Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency contributed to the emergence of Progressivism on the national scene.
The Progressive Era (1890-1919) was a time when activists and reformers of diverse backgrounds and agendas advanced a variety of causes to improve America. Referred to as Progressives by historians, they responded to challenges that had emerged during the Gilded Age, including the following:
The first attempts to solve these problems developed at the grassroots level. They involved a range of people and approaches including Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, Jane Addams and the Settlement House Movement, and muckraker journalists like Jacob Riis.
Progressive movements and organizations included a diverse range of viewpoints, but historians have identified a set of principles that were shared by most Progressives:
With its dedication to expanding democracy, expertise, and active government to solve problems that had emerged during the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era marked the emergence of modern liberalism in the United States.
Although Progressive movements were supported by a wide range of Americans, many were white and native-born; members of a new middle class that emerged at the end of the 19th century.
Many middle-class citizens responded to the challenges of modern, industrial, America as Progressives. They saw themselves as the agents of social justice and reform, as well as stewards of the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, their belief in their expertise led some of them to disregard the voices of those they sought to help, including workers, immigrants, and racial minorities.
Theodore Roosevelt’s upbringing and early career prepared him to become a dynamic leader for the Progressive agenda.
From an early age, Roosevelt had a keen interest in nature, particularly in birds and other animals. After the tragic death of his first wife and his mother (both of whom passed away on the same day), Roosevelt traveled west and, for a brief time, ran a cattle ranch in the Dakota badlands. In the early 1890s, he re-entered public life as the New York City Police Commissioner.
After serving as President McKinley’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt became famous for leading the Rough Riders cavalry regiment during the War of 1898.
After returning from the war, Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York and, to the consternation of traditional party operatives like Mark Hanna, became a rising star in the Republican Party. In an attempt to derail his ascension, Hanna and other Republican leaders nominated Roosevelt for Vice President — long considered a dead-end in politics — during the 1900 election campaign. However, in September 1901, an assassin killed President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Hanna lamented, “Now look! That damned cowboy is now President!”
Initially, Roosevelt moved cautiously with respect to his reformist agenda while completing McKinley’s term. His first message to Congress included only one Progressive goal for his Presidency: to eliminate business trusts and holding companies.
In 1903, Roosevelt created the Department of Commerce and Labor. The Department included a Bureau of Corporations; its sole responsibility was to investigate trusts. Roosevelt also asked the Department of Justice to resume prosecutions under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
EXAMPLEThe Sherman Antitrust Act had seldom been enforced during the first decade of its existence. In 1902, Roosevelt began his first antitrust suit under the Act by prosecuting the Northern Securities Company for unfair business practices. The suit progressed through the judicial system, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1904, the Court affirmed the lower court's ruling to break up the Northern Securities Company in a five-to-four vote.
Although the Supreme Court’s decision in the Northern Securities case earned Roosevelt a nickname — “the Trustbuster” — he did not consider all business combinations as dangerous to public welfare. As President, Roosevelt used his executive power and influence to distinguish between “good” and “bad” trusts.
According to Roosevelt, “good trusts” used their power in the marketplace and economies of scale to deliver goods and services cheaply.
EXAMPLERoosevelt allowed the U.S. Steel Corporation, which J. P. Morgan purchased from Andrew Carnegie in 1901, to continue operations. He also let it take over smaller steel companies.
At the same time, Roosevelt used his power and influence to denounce “bad trusts” — corporations that exploited their market positions for short-term gain — and to order prosecutions by the Justice Department.
EXAMPLERoosevelt initiated over two dozen successful anti-trust suits, more than any President before him.
In 1904, Roosevelt was elected President for the first time, receiving an overwhelming 57 percent of the vote. He immediately began working to enact his version of the Progressive agenda, which he called the Square Deal.
Roosevelt described the Square Deal in a September 1903 speech:
In Roosevelt's vision, the federal government would use its authority to build a society in which hard-working members of all classes — whether urban workers, rural farmers, or industrial capitalists — would succeed together.
Roosevelt’s Square Deal focused on the following three areas:
Early in his second term, Roosevelt read Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel about the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. It describes the deplorable conditions in which workers processed meats for American consumers. The results of government investigations of the industry confirmed Sinclair's descriptions. Alarmed by these revelations, and in response to growing public disgust, Roosevelt used his executive power to promote the passage of legislation that protected consumers. He strongly supported two laws in particular: the Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906).
The third key element of the Square Deal was conservation, including federal regulation of wildlife and natural resources on public lands. Roosevelt’s most notable achievements in this area were accomplished in 1905 when he appointed Gifford Pinchot as the first chief of a newly-created U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service hired experts in forestry and other fields to administer and oversee the private use of timber, grass, and other natural resources in western national forests.
With assistance from the Antiquities Act (1906), Roosevelt used his executive power to protect cultural heritage sites, areas of environmental beauty, and habitats for birds and other wildlife.
Roosevelt used his executive authority to create or enlarge 150 national forests, and to create 18 national monuments under the Antiquities Act, including Grand Canyon National Monument (which was later designated a National Park).
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Theodore Roosevelt and “good” and “bad” trusts, LOC, http://bit.ly/2njJlrQ, Theodore Roosevelt, Address to the New York State Agricultural Association, Syracuse, NY September 7, 1903, The American Presidency Project, http://bit.ly/2oyPVuG, Derived from Openstax tutorial 18.2, http://bit.ly/2oyVjh9, 19.3, http://bit.ly/2o8kHxL, 20.2,http://bit.ly/2o8cn1j, 21.1, http://bit.ly/2obuoMt; 21.4 http://bit.ly/2kqIJiF. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.