Roosevelt: “The Square Deal” and the Rise of the Progressives

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Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Evaluate Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s impact as president.
  • Identify domestic reforms instituted by Roosevelt in the areas of consumer protection, labor, and transportation.
  • Compare and contrast Roosevelt’s actions and attitude as president to those before him, and break down how these differences influence his decisions as president.
  • Describe Roosevelt’s actions in conserving America’s natural resources, and explain his beliefs about the environment.
  • Identify efforts Roosevelt took to destroy the large business trusts that were dominating the American economy.
  • Summarize Roosevelt’s beliefs concerning businesses, monopolies, and trusts.
  • Compare and contrast Roosevelt’s efforts and actions to break up the large business trusts and Taft’s efforts to do the same.

Inquire: How Did Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s Leadership Bring About the Progressive Era and the Progressive Movement?


As the Gilded Age came to an end, there were huge problems throughout America. Capitalism and laissez-faire economics had led to a rising economy and a struggling working class. America looked good on the outside – gilded with ideas of freedom, equality, and opportunity – but the truth was much darker. Slums and harsh living conditions awaited most immigrants. The American government was slowly instituting a policy of harassment and destruction that eradicated the Native American population. Big political machines used the holes in the democratic process to control elections – and therefore, large city and even state governments – all to line their pockets with bribes and control the population with fear. Even national power was concentrated in the hands of the very few: the industrialists who controlled the major industries.

The Populist Movement died after the election of 1896, but the reform efforts in America were just getting started. Led by President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, a new movement – The Progressive Movement – would begin addressing the problems that surfaced during the Gilded Age, and American society would make changes as America moved from a second-tier country to a true world power.

Although he was only elected president once, the 26th president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, served from September 14, 1901?to March 4, 1909. In U.S. history, there is no more colorful, energetic, or forceful political figure than Teddy Roosevelt. There has certainly never been another president like him. Teddy typically makes the top five of the greatest presidents on almost any historian or political scientist’s list. He splashed onto the national scene by raising and funding a private army that was instrumental in winning the Spanish-American War, and he loudly and publicly championed the cause of the people vs. large industrialists – men like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie.

The industrialists attempted to control him by nominating him for vice president in President McKinley’s second term.  When McKinley was assassinated only months after the election of 1900, the industrialists’ worst nightmare occurred; Teddy became president. While the industrialists may have considered it a disaster, the American people found a hero, a leader, a visionary, and the man who would change not only the United States, but the world’s opinion of it.

Big Question

What progressive changes, or fixes, did Teddy institute in his presidency? 

Watch: Perdicaris Alive, Or Raisuli Dead!
Read: “Hiding Roosevelt” – The Presidency That Was Never Meant To Be


Group of men in formal dress reacting to one man approaching McKinley, holding something in his hand covered by a cloth.

Illustration of the assignation of President William McKinley

The Republican Party never intended for Theodore Roosevelt to be president. He was seen as a reckless cowboy by many in the Republican Party leadership. As his popularity soared, he became more and more of a threat. He spoke of controlling the wealthy industrialists and protecting the people from abuse – words that concerned men of power – men like JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie. His success with the Rough Riders in Cuba made him a war hero in the eyes of many Americans. Riding this wave, he was elected as governor of New York.

During the campaign of 1900, party leadership decided– under pressure from the Industrialists – that nominating Roosevelt for the vice-presidency would serve two purposes. First, his popularity would surely help President McKinley’s reelection bid. Second, moving him to vice-presidency might decrease his power. The last vice-president elected in his own right had been Martin Van Buren in 1837. The Industrialists and others believed Roosevelt could do less harm as vice-president than as governor of New York.

Their plan worked flawlessly – McKinley and Roosevelt easily won the election, and all was proceeding according to plan until an assassin’s bullet ended McKinley’s life in September 1901.

There had never been a president like Roosevelt. He was only 42 years old – the youngest age ever for a chief executive – when his predecessor William McKinley was assassinated.

