What Roosevelt Stands For
What Roosevelt Stands For
Date: August 7, 1912
Source: The New York Times
The late nineteenth century was an era of rapid industrialization, urbanization, growth, and corruption in the United States and is often called the Gilded Age. Mass immigration from Europe had swelled America's cities, and provided a ready supply of labor for industry. Big business was booming, making fortunes for the magnates and financiers who owned them. Monopolies and trusts had come to control entire industries, stifling competition. Meanwhile, many Americans struggled in dire poverty. They earned meager wages despite working long hours in dangerous factories, and lived in crowded, unsanitary slums. The politics of the time were marked by the heavy influence of rich special interests, and dominated by political bosses and machines that often used their power to reward their supporters and punish their opponents, thereby maintaining themselves in office.
It was in this atmosphere that Theodore Roosevelt entered politics, at the age of 23, when he was elected as a Republican to the New York state assembly in 1881. He was one of many Americans who were unhappy with the state of the nation. They felt that government should regulate the economy and the workplace to the benefit of consumers and workers, that the influence of special interests and political machines needed to be reduced, and that in general changes needed to be made that would make the government more responsive to the general public. These reformers were generally known as progressives or populists.
Roosevelt quickly established a reputation as an intelligent and effective reformer. He was also extremely newsworthy and popular with the general public, known for his energy, his adventurous spirit, and his striking appearance. Thanks to this popularity he was able to rise quickly in the Republican party, to the dismay of conservative politicians opposed to progressive reforms. In 1900, the conservative-dominated Republican leadership asked Roosevelt to run for vice president of the United States, along with President William McKinley. They did so hoping that his presence on the ticket would draw support from progressives, but that as vice president he would have little actual power to make changes. McKinley and Roosevelt won the election handily, and Roosevelt was inaugurated as vice president on March 4, 1901. Barely six months later, McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt became president of the United States on September 14, 1901.
As president, Roosevelt embarked on a wide-ranging program of reforms, especially after he was elected to a second term in 1904. He used his stature and popularity like few presidents before him had done, speaking out publicly and frequently on the major issues of the day to draw attention to worthy causes and put pressure on Congress to enact his reforms. Under Roosevelt, the Justice Department began to vigorously enforce anti-trust laws, breaking up monopolies in many industries. Roosevelt advocated laws to regulate industry to the benefit of consumers—most notably the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906—as well as currency and banking reform. Roosevelt's love of the outdoors led him to champion the cause of conservationism, establishing the first national parks and national monuments. He also supported federal dam and irrigation projects. Roosevelt believed that the United States was a great nation that should dominate the western hemisphere and be actively involved in world affairs. He expanded the navy and aided a revolution in Panama in order to gain a right-of-way to build what became the Panama Canal.
By 1908, Roosevelt had led the progressive movement to greater strength and accomplishments than any before him. Roosevelt did not run for reelection in 1908, having sworn not to seek a third term. He left office with every expectation that his successor, William Howard Taft, would continue with his agenda. Taft had served in Roosevelt's cabinet and won election easily with Roosevelt's backing. Taft was not as skillful a politician as Roosevelt, however. Nor was he as aggressive a reformer at heart as Roosevelt. Under Taft's presidency the conservatives gained in power and stalled many progressive initiatives.
Roosevelt grew disillusioned with Taft, and by 1912 decided to break with him entirely. That year, Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican presidential nomination, sparking a bitter struggle between the conservative and progressive wings of the Republican party. Taft and the conservatives were victorious, defeating Roosevelt in the party's convention. Roosevelt's response was to form a new party, the Progressive Party. It gained the nickname the "Bull Moose" Party when Roosevelt responded to critics that he was "fit as a bull moose" to run for office. The newspaper excerpt presented here summarizes the major points of the Progressive Party's political platform, as outlined by Roosevelt at his nominating convention.
Preferential primaries in Presidential years.
Election of United States Senators by popular vote.
The short ballot, limiting the number of officials to be voted for.
A stringent and efficient Corrupt Practices act applying to primaries as well as elections.
Publicity of campaign contributions.
Initiative, referendum, and recall.
Recall of judicial decisions.
Simplifying the process for amendment of the Constitution.
Strengthening of the pure food law.
Establishment of a National Health Department.
Social and industrial justice to wage workers including a minimum wage.
Insurance and old-age pensions for employees.
Regulation of conditions of labor, hours of work for women, prohibition of child labor.
Federal control of trusts.
A National Industrial Commission, controlling all inter-State industry.
Revision of the tariff in the interest of employee and consumer.
A permanent tariff commission, non-partisan.
Land monopoly tax.
Suffrage for women.
Regulation of hearing in contempt cases.
Internal waterway improvements.
Reform of the currency to give greater elasticity.
Conservation of forests, mines, water power.
Development and control of the Mississippi River.
Government ownership of Alaska railroads.
Leasing system for Alaska coal fields.
A larger navy.
Fortification of the Panama Canal and strict observance of the canal treaty.
The campaign of 1912 was a three-way race between Roosevelt, Taft, and the Democratic nominee: Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt hoped to win by drawing off progressive members of both the Republican and Democratic parties to join the Progressive Party. Accordingly he called for not just a continuation, but a major expansion, of his previous policies, including the vote for women, insurance and old-age pensions, and direct election of U.S. Senators (at the time, Senators were elected by state legislatures).
Roosevelt's positions gained him the support of many reform-minded Americans, but in the end it was not enough. Some Republicans supported him, but many refused to abandon the party. And with Woodrow Wilson also running on a reform platform, few reformers in that party wanted to switch sides. Wilson ultimately won the election, with 42 percent of the popular vote. Roosevelt came in second, with 27 percent, compared to Taft's 23 percent.
President Wilson went on to enact many reforms, including direct election of Senators, women's suffrage, and the establishment of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission. Thus, while Roosevelt's campaign failed to win him the presidency, it did further the progressive cause by drawing away potential supporters from the conservative Republicans and helping to put a reform-minded president in office. With Wilson doing an effective job of leading the reform movement, however, support for an independent Progressive Party rapidly dwindled, and by 1916 it was no longer a major political force. Theodore Roosevelt's legacy lives on, however, in the reforms he enacted and inspired.
Hofstadter, Richard.The Age of Reform.New York: Random House, 1955.
Morris, Edmund.The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.
Pringle, Henry F.Theodore Roosevelt.New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1956.
Roosevelt, Theodore.An Autobiography.New York: Macmillan Co., 1913.
American President. "Theodore Roosevelt." <http://www. americanpresident.org/history/theodoreroosevelt/> (accessed July 31, 2006).
The White House. "Theodore Roosevelt." <http://www. whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/tr26.html> (accessed July 31, 2006).