Guide A Companion to Theodore Roosevelt

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Theodore Roosevelt - History of the Teddy Bear

Through most of the nineteenth century, the state played a small and diminishing role in determining how individuals related to one another and to their society. That was given over largely to private bargaining, with the courts developing, through case law, elaborate doctrines on contracts, liability, trespass, and property.

The general antistatist political environment in America meanwhile tended to neutralize both the legislative and executive branches in fixing social and economic priorities as the basis for resolving day-to-day conflicts of interest and ambition. It was the courts, responding to the multitude of mundane claims of right and privilege, that structured the law that gave definition to the "liberty" to which the nation avowed commitment. That is, the doctrines that the courts shaped defined what kinds of social and economic actions enjoyed freedom from sanctions, what kinds ran greater risks, what kinds of access to and use of property were protected against public, community, or second-party claims, and what terms of contracts the state would be prepared to enforce.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, after a quarter century of industrialization and corporate growth had impaired the marketplace and had turned the struggles for advantage among a multitude of small economic strivers into a massive conflict of groups and classes, the many legislatures of the country moved to intervene. Americans continued to favor economic growth, but the costs borne by traditional business and agriculture, and by insurgent nonbusiness interests as well, gave rise to a sometimes violent politics of protest.

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The violence reflected a widespread loss of faith in the market's capacity for fairly and impersonally allocating the resources and rewards that the society had to offer. The intervention took many forms and included the creation of state railroad and public-utility regulatory commissions.


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The commissions were intermediary government agencies, part administrative and part legislative, designed to replace the flawed marketplace with a mechanism characterized by science and technical expertise. They were designed to become the new impersonal and just allocators of advantages. To these agencies, the state legislatures — and Congress, in creating the Interstate Commerce Commission ICC in — delegated considerable discretionary power, in effect creating an alternative to the courts for a flexible, law-adjusting response to day-to-day conflicts in the economic order.

Unhappily, to this alternative the courts reacted as to a challenge. Employing a novel interpretation of the due process clause of the Constitution, contriving an exquisitely narrow construction of the commerce clause, and inventing innovative uses of equity proceedings, state and federal judges — and, most important, those on the United States Supreme Court — repeatedly overrode the declared intentions of the legislative branches of American government in antitrust matters, labor relations, employment policies, and the regulation of selected practices of private industry.

The number of cases was not large, but the deterrent effect of judicial vetoes had long-lasting and far-reaching impact. It was these circumstances that Roosevelt confronted when he took office. In addition to the courts, he faced a congressional coalition of Republicans who represented sometimes rather directly the new corporate consolidations of economic power that Roosevelt sought to control together with southern Democrats , whose political instincts rebelled fiercely against any enlargement of federal power.

So the president moved cautiously. Although more impatient reformers came to doubt Roosevelt's earnestness, although many likened his vigor to that of a rocking chair "all motion and no progress" , and others charged him outright with "selling out to the interests," the conservatives were so deeply entrenched that one might be as readily impressed by Roosevelt's achievements as by how little was achieved. Roosevelt's primary task was to gain popular support for federal restraint of private power and, in this sense, to establish the legitimacy of federal power.


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The president's huge talent for publicity served him especially well in this. He chose his issues, and his enemies, carefully. The American business community was far from unified in its view of the tide of giant corporate mergers it had been witnessing since For many conservatives, the private enterprise system itself seemed at stake. When, in , J. Morgan concluded the reorganization of the steel industry by buying out Carnegie and consolidating several other major steel producers into the new billion-dollar United States Steel Corporation, even the staunchly conservative Boston Herald was moved to remark, "If a limited financial group shall come to represent the capitalistic end of industry, the perils of socialism, even if brought about by some rude, because forcible, taking of the instruments of industry, may be looked upon by even intelligent people as possibly the lesser of two evils.

Hill, and some other titans of finance and the railroad industry followed up the awesome steel consolidation by forming the Northern Securities Company, a merger of the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, and the Chicago , Burlington and Quincy railroads. Roosevelt seized the opportunity, instructing his attorney general to prosecute the company for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The issue and the timing were perfect. The country was newly sensitized to the trusts issue, and not even a pettifogging judiciary could deny that the railroad industry quintessentially concerned interstate commerce. By a vote in , the United States Supreme Court did indeed uphold the government's prosecution. The minority held out on the issue of whether the merger amounted to an illegal restraint of trade. From this and from the president's attacks on Standard Oil and the "meat trust," long-standing industrial pariahs, T.

Take a Look Inside Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill

Roosevelt himself viewed the Northern Securities prosecution as the most important achievement of his first administration. But this was not because he generally opposed the business consolidations of the day. It was rather because the president of the United States had successfully called down several of the country's leading business tycoons — an achievement no president in several generations could boast of.

Roosevelt argued during his presidential campaign that the Northern Securities case was "one of the great achievements of my administration," because "through it we emphasized. In his autobiography, Roosevelt told the story of how the great J.

