and against civil service reform.
  2. Split the class into two groups for a structured debate.
    1. One side will be pro-civil service reform and the other anti-civil service reform. Give each side fifteen minutes to prepare a five-minute speech in favor of their position, drawing from their readings. Each group should select one person to deliver this speech. The pro-civil service reform speaker should go first, followed immediately by the anti-civil service reform speaker. Give each side two minutes to cross-examine the other.
    2. Next, give each side five minutes to create a new speech that attacks the opposite side’s positions, without repeating points that others have already made. Different individuals should deliver this speech. Give each side two minutes to cross-examine the other.
    3. Give each side one minute of preparation time to deliver a final, one-minute speech in favor of their position, taking into account previous criticisms.
    4. After the debate is finished, conduct an anonymous poll to see which side was more persuasive.
    5. Pass out Handout C: Thomas Nast Cartoons on Boss Tweed. Discuss the meaning of each cartoon with students. Ask students the following questions:
      • How does Thomas Nast portray Boss Tweed as a corrupt and greedy politician?
      • How do the political cartoons demonstrate that Boss Tweed has an unfair grip over politics in New York?
      • What threat does Boss Tweed represent to constitutional principles and a healthy civil society as portrayed by Thomas Nast?
      • What is the role of a free press in questioning the actions of the government in the American constitutional republic?

Activity II » 25 minutes

  1. Pass out Handout D: The New Nationalism and the New Freedom with primary sources from the two progressive political ideologies of President Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson. After reading the sources in Handout D, break the students up into groups of 3-4. Distribute Handout E: Comparing the New Nationalism and the New Freedom and have the students complete the Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the two primary sources as a group after discussion.
  2. De-brief the activity by asking students to share their answers and justify them. Explore the different ideological approaches to solving the problems of American society by the two progressive presidents. Then, examine how both presidential administrations looked similar in their actual regulatory policies as shown in Handout A.

Homework 20 minutes

Have students write 5-7 sentences on what they learned about civil service reform and why the issue is still important to this day.

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