Roosevelt’s Philosophies

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, in rough rider uniform, full-length portrait, standing and facing slightly left.

Theodore Roosevelt in military uniform, 1898

Although Roosevelt himself hailed from the wealthy classes, he strongly believed that no individual, no matter how rich and powerful,should control the people’s representatives. Furthermore, Roosevelt was convinced that if abuse of workers continued to go unchecked, a violent revolution would sweep the nation. An outspoken foe of socialism, Roosevelt believed that, with a little restraint and common sense, capitalism could be preserved. Within months of becoming president, he began to wield his newfound power.

Unlike his quieter predecessors, Roosevelt knew that if the Washington politicians resisted change, he would have to take his case to the people directly.  The country was thirsting for leadership and Roosevelt became a political and popular hero. Merchandise, paintings and lithographs were created in his honor; there was even a motion picture that portrayed him as a fairytale hero. Roosevelt claimed the presidency was a “bully pulpit” – by which he meant it was a terrific platform from which to advocate his agenda to the people.

The “Three C’s” of Roosevelt’s “Square Deal”

Roosevelt believed the government should apply its resources toward pursuit of a domestic policy he called The Square Deal.  His programs covered three basic ideas: conservation of natural resources, control of corporations, and?consumer protection – the “three Cs” of Roosevelt’s Square Deal.

Control of Corporations – The Trust Buster

Teddy Roosevelt believed a revolution was coming. By 1904, two-fifths of the nation’s industrial output was controlled by only 318 trusts, including banking and railroads.  There seemed to be no limit to greed. If docking employee wages would increase corporation profits, it was done. If higher railroad rates put more gold in the railroad tycoons’ coffers, it was done. How much was enough, Roosevelt wondered?

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act

DecorativeAlthough he himself was a man of means, Roosevelt criticized the wealthy class of Americans on two counts. First, he believed that continued exploitation of the public could result in a violent uprising that could destroy the whole system. Second, the captains of industry were arrogant enough to believe themselves superior to the elected government. Now that he was President, Roosevelt went on the attack.

In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which declared illegal all combinations “in restraint of trade.” The law was intended to address the proliferation of large business conglomerates that Roosevelt and others believed were stifling competition and contributing to manipulation of prices.  With the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the federal government began filing cases against trusts however the language in the law, and lack of specificity initially hampered their cases.  For many years, the federal courts routinely sided with business and against labor.

Teddy vs. J.P. Morgan

Past failures with the Act did not worry Teddy – and Theodore Roosevelt was not the type to initiate major changes timidly. Roosevelt’s first anti-trust suit was against none other than one of the most powerful industrialist in the country — J. Pierpont Morgan.

Morgan was enjoying a peaceful dinner at his New York home on February 19, 1902, when his telephone rang. Stunned, he muttered to his equally shocked dinner guests about how rude it was to file such a suit without warning.

Four days later, Morgan was at the White House with the President. Morgan bellowed that he was being treated like a common criminal and demanded to know if his other interests were at risk, too. Roosevelt told him that only the ones that had done anything wrong would be prosecuted. Roosevelt believed that no man, no matter how powerful, was above the law.

The Good, the Bad, and the Trust Buster

This was the core of Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership. He boiled everything down to a case of right versus wrong and good versus bad – and Roosevelt trusted only his judgment to decide the “good” from the “bad”.

The Supreme Court agreed with Roosevelt and dissolved Morgan’s Northern Securities Trust.  Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the attorney general brought 44 suits against business monopolies (most notably against J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company and J.D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company). With each suit filed, Roosevelt’s popularity grew.  Most of them were successful –  Standard Oil was divided into 30 smaller companies that would compete with one another. Roosevelt’s efforts in attacking the corporate monopolies earned him the nickname “Trust Buster.”

