To evaluate the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, it is necessary to examine the problems faced by America when he came to power in 1901 and analyse how and whether he dealt with these problems successfully and efficiently. America faced many economic and social problems when Roosevelt came to power in the twentieth century. The first problem was the urgent need for the conservation of the country’s national resources. Half the country’s timber had been cut down, non-renewable energy resources were being wasted, top quality soil was lost through poor management, and many species of animals were threatened with extinction due to the destruction of their natural habitats.
Secondly, America had emerged from its victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898 as a major global power. It had an empire; it had acquired an informal empire in Latin America. This new international role meant there was huge potential for the United States to expand its influence over the international scene; this needed to be explored and developed. However, the industrialisation of the United States has also created many social and economic problems. Corrupt industrial monopolies emerged, which created problems as the control of many industries lay in the hands of only a few individuals, resulting in an unfair distribution of wealth. Profits also became the prime concern of companies over the welfare of their workers.
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“The Square Deal” was Roosevelt’s policy to deal with many of American society’s social and economic problems. It aimed to ensure that all Americans received an equal deal in life. It is necessary to look at this ‘deal’ and his other policies to analyse whether they actually improved the problems or addressed the issues, and if so, to what extent did they resolve or deal with them. Throughout his two terms in office, Theodore Roosevelt attempted to deal with all of these issues, which were apparent when he was elected. Roosevelt recognised the problems created by large corporations. He became known as the ‘trust buster’ for his crusade throughout his presidency to limit the powers of and correct the social and economic problems created by large business corporations, commonly known as ‘trusts’.
He saw monopolies as an inevitable part of the emerging industrial economy and worked to correct their faults through regulation instead of dissolving them completely. It could be argued that this is evidence that Roosevelt was successful as a president as he had a realistic judgement of problems, knowing that regulation would be a much more effective method to correct the corrupt practises of trusts, rather than futile attempts to dissolve all monopolies and restore small businesses, a method which he reserved to deal with only the most threatening trusts. Roosevelt’s policy of regulation was imposed through the establishment of two regulatory bodies: a commerce and labour department, which was authorised to investigate and warn again practises harmful to the public, and a Bureau of Corporations, whose role was to work with the owners of trusts to correct malpractices from within.
This was an effective policy as Roosevelt knew that corporation owners would prefer to work with these organisations to correct problems themselves rather than face lawsuits that could dissolve their businesses. The legislation was passed through Congress to prevent business corporations from committing actions against Roosevelt’s ‘Square Deal’ policy. For example: ‘The Hepburn Act’, which forbade railroads to grant free passes to anyone but employees. Roosevelt also used his executive powers to enforce the ‘Sherman Anti-Trust Act’, which stated that large trusts were against the public interest and should be dissolved. Roosevelt used this policy to deal only with the largest and most corrupt monopolies.
The passed legislation is also evidence that Roosevelt’s presidency was successful, as he was able to enforce his will through congress throughout most of his presidency, with congress passing the laws he suggested. As another method of dealing with trusts, Roosevelt brought lawsuits against the corporations, which he thought were the most problematic for American society. This was effective as over twenty-five successful lawsuits were brought against harmful corporations, either dissolving them or correcting their misconducts. The most notable was the 1904 ‘U.S. Vs Northern Securities Company’ case. This was significant as the huge company that had a monopoly of the railroad system after the merger of three major railway companies was ordered dissolved.
Conservation was another of Roosevelt’s chief concerns. Roosevelt extended the powers of the president to deal with the serious environmental issues facing America. Roosevelt believed that people were responsible for ensuring the country’s natural resources were still intact for generations to come. Roosevelt chose to employ a variety of techniques to conserve the country’s natural resources and wildlife. Firstly, he chose to enforce the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. This act proved a success as over 170 million acres of Timberland was excluded from settlement or harvest, in addition to 85 million acres of land in Alaska alone.
Roosevelt succeeded in another of his aims; attempting to raise the profile of the conservation issue to the masses. This was achieved partially through inviting university presidents, governors, business people, and scientists to a high profile conference at the White House on the conservation of natural resources. This conference aimed to consider which policies should be adopted to preserve the nation’s natural resources. This conference was a great success because, as a result, forty-one states created conservation committees, which would handle the issue of conservation at a local level, which Roosevelt knew would be more efficient than establishing a single body to discuss how to conserve resources throughout the whole country.
Finally, Roosevelt used his presidential powers to create fifty new wildlife refuges, appoint five new national parks, and designate national monuments, such as the grand canyon. Therefore, Roosevelt clearly recognised the need for conservation in America. Roosevelt’s conservation campaign was hugely successful; he contributed significantly to ensuring that the country’s natural resources were preserved, and many had said that it is down to Roosevelt’s foresight, in a time when few people thought about conservation, that America has areas of rural interest and natural resources to enjoy today.
Roosevelt successfully developed the United States’ rising role as a major international power throughout his two terms in office. This was achieved through intervention in foreign affairs, for example, in Panama in 1904 and by introducing a new foreign policy statement, The Roosevelt Corollary. Roosevelt intervened between Panama and Colombia in 1904, aiding Panama to achieve its independence, to ensure that the United States would acquire the rights to construct a canal across part of Panama. This was achieved by Roosevelt defusing the civil war by ordering United States vessels to keep hostile Colombian forces from proceeding to Panama City. As a result, the newly independent State of Panama acknowledged Roosevelt’s support in achieving its independence by handing over the control of a ten-mile strip across the isthmus of Panama to the United States to build the canal.
