“I believe in the men who take the next step; not those who theorize about the 200th step.”Theodore Roosevelt to Lincoln Steffens, 1908
President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as a progressive hero who ushered the American empire into the Twentieth Century with big-government policies. He used the “bully pulpit” of his office to defend the working class against the corrupt Capitalists that dominated the Gilded Age. He reformed, regulated, and trust-busted. He is perhaps the best-remembered president who did not preside over a major conflict, and he is the most recent president featured on Mount Rushmore.
But that image only tells half of the story. While Roosevelt was undoubtably a transformative leader, he was also someone who believed in moderation, party politics, and working within the establishment. He favored Capitalism and routinely insisted that he was not pro-labor or pro-business, but rather, simply in favor doing the right thing and punishing unfair practices. His most famous campaign slogan, a “Square Deal for every man,” was meant to be applied equally — “great or small, rich or poor.” Roosevelt often argued with hardline progressives and defended civility and compromise. Ultimately, he loved his party, and he loved the game of politics. His legacy is best understood, not as a progressive strong-arming against the establishment, but as a series of moderate advances meant to keep true “radicals” at bay.
The Young Politician
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born into a wealthy family with deep roots in New York City. His father was a noteworthy philanthropist, an avid Union supporter during the Civil War, and political reformer. Young Teddy enjoyed the benefits of his family’s money, including two trips overseas that greatly influenced his intellectual curiosity.
After his graduation from Harvard, Roosevelt was elected to the New York State Assembly, where he quickly made an impression with his bold, reformist policies. He chose to remain loyal to the Republican Party during the presidential election of 1884, despite his faction’s disappointment with the nominee, shady former-Senator James Blaine. A few years later, Roosevelt served in President Benjamin Harrison’s Civil Service Commission, and as New York City Police Commissioner.
The election of 1896 pitted Democrat William Jennings Bryan against Republican William McKinley. As the nation struggled to recover from a recent recession, many voters were drawn to Bryan’s radical economic policies, most notably the coinage of silver to expand the money supply for western farmers. McKinley, on the other hand, promised a conservative economic agenda to preserve the gold standard and maintain protective tariffs. Roosevelt held some personal criticisms of McKinley, but ultimately felt that preventing a Bryan presidency was of the utmost importance. He enthusiastically campaigned for the ticket. In a letter to a friend, Roosevelt warned that victory for Bryan supporters, “who want to strike down the well-to-do, and who have been inflamed against the rich,” would mean “years of social misery, not markedly different from that of any South American Republic.”
Under President McKinley, Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His rabid support for the Spanish-American War prompted him to resign his post and lead the Rough Riders into battle in Cuba. Upon his subsequent return to New York, Roosevelt was encouraged by fellow Republicans to run for governor. Progressives, such as journalist Lincoln Steffens, asked him to run as an independent in order to combat the corrupt politicians who controlled the state. Roosevelt disagreed. He argued that, in order to truly enact his agenda, he would need the support of the Republican Party. By uniting the reformist coalition with Republicans, he hoped to “strengthen the party by bettering it.” Roosevelt went so far as to seek the support of the local party boss, Senator Thomas Platt. Progressives were outraged when the candidate took a private meeting with Platt. They accused him of taking orders from the crooked politician. Steffens vindicated Roosevelt, however, by reporting that he led the meeting and unilaterally committed to “stand with the ticket.”
In his inaugural address as governor, Roosevelt again pledged his loyalty to the Republican Party and to practical politics — though he added that they needed to remain responsive to the people, lest they lose support to the Democrats. Roosevelt continued to meet with Platt and other party leaders on a weekly basis. While attacks from Democrats did not phase him, he despised criticism from “the irrational independents and the malignant make-believe independents.” Even when he fought with the party establishment, which he did on issues such as corporate taxes, Roosevelt conceded that passing a flawed bill was better than passing none at all. He argued that “[Republicans’] attitude should be one of correcting the evils and thereby showing that, whereas populists, socialists and others really do not correct the evils at all, or else only do so at the expense of producing others in aggravated form, that we Republicans hold the just balance and set our faces as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other.”
At the end of Roosevelt’s term as governor, Lincoln Steffens described his tenure as “an experiment” by a politician who “recognized that he had not only to keep himself clean, but to get things done.” The result remained unclear — the party bosses and corporate donors still disliked him, yet he maintained popular support. Their only solution, Steffens suggested, would be to promote Roosevelt to the do-nothing job of vice president.
To conservatives’ dismay, Roosevelt was unanimously selected by the Republican convention to join McKinley on the 1900 presidential ticket. Their worst fears were realized on September 6, 1901, when President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, vaulting Roosevelt into the highest office in the country. But Roosevelt still considered himself to be a conservative relative to Democrats like Bryan, and publicly vowed to preserve McKinley’s economic agenda. When faced with financial crises, in particular, the young president fell back on his moderate beliefs.
