American Leaders: Theodore Roosevelt and Ida Tarbell

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President Theodore Roosevelt and leading muckraker Ida Tarbell found flaws in society that called for reform. These issues included monopolistic practices and unsanitary working conditions. Together, these leaders not only discovered such errors in society, but brought the issues to attention and ensured a stop to the practices.

Muckrakers

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, newspapers and magazines heavily circulated to inform society of events taking place locally, nationally and internationally. Investigative journalists who focused prime attention on the corruption of society were labeled “muckrakers” by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Muckrakers focused attention on the government, labor unions, businesses, health care, the food industry, child labor, women’s rights and poor living conditions.

Ida Tarbell

Leading muckraker Ida Tarbell focused much attention on John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company and the monopoly he practiced. Tarbell began a series of articles in Samuel S. McClure’ magazine, McClure’s Magazine in 1902. And in 1904, her articles were published as The History of the Standard Oil Company.

As a businessman, Rockefeller considered competition wasteful and succeed competitors by marketing high quality products at a lower cost. He combined all of his companies into Standard Oil in June of 1870 and, by 1879, he controlled 90 percent of the country’s oil-refining capacity. Rockefeller and his competitors purchased oil around similar prices, and all of the companies made good oil. The question remained where Rockefeller’s money came from. After investigating, Tarbell discovered that Rockefeller practiced monopoly by using his trust to control his oil. Also, Rockefeller took advantage of railroads after joining the South Improvement Company to receive rebates for shipping. Rockefeller knew that railroads carried rebates and special rates, and, most notably, that railroads did not obey the law as they were not to grant such offers. After carefully studying Rockefeller’s practices, Tarbell enlightened the public to Rockefeller’s monopolistic practices.

President Roosevelt’s Reaction to Monopoly

As Tarbell’s investigative reporting helped bring Rockefeller’s business practices to the attention of the public, President Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged and acted upon the matter. In 1903, Roosevelt asked Congress to create a Department of Commerce and Labor to examine corporations involved with interstate commerce; however, Congress rejected the proposal. Roosevelt then resorted to journalists who revealed to him that Rockefeller opposed the proposal. Roosevelt also discovered that Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company collected $750,000 a year from railroad rebates. Roosevelt then passed the Elkins Act to prohibit railroad rebates and increased the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) powers to ensure reasonable railroad rates. The Hepburn Act passed in 1906 to increase the power of the ICC, correct the reasonable maximum railroad rates and broadened the jurisdiction.

In regards to trusts, Roosevelt believed that large-scale production and growth were both natural and advantageous, but needed to be controlled. He also did not like how trusts affected local enterprise and individual opportunity. In order to keep businesses in line, Roosevelt used antitrust threats and, within his seven year term, he indicted 24 trusts.

Unsanitary Working Conditions

After Roosevelt became more familiar with Rockefeller’s monopolistic practices through journalists, he began to lean more on reporters to uncover other problems in society. Muckraker Upton Sinclair published The Jungle focusing attention on packinghouse workers and wages. After Roosevelt read Sinclair’s novel, he immediately became concerned about the filthy working conditions in the meatpacking industry. Roosevelt passed The Meat Inspection Act of 1906, setting standards for sanitary meatpacking conditions and government inspection of meat products.

Conclusion

Although Tarbell and other investigative journalists during the time disliked the label “muckrakers” given by President Roosevelt, journalists began to wear the name with pride as their stories revealed and exposed behavior that damaged society and needed to be corrected. President Roosevelt learned of monopolistic practices by Rockefeller and the unsanitary working conditions in the meatpacking industry due to investigative reporters. Roosevelt then ensured that such corrupt actions no longer took place by passing laws. Both Tarbell and Roosevelt helped change society for the betterment of the people through investigation and affirmative action.

Sources

Divine, Robert A., Breen, T.H., Fredrickson, George M., Williams, R. Hall., Gross, Alfred J., & Brands, H.W. America: Past & Present, Eighth Edition, Volume II. Pearson Education, Inc (2007).

Tarbell, Ida. The Standard Oil Company. Cited in Michael Boezi Voices of America Past & Present. Volume II. Pearson Education, Inc (2007).