UNITED STATES 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, and his presidency is sometimes seen as the
beginning of a Fourth Two-Party System in America, in which both
major political parties were split internally between progressive
and conservative factions, with progressives and conservatives
sometimes working across party lines to promote their worldviews,
a system that would last, sometimes with progressives dominant and
sometimes with conservatives dominant, from about 1901 to 1933.
*Theodore Roosevelt (known as Teddy (although he did not like that
nickname) to the public, Thee to his family, 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, inspired by Jacob Riis, 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
the Great Die-Up of 1886-87 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, and stuffed bears have been called Teddy Bears ever
*He had been assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, and when the
Spanish-American War broke out, he raised a volunteer regiment 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.
*Roosevelt was 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.
*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. He often took advisors, diplomats,
and other visitors on half-day hikes through the woods and swamps
around Washington, D.C. and once insisted they all go
skinny-dipping in the Potomac.
*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
*Roosevelt was an upright and moral man, and used the power of the
government to fulfil specific, positive goals without running up a
big debt. In the process, he made the presidency again the
strongest office in the Federal Government and is often considered
to have created the modern presidency.
*He said a man should speak softly, but carry a big stick,
although he himself rarely spoke softly.
*TR took on both the trusts and the unions.
*In 1902, anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania belonging to the
United Mine Workers of America demanded an 8-hour work day and a
20% pay raise--they had not had a raise in years. The bosses
ignored them, knowing they had enough coal to last for months, and
that as the supply dwindled, the price (and thus their profits)
would go up. In May, the miners went on strike, and in June,
other workers in the area went on sympathy strikes. Scabs,
the police, the Pennsylvania National Guard, and detectives were
all called in, a few people were killed, and it looked like
violence might break out on a large scale, as had often happened
when the Western Federation of Miners had gone on strike.
*TR knew people needed coal to keep warm in the winter, and
factories always needed it, so the strike had to end
*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 would not, he threatened to send in
the army to take over the mines and run them himself. To
avoid this, the mine owners and the unions agreed to allow a
commission to find a solution, and the strike ended in October,
*It took the commission three months to reach a conclusion, and in
the end, it split the difference between the miners' demands and
the owners' intransigence: it gave the miners a 10% pay
raise and a 9-hour working day. The miners went back to
work, feeling that this was a victory, but the mine owners were
not required to officially recognise the union.
*In February, 1903, TR created a new cabinet department, Commerce
and Labor (split into two cabinet posts in 1913), to deal with
labour and business issues in the future.
*Over the years, farmers and small businessmen had protested
against the power of the railroads, but to little avail. The
Interstate Commerce Commission had been almost useless.
Roosevelt changed this with the Elkins Act of 1903 which outlawed
rebates and fined those who tried to offer or accept them and with
the Hepburn Act of 1906, which gave the ICC real power to limit
prices on shipping costs for railroads, ferries, toll bridges, and
oil pipelines, and also to investigate transport companies'
*In 1904, Roosevelt even took on the Northern Securities Company,
a cover for a railroad monopoly controlled by J P Morgan, John D.
Rockefeller, and other businessmen. The Supreme Court
declared it to be an illegal trust, and TR forced it to split up
into smaller companies. The legal cases surrounding this
formed the basis for many later anti-trust lawsuits.
*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--and TR got to judge which
trusts were good or bad.
*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.
*Theodore Roosevelt was a voracious reader. After reading The
Jungle, Roosevelt insisted on reform, helping to create the
Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both in 1906.
*Roosevelt was a great lover of the outdoors—he believed that
hunting and camping and fishing kept a man healthy and
manly. 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.
*The first national park in the world was Yellowstone National
Park, designated as such in 1872 by US Grant. Yosemite,
Sequoia, and Mount Ranier were also dedicated as national parks by
the time TR became president. He went on to create more
national parks and 'national monuments' than all other presidents
combined, protecting a total of 125 million acres.
*In doing this, he was following the ideas of John Muir and
particularly Gifford Pinchot, who became one of his closest
advisors on conservation and was made head of the Forest Service
when TR created it in 1905.
*To deal with the problem of water use in the West, Roosevelt
supported the Newlands [or National] Reclamation Act of 1902,
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.
*Under Theodore Roosevelt, America became more active in the
Caribbean world. This was often known as Big Stick
diplomacy, as he was always willing to use force if necessary (as
were subsequent presidents).
