Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) If you ever want to feel slothful and unaccomplished, just read a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. The scope and volume of his activities were astounding. His energy was unbounded. At 42 years old when inaugurated, Roosevelt was our nation’s youngest President. I will not do his life or Presidency any sort of justice here. It’s fair to say that Platt’s plan of sidelining Roosevelt by putting him in the Vice-President’s office backfired.
Roosevelt called his domestic program, the “Square Deal.” His goal was to pass laws that gave citizens a more substantial equality of opportunity in part, through control of corporations. As the nation’s economy grew, so too did the consolidated power of large corporations. Their reach extended into the lives of Americans in ways that could not have been anticipated a generation or two earlier. And, so, the law was not well-suited to controlling their power. Among other things, with his support, Congress passed the Elkins Act which regulated the ability of railroads to provide “rebates” to large corporations which resulted in what seemed to be unfair treatment of, for example, small farmers seeking to move their products to market. Roosevelt also pushed for the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act which provided for the inspection of food and regulation on the sale of adulterated products. (Both of these were influenced by Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”) He gained a reputation as a “trust buster,” making an effort to break up large monopolistic corporations — bringing 40 anti-trust suits, including one against Standard Oil. These initiatives were contrary to the spirit of laissez faire economic philosophy of the time (still often favored at least rhetorically by present-day politicians.)
In 1904, Roosevelt won the Presidency in his own right. There was still a division in the Republican Party between Roosevelt progressives and Mark Hanna’s old guard. But, Roosevelt was popular and Hanna was ailing. After Hanna’s death, Roosevelt secured the nomination and put one of his supporters in the position of party chairman. Still, he did not get his choice in a vice-presidential running mate. Instead of Robert Hitt (one time personal secretary of Oliver P. Morton), the party selected Hoosier Senator, Charles Warren Fairbanks. Roosevelt’s opponent in the election was Democrat Alton Brooks parker. Roosevelt won in a landslide, beating Parker by 18% in the popular vote. Prior to his inauguration, Roosevelt promised not to seek re-election (a promise he came to regret).
In 1907, there was a Panic caused mostly by financial shenanigans. An effort to corner the market on the shares of the United Copper Company failed which led to a run on the banks associated with the effort and the failure of those banks led to runs on other banks, and pretty soon the whole system was in shambles. While the Treasury and prominent businessmen (J.P. Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller among them) made loans to maintain the liquidity of some healthy banks, New York banks were generally unwilling to make the short term loans they usually made to finance stock market investments. (The linked Wikipedia entry has a pretty good description of a scene where J.P. Morgan locked a bunch of prominent bankers and businessmen in his library to strong arm them into making the loans necessary to keep some liquidity in the system.) That drove the prices of stocks down which led to a panic and crash in the stock market. (As part of the effort to stave off an even deeper crisis, Roosevelt had to put aside his antitrust inclinations as U.S. Steel acquired the distressed Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company). This Panic was one in a line of persistent panics since the Civil War and hammered home the need for a system that would help maintain liquidity in these situations. In Europe, central banks filled this role. With no central bank in the U.S., eventually the committees and studies following the 1907 Panic led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913.
Another focus of the Roosevelt presidency was conservation of public lands and “reclamation” projects that provided irrigation infrastructure in arid Western lands. He established the United States Forest Service, designated 18 national monuments, and signed into law five national parks, including Wind Cave, South Dakota, Mesa Verde, Colorado, and Crater Lake, Oregon.
As President, one of Roosevelt’s main foreign policy initiatives was construction of the Panama Canal. This, plus a general affinity for imperialism, led him to the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine — basically justifying the U.S. exercising a sort of international police power in the Western Hemisphere as a way of enforcing what we regard as good behavior on other Western Hemisphere countries, thereby keeping other international powers out of our back yard as they take such enforcement matters into their own hands.
In addition, Roosevelt helped mediate a treaty to end the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. He also improved the U.S. Navy — sending “the Great White Fleet” (composed of 16 battleships) around the world, ostensibly on a mission of goodwill, visiting numerous countries and harbors. But, it also was obviously designed to show off the U.S.’s growing naval strength. With the U.S. having destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Spanish American war and the Japanese having destroyed the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese War, the U.S. wanted to demonstrate that it could be a check on the Japanese in the Pacific. In 1907, Roosevelt negotiated the Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan which generally tried to remove the discrimination against Japanese immigrants in California and, in return, Japan would restrict new immigration from Japan to the U.S. — with some exceptions. (Japan continued issuing passports allowing its people to go to the territory of Hawaii.)
Something like the modern press was developing, and Roosevelt started handling them in ways that we would recognize today. For example, he gave the press a room at the White House, gave a daily press briefing, and made sure to provide plenty of interviews and photo opportunities.
Having promised not to run for re-election, Roosevelt stepped aside and promoted the candidacy of William Taft who he preferred to his vice-president, Charles Warren Fairbanks.
