Both the United States and the world were changing rapidly when Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901. At home, the American way of life was changing as new technologies such as the electric light bulb and the automobile were beginning to replace traditional tools. The Wright brothers flew their first airplane in 1902. Immigrants were pouring in by the thousands every day and flooding the cities in search of work and a better living. Abroad, the nations of the world were busy adjusting to the new world order as the age of empires was in its final stage of collapse.
During the last quarter of the 1800s, the division of wealth in the United States began increasing in its inequity. A plutocracy formed as the wealthy got wealthier and the laboring poor did not. Among those hardest hit by this division were farmers in the Midwest, many of whom joined in the 1890s to form the Populist Party headed by William Jennings Bryan. The Populists wanted to reform government in general and give more money to destitute farmers in particular. The movement died by the turn of the century, namely because the Populists could not rally support for their extreme economic reforms throughout the rest of the country. Nonetheless, the impetus for government reform had been planted, and when more northerners began to demand change, Progressivism was born.
Progressives fought for a variety of reforms. W.E.B. DuBois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought for racial equality in all aspects of life. Jane Addams founded and directed the Hull House for twenty-five years to help the urban poor. Margaret Sanger promoted the use of birth control and petitioned many state governments to lift bans on contraceptives, which were illegal at the time. Feminists throughout the country fought hard for and won the right to vote with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Governor Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin adopted several new ballot initiatives, including recall, referendum, and the direct election of U.S. Senators.
Exposé writers during this period wrote freely on the inefficiencies of government and widespread corruption. President Roosevelt once referred to these writers as "Muckrakers," and the name stuck. Among the more prominent muckrakers was Lincoln Steffens, who wrote Shame of the Cities, a description of the greed and misuse of power in urban development; Ida Tarbell, whose History of Standard Oil attacked big industry; and Thomas Lawson, who wrote Frenzied Finance to expose the misdeeds of brokers in the Amalgamated Copper scandal.
President Roosevelt was certainly one of the most visible Progressives. Much of his domestic policy involved fighting big industry and corruption to help the common man. He offered the American people a Square Deal to improve their standard of living and exert more control over large domineering corporations or trusts. Trusts, technically illegal under the 1890 Sherman Act, attempted to consolidate business interests to create a monopoly on specific products and thus eliminate competition. Many attacked Roosevelt as a socialist, but he ardently refuted these accusations and the principles of Marxism. In truth, Roosevelt did not despise big business. In fact, he realized that the trusts in the latter half of the nineteenth century had indirectly increased the standard of living for nearly every American. He did, however, dislike the power of the trusts and the fact that the American public had little control of them. Yet, at the same time, he feared giving too much power to labor. His Square Deal policies attempted to strike a balance between the two.
Roosevelt also believed in a strong American foreign policy as the world rapidly changed at the turn of the century. Although many countries still retained colonies in Africa, Asia, and South America, many of the formerly glorious empires were beginning to shrink or disappear. In the 1870s and 1880s, the independent Germanic kingdoms had united under the leadership of Prussia to form a unified Germany. This unification shifted the balance of power on the European continent and created new threats. As tensions increased, many of the European powers began dividing up the rest of the world that had not yet been claimed. New colonies in China and Africa were particularly sought after, but new colonies became scarce, heads began to butt and war became an inevitability. By the end of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and Russian Empires would be destroyed and broken apart.
It was in this domestic environment of Progressivism and global environment of unification and imperial dissolution that Theodore Roosevelt became the twenty-sixth President of the United States in 1901.