American History
The Progressive Presidents

*In 1901, President William McKinley—the last Civil War veteran to be president, a conservative, gold-standard Republican—was assassinated by an anarchist.  His Vice-President was Theodore Roosevelt.

*Theodore Roosevelt (known as Teddy--although he did not like that nickname, Thee to his friends, and TR for short) was the youngest man ever to become president (aged 42).  He was a progressive: he had been police commissioner of New York City, where he had cleaned up corruption and encouraged efficiency by walking all the beats himself to check on cops on the job.

*In his youth he had been a cattle rancher in South Dakota until blizzards and droughts destroyed his herd, so he understood the needs of farmers and ranchers, and he had also developed a love of the wilderness—once, on a hunting trip, he refused to shoot a caged bear as a photo opportunity, saying it was unsporting (although he otherwise loved to hunt), and stuffed bears have been called Teddy Bears every since. 

*He had been assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, and when the Spanish-American War broke out, he raised a volunteer company of rich easterners and wild western cowboys (called the Rough Riders) and was part of the invasion of Cuba. 

*He then went home and was elected Governor of New York, where he tried to clean up the entire state until the Republican Party leaders made him vice-president, hoping that he would vanish in that thankless job. 

*He was full of energy—a foreign diplomat once told another diplomat that he must understand that the President of the United States was 8 years old—but a genius—he used to have two secretaries while he was Governor of New York, so he could dictate state business to one and dictate books he was writing to the other at the same time.

*Roosevelt expanded the power of the presidency, as he used it as a bully pulpit (a splendid position from which to present his views) to reform the nation.  He called his plan the Square Deal, based, he said, on giving everyone a fair chance.  He said a man should speak softly, but carry a big stick, although he himself rarely spoke softly.  Read the Witness History section on page 233.

*TR took on both the trusts and the unions.  When anthracite coal miners went on strike in 1902, TR knew people needed coal to keep warm in the winter, and factories always needed it, so the strike had to end quickly.  Whereas in the past, the government had always sided with the mine owners, TR first tried to get them to listen to the miners’ complaints.  When they wouldn’t, he threatened to send in the army to take over the mines and run them himself.  To avoid this, the mine owners gave the miners a small pay raise and a 9-hour working day.  Within a year, TR created a new cabinet department, Commerce and Labor (later split into two cabinet posts), to deal with labour and business issues in the future.

*Railroads had been an issue for years, particularly in the west, where farmers had no other way to ship produce to market.  Many railroads gave special rates to customers they liked, either outright or as rebates, and often worked together to set prices rather than compete to offer the best price. 

*The government had made some effort to regulate this, but not much.  Roosevelt changed this with the Elkins Act and the Hepburn Act, which let the government limit prices on shipping costs for railroads, ferries, toll bridges, and oil pipelines.

*In 1904, Roosevelt even took on a railroad trust, the Northern Securities Company (in which J P Morgan was an investor), which the Supreme Court declared was an illegal trust, and he forced to split up into smaller companies.  TR got a reputation as a trust-buster, but he made a distinction between ‘good trusts’ and ‘bad trusts.’  A trust that operated fairly and did not cheat customers was left alone, but those that did not were broken up.

 

*For example, during the Panic of 1907, the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company was about to go under.  The failure of this large company would only make the depression worse.  However, J P Morgan was prepared to save much of the company by absorbing it into US Steel.  TR felt that this would be an example of a good trust that served the public's interest, and supported the merger, to the surprise of some people.


*What book had pointed out the disgusting conditions of the meat-packing industry?  (The Jungle)  After reading this, Roosevelt insisted on reform.  In 1906, the Meat Inspection Act forced meat-packers to allowed government workers to inspect their facilities and their meat.  The 1907 Pure Food and Drug act allowed the government to inspect other foods as well as medicine, which had previously been completely unregulated, allowing many useless and even dangerous medicines to be sold.

*Roosevelt was a great lover of the environment—he believed that hunting and camping and fishing kept a man healthy and masculine.  He also wanted to make sure that future generations could enjoy the outdoors and the nation’s natural resources as he had, so he greatly expanded the national park system.