Under Roosevelt, the Department of Commerce and Labor was created to assist labor disputes. Congress passed the Elkins Act and the Hepburn Act both of which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission (“ICC”) more control over the railroads, allowing for fairer pricing for all consumers, regardless of size.  The Hepburn Act also extended the ICC’s control to bridges, terminals, ferries, sleeping cars, express companies, and oil pipelines.

The 1902 Coal Strike

group of men coming out of coal mine in a open train car. most dressed in mining clothes with hemet lamps, one dressed in a suit.

Coal miners in Hazleton PA 1900

In May 1902, coal miners in Pennsylvania went on strike, threatening a national energy shortage. Roosevelt stepped in to arbitrate, and when the summit failed, Roosevelt summoned his War Secretary, Elihu Root, instructing him to prepare to send in the army – but not to stop the strike. The coal operators were informed that if no settlement was reached, the army would seize the mines and make coal available to the public. Roosevelt did not seem to mind that he had no constitutional authority to do any such thing.  With this threat hanging over their heads, the mine operators agreed to arbitration of the dispute by a commission.  The arbitration succeeded in stopping the strike, dropping coal prices, and retiring furnaces. The accord resulted in the workers getting more pay for fewer hours, but they did not get union recognition.

No president had ever inserted himself in a labor dispute before – and the federal government had never sided with labor against management.  Roosevelt proclaimed the settlement was good for labor and for management – and that it supported his goal of a “square deal for every man.”

Consumer Protection

After the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle which exposed the abuses in the meat packing industry, Roosevelt pushed Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 banned misleading labels and preservatives that contained harmful chemicals. The Pure Food and Drug Act banned impure or falsely labeled food and drugs from being made, sold, and shipped. Roosevelt also served as honorary president of the American School Hygiene Association from 1907 to 1908, and in 1909, he convened the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children.

Conservation Efforts

President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and Joh Muir with Yosemite Falls in the background.

Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman. He hunted, hiked, and camped whenever possible. He believed that living in nature was good for the body and soul. Although he proved willing to compromise with Republican conservatives on many issues, he was dedicated to protecting the nation’s public lands.

The first measure he backed was the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. This law encouraged developers and homesteaders to inhabit lands that were useless without massive irrigation works. The lands were sold at a cheap price if the buyer assumed the cost of irrigation and lived on the land for at least five years. The government then used the revenue to irrigate additional lands. Over a million barren acres were rejuvenated under this program.

Under an 1891 law that empowered the president to declare national forests and withdraw public lands from development, Roosevelt began to preserve wilderness areas. By the time he left office, 150,000,000 acres had been declared national forests, forever safe from the ax and saw. This amounted to three times the total amount of lands protected since the law had been enacted.
In 1907, Congress passed a law blocking the president from protecting additional territory in six western states. In typical Roosevelt fashion, he signed the bill into law — but not before protecting 16 million additional acres in those six states.

Reflect: Do the Ends Justify the Means?


Roosevelt is easily one of the most impactful and nation-changing – even nation-forming – presidents in U.S. history.  He was also the youngest person to ever be president, taking office at 42 years of age.

No matter how influential he was, Roosevelt is a controversial figure. As we have seen, Roosevelt always felt it okay to do the right thing, even if the method was questionable. He encouraged and supported a Panamanian revolution so he could build a canal; He sailed The Great White Fleet around the world just to show America’s military right; He threatened to nationalize the coal mines in order to force a settlement on the mine owners. In each instance, the goals were good, but the steps taken to achieve them were sometimes questionable.

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Expand: Even the Best Presidents are “Lame Ducks” in the End

The “Two Term Tradition”

1908 was not a good year for Teddy Roosevelt. The nation was recovering from a financial panic that had rocked Wall Street the previous year. Many leading industrialists unjustly blamed the crisis on the president. The Congress that he had finessed in his early term was now dominated by conservative Republicans who took joy in blocking the president’s initiatives. His time in the White House was coming to a close.

