Theodore Roosevelt & the Progressives: Definition and Political Agenda

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  1. 0:05 Who Were the Progressives?
  2. 1:08 What Were the Goals of the…
  3. 2:20 Theodore Roosevelt: Friend of…
  4. 3:37 Roosevelt's Square Deal
  5. 7:01 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

In the early 20th century, the United States had become an increasingly industrialized society. Progressive reformers believed that many social, economic and political issues required federal government regulation. Learn how Progressive Era reformers, including President Theodore Roosevelt and his Square Deal, worked to correct problems that accompanied this rapid development and expansion.

Who Were the Progressives?

The Progressive Era, from 1900 to 1917, was all about making advances toward a better society. By the turn of the 20th century, the country had seen a large increase of immigrants, the growth of unregulated big business, increased labor unrest, corruption and inefficiencies within government and many other social problems. Members of the early Progressive movement, working mostly at the local and state level, included former Populists, followers of the Social Gospel movement, European socialist immigrants, and muckraking journalists (much like today's investigative reporters).

As the Progressive movement gained momentum, urban middle-class reformers and women played a large role in creating public awareness and organizing toward Progressive goals. Progressive reformers were united in their belief that government's laissez-faire, or hands-off, approach was no longer sufficient and demanded increased government involvement to correct America's turn-of-the-century problems.

What Were the Goals of the Progressives?

In very broad terms, Progressives worked to fix social, economic and political problems. Social reformers addressed the moral well-being of society through the push to outlaw alcohol, restrict immigration, improve living conditions in the cities, expand public education and end prostitution and child labor.

Economic reformers promoted the ending of unfair monopolies and bad trusts, regulation of industry, ending unfair labor practices, health and safety standards, protection of consumer rights, worker compensation laws, efficiency standards in work environments and protection of natural resources.

Public reformers worked to make government more responsive to the people by attempting to end abuses of power in urban politics and government, make city governments more efficient and broaden political participation through democratic reforms, such as the direct election of senators and women's suffrage, meaning the right to vote.

Wow, that's a lot! Maybe the question is better asked, what weren't Progressives trying to accomplish?

Theodore Roosevelt, Friend of Progressives

Theodore Roosevelt became president after William McKinley was shot in 1901. Roosevelt was open to Progressive calls for reform and brought attention to Progressive issues at the national level. His activist political agenda expanded the role of the presidency and increased government regulation of economic affairs. His no-nonsense approach endeared him to his supporters. He easily won re-election in 1904 and saw his victory as a mandate from the American people to push forward with his Progressive agenda. He chose not to seek re-election in 1908 and handpicked his successor, fellow Republican William Taft. They would later split, however, based on Taft's more conservative approach. Roosevelt would run as a Progressive Party candidate in the 1912 election.

Huggable, cuddly and cute; you probably had one of your own. The teddy bear became associated with Theodore Roosevelt after he refused to shoot a bear that was unfairly cornered on a hunting trip. A quick-thinking toymaker from New York capitalized on 'Teddy's Bear' and soon began mass-producing the cuddly toy. While Roosevelt was not a fan of the 'Teddy' nickname, it was a fitting symbol for the avid outdoorsman and naturalist loved by most Americans.

Roosevelt's Square Deal

Another reason Americans admired Roosevelt was his willingness to advocate for the American people. You've probably heard of the phrase 'a deal, fair and square.' Theodore Roosevelt promised a Square Deal to protect the people's common interest by using the federal government to deal fairly with both business and labor. You should remember Roosevelt's Square Deal in terms of the three Cs: control of corporations, consumer protection and conservation.

Control of corporations (I'm not scared of you!): Roosevelt was not intimidated by big business leaders, and he was not opposed to corporations or trusts - just ones he considered bad. Roosevelt pledged to break up monopolies and used over 40 antitrust lawsuits to prevent them from manipulating markets. He sought to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and narrowed in on a few high-profile antitrust lawsuits. In 1904, the Supreme Court upheld the antitrust suit against the Northern Securities Company, a railroad monopoly, and ordered its dissolution. Following this decision other key trusts were declared illegal - prompting other corporations to comply with stronger federal legislation - and began promoting industry regulation from within.

Can't we all just get along? This was the approach Roosevelt took in 1902 when he defended labor's right to organize and helped mediate a Pennsylvania coal mine strike that had begun to create a national coal shortage. He even threatened to use federal troops to take over the mines if the dispute was not settled, thereby forcing a compromise between management and labor. He set up the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 to regulate business and enforce federal regulations, particularly those involving interstate commerce. Roosevelt helped negotiate the Hepburn Act of 1906, which allowed the previously weak Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), to set maximum railroad rates and inspect the financial records of railroad companies.

Consumer protection (What is this stuff?): Imagine eating something or taking a medicine and having no idea what was in it. Influenced by muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair and his book The Jungle, Roosevelt supported legislation combating unsafe and falsely labeled food, drugs and medicine and regulations of the meat packing industry. The Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act both passed with his help in 1906.

Conservation of natural resources: Roosevelt's personal interest in the environment involved the federal government in conserving and efficiently managing natural resources. In fact, in 1902, he even banned Christmas trees from the White House! That same year, he supported the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 that designated the money from public land sales be used for dams and irrigation projects in the West. Roosevelt stressed the planned, regulated use of forestlands for public and commercial uses. He set aside millions of acres of public land as national forests, mineral reserves and water power sites. Roosevelt also created wildlife reserves, national monuments and new national parks and established the National Conservation Commission. Roosevelt held a National Governors' Conference in 1908 in which governors and natural-resource experts gathered to discuss planned resource management and utilization. This was significant because it was the first meeting ever to be held of its kind.

Lesson Summary

In summary, the Progressive Era, which lasted from around 1900 to 1917, was marked by a movement to correct social, economic and political problems. The Progressive Era also included the presidency of Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt, who used his Square Deal policies to help control corporations, protect consumers and conserve natural resources. Progressive Era reforms paved the way for later New Deal legislation, both of which utilized the government as a catalyst for change.

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