The 1900s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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The 1900s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News



Giant corporations came to have a huge influence over government in the 1900s, as many American industries were consolidated into enormous trusts that dominated the national economy. The most significant corporate consolidation took place on January 1, 1901, when Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) agreed to sell his steel company to J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) for $480 million. Carnegie's operation was combined with Morgan's other steel properties to form U.S. Steel, the first American company to be capitalized at more than $1 billion. Among the other major industries consolidated during the decade were aluminum, life insurance, whiskey, sugar, lead, tobacco, coal, plate glass, wire nails, and smelting. Business leaders, most notably Morgan, saw consolidation as beneficial to the marketplace because it eliminated wasteful competition and gave corporate leaders more control over their employees.

While corporate titans like Morgan, Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) might have seen the trusts as positive economic tools, many Americans began to fear that the nation's business leaders were gaining too much control over the system. The nation witnessed the tremendous power of corporate America during a disputed merger of three railroads: the Northern Pacific; the Great Northern; and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy lines. To resolve the issue of who would control these railroad lines in the northwest part of the country, their corporate leaders formed a monopoly called the Northern Securities Company. Politicians soon discovered that by coming out against large corporations they could gain the public's confidence and win their votes. In 1900, the Republican presidential platform stated the party's opposition to "all conspiracies and combinations intended to restrict business, to create monopolies, to limit production, or to control prices." Once Republican Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House, he increased the government's efforts to limit corporations. In 1903, he proposed the creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor, which would directly focus upon and investigate corporate abuses. Congress also established a special fund, through which $500,000 would be budgeted to bring lawsuits against illegal business trusts.

Roosevelt, who earned his nickname "The Trust Buster," was quite successful in his campaign to limit corporations. His administration obtained twenty-four indictments against the trusts. The Supreme Court also handed down several notable anti-trust decisions during the early twentieth century. In 1905, the court forbade the beef trust from trying to limit competition. In 1911, the court dissolved the Standard Oil Company, which once controlled 90 percent of the oil business. Another 1911 court order declared the American Tobacco Company an unlawful trust that would have to be disbanded. The Court decided many of its business-related cases by a formula that came to be known as the "rule of reason," which held that only "unreasonable" combinations in restraint of trade could be prohibited.

One of the most important areas of the government's reform efforts was rail transportation. Railroad owners, however, did not resist regulation but actually encouraged it. Railroad lines had been subject to varying rules in the different states in which they operated. The railroad owners also were often forced to pay kickbacks (payments for special favors) to the other trusts for the "privilege" of carrying their goods. The railroads turned to the federal government, which assisted them by passing the Elkins Act of 1903, which made the use of kickbacks an illegal act. In 1906, the government acted again to remedy the railroads' problems by passing the Hepburn Act, which strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) by giving it the power to reduce unreasonably high freight shipment rates.

Consumer Protection and The Jungle

In 1905, author Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) wrote The Jungle, a fictionalized account of the practices in Chicago's meatpacking industry. He exposed the awful conditions faced by stockyard workers as they labored in filthy packinghouses that often produced tainted meat products. The public was stunned and horrified by what Sinclair had described. Soon, calls came from across the country demanding that politicians do something immediately to protect America's food supply. In 1906, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which made it unlawful to mislabel or tamper with food and drugs distributed through interstate commerce.

The growing reform movement was not limited to concerns about the national government. Measures were passed in cities and states across America in an attempt to halt widespread corruption problems that plagued many local communities. No state or city seemed to be spared from dishonest politicians who misused their governmental powers to line their own pockets or protect their criminal associates. The most corrupt politicians were active in New York City's Tammany Hall, a political machine (an organized group with political goals) that demanded special favors from politicians its members placed in office. It was common practice for local elected officials to sell their municipalities' gas, water, sewer, electricity, and streetcar rights to private companies (often headed by their friends). Even the police routinely took kickbacks and bribes from saloon and brothel owners to ignore their illegal activities. The victims of this widespread corruption were hardworking citizens, who were forced to pay astronomical utility rates, send their children to crumbling schools, walk unpaved and filthy streets, and drink contaminated water. The average people were at the mercy of those with powerful connections who knew they were safe from honest governmental intervention.

The Supreme Court, 1900–1909


John Marshall Harlan, 1877–1911

Horace Gray, 1881–1902

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., 1902–1932

Melville Weston Fuller, 1888–1910

David Josiah Brewer, 1890–1910

Henry Billings Brown, 1890–1906

William Henry Moody, 1906–1910

George Shiras Jr., 1892–1903

William Rufus Day, 1903–1922

Edward Douglas White, 1894–1921

Rufus Wheeler Peckham, 1895–1909

Horace Hurton Lurton, 1909–1914

Joseph McKenna, 1898–1925

Urban political machines were powered by bosses who provided needed services to the many poor and immigrant families that populated

The Trials of Harry Thaw

One of the most notorious legal cases of the 1900s centered on the unstable character of Harry Thaw (1871–1947), the wealthy son of a Pittsburgh railroad magnate. On June 25, 1906, Thaw shot the famed architect Stanford White (1853–1906) three times with a pistol in the crowded rooftop restaurant of Madison Square Garden, which White had designed. Upon his arrest, Thaw claimed he killed White over an affair the architect was having with his wife, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw (1884–1966). Headlines across the nation described Thaw's history of emotional problems and the scandalous affair between his wife and White, which apparently pushed him over the edge. At his 1907 trial, the defense centered on Mrs. Thaw's story of her seduction by White and its disastrous effects on her husband's mind.

