The Square Deal: The Progressive Agenda of President Theodore Roosevelt

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Theodore Roosevelt

The Square Deal was a package of moderate reforms concerning consumer protection, conservation, and regulating trusts.

During his reelection campaign of 1904, Theodore Roosevelt and the public coined the term “Square Deal” to describe Roosevelt’s governing philosophy. Also called “New Nationalism,” Roosevelt summarized it, “Somehow or other we shall have to work out methods of controlling the big corperations without paralyzing the energies of the business community…” The Square Deal was part of the progressive movement responding to the detrimental effects of industrialization.

Consumer Protection

The public learned of the dreadful conditions in the meat industry from the book, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. Also reading about “carcasses covered with boils and other matter,” Roosevelt snapped into action. After conducting his own investigation of the meat industry, Roosevelt supported what became the Meat Packing Act of 1906. It called for increased regulation and inspection.

Also passing in 1906 was the Pure Food and Drug Act. Again, the work of muckrakers alerted the public to dangerous practices that threatened consumer safety. Roosevelt’s leadership led to this law that outlawed the production and sale of contaminated and misbranded foods and drugs. This act would be building block for further controls, such as the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966.

Railroad rates were another problem for consumers. Roosevelt was determined to have the government control rates to reasonable levels. He threw his weight behind the Hepburn Act of 1906, which empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission to set rates after considering the complaints of shippers. However, Senate leader Nelson Aldrich and other conservative senators gutted the bill, forcing a compromise which gave the courts more power to intervene in rate-setting matters.

Trustbusting

Roosevelt thought that not all trusts were bad. He surmised that the trusts’ behavior, not their size, was the issue. To prohibit trusts from fixing prices and manipulating the market, Roosevelt favored a watchdog agency staffed by qualified administrators. After a struggle with allies of big business in the legislature, the Bureau of Corperations was established in 1903. It policed business actions and reported to the public.

However, Roosevelt started the ball rolling in 1902 when the federal government initiated a suit against J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company, a holding company of major railroads in the northwest section of the country. Roosevelt was convinced the company was harming small-time farmers and ranchers. The case ended up in the Supreme Court (Northern Securities Co v. United States) in 1904. The court upheld the government’s case and overturned the precedent E.C. Knight case of 1895, which denied the government authority in breaking up menacing combinations.

Conservation

Roosevelt believed that the federal government was the prime steward of the nation’s resources. He backed and signed the Reclamation Act of 1902. This legislation allowed for the construction of irrigation and flood-control projects in the mostly federally owned West. Roosevelt envisioned population growth and booming cities in the desert.

Forests also got Roosevelt’s attention. Previously, Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley placed about 50 million acres of timberland into the federal reserve combined. Roosevelt, with the aid of his chief of the Bureau of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot, added another 150 million acres. The reserve system protected forests from strip-mining, which caused erosion. Still, Roosevelt believed natural resources existed to be used responsibly and was at odds with preservationists such as John Muir.

The Square Deal, in protecting the public from harmful business practices, would set the foundation for future progressive efforts. The New Deal and the Great Society, for instance, expanded on the regulations enacted in Theodore Roosevelt’s time.

Sources:

  1. Bailyn, Bernard, et al eds, The Great Republic, Lexington, MA: DC Heath Co, 1985.
  2. Brands, H.W., T.R.: The Last Romantic, New York: BasicBooks, 1997.
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