Teddy Roosevelt, a native New Yorker, was elected Vice-President of the United States in 1901 on the Republican ticket with William McKinley. Six months into his second term, McKinley traveled to Buffalo, NY, to visit the Pan-American Exposition. There McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, the third president to be killed in office.
Many Republicans were not happy about Roosevelt’s ascension to the Presidency. T.R., as he liked to be called, was a complex character and was a mass of contradictions. He was a conservative who fought for reform. He was a hunter who started the conservation movement. A hawk on war who won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Roosevelt did not stick to the party line as a politician. He did not really identify himself with his political part, the Republicans. Instead, he tried to do what he believed was best for the American people. T.R. thought that the biggest evil facing the American people was too much power in the hands of corporate America and he wasted no time in doing something about it.
Roosevelt wanted to curb the power and influence of robber barons, like financier J. P. Morgan. One of Morgan’s companies, Northern Securities Corporation, had a monopoly on the western railways. Roosevelt sued the company, using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The case reached its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the monopoly must be broken up—which means that the one company had to be broken into separate companies that competed with each other.
Roosevelt developed a reputation as a trust-buster because he sought to regulate big business. The ills of the Industrial Revolution—child labor, low pay, long hours, unsafe working conditions, overcrowded cities, pollution, etc.—had the potential to cause a revolution. TR sought to fix some of these problems for the good of the people and to prevent catastrophes.
When coal miners sought to strike at the Anthracite Coal Mine, TR personally intervened. If the miners struck, there would be a coal shortage for the winter season in the Northeast, which would undoubtedly cause problems. TR arbitrated a settlement between the mine owners and the miners, meeting many of the demands of the miners, avoiding a crisis. This presidential action set a precedent and paved the way for future improvements to the societal problems caused by big business.
This situation was an example of TR’s domestic policy, which was called the “Square Deal.” The term square in this context means fair. So, in other words, he was promising to fix the problems industrialization had caused.
Roosevelt also was a strong foreign policy president and oversaw America’s emergence as a world power. Roosevelt became a national hero during the Spanish American War, leading the Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill. That war was key to America becoming a world power, having chased the Spanish out of Cuba. Now, as president, Roosevelt believed in that America had a duty to “civilize” the rest of the world—a belief common in his day and known as “White Man’s Burden.”
Roosevelt is responsible for building the Panama Canal. T.R. believed America needed a canal at the isthmus of Panama in the country of Columbia so that the American Navy could protect both the east and west coast. The government of Columbia would not agree to allow the United States to build the canal. So Roosevelt backed a group seeking to rebel against the Colombian government. With U.S. aid, the rebels were able to win independence and formed a new country called Panama. For America’s assistance, they allowed the Americans to build the canal. The Panama Canal—connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in Latin America—was an engineering feat. It is considered one of the Wonders of the World. Not only did it allow the U.S. Navy to defend the nation, it also allowed trade. Roosevelt considered the canal his greatest achievement.
Roosevelt also set American foreign policy with the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. At the time, European nations were owed large sums of money by Latin American countries. The United States feared that European countries might try to forcibly collect on the loans (as the British and German did in Venezuela in 1902). Roosevelt—without consulting Congress—issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, warning European nations to stay of the western hemisphere. Roosevelt reasserted it in 1904 with his corollary, stating that the United States had police power to rule over the western hemisphere. If any European country had a problem with a country in the Americas, they had to go to the Americans, who would take care of it.
This led to Roosevelt’s Big Stick Diplomacy. Based on his famous saying of “speak softly and carry a big stick,” this meant that countries needed to fear American action if they didn’t do what the U. S. wanted.
Roosevelt won re-election in a landslide 1904. Ills of the industrial era were still a major problem, especially for America’s immigrant population that lived in the cities and worked in the factories. Muckraker Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, exposed the horrific condition in Chicago’s meat packing industry. The factories were unsafe and unsanitary. Rotten and diseased meat was repacked and sold to consumers. Workers lost limbs in the machines.
Roosevelt acted. He pushed for the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The pieces of legislation allowed the federal government to inspect factories producing food to make sure that they met safety standards. These acts are examples of consumer protectionism when the government passes laws to protect buyers.
Roosevelt was also a champion of conservation. He pushed for the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving the federal government the power to preserve wilderness areas. The federal government set aside millions of acres that could not be developed, including many areas that are National Parks.
Roosevelt is one of the most important presidents in United States history. His foreign policy established the United States as a world power. He empowered the office of the Presidency that had been weak since Lincoln’s assassination. He redefined the role of the President. The President had a responsibility to protect the people and do what is best for them.
In a twist of irony, Roosevelt left office feeling his work had not been finished. However, he did not run again. When his hand-picked successor, William Taft, did not do what T.R. hoped, he attempted to run for president again in 1914—forming his own political party to do so (the Bull Moose). Despite a strong showing and getting way more votes than Republican Taft, T.R. lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Interactive Practice Multiple-Choice Questions:
T. Roosevelt and the Progressive Era, Part I
More Interactive Practice Multiple-Choice Questions:
T. Roosevelt and the Progressive Era, Part II