On April 12, 1907, the jury declared it was hopelessly deadlocked. At Thaw's second trial, in 1908, a jury found Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity. Soon afterward, Evelyn filed for an annulment (dissolution of marriage). Thaw's legal troubles continued when, in 1913, he escaped from a mental asylum. He was captured and declared sane in 1914. His final years were marked by frequent criminal behavior that included kidnapping, beating women, and whipping boys.

their neighborhoods. In exchange for feeding hungry families, providing jobs, posting bail for delinquent children, and providing hams and turkeys at the holidays, the machine demanded that those who received its assistance would vote for their chosen candidates on election day. Reformers recognized the urgency in throwing corrupt politicians out of city hall. In 1902, Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936) published an article titled "The Shame of the Cities" in McClure's magazine. His story, which revealed the corrupt practices commonplace in local governments, was so powerful that citizens throughout the nation organized into groups demanding reforms. A number of measures were eventually instituted to take control away from the corrupt officials and place it into the hands of public servants who were truly dedicated to good government. Some of the most successful reforms included election of stronger mayors, election of council representatives from the city at large instead of from individual districts, creation of city managers, and establishment of juvenile courts.


The rise of the Industrial Revolution during the nineteenth century concerned citizens who recognized that many of America's idyllic natural landscapes were being destroyed in the name of big business. At the turn of the century, the timber industry, the nation's second largest, was still rapidly expanding. The frontier was disappearing as forests were cut down, mines were excavated, and grazing lands were fenced off. It was becoming increasingly difficult for America's natural resources to meet the heightened demands of its people. Although politicians had been attempting to promote conservation since the 1890s, it was not until Theodore Roosevelt became president that the federal government placed great emphasis on preserving the environment and its natural resources.

Roosevelt was a native of New York, but spent much of his life exploring the West. His love of the outdoors spurred his fight to preserve a portion of the nation's wilderness. The president believed it was his duty to inform his fellow citizens of the need for conservation. He expressed his ideas in speeches and writings. In 1905, Roosevelt urged Congress to create the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the national forests. This was followed a year later by the Antiquities (or National Monuments) Act of 1906, which allowed the president to set aside chosen areas based upon their scientific or historic importance. Although many of his plans to preserve the environment succeeded, Roosevelt was not without strong opposition. Western farmers, ranchers, lumberjacks, and miners disliked the government's interference in their businesses. They criticized the Forest Service and its power to limit their activities within the designated 200,000,000 acres of National Forests. The western industrial interests soon convinced their congressional representatives to block a number of the president's environmental protection proposals.


The modern presidency began in the late nineteenth century, when William McKinley (1843–1901) expanded the chief executive's powers during the Spanish-American War (1898; a war between the United States and Spain over distant territorial possessions). Unlike earlier "caretaker" presidents, McKinley actively involved himself in legislation and took on other responsibilities. Following McKinley's assassination in 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt at first followed his predecessor's example and later exceeded it. Roosevelt believed the president should exert his political power and influence to the greatest extent. Soon after assuming office, he stated his intent to become involved personally in numerous matters, including regulating trusts, strengthening the military, advocating conservation,

and regulating labor. He referred to the presidency as a "bully pulpit" where he could publicize issues that demanded the public's attention and persuade legislators to accept his agenda. The Roosevelt administration was also known for its fairness in political appointments. Whereas other administrations often used appointments to fulfill personal or political obligations, Roosevelt appointed candidates to high posts based on their merit.

The Assassination of William McKinley

On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley arrived at a reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Three Secret Service agents, four special agents, and several soldiers protected him. As the president stood in a reception line to greet members of the public, a young man with a bandaged hand approached him. The man, whose name was Leon Czolgosz, shot McKinley twice with a revolver. Emergency surgery was performed on the president, but he succumbed to his wounds and died a week later, on September 14. Czolgosz went to trial only nine days after the president's death. He was an anarchist whose hatred of social injustice caused him to view all leaders as enemies of the people. Furthermore, he advocated violence as a proper means for changing the social structure. Czolgosz refused to take the stand, was found guilty, and was electrocuted on October 29. His terrible actions thrust the young, progressive Vice President Theodore Roosevelt into the Oval Office. When told of McKinley's death, conservative Republican Senator Mark Hanna said, "Now that damned cowboy is president." Roosevelt would soon distinguish himself as one of the greatest presidents of the century.

