Progressivism: Roosevelt and Taft

On September 6, 1901, an anarchist shot President William McKinley, who died a few days later. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt returned from a camping trip to take the oath of office. Although he was the youngest person ever to hold the office, Roosevelt had considerable political experience. The vice president previously served as a member of the New York State Assembly, commissioner of the New York City police, assistant secretary of the Navy, a leader of the Rough Riders in the Spanish‐American War, and governor of New York. Just as Progressives believed that state and local governments had an expanded role to play in controlling big business and public welfare, so did Roosevelt believe that the federal government and the presidency itself had a greater job to do.

Roosevelt and big business. Roosevelt had a well‐deserved reputation as a “trustbuster.” During his administration (1901–09), 44 antitrust actions were filed against the nation's largest corporations, including the Northern Securities Company (a railway holding company). But the essence of the president's Square Deal — Roosevelt's approach to social problems, big business, and labor unions — was that he distinguished between “good” and “bad” trusts and strongly preferred to regulate corporations for the public welfare rather than destroy them. In the case of the railroads, for example, the practice of rebating was eliminated through the Elkins Act (1903), and the Hepburn Act (1906) allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to set maximum railroad rates. The Hepburn Act also expanded the ICC's jurisdiction to include pipelines, ferries, sleeping cars, and bridges and made the ICC's orders on carriers binding, pending a court ruling.

Regulation meant protecting the interests of consumers as well as controlling the power of big business. The muckrakers had raised serious questions about such problems as the utility of the patent medicines sold to Americans and sounded the alarm that meat infected with disease or covered in rat droppings was processed and sold to the public. Congress reacted to these revelations by passing the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of food or drugs in interstate commerce that had been adulterated or fraudulently labeled. The Meat Inspection Act, which was enacted in the same year, sought to enforce sanitary conditions in the packing industry and authorized the Department of Agriculture to inspect meat sold through interstate commerce.

Conservation of natural resources. Outdoorsman, hunter, and naturalist in his own right, Roosevelt was the first president to actively promote the conservation of the country's natural resources. Under his administration, millions of acres were set aside as national forest lands; coal and oil reserves as well as hydroelectric power sites were placed in the public domain; and the national park system was enlarged. For Roosevelt, conservation meant wise use, and this was the theme of the White House Conference on Conservation (1908) that brought together members of the Cabinet and Congress as well as the governors of most of the states. The president's utilitarian approach was championed by the head of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, and was reflected in such legislation as the National Reclamation Act of 1902, which directed that proceeds from the sale of public lands be used to finance irrigation projects in the West.

Taft as a progressive. After the 1904 election, Roosevelt stated that he would not run for president again. Four years later, William Howard Taft, his handpicked successor, easily defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan in his third and final run for the White House. Although Taft had never held elective office, he did have years of public service behind him. He had been a prosecutor and judge, U.S. solicitor general under President Harrison, the first civilian governor of the Philippines, and Roosevelt's Secretary of War. Although more conservative than his predecessor, Taft filed twice the number of antitrust suits as Roosevelt, and the Supreme Court upheld the breakup of Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust Act (1911) during his administration. Through the Mann‐Elkins Act (1910), the authority of the ICC was again expanded to cover regulation of telephone, telegraph, and cable companies. The act also enabled the commission to suspend rates set by railroads pending investigations or court actions. Taft actively supported both the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments (which provided for the federal income tax and direct election of senators, respectively) and established new agencies, such as the Bureau of Mines, which set standards of mine safety, and the Federal Children's Bureau.

Despite his strong reform record, the president lost support within the Republican Party and among Progressives. Taft ran into trouble with a group of Progressive Republicans in Congress known as the Insurgents, led by Senator Robert La Follette. Although the president wanted lower duties on imports, he was unable to stop the conservative Republicans from pushing through the Payne‐Aldrich Tariff (1909) which kept rates on some products high over the objections of the Insurgents. Taft sided with Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon in his struggle to hold on to his power against congressional reformers. When the Speaker's authority was weakened through changes in the House rules, the president also lost influence. In the meantime, a dispute over conservation policy between the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service ultimately caused Taft to fire Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt's close friend and the man who epitomized the federal government's commitment to the environment. Early into Taft's term a major split in Republican ranks between conservatives and progressives became apparent. Whatever other goals they had, the Progressive Republicans were determined to gain control of the party and deny Taft's nomination for a second term. Roosevelt began to seriously consider running again when he returned from a safari in Africa in 1910, and LaFollette was clearly a candidate in 1911.

The election of 1912. Roosevelt indicated early in 1912 that he would accept the Republican nomination if it was offered to him. Even though the former president won several primaries and carried a number of state conventions, Republican conservatives controlled the nominating convention and made sure Taft was chosen to run for a second term. Roosevelt and his supporters bolted and formed the Progressive Party, whose platform called for presidential primaries, direct election of senators, the vote for women, greater regulation of the trusts, and a ban on child labor. The Democrats selected the past president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, as their nominee. Although put into the State House by the Democratic bosses, Governor Wilson had proved himself to be a reformer, pushing through a direct primary law, workmen's compensation, and public utility regulation.

The election of 1912 was a contest between Roosevelt and Wilson and their respective progressive philosophies. Roosevelt campaigned for his New Nationalism, which maintained that large corporations were an integral part of modern industrial society. The responsibility of the federal government was to regulate, not to destroy, business combinations while protecting the interests of the underprivileged. Wilson's New Freedom called for restoring competition through elimination of the trusts and lowering tariffs. Although recognizing that federal power was necessary to accomplish these goals, he was just as concerned with big government as big business; any expansion of authority from Washington he considered to be only a temporary expedient. With the Republican vote split between Roosevelt and Taft, Wilson won with the largest electoral majority of any presidential candidate up to that time.