(The UNITED STATES to 1914 – continued)

home | 1901-WW2 Index

The UNITED STATES to 1914 (6 of 11)

previous | next

Reforms and Theodore Roosevelt

Some socialists attacked the capitalists for practicing "wage-slavery" and for exploiting children. Some socialists saw capitalists as inherently immoral and capitalism as something to be done away with rather than modified through law. Many capitalists, on the other hand, were devout Christians and saw themselves as highly moral. They were mostly Protestants, belonging to a tradition that respected frugality and enterprise.

Values had been changing. Many Christians and entrepreneurs had seen slavery as moral, and now slavery was illegal. Slavery, moreover, did not fit well with modern industrial manufacturing. Slaves had to be fed and housed, and they had to be supervised with more care and force than free persons working for wages. It was easier to pay people a little and let them go home to their own place and make their own meals. Slavery remained suitable for capitalists only with prison labor. And when a government would permit this, it did occur.

Theodore Roosevelt and His First Reforms

Six months into his second term, President McKinley was visiting the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo and was shot twice in the abdomen, by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz – a mill worker from Detroit who believed he was striking a blow against oppression and for working people. On the ground and bleeding, the kindly McKinley called Czolgosz a "poor, misguided fellow" and asked that he not be hurt. McKinley was rushed to the hospital, where the operation on him was bungled, and eight days later he died. His death saddened the nation and increased its hostility toward anarchism and leftists in general. And within a month, the state of New York electrocuted Czolgosz and destroyed his body with sulfuric acid.

Elevated to the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt, promised to continue McKinley's "path of peace, prosperity and honor for the country." Then two and a half months later, in his first annual message to Congress, Roosevelt showed signs of responding to the clamor from many citizens for reforms.

A crusade for reforms was beginning among editors of newspapers, and magazines such as McClure's, Cosmopolitan, American Magazine and Colliers had begun publishing articles on abuse against workers, widespread corruption and misuse of land by big business. One writer, Lincoln Steffens, in his book The Shame of the Cities, exposed government and police corruption. College students were hearing their instructors speak of poverty, squalor, injustice and the need of government reforms, including the beginning of some intervention in the economy – intervention being the only way to reform an economy. Some intellectuals believed that reforms were needed to forestall or abort socialism taking power in the United States.

Pleas for reform poured into President Roosevelt's office. Roosevelt believed in putting controls on child labor and in legislation for minorities and women. But he had to work with Congress and realized that he did not have the power to make Congress pass such legislation. So Roosevelt joined with Congress in leaving issues involving child labor and civil rights to the states.

Roosevelt was a moderate. He spoke against class hatred – the poor denouncing the rich. He spoke in favor of strong industries, which he said benefited the nation. He addressed the issue of monopoly control over industry and crusaded against a financial combination called the Northern Securities Company, which controlled railroads in the nation's northwest. His move was followed by the Department of Justice taking North Securities to court for violations of the Sherman Act – a law for combating monopoly and improper restraints on competition, passed by Congress in 1890 but ignored. The issue went to the Supreme Court, which sided with the Department of Justice, demonstrating the power of government over large corporations. Support for Roosevelt soared while some business leaders saw Roosevelt as destroying the foundation of private property and undermining the institution of private enterprise.

The next big issue was strikes by coal miners in Ohio, Illinois, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The strikes threatened to shut down industries that used coal as their fuel and threatened to leave people to freeze in their homes. The strikers wanted recognition of their unions, a twenty-percent increase in pay and an eight-hour day. Roosevelt disliked radical and aggressive labor leaders, and he was opposed to the closed union shop, but he gave some support to labor – the first president to do so. He encouraged owners of the mines and union representatives to accept arbitration by an outside party. The mine owners were indignant, but the strike ended in a compromise settlement. The miners failed to win recognition of their unions, but they received a ten percent increase in wages and an eight-hour day for engineers, firemen and pump men. And workers won the right to submit future grievances to a board of conciliation.

In addition to the labor issue there was the environment. Roosevelt was sensitive to issues about the great outdoors. In recent decades, lands had been passing out of government hands and into private ownership for mining, oil extraction and timber cutting. Roosevelt wished to protect forests, watershed and federally owned lands. In 1902 he and Congress created reforms – the Newlands Reclamation Act – which requisitioned money from the sale of public lands and applied this money to the construction of dams and other works to improve the supply of water to agriculture.


Copyright © 2009-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.