In 1902, a coal strike in Pennsylvania threatened Republicans’ midterm hopes. What began as a minor inconvenience became a national concern as winter neared. Roosevelt maintained a strict impartial stance on organized labor. He wrote to journalist Ray Baker, “I believe in corporations. I believe in trade unions. Both have come to stay and are necessities in our present industrial system. But where, in either the one or the other, there develops corruption or mere brutal indifference to the rights of others… then the offender, whether union or corporation, must be fought.” In order to accelerate negotiations, Roosevelt invited the union president and the mine operators to a meeting in Washington. He soon discovered, however, that it was primarily the operators who were unreasonably averse to compromise. When negotiations stalled again, the White House released their transcripts to the public, shifting opinion against the operators. To encourage them to reconsider, the Administration asked one of the richest men in the country, J.P. Morgan, to act as an independent mediator. The operators soon agreed to the President’s plan for an Arbitration Commission. In the end, the commission awarded the coal miners a retroactive raise and a reduction in work hours. Roosevelt happily shared credit for the resolution with Morgan. The successful end of the crisis helped Republicans avoid the midterm curse that year.
During his second term, Roosevelt faced another major challenge in the Panic of 1907. The stock market had struggled throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, financiers blamed the President’s anti-trust policies. The slump became a full-blown crisis in October, when a bank run on the Knickerbocker Trust Company resulted in its closure. Prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, the government had virtually no way to quickly address financial panics. In the face of total economic collapse, J.P. Morgan again played a role in bailing-out Roosevelt. Morgan’s house became the “panic headquarters” where leading bankers met to strategically invest in failing businesses. The Roosevelt Administration contributed $25 million to their cause, to be distributed as Morgan’s discretion. Unfortunately, the stock market continued to fall. On October 24th, the president of the New York Stock Exchange announced that it no longer had enough money to continue trading. At an emergency meeting, Morgan and his partners pledged an additional $25 million to prevent total collapse. Morgan was hailed as a hero. Roosevelt recognized the need for quick action. He pledged not to file an anti-trust lawsuit on acquisitions that Morgan made during the crisis. Roosevelt ultimately took most of the blame for the Panic — though the threat of losing Republican votes to the radical Democrats only fired him up more for the next election.
Roosevelt had a mixed relationship with the progressive journalists who often backed his agenda. He relied on them to communicate his vision to the public, and on their investigative work to direct that vision. But he was also not shy to disagree with them. With Lincoln Steffens, Roosevelt frequently defended his relationship with the party establishment, including his acceptance of large campaign donations. Similarly, while he was spurred to action by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, he also made a point to denounce the author’s socialist beliefs. Roosevelt even had a hand in ending this well-remembered era of progressive journalism. Annoyed by attacks by his rival, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, the President began hitting back. In a speech to the Gridiron Club, Roosevelt compared investigative journalists to “the Man with the Muck-rake” from the 17th Century novel Pilgrim’s Progress, “who could look no way but downward.” Despite pushback from progressives, Roosevelt doubled-down and delivered the speech again as a formal address. The speech incited use of the term “muckraker” journalism, and was widely considered to have contributed to the breakup of the visionary staff of McClure’s Magazine (though, in reality, the publication was undermined by its own internal tensions). In 1908, Steffens wrote that he no longer believed in the Square Deal, and argued that radical progressive Senator Bob La Follette was the only politician who truly fought against the corrupt establishment. In response, Roosevelt argued, “I believe in the men who take the next step; not those who theorize about the 200th step.”
When Roosevelt won re-election in 1904 — actualizing the electoral approval he had craved since ascending to the office — he made a pledge not to run for a third term. In 1908, he handed power to his hand-picked successor and close friend, Secretary of War William H. Taft. Roosevelt hoped to give Taft space to build his own legacy by embarking on a fifteen-month trip to Africa and Europe. Unfortunately, Taft did not have his predecessor’s ability to bring together Capitalists and progressives. Roosevelt returned to America as support grew for his return to politics. His decision to answer that call would radically alter his approach to politics — something I’ll explore in… Part II!
1. Editorial Cartoon, 1908 — William C. Morris / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
2. Theodore Roosevelt as a New York State Assemblyman, 1883 — Notman Photographic Company / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
3. Effect of Acquiring the Platt Habit, 1899 — Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
4. Campaign Poster, 1900 — Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
5. Well for Once, They Can’t Blame Me, 1907 — J. S. Pughe / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit. Simon & Schuster, 2013.