Theodore Roosevelt appeared an unlikely candidate for a reform president. Born into a wealthy family, he enjoyed a youth beyond the reach of most Americans, touring Europe and the Middle East, studying with private tutors, and coming of age in a New York mansion. A Harvard man, he socialized with America's upper crust. In practice, however, TR looked after the interests of working class Americans against rapacious corporate trusts, defying -- and some would say betraying -- the very society from which he had sprung.
When TR entered the White House in 1901, he took control of a federal government that often aligned itself with big business. Roosevelt restrained his progressive leanings for a short time, wisely avoiding a shakeup on Wall Street, where jittery investors saw him at best as a loose cannon and at worst as a dangerous demagogue.
In early 1902, however, TR took the offensive against powerful corporate trusts. He convinced Congress to create a Bureau of Corporations to regulate big business, then shocked the nation by bringing an anti-trust suit against J. P. Morgan's Northern Securities Corporation. Morgan condemned the president, not just for what he had done, but for the ungentlemanly way in which he had done it -- publicly and without warning. A new paradigm had been established in Washington, and Roosevelt would go on to file suit against more than 40 major corporations during his presidency.
If Roosevelt's trust-busting surprised big business, it was certainly consistent with the major influences on his life. Theodore Roosevelt grew up worshipping a father who preached the moral duty of helping the poor, and he worked to be like his father in every way he could. As a young man, TR experienced life as a rancher in North Dakota's Badlands, where all the money in the world could not make a cow easier to rope or the summer sun less blazing, and years of honest work from sunup to sundown might still leave a person poor.
He learned to value working class people, and he never forgot them. From the time he took office in 1901 to the time he left it in 1909, the cowboy president did much to help working Americans. He passed laws to ensure the safety of food and drugs sold in the American marketplace. He placed millions of acres of land under federal protection, preserving America's natural resources. He regulated interstate commerce and helped laborers to get a fair shake at the negotiating table.
Plutocrats deplored Roosevelt. Yet TR adamantly defended the right of big business to exist. Trying to destroy the trusts, Roosevelt wrote in his Autobiography, "was a hopeless effort... those who went into it, although they regarded themselves as radical progressives, really represented a sincere form of rural Toryism." To TR, Progressivism meant a square deal for the American people and American business, a society where businesses profited by fair competition -- but not at the expense of the average American.
In fact, Roosevelt's relationship with labor was a tenuous one -- he probably feared nothing more than he feared labor's potential for violence. "We can no more and no less afford to condone evil in the man of capital than evil in the man of no capital," Roosevelt wrote. One of his greatest frustrations was the inability of capitalists to see that their greed might well foment a bloody American revolution. Labor regularly condemned him, insisting that his brand of reform did not go far enough.
After leaving the presidency, Roosevelt continued to push for domestic reform, most notably during his Progressive party campaign for the presidency in 1912. He ran on a "New Nationalism" platform, calling for women's suffrage, an end to child labor, pensions for the elderly, unemployment insurance, and increased regulation of the trusts. While Theodore Roosevelt failed in this final presidential bid, others picked up his torch, and many of the ideas he championed would later come to fruition.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?