*Roosevelt saw himself as Latin America’s policeman. This
was not entirely a new idea—previous presidents had used the
Monroe Doctrine to justify getting involved in the affairs of
Latin American countries, usually to protect them from European
powers. Roosevelt took this further, in what was called the
Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine: if any Latin
American country had problems, America had a duty to step in and
help them out—by physical force, if necessary.
*Latin Americans needed this, said Roosevelt, because they could
not take care of themselves and needed to be lifted up by a more
civilised nation, and if America did not do it, some European
country might. It was common for European nations to begin
taking over colonies by claiming that their governments owed them
money or were simply incapable of managing their affairs. To
prevent this happening, the United States had to be prepared to
*One of the first places American force was needed was in Panama,
a region in Colombia where a French company had been working for
years to build a canal. America bought that company, but
still needed permission from the Colombian government to work on
*When Colombia’s government refused, Roosevelt sent warships to
support a Panamanian revolution. In the Hay--Bunau-Varilla
treaty, the new government of Panama gave America a ten-mile-wide
canal zone for $10 million plus $250,000 a year in rent (Philippe
Bunau-Varilla was a French businessmen who had invested in the
canal, sponsored the revolution, wrote Panama's constitution, and
even offered to pay Panama's budget out of his own pocket; Panama
made him its first ambassador to the US, but later regretted this,
as Panamanians felt he gave up too much to the US and never even
came back to Panama after signing the treaty). The United
States controlled the Canal Zone from 1903 to 1979.
*The biggest problem facing workers was disease, particularly
malaria and yellow fever. Eventually the US Army found ways
to prevent infection by these diseases, particularly by draining
swamps and wetlands to reduce mosquito breeding grounds, and the
Panama Canal was finished in 1914, at last giving the world an
all-water route to Asia through the Americas.
*During and after Roosevelt's presidency, the US would intervene
in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic in the name
of stability and security.
*Roosevelt even felt forced to intervene in world affairs outside
the Americas. In 1904 Japan had staged a sneak attack on the
Russian Pacific Fleet one morning, catching it off guard and
destroying it, beginning the Russo-Japanese War. Japanese
troops had then moved into Russian-occupied Manchuria and other
Russian territories in the Far East, defeating the Russian forces
there, while the Russian Baltic Fleet began to sail around the
world, only to be destroyed off the coast of Korea.
*The Russian people were terrified and infuriated, and rebelled
against their government in 1905, and were only barely contained
after the Tsar promised them reforms. Fearful of the rise of
Japanese power and the destablisation of the Russian Empire,
Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate between the two warring
powers, and in 1905 helped negotiate the Treaty of Portsmouth in
New Hampshire, which brought the war to a close.
*Japan got control of two Chinese port cities that had been in
Russia's sphere of influence as well as the southern portion of
Sakhalin Island and control of all railroads in Manchuria, but the
Japanese had hoped for much more. Russia got to concentrate
on internal problems and got to avoid losing any more land or men
(but its misfortunes convinced Germany and Austria-Hungary that
Russia was weak). Theodore Roosevelt got the Nobel Peace
*To show off America’s might, Roosevelt had sixteen of the Navy’s
modern battleships and a number of escort ships painted gleaming
white, and then sent that Great White Fleet on a world-wide
goodwill tour from December of 1907 to February, 1909.
*In 1908, Roosevelt chose not to run for a third term, but
encouraged Americans to vote for his Secretary of War and former
governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft—and they did,
defeating William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1908.
*To give Taft room to work, Roosevelt went on an African safari
followed by a tour of Europe from March, 1909 to June, 1910.
*Taft at first did the same things Roosevelt had, but eventually
took his own course. He kept on many of Roosevelt's former
advisors, but later argued and fired with some of them. He
lowered tariffs, but not as much as Roosevelt wanted; the main
tariff of his presidency was the Payne-Aldrich Tariff (which was
too high for progressives and too low for big business).
*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. He also tried
to stop US Steel from buying Tennessee Coal and Iron, which TR had
given them permission to purchase, and TR viewed this as a great
betrayal. However, Taft allowed other monopolies to
continue, giving him a reputation for being soft on the rich and
big business, even though the XVI Amendment was ratified in
February, 1913, while he was president, after which Congress
placed an income tax between 1% and 7% on the wealthiest 1% of
Americans (and created the lower Underwood Tariff of 1913).
