United States in the Early Twentieth Century

Teddy Roosevelt Addresses Congress

The early 20th century went from horse and buggy to the automobile, gas lanterns to electricity, and working with your hands to machines doing the work.

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. The economy was good and products were cheap. The early twentieth century was a time of optimism. The American people believed that there was no problem too big that would not be solved. And there were many problems that needed to be resolved.

Problems of the Early Twentieth Century

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 by falsely lowering prices of their products, which made it difficult for the small businesses to compete. 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 the book Pilgrim’s Progress. The “muckrakers” tend to look at all the things that were wrong with society and government, but Roosevelt could not ignore the issues that we brought to his attention.

When 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 a man of individualism and to follow someone else’s plan was not his nature.

The Progressive Movement

While McKinley was more familiar with domestic policy his presidency was more focused on foreign affairs due the Spanish-American War. McKinley led the United States into a imperialistic country with his support 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 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 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.


  1. Abbott, Carl E., Argersinger, Jo Ann E., Argersinger, Peter H., Goldfield, David. 20th Century America: A Social & Political History. New York, Prentice Hall, 2004.
  2. Zinn, Howard. The Twentieth Century: A People’s History. New York, Harper Collins, 2005.