Progressivism in the White House


Roosevelt won his second term in 1904 with an overwhelming 57 percent of the popular vote. After the election, he moved quickly to enact his own brand of Progressivism, which he called a Square Deal for the American people. Early in his second term, Roosevelt read muckraker Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel and exposé on the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. Although Roosevelt initially questioned the book due to Sinclair’s professed Socialist leanings, a subsequent presidential commission investigated the industry and corroborated the deplorable conditions under which Chicago’s meatpackers processed meats for American consumers. Alarmed by the results and under pressure from an outraged public disgusted with the revelations, Roosevelt moved quickly to protect public health. He urged the passage of two laws to do so. The first, the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, established a system of government inspection for meat products, including grading the meat based on its quality. This standard was also used for imported meats. The second was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required labels on all food and drug products that clearly stated the materials in the product. The law also prohibited any “adulterated” products, a measure aimed at some specific, unhealthy food preservatives. For Sinclair, this outcome was a disappointment nonetheless, since he had sought to draw attention to the plight of workers in the slaughterhouses, not the poor quality of the meat products. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he concluded with frustration.

Another key element of Roosevelt’s Progressivism was the protection of public land (Figure). Roosevelt was a longtime outdoorsman, with an interest that went back to his childhood and college days, as well as his time cattle ranching in the West, and he chose to appoint his good friend Gifford Pinchot as the country’s first chief of the newly created U.S. Forestry Service. Under Pinchot’s supervision, the department carved out several nature habitats on federal land in order to preserve the nation’s environmental beauty and protect it from development or commercial use. Apart from national parks like Oregon’s Crater Lake or Colorado’s Mesa Verde, and monuments designed for preservation, Roosevelt conserved public land for regulated use for future generations. To this day, the 150 national forests created under Roosevelt’s stewardship carry the slogan “land of many uses.” In all, Roosevelt established eighteen national monuments, fifty-one federal bird preserves, five national parks, and over one hundred fifty national forests, which amounted to about 230 million acres of public land.

A photograph shows Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir standing atop a precipice in Yosemite National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt’s interest in the protection of public lands was encouraged by conservationists such as John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, with whom he toured Yosemite National Park in California, ca. 1906.

In his second term in office, Roosevelt signed legislation on Progressive issues such as factory inspections, child labor, and business regulation. He urged the passage of the Elkins Act of 1903 and the Hepburn Act of 1906, both of which strengthened the position of the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroad prices. These laws also extended the Commission’s authority to regulate interstate transportation on bridges, ferries, and even oil pipelines.

As the 1908 election approached, Roosevelt was at the height of popularity among the American public, if not among the big businesses and conservative leaders of his own Republican Party. Nonetheless, he promised on the night of his reelection in 1904 that he would not seek a third term. Roosevelt stepped aside as the election approached, but he did hand-pick a successor—Secretary of War and former Governor General of the Philippines William Howard Taft of Ohio—a personal friend who, he assured the American public, would continue the path of the “Square Deal” (Figure). With such a ringing endorsement, Taft easily won the 1908 presidential election, defeating three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, whose ideas on taxes and corporate regulations reminded voters of the more far-reaching Populist platforms of Bryan’s past candidacies.

Photograph (a) shows Theodore Roosevelt standing beside William Howard Taft. Cartoon (b) shows "cowboy" Roosevelt handing off a baby—labeled "My Policies"—to Taft, who is dressed as a nursemaid.
This photograph (a) of Theodore Roosevelt (left) and his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft (right) just before Taft’s inauguration in 1909, was echoed in a Puck magazine cartoon (b) where “cowboy” Roosevelt hands off his “Policies” baby to “nurse-maid” Taft. Taft was seen, initially at least, as being a president who would continue Roosevelt’s same policies.

Explore American Experience: TR at PBS for a wealth of information on Theodore Roosevelt, including details of his early life before the presidency and transcripts from several of his speeches.