William Taft (1909 – 1913) Taft was born to an elite Cincinnati family and continued the family tradition becoming Solicitor General at the age of 33 and going on to be a federal judge for the Sixth Circuit, Governor-General of the Philippines, United States Secretary of War, President of the United States, and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Taft had initially been lukewarm toward the Presidential candidacy of his fellow Buckeye, William McKinley, but after his nomination was secure and Bryan began his Cross of Gold campaign — something Taft viewed as “economic radicalism,” — Taft became a supporter of McKinley. What Taft seemed to want more than anything else was the Supreme Court. McKinley approached Taft to resign his federal judgeship to participate in organizing a civilian government in the Philippines, a task Taft accepted with the promise that the next Supreme Court opening would be his. Taft went to the Philippines but McKinley died before another opening on the Supreme Court. (That said, a couple of opportunities to join the high court would come up during the Roosevelt administration that Taft would pass up for various reasons.)
It seems worthwhile to mention that Taft had to work with military governor of the Philippines, Arthur MacArthur, Jr. — who also has the distinction of being the father of General Douglas MacArthur. Taft seems to have been a positive influence in treating Filipinos with more respect than had been the case under the Spanish and American military regimes. Even so, there were still some very ugly things going on in the Philippines while Taft was there.
In 1904, Roosevelt appointed Taft Secretary of War, a position Taft accepted, in part, because it would allow him to continue work on the Philippines. He served in this capacity throughout Roosevelt’s second term, and Roosevelt supported Taft as his successor. Taft won the Republican nomination on the first ballot. However, he was also saddled with a member of the GOP’s conservative wing as vice-president — James “Sunny Jim” Sherman. Taft would become more conservative during his presidency and Taft’s wife got along well with Sherman’s wife. So, it ended up being a fairly productive relationship.
The Democrats had been so thoroughly beaten in the 1904 campaign that they returned to an old favorite, William Jennings Bryan, for the 1908 campaign. The irrepressible Roosevelt could not help but inject himself in the campaign, leading wags to suggest that “TAFT” stood for “Take Advice From Roosevelt.” Taft supported Roosevelt’s policies, by and large, and these had mostly coopted many of Bryan’s progressive positions. Taft was not the most able campaigner, but he beat Bryan by 8% and 159 electoral votes.
Taft supported passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, permitting imposition of an income tax. It provides, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Although an income tax had been imposed during the Civil War, in 1894 the Supreme Court held that such taxes were unconstitutional direct taxes due to the Constitutional requirement that direct taxes be apportioned among the States. In dissent, John Marshall Harlan wrote:
When, therefore, this court adjudges, as it does now adjudge, that Congress cannot impose a duty or tax upon personal property, or upon income arising either from rents of real estate or from personal property, including invested personal property, bonds, stocks, and investments of all kinds, except by apportioning the sum to be so raised among the States according to population, it practically decides that, without an amendment of the Constitution — two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and three-fourths of the States concurring — such property and incomes can never be made to contribute to the support of the national government.
This exacerbated widespread concern that the wealthiest Americans were amassing too much economic power.
Support for the income tax was strongest in the South and West and opposition was strongest in the Northeast. At the time, tariffs were the main source of income for the federal government, and the industrial Northeast favored the protection against foreign competition that high tariffs provided. Fans of the new U.S. empire supported income taxes as well because a modern military required more money. (Indiana ratified the amendment on January 30, 1911). The amendment was ratified by the requisite number of states on February 3, 1913.
In foreign affairs, Taft was fairly lawyerly in his approach — preferring arbitration and negotiation to much in the way of muscle flexing. He favored avoiding much involvement in European affairs except to promote commerce. In the Western Hemisphere, he favored continuation of the Monroe Doctrine and use of force if necessary to keep Europeans out of American affairs. In particular, the Panama Canal — which was under construction during his term — was a central focus. Due to his involvement with the Philippines, Taft was also more interested than his predecessors in the Far East. The Chinese Revolution of 1911 overthrew the Manchu Dynasty and replaced it with Sun Yat Sen and the Republic of China. Taft was slow to recognize the new government but moved in that direction prior to the end of his term.
Remarkably, Taft in his four year term appointed *six* Supreme Court Justices. In other respects, however, Taft’s domestic policy pretty consistently lived in the shadow of Roosevelt’s. Roosevelt disappeared into Africa on a massive safari for a year. When he returned, the relationship between the two men had cooled. Taft went his own way on a number of issues and, when issues spilled over from the Roosevelt administration into the Taft years, Taft was not necessarily careful to avoid finger pointing.
By the time the end of Taft’s term was approaching, Roosevelt was restless and chafing at Taft’s departures from his policies. Roosevelt claimed that Taft was not a Progressive but was, instead, following policies from the Gilded Age. Roosevelt dominated the states that used the relatively new primary system to choose delegates. But Taft controlled the party machinery and did well in the states that used a convention system. At the convention, Roosevelt, with his usual humility told supporters, ““we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” Roosevelt was unsuccessful at challenging some of the convention delegates and, consequently, would not be able to win the nomination. Roosevelt bolted the party, and he and his supporters formed the Progressive Party.
With the party fractured, neither Roosevelt nor Taft stood much of a chance. Wilson saw Roosevelt as the bigger electoral threat, and the incumbent President was largely ignored in his re-election campaign. The Republicans that year won only Utah and Vermont. The Progressives won Washington, California, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan. Wilson won 435 of the 531 electoral votes, and Democrats took control of the House and Senate.
Next time: Governor James Mount (also: the relationship between bicycles and sound money.)