Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal
Theodore Roosevelt became president in September 1901
after the assassination of William McKinley. Although he had been
vice president under McKinley, Roosevelt did not share McKinley’s
conservative, pro-business policies. Instead, as president, Roosevelt advanced
aggressive political reforms, including the heavy regulation of
business. Known as the “trust-buster,” Roosevelt was the first president
to successfully invoke the Sherman Antitrust Act against
monopolies and continued to restrict businesses throughout his presidency.
His reforms greatly influenced economic, environmental, and international
affairs as well. Roosevelt’s platform became known as the “Square
Deal” because he vowed not to favor any group of Americans
but to be fair to all.
Relations with Labor and Corporations
Roosevelt was committed to addressing the problems
of labor and corporate activity. Unlike his predecessors, Roosevelt
defended the right of labor to organize, and eschewed the use of federal
troops to put down strikes. In 1902, he intervened in a United Mine
Workers Strike and helped labor get management to agree to binding
arbitration. The arbitrators awarded the miners a wage increase
and a shortened workday.
Roosevelt also worked to restrict the power of big business
by breaking up a monopoly. In his administration’s first trust-busting
case, his attorney general filed suit against the Northern Securities
Company, a railroad holding company, for violating the Sherman Antitrust
Act, which had not been successfully used against monopolies since
its passage in 1890. After this case, though, the Act became an
extremely important tool for government regulation of corporations.
In 1904, the Supreme Court ordered that the Northern Securities
Company be dissolved, a decision that launched a series of antitrust
suits. In all, the Roosevelt administration filed forty-three trust-busting
After winning reelection in 1904, Roosevelt traded sporadic
bursts of trust-busting for more permanent regulation. He successfully
negotiated the passage of the Hepburn Act in 1906, which empowered
the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), a previously
weak agency, to set maximum railroad rates and inspect railroad
companies’ financial records.
Roosevelt, unlike his Republican predecessors
in office, was not pro-business. He aggressively enforced the Sherman
Antitrust Act and empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission,
both key elements in his “Square Deal.”
Protecting Consumers and Conserving the Environment
Responding to the muckrakers’ exposés on the unsanitary
conditions in food plants and the dangerous ingredients in foods
and medicines, Roosevelt endorsed the Pure Food and Drug Act and
the Meat Inspection Act, both passed in 1906. The first
act prohibited the sale of adulterated or inaccurately labeled foods
and medicines, and the second established federal regulations for
meatpackers and a system of inspection.
The early twentieth century also saw a rise in concern
for the environment. Those who supported conservation and protection
of wilderness sites were called preservationists. Preservationists
were often in conflict with business interests who saw the wilderness
in terms of resources and space for commercial and residential development.
Roosevelt was at heart a preservationist, but understood the need
for compromise. He achieved this compromise through his conservation
program, which provided for the regulated use of the nation’s wilderness.
Roosevelt designated 200 million acres as national forests, mineral reserves,
and potential waterpower sites, and added five national parks and
eighteen national monuments to the list of protected lands. In 1908
Roosevelt created the National Conservation Commission to
inventory the nation’s resources and manage their use more efficiently.
Conservationism was a hallmark of Roosevelt’s
presidency. He protected land through the creation of national parks
and monuments, and advocated the responsible use of the nation’s
resources by establishing the National Conservation Commission.
Aggressive Foreign Policy: “Big Stick” Diplomacy
Roosevelt summed up his approach to foreign policy in
a single sentence: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Having
become president shortly after the American victory in the Spanish-American
War, Roosevelt was confident in America’s status as a major international
power. His goal to maintain that status through aggressive tactics
was dubbed “big stick” diplomacy.
Roosevelt’s most notable achievement in foreign policy
was the building of the Panama Canal, an artificial
waterway stretching through the isthmus of Panama, which was then part
of Colombia. Since the canal connected the Atlantic and Pacific
oceans and vastly shortened shipping routes, Roosevelt saw its creation
as vitally important to American economic and maritime interests.
When the Colombian government first rejected America’s offer to
lease the land and build the canal for over $10 million, Roosevelt
helped engineer a revolution on the isthmus. The revolution erupted
in 1903, and the new Panamanian government that took power proved
to be much more cooperative with the United States. The new government
granted the U.S. permanent possession of the ten-mile-wide strip
of land across Panama on the same financial terms rejected earlier
by Colombia. Construction on the canal began in 1906, and it opened
Roosevelt’s intervention in Panama was indicative of his
entire attitude toward Latin America, where he asserted the Roosevelt
Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. In 1904, with several European
nations poised to invade the Dominican Republic, Roosevelt declared that
the United States, not Europe, should dominate Latin America, and
that although the U.S. had no expansionist intentions, any “chronic
wrongdoing” by a Latin American nation would justify U.S. intervention
as a global policeman. (Remember that the Monroe Doctrine had warned
Europeans not to intervene in Latin America; the Roosevelt Corollary
maintained this warning, and asserted that the U.S. alone could
intervene.) During Roosevelt’s presidency, the U.S. invoked the
Roosevelt Corollary repeatedly as justification for its involvement
in the affairs of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Venezuela, Nicaragua,
The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe
Doctrine asserted the right of the U.S. government to intervene
in the affairs of Latin American countries while maintaining that
European powers should stay out of Latin America.
Roosevelt also involved himself in the affairs of Asia
after the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904. Concerned
about maintaining the balance of power between nations, Roosevelt
invited delegates from Russia and Japan to the U.S. for a peace
conference in 1905 that resulted in the signing of a treaty. Roosevelt
received the Nobel Peace Prize for his actions. In an effort to
discourage further trouble in Asia, Roosevelt sent sixteen new, gleaming
white battleships, dubbed “the Great White Fleet,” to Asian ports
and elsewhere around the world.