Theodore Roosevelt is often held up as a great example of progressivism. However, Roosevelt actually steered a middle course between extremes. The far left and far right annoyed him. In his view, the far left represented rabble while he viewed the business community as arrogant reactionaries. As a result, Roosevelt ushered in an era of reform to address problems, but never went as far as the extreme elements of his day wished.
President Roosevelt faced a crisis in 1902. As the winter approached, coal miners went on strike in Pennsylvania. Without coal, many Americans would not be able to heat their homes. Roosevelt decided he had to intervene to avoid a national emergency. The president invited representatives of the union and management to the White House to discuss the problem.
The mine owners demanded Roosevelt break the strike with troops. Their arrogance angered the president. How dare they make demands on the president? He threatened to seize the mines from their owners and use the military to extract the coal. In the end, Roosevelt set up a commission to settle the differences between management and workers. In the end, the workers earned better pay and shorter hours. Roosevelt refused to take sides. However, the incident marked the first time the government did not back management in a labor dispute. Instead, the Roosevelt Administration sided with the public who needed the coal.
While the Anthracite Coal Strike was a momentary crisis, monopolies festered as a political issue for years. Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890 to try and reign in big business. At first, the government used the act to bust unions. By Roosevelt’s first term, trusts controlled vast swaths of the American economy. President McKinley began to break up these trusts, but he died in 1901. Roosevelt expanded McKinley’s policy to “bad monopolies.” In Roosevelt’s view, a “bad” monopoly hurt consumers while a “good” monopoly did not. The Roosevelt Administration filed 44 suits under the Sherman act including actions against J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. However, Roosevelt refused to attack all monopolies or nationalize industry as some advocated.
The railroad industry held immense power and some wanted the government to seize control. They argued that railroads engaged in interstate commerce and the federal government had the responsibility of leveling rates. Roosevelt did not feel the government had a right to nationalize industry. Instead, the Hepburn Act of 1906 provided the Interstate Commerce Commission the authority to set rates and audit railroad records. As a result, Roosevelt managed to regulate the rails and reduce costs to businesses for shipping. As with the coal strike and trust policy, Roosevelt sided with consumers over businessmen and socialists.
Socialist Upton Sinclair hoped to influence policy when he wrote The Jungle. The book documented poor sanitary and work conditions in the meat packing industry. It also wallowed in the immigrant experience and tried to put a face on poverty. The preachy socialist politics in the book annoyed the president, but the information on meat industry corruption caught his eye. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. These acts provided for food labeling, meat inspection, and the sanitization of meat plants. The left complained Roosevelt did not go far enough and did nothing to help the impoverished. On the other hand, he regulated the meat industry and ensured a sanitary product and working conditions.
President Roosevelt’s domestic policy steered a middle course between extremes. Interestingly, his foreign policy shifted hard right while conservation policy went in the other direction. In Roosevelt’s view, the American people came first. He avoided the ideological extremes while governing. Instead, he affected a moderate domestic policy ignoring the rabid extremes. Roosevelt served as a neutral party in the Anthracite Coal Strike, busted monopolies which hurt the public, regulated railroads instead of nationalization, and ensured clean food products. He could have simply ignored the problems or overreached. Instead, he did what made the most sense and helped the most people.