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THE SQUARE DEAL OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Theodore Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley brought to office a man unafraid to use the power of the government to address the evils of society. In 1902 Roosevelt helped to mediate a strike between the United Mine Workers and the coal companies. Roosevelt stated that the agreement was a “Square Deal” for both sides. This term would be used throughout his time in office to emphasize that government intervention could help the plight of ordinary Americans.

Roosevelt was reelected in 1904, and in 1906 Roosevelt supported legislation that was progressive in nature. He supported the Hepburn Act, which gave teeth to the Interstate Commerce Commission, designed to further regulate interstate shippers, and the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, The writings of many muckrakers, including Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, highlighted many of the problems of the food industry addressed in these bills.

Roosevelt also used the federal government to aggressively investigate and prosecute illegal trusts and holding companies (both described in Chapter 14). The Sherman Antitrust Act had been in place since 1890, yet neither President Cleveland or President McKinley had ordered its enforcement on a regular basis. To many Americans it appeared that a small group of Wall Street bankers controlled the entire American economy (this complaint would be echoed many times in the twentieth century). Roosevelt had the Justice Department sue the Northern Securities Company, a holding company that controlled many American railroads, Standard Oil, and the American Tobacco Company. All were partially broken up as a result of these government actions. By the end of his time in office, Roosevelt had taken on 45 major American corporations. It should be emphasized that Theodore Roosevelt was not antibusiness; however, he did strongly believe that corporations who abused their power should be punished.

Roosevelt also enacted other measures applauded by progressives. In 1905 he created the United States Forest Service, which soon acted to set aside 200 million acres of land for national forests. The Sixteenth Amendment, enacted in 1913, authorized the collection of federal income taxes, which could be collected largely from the wealthy (the income of the federal government had been previously collected from tariffs; progressives argued that to pay for them the prices of goods sold to the working classes were artificially high). In the end the “Square Deal” was based on the idea of creating a level playing field, Roosevelt was not against trusts; he opposed trusts that were harmful to the economy. He supported Standard Oil, for example, because of the benefits he said it brought to America.

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