Skip to Main Content

Commerce and the Progressive Era

80 min

Guiding Questions:

  • During the Progressive era how and why did the federal government’s power change with the passage of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 21st amendments?


  • Students learn and understand the formal amendment process and the importance of change to accommodate the growing nation.
  • Students learn about the progressives and the opposing ideologies of the time.
  • Students read the 16th,  17th , 18th and 21st amendments and discuss their importance in small groups.
  • Students question and discuss why Congress and the states would take action to change the Constitution and extend the power of the federal government over the states.

  • Federalism
  • republican government
  • due process
  • inherent
  • delegated
  • reserved and implied powers
  • formal and informal amendment process
  • progressive
  • reformers
  • monopolies
  • Federal Reserve Act of 1913
  • taxing power
  • regulation
  • Great Depression
  • government agencies
  • living constitution
  • normalcy

Review provisions of the amendment process in Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution and how it is an example of federalism.

Have students read the essay, Commerce and the Progressive Era.

Write this definition on the board:

 “the inherent power of a government to exercise reasonable control over persons and property within its jurisdiction in the interest of the general security, health, safety, morals, and welfare except where legally prohibited” –

Note that in the United States, police power traditionally has been recognized as belonging to the states, but not to the federal government. The U.S. Constitution provides for certain delegated powers of the federal government, and the Tenth Amendment reserves all other powers to the states and the people themselves.

Engage students in discussion: Just how much power should the federal government have over “the general security, health, safety, morals, and welfare”? Who gets to decide?

Tell students to note changes in the power of the federal government in this unit of study focusing on the beginning of the twentieth century.

Activity 1: 16th, 17, 18th, and 19th Amendments [30 minutes]

Divide students into three groups. One group will analyze the Sixteenth Amendment, one group will analyze the Seventeenth Amendment, and one group will analyze the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments. Distribute the assigned amendment slips from Handout A: Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Twenty-First Amendments to each student. Instruct students to read their assigned amendment and answer the questions as a group.

Hold a class discussion about how the federal government power changed with the passage of each amendment and why the government decided to propose these amendments.

Activity 2: The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 [30 minutes]

Students should have completed the Early Commercial Republic lesson on the First National Bank prior to completing this activity.

Have students read Handout B: Excerpts from The Federal Reserve Act (1913). Have students create a graphic organizer comparing the First National Bank and the Federal Reserve Act. Hold a class discussion about the similarities and differences between the two banks, and why the federal government decided to institute a new bank in 1913. Did the federal government make the right decision? Why or why not?

Discussion board exit ticket question: After studying these progressive era changes to the Constitution identify which amendment you think was most important in contributing to the growth of the nation. Explain your response. If this amendment was not ratified how different would the U.S. be today?

Have students research some of the other laws that Congress made during the Progressive era to ensure the safety and welfare of workers and children. After the reading have students answer a discussion board question as to what law they found to be most important and why. Next class begin with a discussion based on their responses.

Through examination of these amendments and laws, students understand that there are provisions in the Constitution to accommodate the needs of a changing nation.  This examination could be a central question throughout the course:  why change occurs (social, cultural, economic, political forces), what changes are necessary in a given time and what tenets/processes must remain constant in the U.S. Constitution?

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

The New Deal