Theodore Roosevelt: Shapes Up the Early Twentieth Century

Theodore Roosevelt

When President William McKinley was assassinated he left behind an unfinished agenda. However, he had a maverick Vice President to take care of business.

Optimistic Outlook

Living in the twenty-first century it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for those who lived in the early twentieth century and going from horse and buggy to automobile, from gas lanterns to electricity, and from working hands to letting machines do the work. The early twentieth century was in deed an amazing time.

The Spanish-American War took the United States out of its self-made exile and put itself in the world market for trade. This helped the United States to become a strong imperialistic country. The United States found respect in foreign nations. Immigrants wanted to come to the “land of plenty”, which was how the United States was described in the early years of the twentieth century. It was a time of optimism and the American people believed that there was no problem too big that would not be solved and many problems did need resolved.

Big Business is the Culprit

Many of the problems that confronted the United States in the early twentieth century continued from the nineteenth century. The problems of labor and the social woes of the poor were all the consequences of big business. Big businesses such as those run by Andrew Carnegie, Philip Armour, and John D. Rockefeller were pushing small companies out of business.

Many writers such as Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Ida Tarbell brought the issues of the early twentieth century to the public eye. Roosevelt would call them “muckraker”, a term that is referred to in Pilgrim’s Progress. The “muckrakers” tend to look at all the things that were wrong with society and government. President Teddy Roosevelt could not ignore the issues that were brought to his attention.

President Roosevelt Takes Action

When Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901 after the assassination of President William McKinley, he stated that he would move forward with McKinley’s policies. But he was man of individualism and to follow someone else’s plan was not his nature.

McKinley was more familiar with domestic policy and his presidency was more focused on foreign affairs due to the Spanish-American War. McKinley led the United States into a imperialistic country in order to free Cuba of Spanish rule and to annex the Philippines, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

At the turn of the century, McKinley began to focus more on domestic affairs, but before he could introduce any type of reform, he was assassinated. The Progressive Movement influenced Roosevelt’s reforms. As big business began to monopolize, the Progressives encouraged Roosevelt to take action.

In 1902, Roosevelt used his presidential power to order the justice department to investigate the unfair business dealings of large companies. His purpose for the investigation was to regulate the large conglomerates and not to destroy them. One large company he was particularly interested in was the Northern Securities Company.

The Northern Securities Company was established when financier J.P. Morgan and railroad tycoon, James J. Hill decided to take control of three powerful railroad companies. The taking control of the companies were not different than earlier business dealings that took place throughout the United States, however, what was different about this compromise was the amount of money that was involved and the limit it put on the rail fares. The business actions of the men involved caused Roosevelt much concern.

The United States Justice Department found Northern Securities guilty of breaking the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and forced the company to dismantle and pay a large fine to the United States government. In no way did the dismantling or the fine hurt Morgan or Hill financially. The American people applauded Roosevelt for his handling of Northern Securities and in 1904, Roosevelt pushed for more investigations into the beef, oil, and tobacco business.


  1. Roosevelt, Theodore. An Autobiography. New York (MacMillian, 1913)