5.4. The Midwest, 1900-1925: The Progressive Era and Its Aftermath


Population (1000s), rank

1900

(45 states)

1920

(48 states)

Ohio

4,158

4th

5,759

4th

Indiana

2,516

8th

2,930

11th

Illinois

4,822

3rd

6,485

3rd

Michigan

2,421

9th

3,668

7th

Wisconsin

2,069

13th

2,632

13th

Iowa

2,232

10th

2,404

16th

Minnesota

1,751

19th

2,387

17th

Total population

% of US pop.

 

19,969

 

26.2%

 

26,265

 

24.8%



Key events that shaped law and culture:


  • Between roughly 1900 and 1925, the Midwest completed its transition from an agrarian society to a mixed agrarian, industrial and commercial economy.   The Midwest continued to grow and to play a leading role in the nation’s affairs.  Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minneapolis and other major cities were no longer regional centers but key links in the national economy. 
  • The Progressive Era also took place during this period, mainly between 1900 and 1915.  Many adjustments were required to fit the law to the new economic order, and the era witnessed an unprecedented expansion of regulatory laws and of government’s role in the daily lives of Americans.  Midwestern states, most notably Wisconsin, played an important leadership role in that movement.  Major reforms included “good government” laws creating civil service systems and requiring selection of political candidates by voters rather than party caucuses; increased railroad regulation; creation of a system of water and power companies who agreed to extensive rate regulation in return for officially-sanctioned status as local monopolies; the addition of income and inheritance taxes to property taxes; and additional conservation, product safety and workplace safety laws. 
  • Cultural tensions between descendants of early settlers and later waves of immigrants reached a climax during and after World War I.  Many Americans feared that German-Americans might sabotage the war effort; others were deeply uneasy about rising support for the Socialist Party in many parts of the nation.  These sentiments were strong in the Midwest, which was home to a large number of German-Americans and contained large pockets of support for socialism and other left-wing movements such as the Nonpartisan League in Minnesota.  These fears led to enactment of anti-sedition laws in many Midwestern states.  The Yankee antagonism toward parochial schools and foreign-language instruction that had flourished in the late 19th century also resurfaced during the 1920s. 
  • The 1900-1925 period was marked by a general fear of change as the simpler, agrarian world of the19th century was left behind forever and it was apparent that the world to follow would be increasingly complex and diverse.  One of the uglier products of this generalized fear was a specific fear that Americans with mental and other disabilities would prevent the United States from achieving its full potential.  That fear triggered a “eugenics” movement which persuaded many states to enact compulsory sterilization laws during the era.  Midwestern legislatures and courts had a decidedly mixed reaction to the movement. 

Governor Robert M. LaFollette (Wisconsin), one of the founding fathers of the Progressive movement  (courtesy Library of Congress)