President Roosevelt was extremely popular with the general public. A charismatic man, he was highly intelligent and also displayed a love of sports and the outdoors. Voters responded to his strong, rugged personality. However, conservative members of his Republican Party were not pleased with his independent nature or his left-leaning positions. Roosevelt understood the nation was entering an era of change. He worked to develop political and social reforms that were more favorable to the common citizens rather than the social elite and Republican Party leaders. In 1904, Roosevelt faced weak Democratic opposition and was easily elected to another term as president. He won a majority of the popular vote in thirty-three of the forty-five U.S. states, and he won 336 electoral votes, the highest total ever. Roosevelt pledged that he would not seek another term as president. His chosen political heir was William Howard Taft of Ohio, who was the president's friend and secretary of war. With Roosevelt's assistance, Taft easily won the White House in 1908.


A great racial divide marked American society of the 1900s. The repression faced by African Americans was most graphically demonstrated by the numerous lynchings that occurred throughout the nation. Mobs of whites frequently administered their own form of violent justice against blacks by torturing them and hanging them for public display. Lynching was not restricted only to the rural South but also was practiced in many states in other parts of the country. Between 1895 and 1905, there were more lynchings in the United States than there were legal executions. Unlawful mobs often claimed they were punishing rapists and protecting the honor of white women. Those who committed this violence on blacks were seldom arrested or prosecuted, since few witnesses would ever come forward to testify against them.

One of the worst incidents of racial violence occurred in Streetsboro, Georgia, in 1904. Two blacks, accused of killing a white family, were dragged from a courtroom and burned alive by an angry mob. Many Americans were horrified by these events and demanded changes in the legal system. It would not be until later in the century that African Americans received their full constitutional rights and lynching became a federal offense.

Blacks were not the only population to be mistreated by the white majority. Asian immigrants were seen as a "yellow peril" that threatened white laborers. Congress and the Roosevelt administration enacted laws limiting the numbers of Japanese and Chinese immigrants.


The United States increasingly demonstrated its influence in the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. America's involvement with foreign affairs expanded as the United States began to acquire territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific. In the first decade of the century, the United States, for the first time in its history, claimed possession of over-seas territories. Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States took possession of Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines. Puerto Rico was also acquired, and Hawaii was annexed by the United States during this period. Americans were divided over whether the nation should retain control of these lands and the extent to which it should be involved with the territories' internal affairs. Business leaders saw these lands as new, untapped markets for their commercial goods, while reformers and missionaries saw the inhabitants of the territories as "primitives" in need of salvation and guidance from the white man.

Jim Crow

By the 1900s most of the South was completely segregated as white politicians drafted a number of laws that effectively denied blacks their civil rights. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court approved the creation of "separate but equal" racial societies. Beginning in 1900, the "separate but equal" rule was applied to nearly every aspect of southern society. Movie theaters, water fountains, hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, and other public accommodations were declared "off limits" to blacks. These restrictions, known as "Jim Crow" laws, effectively relegated African Americans to an inferior social status.

America's chief rival in the Pacific was Japan, which had become more modern and westernized during the nineteenth century. In 1904, a war erupted between Japan and Russia over disputed lands in northern China. President Roosevelt and many Americans strongly supported the Japanese, but remained concerned that a prolonged international conflict might develop into more widespread warfare that threatened trade. Roosevelt directly involved himself in the war in 1905 when he hosted a peace conference to resolve the dispute. The president's decision to insert himself forcefully into international affairs was based upon his realization that America could play an important role in maintaining the balance of world power. For his efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. He was the first American to earn that high honor.

Theodore Roosevelt's international dealings were based on protecting America's political, geographic, strategic, and commercial interests. This approach led him to involve the United States with many foreign nations, including Great Britain, Italy, Canada, Cuba, and Germany. His diplomatic activities were backed by a strong American military, which was capable of enforcing the president's will. Roosevelt's policy came to be known as "big stick" diplomacy, which was named after one of his favorite African proverbs: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

One of Roosevelt's most significant foreign plans involved the construction of a canal that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In 1903, the United States entered into an agreement with Colombia to construct a canal. In return for a ninety-nine-year lease on the Canal Zone, the U.S. proposed to pay Colombia $10 million and to make an annual payment of $250,000 beginning nine years after the treaty was ratified. Colombia's

government rejected the treaty, however, and this resulted in Panama (the Colombian province where the canal was to be built) declaring itself an independent state. U.S. warships, which were ordered to assist the Panamanians, aided the revolt to ensure construction of the canal. Within days, the United States formally recognized the new nation of Panama. In 1906, Roosevelt became the first president to travel abroad when he toured the Canal Zone. Canal construction finally began in 1914.

Many important court cases were decided during the 1900s and would have great impact on American society throughout the century. One of the most significant was the Northern Securities Case. Here the Supreme Court ruled that a railroad monopoly was unlawful, since it restrained trade and the freedom of commerce. This verdict, in what was known as the Northern Securities Case, gave the government power in breaking up trusts that operated against the public's interests. Soon, President Roosevelt was moving against beef, oil, and tobacco trusts. In Lochner v. New York (1905), the Supreme Court decided a state had the right to regulate working hours or conditions only if it could prove that such regulations were fair and appropriate.

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The 1900s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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The 1900s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News