*In foreign policy, Taft also put the big stick away, or at least
held it in reserve. He preferred to speak softly through
what he called Dollar Diplomacy, encouraging American companies to
invest in Latin American businesses (like oil in Mexico and
Venezuela and sugar and banana plantations in the Caribbean
Islands and Central America). If these businesses had
problems though, the Taft was willing to pull the big stick back
*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 broken a leg 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 fit as a bull
moose, and soon people called his party the Bull Moose Party.
*Progressives went on to found a new magazine of their own The
New Republic, in 1914, to promote progressive views.
*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.
*Eugene V. Debs also ran for the fourth time with the Socialist
*In the end, neither Taft nor Roosevelt won. Instead, they
split the Republican vote more than they did the Democratic vote,
and in the election of 1912 America elected Woodrow Wilson.
*Following this campaign, Theodore Roosevelt went to Brazil, where
he explored a previously unexplored 800 mile long tributary of the
Amazon River known as the River of Doubt.
*Taft went on a low-carb diet, lost almost one hundred pounds, and
served as a professor at Yale before being finally achieving his
true dream and being named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in
1921, where he served until his death in 1930 and played a major
role in getting the Supreme Court a building of their own,
although he did not live to move into
it when it was completed in 1935.
*Woodrow Wilson had been president of Princeton University and
governor of New Jersey (originally chosen by the machines to be
their puppet while giving the appearance of being honest; he
surprised them by actually governing honestly and trying to clean
up machine corruption), but he had been born in the South and was
the first Southern president since Andrew Johnson (and the first
one elected since Zachary Taylor). He was also a
Progressive, and called his plan the New Freedom. In
describing the New Freedom, Wilson attacked what he called the
Triple Wall of Privilege: the trusts, the tariff, and high
*Wilson wanted to bust trusts. He created the Federal Trade
Commission in 1914 to regulate competition and advertising (mostly
for the benefit of consumers).
*The Clayton Antitrust Act (also in 1914) gave even more power to
anti-trust regulators--Samuel Gompers called the Clayton Antitrust
Act 'Labour's Magna Carta,' partly because it specifically stated
that unions were not trusts and could not be attacked by the
Clayton Anti-Trust Act.
*The Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916 let farmers borrow federal
*The Workingman's Compensation Act of 1916 created disability
insurance plans for federal employees. Later it would be the
basis for other disability benefits.
*The Adamson Act of 1916 established an 8-hour day and overtime
pay for interstate railway workers.
*He appointed the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis
Brandeis, in 1916.
*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.
However, when coal miners in Colorado went on strike in 1914, 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
*While Wilson was president, the United States ratified the XVII,
XVIII, and XIX Amendments to the Constitution
*When Woodrow Wilson became president, he planned to use Moral
Diplomacy to convince Latin American countries to live up to
American standards--in a way, bringing progressive reform to the
*In fact, Wilson used military force fairly often as
well. In 1915 when he was worried that France or
Germany might invade Haiti (because both of whom had economic
interests there), he sent US Marines in first.
*In Mexico in 1913, Victoriano Huerta overthrew the old government
(itself just two years old, having forced out Porfirio Diaz after
he had ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1911) and set himself up as
president after executing the last one. He promised to
protect American investments, but Wilson felt it was immoral to
murder presidents, so he sent the Marines into Mexico to punish
Huerta--he said 'I am going to teach the South American Republics
to elect good men.'
*At first Wilson worked with a revolutionary leader named Pancho
Villa (who controlled much of northern Mexico) to fight against
Huerta, but later changed his mind when a new Mexican president
whom Wilson liked (and had supplied weapons to) named Venustiano
Caranza turned against the Revolutionaries who had helped him come
to power. Pancho Villa then raided the US, killing 24
Americans (18 of them civilians) in three different attacks.
*10,000 US troops under Black Jack Pershing were sent into
northern Mexico in the Punitive Expedition in 1916, only pulling
out in 1917 so he could go to Europe in World War I. He
never captured Pancho Villa, who was assassinated in 1923 by
enemies in Mexico.
*Also in 1917, the United States bought some of the Virgin Islands
from Denmark for $25 million (partly out of fear that Germany
might buy them or just take them over).
*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.