Roosevelt developed what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary. This was significant as it updated the Monroe Doctrine (which stated that the world was divided into two hemispheres and warned Europe that it did not have the right to intervene in the Western hemisphere, which was assumed to be owned by the United States), which had influenced American foreign policy since 1823, into a policy which was appropriate for America’s recent emergence as a major player on the international stage. The corollary was a confrontational statement that declared that the U.S. could intervene whenever its interests in Latin America were threatened, adopting the role of an ‘international police power’ ï¿½.
Roosevelt’s foreign policy illustrates that he recognised that the United States had huge potential as a world power after its victory against Spain in 1898 and developed and explored this new role. The policies and actions Roosevelt chose to follow in response to international affairs were greatly successful. This is shown by the effects of the actions he chose to take. The Roosevelt Corollary was successful, even though the major European powers generally ignored it because they recognised the United States’ new international role. It realised that the country was now in possession of an informal empire it had a responsibility to protect: ‘All that this country desire is to see the neighbouring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous’ ï¿½. The Corollary also justified Roosevelt’s and the succeeding presidents’ more active and interventionist stance on foreign affairs.
His intervention in Panama in 1904 was successful as he put into action what presidents before him had dreamed about for decades. In doing so, he brought about many positive economic and political effects for the United States. The Panama Canal shortened trade routes, therefore, boosting the country’s income from trade, and was of major strategic importance for America as it enabled the country’s navy to move swiftly from ocean to ocean. This was highly significant for America’s new, more active foreign policy. As a whole, his foreign policy boosted the United States’ world role, gained recognition from other nations of the country’s positive effects on foreign affairs through its intervention, and finally, set a precedent for successive presidents regarding American foreign policy.
Therefore, as Roosevelt identified the major issues which needed to be addressed and then introduced policies and took appropriate action, which significantly dealt with these issues, his presidency can be seen as successful at one level. However, a president must also be capable of dealing with crises that arise while in power for their presidency to be judged as successful at a second level. The major crisis of Roosevelt’s presidency was the miner’s strike which exploded during his first term of office. In May 1902, 15,000 coal miners went on strike in Pennsylvania, demanding recognition of their union, a nine-hour working day, and a twenty per cent pay increase. As the mine owners refused to negotiate, the strike dragged on for five months. Finally, with no sign of a settlement, and the winter approaching with the nation facing a coal shortage, Roosevelt decided to take firm action.
He threatened to call out U.S. troops to operate the mines in the public interest and brought such pressure upon the mine owners that they unwillingly agreed to arbitration. Roosevelt showed success in dealing with a crisis as he applied pressure to the miners to negotiate and then resolved the problem by providing them with their demands in a way that did not make him appear too weak or lenient. Thus, not encouraging other strikes. The workers received their 9 hour day. However, they only received a 10% pay increase instead of 20%, and their union was not recognised. Although this evidence suggests that Roosevelt’s presidency can be judged as successful, there are also ways in which his presidency can be viewed as unsuccessful. This is because of many serious issues we’re facing in America during his presidency, which he failed to address.
Women were severely repressed in American society; they could not be employed in certain sectors and were not eligible to vote. In addition, almost 90% of African-Americans in the South were victims of poverty, segregation, discrimination and violence. Child labour was also a major problem; in 1900, over 1.7 million children under 16 worked full-time, labouring up to sixteen hours a day. Although Roosevelt spoke out on all these issues, he failed to take any significant action or enforce any legislation to deal with these problems. Roosevelt also made a severe strategic mistake on election night in 1904, declaring he would uphold the two-term tradition set by George Washington by not standing as a candidate in the 1908 election.
This was a political mistake as congress did not enforce Roosevelt’s policies towards the last part of his second term, as they knew that he would not be in office in the next term to deal to follow his actions up. This is partly why Roosevelt did not deal with the problems mentioned earlier, as when he attempted to deal with them, congress did not pass his legislation. Many historians have questioned the motives behind Roosevelt’s achievements, believing that Roosevelt’s credibility should be reduced as he was motivated by personal concerns. They feel he implemented his ‘square deal’, not motivated by a genuine concern for the people but to prevent them from turning to extremist groups, which would lead to the loss of his powers as president.
However, I think that the results of a president’s policies are far more important than his motives and that Roosevelt’s credibility should not be reduced. In conclusion, although Roosevelt did not deal with some of the issues that arose during his presidency and made a major political mistake, his presidency can still be viewed as effective and successful. Moreover, the great achievements Roosevelt made in the areas he did deal effectively deal with, I think, far out-weigh the negative aspects of his presidency.
- The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt: William H. Harbaugh. (New York, 1981)
- Progressivism: Arthur S. Link and Richard L. McCormick. (Illinois, 1983)
- Twentieth-Century America: A Brief History: Thomas C. Reeves. (New York, 2000)
- America, Brief Fifth Edition: George B. Tindall and David E. Shi. (New York, 2000)
- America’s Century: Perspectives on U.S. History since 1900: edited by Iwan W. Morgan and Neil A. Wynn. (New York, 1993)
- ‘President Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine’ Policy Statement (1904).