Progressivism in the White House

Progressive groups made tremendous strides on issues involving democracy, efficiency, and social justice. But they found that their grassroots approach was ill-equipped to push back against the most powerful beneficiaries of growing inequality, economic concentration, and corruption—big business. In their fight against the trusts, Progressives needed the leadership of the federal government, and they found it in Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, through an accident of history.

In 1900, a sound economic recovery, a unifying victory in the Spanish-American War, and the annexation of the Philippines had helped President William McKinley secure his reelection with the first solid popular majority since 1872. His new vice president was former New York Governor and Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. But when an assassin shot and killed President McKinley in 1901 (Figure) at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, Theodore Roosevelt unexpectedly became the youngest president in the nation’s history. More importantly, it ushered in a new era of progressive national politics and changed the role of the presidency for the twentieth century.

Drawing (a) depicts William McKinley's assassination. Photograph (b) is a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.
President William McKinley’s assassination (a) at the hands of an anarchist made Theodore Roosevelt (b) the country’s youngest president.