Morgan had come to him after news of the suit broke and in avuncular fashion suggested that the whole scandal could have been avoided if the president's man the attorney general had met with Morgan's man to arrange matters. It had become habit for the country's business elite to view the federal government as merely a rival power, even as a lesser power that should consult with its betters before acting. Roosevelt's presidency did much to restore public confidence in the government's ability to hold "the most powerful men in the country" accountable to the law, but there was still the question of what the law should be — or, perhaps more to the point, who should determine what the law should be.

In this, Roosevelt was far more accommodating to the men of new corporate power than the bravado about his encounter with Morgan might suggest. In the first place, Roosevelt believed in free-market competition little more than did Morgan and his financier friends. The president acted against Northern Securities less from his concern about monopoly than from his concern about how the public might react to uncontrolled corporate arrogance. He frequently chided conservative critics that revolutionary upheaval was as likely to be inspired from "an attitude of arrogance on the part of the owners of property and of unwillingness to recognize their duty to the public" as by socialist or anarchist revolutionaries.

It was more the manner than the substance of the Northern Securities merger that goaded him. Roosevelt himself had small regard for the successful antitrust suits of the McKinley administration, which aimed to break up major railroad traffic associations for fixing rates and routing among the members. In public unhappiness with corporate arrogance permitted the president to push through Congress, against bitter conservative hostility, legislation establishing the Department of Commerce and Labor and, within it, the Bureau of Corporations.

The bureau was authorized to investigate and publicize suspect corporate activities. Roosevelt acted from premises about the public's right to know and about the government's need to know in order to hold private economic power accountable. The emphasis on publicity proceeded also from a faith that a common sense of decency would force corporations to be good — not only to be honest but to avoid unscrupulous, even though strictly legal, practices.

In other words, in large measure the policy arose from a conviction, not seriously tested by anyone at the time, that the country understood a common definition of such a concept as decency. In practice, of course, men like Roosevelt tended to assume the universality of their own definition. In any case, Roosevelt had no intention of waging open warfare on big business. In the first place, the big corporations played too important a role in his vision of America's place in international rivalry.

Small businesses could scarcely compete successfully for international resources and markets with the European cartels and Japanese zaibatsu. But more than that, Roosevelt did not view government and business as adversaries. In the spirit of the "New Nationalism," which he would develop more explicitly in his campaign to recapture the presidency in , Roosevelt pictured the government as a coordinating agency for harmonizing the nation's varied interests and as a referee for interpreting and declaring the rules of the game.

In keeping with this view, Roosevelt was prepared to assure corporations of immunity from antitrust prosecutions if he or the appropriate government agencies could be satisfied that their activities were honestly conceived and would benefit the community. When he was not so convinced, he proceeded, with his usual flare for the dramatic, to "bust the trusts," as when he attacked Standard Oil, the tobacco trust, the meat trust with antitrust suits and with the Meat Inspection Act of , and the Northern Securities Company.

But through the bureau, the president did enter into a series of gentlemen's agreements with Morgan interests.

Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children

Companies such as United States Steel and International Harvester organized in agreed to open records to the bureau's investigators, on the condition — which Roosevelt accepted — that the president would use such information only as backgrounding for his recommendations of policy to Congress and that nothing would be made public except with the consent of the corporations themselves.

To make these arrangements, Roosevelt permitted Commerce and Justice department officials to confer with representatives of Morgan interests such as George W. Perkins, E. Gary, and Henry Clay Frick.

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The meetings gave the Morgan men a chance to debate the legality of their actions and to avoid prosecution by agreeing to correct any "technical" violations of the law in cases where they could not persuade the government otherwise. In spite of Roosevelt's autobiographical boasting, then, Morgan's men were meeting with the president's men to arrange matters. In , Morgan's men would meet with the president himself to arrange a steel merger that virtually handed the United States Steel Corporation nearly complete domination of the industry.

The bankers' panic that year occasioned the conference. Among the feared casualties of the panic was the Trust Company of America TCA , a major New York City financial institution whose collapse might have deepened the crisis.

Biography of Theodore Roosevelt for Kids: Meet the American President for Kids - FreeSchool

Morgan men Frick and Gary went to the president with a proposition. Roosevelt may or may not have known the degree to which United States Steel's acquisition of the TCIC's steel plants, as well as its resources of coal and iron in Alabama , would substantially reduce competition in the industry. But he did see the virtue of averting a prolonged economic collapse especially since the financial community was already whining loudly about how the crisis was all the fault of Roosevelt's "radical" attacks on the trusts.

Roosevelt gave the green light to the merger. Whether he did so by explicitly approving Morgan's proposal or merely by leaving the matter as a tacit understanding, Roosevelt vigorously defended his role in the merger when he testified about it in — after the Taft administration sued United States Steel for violation of the antitrust laws.