He had promised not to seek a third term when he was elected in 1904. No prior president had ever broken the two-term tradition. Roosevelt would keep his word.

Among Friends

black and white photograph, larger older gentleman portrait, formal attire, large mustache

Portrait of William Howard Taft

He decided that if he could no longer serve as president, the next best option was to name a successor that would carry out his programs. He found the perfect candidate in William Howard Taft.

Taft and Roosevelt were best friends. When Roosevelt was sworn in as chief executive, Taft was serving as governor of the Philippines. Roosevelt offered his friend a seat on the Supreme Court, but his work in the Philippines and the ambitions of Mrs. Taft propelled him to decline. In 1904, he became secretary of war, and his friendship with Roosevelt grew stronger.

By 1908, Roosevelt was convinced that Taft would be the ideal successor. His support bequeathed to Taft the Republican nomination, and the fall election against the tired William Jennings Bryan proved to be a landslide victory.

Juggling Progressives and Conservatives

Upon leaving the White House, Roosevelt embarked on a worldwide tour, including an African safari and a sojourn through Europe. Taft was left to make his own mark on America. Unfortunately, he lacked the political skill of his predecessor to keep both the progressive and conservative wings of his party happy. Soon, he would alienate first one side, then the other.

Sadly, today if people know of President Taft, they are likely familiar with the story of him getting stuck in the White House bathtub.  Indeed, Taft struggled to manage his weight for much of his adult life and, as the heaviest person ever elected president, Taft’s struggle with his weight brought national awareness to obesity and personal fitness.

The defining moment in Taft’s presidency came with the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. Progressives hated the measure, which raised rates, and conservatives lauded it. Taft signed the bill, and his progressive supporters were furious.

The rupture widened with the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy. Richard Ballinger was Taft’s secretary of the interior. His appointment shocked Gifford Pinchot, the nation’s chief forester and longtime companion of Theodore Roosevelt. Pinchot rightly saw that Ballinger was no friend to Roosevelt’s conservation initiatives. When Pinchot publicly criticized Ballinger, Taft fired Pinchot, and progressives were, once again, outraged. The two wings of the party were now firmly on a collision course.

formal document outlining amendment 17 of the U.S. Constitution.

Amendment XVII (17)

Taft’s Progressive Reforms

Despite criticism from progressive Republicans, Taft did support many of their goals. He broke twice as many trusts in his one term as Roosevelt had broken in his two. Taft limited the workday of federal employees to eight hours and supported the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which empowered Congress to levy a federal income tax. He also created a Children’s Bureau and supported the 17th Amendment, which allowed for senators to be directly elected by the people instead of by the state legislatures.

Still, when Roosevelt returned to America, progressives pressed him to challenge Taft for the party leadership. As 1912 approached, the fight was on.



AJAX progress indicator
  • Business Trust
    a form of business organization which is similar to a corporation, in which investors receive transferable certificates of beneficial interest
  • Conservationist
    a person who advocates conservation, especially of natural resources
  • Elkins Act
    a 1903 United States federal law that amended the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. The act authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to impose heavy fines on railroads that offered rebates, and upon the shippers that accepted these rebates
  • Hepburn Act
    a 1906 United States federal law that gave the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) the power to set maximum railroad rates and extend its jurisdiction. This led to the discontinuation of free passes to loyal shippers
  • Industrialist
    a person involved in the ownership and management of industry
  • Labor Union
    an organized association of workers, often in a trade or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interest
  • Laissez-faire
    abstention by governments from interfering in the workings of the free market
  • Lame Duck
    an official (especially the president) in the final period of office, after the election of a successo
  • monopoly
    the exclusive possession or control of the supply or trade in a commodity or service
  • Payne-Aldrich Tariff
    a bill raising certain tariffs on goods entering the United States
  • Socialist
    a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole
  • The Progressive Movement
    a widespread movement of social activism and political reform across the United States, from the 1890s to the 1920s