The Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, and large waves of immigration combined to turn William Penn’s “Greene Countrie Towne” into a sprawling city and manufacturing center. Robust and largely unregulated capitalism as well as rapid population growth resulted in a number of undesirable side effects including: overcrowded tenement housing, widespread poverty, dangerous working conditions, and the exploitation of child labor.
As the situation became more acute, a national reform movement started to grow among the working classes and some members of the urban elite who opposed the injustice and sought to remedy it as the abolitionists had successfully done a generation earlier. This movement, known as Progressivism, started in the late 1800’s and gave rise to the formation of the Committee of Seventy. The Industrial Revolution also facilitated the creation of the new middle class who rose to the forefront of Progressivism. The early Progressives were largely young, urban professionals who "sought to apply [the] principles of professions [such as medicine and law]" to alleviate societal ills.
One of Seventy’s precursors was the Citizen’s Municipal Reform Association (CMRA). Henry C. Lea, who was strongly supported by business leaders Wheeler, Baird, Drexel, and Lippincott, was largely responsible for the organization of the CMRA in June 1871 and the Reform Club in the spring of 1872. The CMRA was created in response to the establishment of the Public Buildings Commission by the state legislature in the summer of 1870. Citizens such as Reform publicist George Vickers feared that the government had created a body with unlimited tenure of office and that it had the ability to leisurely dole out taxes. Businessmen reformers, in particular, feared that the city’s out of control finances would destroy their credit, and the burden of taxation would destroy their future prosperity. The CMRA was concerned with arousing “public indignation” toward wrongdoing occurring within the Philadelphia government.
The 1880’s also marked the advent of Quayism, or the politically corrupt practice of using government through patronage to fund elections so that the state becomes accountable to Harrisburg , and not to the electorate. This model of government represented a severe blow to citizen participation. This is the context in which The Committee of Seventy operated when it first took up the cause of reform.
Moreover, the growth of the modern city and the simultaneous rise in immigration drastically changed the face of urban America ; the nature of tenement housing and ethnically segregated ghettos bred crime, disease, and poverty. Toward the end of the 19th Century a change in the ethnicity of immigrants also occurred. An increase in Southern European and Eastern European immigrants and the northern migration of African-Americans further diversified the political climate of Philadelphia at the turn of the century. Disfavored racial and ethnic groups were crowded into those areas of old housing and low paying industries.
The Progressive Movement arose in response to these changes in the form of many different organizations. The groups attacked and nationalized the issues of available education, racial discrimination, women's rights, child labor, and temperance. The CMRA and the Committee of Seventy made challenges on the governmental level, whereas the Citizens’ Committee of Fifty for a New Philadelphia (1890-1892) and the Citizen’s Committee of Ninety-Five for Good City Government (1895) worked to challenge the supremacy of the electoral arena. While the efforts of individual reformers (such as Jane Addams, the founder of the Hull House which aided the poor) and groups (such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union) made noteworthy advances during the heyday of Progressivism, The Committee of Seventy was Philadelphia’s only progressive era civic reform organization to maintain its cohesion and relevance throughout the 20th Century.