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The stories of the first few years of our country’s history are full of presidents like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. And as the years went on, other presidents were important, such as Jackson, Polk, and Lincoln.

Then, after the Civil War, power moved to the Capitol Building and Congress was where the real action was happening. As the Industrial Revolution changed American cities and the lives of workers, the Presidents in the White House didn’t step up to protect Americans from corruption and mistreatment.

That changed in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt became president. He used his power to protect everyday people from big business. Progressives who wanted change finally had a teammate in the White House. The Progressives’ connection with the Presidency did not end with Theodore Roosevelt. In 1908 William Howard Taft, a close friend of Roosevelt became president, and in 1912, a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson was elected, but he also liked Progressive ideas.

The two halves of the Gilded Age tell us what leaders in government wanted. Before Roosevelt, the government created rules that helped business. Once the Progressives moved into the White House, laws were passed that protected workers.

What do you think? How should the government balance the power of the social classes?


Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858 to a rich New York family. As a child he was small and often sick. His father told him to dedicate himself to getting stronger, which he did. Roosevelt came to believe that without physical fitness, there could be no mental fitness. His hard work paid off, and as he entered Harvard as a strong young man.

He met Alice Hathaway Lee. He thought she was too good for him but decided to try to marry her anyway. It worked, but his life with Alice was short. In 1884, four years after finishing college, Alice gave birth to a daughter, but she died in childbirth on the very same day that Roosevelt’s mother also died.

Overwhelmed with the events, Roosevelt moved away to the West, but he returned to New York two years later. He remarried and decided to spend his life in politics helping others.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

In this cartoon, President McKinley (right) and his advisor Mark Hanna are seen carving up the benefits of power. It depicts Hanna as equal in power to the president.

Theodore Roosevelt was never supposed to be President. Many of the leaders of the Republican Party thought he was too wild, like a cowboy, especially Senator Mark Hanna, President McKinley’s campaign manager. But as Roosevelt became more popular, he became more dangerous to older politicians like Hanna. His success with the Rough Riders in Cuba made him a war hero to many Americans and he was elected governor of New York.

During the campaign of 1900, Hanna decided that having Roosevelt run for Vice-President would be good for two reasons. First, his popularity would help President McKinley’s win reelection. Second, giving Roosevelt the job of ice-President would make him go away, since the Constitution gives very little power to the vice-president.

Primary Source: Photograph

Teddy Roosevelt during his time as governor of New York. This well-known photograph captures Roosevelt’s zeal and charismatic personality.

Vice-Presidents had mostly gone on to the White House only if the sitting President died in office. The last Vice-President elected on his own had been Martin Van Buren in 1837. Many older Republicans thought Roosevelt could do less damage as Vice-President than as governor of New York.

McKinley and Roosevelt won the election, and all was going according to plan until McKinley was shot and killed in September 1901.

There had never been a President like him. At only 42-years-old, Roosevelt was the youngest president ever. Everyone could feel his energy, and the whole country was excited about their new leader.

Soon it was clear that a new type of President was in town. Since Lincoln’s death in 1865, Congress had been running the government, and business leaders had been controlling Congress. Roosevelt was angry about this. Although he came from a rich family, he thought that no one, no matter how rich and powerful, should control the people who had been elected to serve in the government.

Also, Roosevelt thought that if nothing was done to stop workers from being treated badly, a violent riot would sweep the country. Roosevelt did not like socialism. He thought that capitalism was best and that it could be saved with a little control and common sense. Within months he began to use his new power to make changes.

Roosevelt also changed the job of president in other ways. He never went anywhere without his photographer. He wanted Americans to see a tough leader who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He became the first President to travel out of the country while in office and the first to win the Nobel Prize.

Roosevelt knew that if the politicians did not want change, he would have to take his case to the people directly. He traveled often and spoke with confidence and excitement.

Americans were ready for leadership and Roosevelt became a political and popular hero. People sold paintings and prints of him, and even a film was made to show him as a fairy-tale hero. The White House was finally back in business.


Teddy Roosevelt was one American who thought a revolution was coming. He thought the rich men were acting in a way that would upset regular people. They always seemed to be looking for ways to get more money, which usually meant everyone else had to pay more when they went shopping and got less when they went to work.

Even though Roosevelt was also powerful and rich, he spoke up about what he thought the rich were doing wrong. He had two main ideas. First, Roosevelt said that if the rich continued to act the same as they had before, it would lead to violent protests and could ruin all of America. Second, Roosevelt said that the Captains of Industry acted like they were better than the elected government. Now that he was President, Roosevelt decided to do something about these problems.

Roosevelt used the Sherman Antitrust Act, passed by Congress in 1890. This law said that any sort of business that was “in restraint of trade” was against the law. For the first twelve years, the Sherman Act had not been used against monopolies or the Captains of Industry. Judges had always sided with business owners when anyone tried to use the law to break up their businesses. Actually, the law had been used against labor unions instead of against monopolies!

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

President Roosevelt is seen here controlling the trusts, deciding between good trusts and bad. The use of bears is significant. A widely circulated story about Roosevelt is that he was on a hunting trip. When he was given the opportunity to shoot a captive bear he refused. Since that time, stuffed toy bears are known as Teddy Bears.

President Roosevelt is seen here controlling the trusts, deciding between good trusts and bad trusts. Bears are used here. A widely spread story about Roosevelt is that he was on a hunting trip. When he was given the chance to shoot a trapped bear, he did not do it. Since that time, stuffed toy bears have been known as Teddy Bears.

Roosevelt knew that he didn’t need a new law. What he needed was different judges. He was patient, and when he thought there was a judge who might support his ideas, he went into action. J. Pierpont Morgan was the first trust giant that Roosevelt went after.