*What was the first national park? (Yellowstone)  Look at page 237.  What parks existed before Roosevelt became president? (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Ranier)  When was the most land added to the national park and national forest systems—before, during, or after TR’s presidency? (during)   Where in the country is most national parkland found?  (West)

*In doing this, he was following the ideas of John Muir and particularly Gifford Pinchot.

*To deal with the problem of water use in the West, Roosevelt supported the National Reclamation Act, which gave the government control of Western water rights and allowed it to improve irrigation and build dams to create reservoirs and electricity—Hoover Dam is part of its legacy.

*In 1908, Roosevelt chose not to run for a third term, but encouraged Americans to vote for his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft—and they did, electing America’s fattest president (defeating William Jennings Bryan in the process).

*Taft at first did the same things Roosevelt had, but eventually took his own course.  He lowered tariffs, but not as much as Roosevelt wanted.  He busted trusts, but did not just try to break up bad trusts, but sometimes good ones, too—in fact, he busted twice as many trusts as Roosevelt, including Standard Oil and stopped US Steel from buying a coal company TR had given them permission to purchase.  However, he allowed other monopolies to continue, giving him a reputation as being soft of the rich and big business, even though the XVI Amendment was ratified while he was president.

*Soon TR began to criticise Taft, eventually going on a speaking tour to promote the New Nationalism, a programme to make the government more powerful so that it could bust more trusts and enact other Progressive reforms.

*In 1912, Roosevelt tried to get the Republican nomination for president, but Taft was chosen to run again.  Soon afterwards, TR and many other Republican and some Democratic reformers formed the Progressive Party.  However, when Theodore Roosevelt wanted people to think he was still healthy (despite having a leg broken when his carriage was hit by a trolley in 1902 and being blind in one eye after a bad boxing match in the White House) he told them he was as healthy as a bull moose, and soon people called his party the Bull Moose Party.

*While running for president, Roosevelt was shot just before giving a speech by a man who had dreams in which President McKinley told him to avenge his death.  The bullet went through his coat, through a 50-page speech folded double (which slowed it down), through his steel spectacle case, through his shirt, and into his chest.  As his aides examined him and saw the blood flowing from his wound, they told him to go to the doctor, but he refused, until after he gave his speech.  Nonetheless, this forced him to spend over a week in the hospital right before the election.

*Look at the map on page 241.  Who won the election of 1912?  (Wilson)  Why?  (Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote)

*Woodrow Wilson had been president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, but he had been born in the South and was the first Southern president since Andrew Johnson (and the first one elected since James K Polk).  He was also a Progressive, and called his plan the New Freedom.

*Wilson wanted to bust trusts in order to give small businessmen a chance to compete (or even start businesses at all).  The Federal Trade Commission and the Clayton Antitrust Act helped him do this.

*Wilson lowered tariffs even more than Roosevelt or Taft.

*Wilson created the Federal Reserve System in 1913.  This placed national banks under the control of a Federal Reserve Board which set up regional banks to hold reserves for other banks.  This kept any one bank from holding too much money (thus placing it at risk if the bank failed or its owner tried to skim off the top).

*Wilson usually sided with workers in labour disputes.  He forced the railroads to give their workers an 8-hour day.  However, when coal miners in Colorado went on strike, the Colorado National Guard and eventually the US Army were sent in to break up the strike (the Colorado National Guard even shot into the tents the strikers lived in and set them on fire, killing 26 people).

*While Wilson was president, the United States ratified the XVII, XVIII, and XIX Amendments to the Constitution.  What did each of those do?

*Today, the Federal Reserve System governs our economy.  The government oversees many aspects of trade, business, and unions.  Food safety laws, workplace safety laws, and other laws meant to protect workers and consumers date to the Progressive period.  On the other hand, the government is much larger, much more expensive, and much more involved in people’s lives than it was in the 1800s.  For good and bad we live in a world created by the Progressives.




This page last updated 6 September, 2011.