Morgan owned a railroad company called Northern Securities. Along with railroad owners James J. Hill and E. H. Harriman, Morgan had control over most of the railroad lines in the northern United States.

On February 19, 1902, Roosevelt took the Northern Securities Company to court, accusing it of being an illegal monopoly “in restraint of trade” because people who lived in the area the railroad served had no other choices.

Four days later, J. P. Morgan went to the White House to meet with Roosevelt. The President told Morgan there would be no deal between them and the problem would be solved by the courts. Morgan asked if his other businesses would be in danger, too. Roosevelt told him only the ones that had done anything wrong would be taken away.

This was Theodore Roosevelt’s main idea. He thought the question of trusts was a question of right versus wrong and good versus bad. If a trust controlled an industry but provided good service at fair prices, Roosevelt thought it was a “good” trust and he left it alone. Roosevelt would only attack the “bad” trusts that charged unfairly high prices. Who would decide what was right and wrong? Roosevelt believed it was his job as the President and protector of the people.

The American people liked Roosevelt’s new plan. The Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, agreed and broke up the Northern Securities Company into smaller companies. Roosevelt said the case showed that no man, no matter how powerful, can get away with breaking a law. As he attacked other “bad” trusts, more and more Americans liked him. They started to call him the “Trust Buster.”


In 1908, Roosevelt decided that he was done being president and that he would not run again for reelection. He had promised not to run for a third term when he was elected in 1904, and no president before had ever served for more than eight years. Roosevelt would keep his word.

He found the perfect candidate to continue his plans: William Howard Taft. Taft had been a friend of Roosevelt and with Roosevelt’s help, Taft got the Republican nomination, and easily won the election to become president.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

In this cartoon, President Roosevelt is holding his successor, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt’s support for his friend helped secure his nomination from the Republican Party and his success in the general election.

After leaving the White House, Roosevelt traveled around the world for an adventure. Taft was left to make his own mark on America.

But Taft did not have the political skill that Roosevelt had to keep both the progressives and conservatives of his party happy. He ended up making both groups mad.

Even though Taft signed laws that conservatives liked, he also supported some things that the progressives wanted also. For example, he broke up twice as many trusts in his one term as Roosevelt had broken in his two. Taft gave government workers an 8-hour workday and supported the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave Congress the power to collect federal income taxes. He created a Children’s Bureau and supported the 17th Amendment, which let people vote for senators, instead of having each state legislature pick them.

Still, when Roosevelt came back from his trip, progressives asked him to run against Taft in the next election. IN 1912, the fight was on.


Politics can sometimes turn the best of friends into the worst of enemies. Such was the fate for the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Historians don’t all agree on why Roosevelt ran against his old friend. People who like Roosevelt often say that Taft did not do what progressives wanted, so of course they wanted Roosevelt to take over again. Roosevelt thought that he could do a better job bringing all Republicans together than Taft. He thought America needed him.

People who didn’t like Roosevelt look at him differently. Roosevelt had a big ego, and he clearly wanted power. He hated being on the outside looking in. He turned on his friend and talked only about Taft’s mistakes.

When Republicans got together in Chicago to pick which man was going to be their candidate progressive Republicans said that the conservatives at the party were trying to rig the vote. So, they left and formed the National Progressive Party. Later that summer, they picked Roosevelt to be their candidate. When reporters asked if he was strong enough to run for president again, Roosevelt said he felt as strong as a “bull moose,” giving the party the nickname the Bull Moose Party.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

In this cartoon, President Taft is showed struggling to control the many problems that plagued his presidency. Meanwhile, a critical former president Roosevelt looks in disapprovingly, foreshadowing the contentious 1912 election.

The two old friends said terrible things about each other during the summer of 1912. Taft had the support of Republican leaders, but the people liked Roosevelt.

Roosevelt talked about his plans for the future. Instead of breaking up every trust, Roosevelt wanted to start a Federal Trade Commission to keep an eye on unfair business practices. He wanted to start a minimum wage, pass a law so that workers would still get paid if they got hurt on the job, and a law to end child labor. He wanted the government to give people money after they retired and help pay for people to go to the doctor. He said he wanted women to be able to vote. The government must help its people, Roosevelt and his progressive followers said. Taft and his supporters disagreed, and the battle was left for the voters to decide.

In the end, Republicans split their votes between Roosevelt and Taft, and it was Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat who ended up with the most votes and became president.


Progressives were not all Republicans. Woodrow Wilson also saw the need for change. He called his plans the New Freedom. Wilson was from Virginia, just like Thomas Jefferson. And like Jefferson, he liked the idea of a country full of small, independent farmers. Of course, the days when farming was the main way Americans made money were gone, but a nation of small farmers and happy, successful working people still seemed possible. To make his New Freedom come to life, Wilson went after three things he thought hurt regular Americans: the tariff, the banks, and the trusts.

Tariffs are taxes on things made in other countries and sold in America. They protected the large industrialists because they made less expensive foreign products more expensive. And the people who had to pay were regular Americans. Wilson signed the Underwood-Simmons Act into law in 1913, which lowered tariffs.

The banking system also hurt regular Americans. In 1912, all American money was backed by gold. Because gold was rare, it was hard for regular Americans to get loans. Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, which got rid of the gold standard and made it easier for banks to give out loans.

Unlike Roosevelt, Wilson did not see the difference between “good” trusts and “bad” trusts. Any trust was bad in Wilson’s eyes. He signed the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 which made the Sherman Act even stronger. This same act also protected labor unions, gave them the right to go on strike, hold boycotts, and made peaceful picketing legal. Business owners could no longer use antitrust laws against their workers.

In just two years, Wilson went after the tariff, the banks and the trusts. But soon he would have an even bigger problem to work on, the First World War in Europe.

Primary Source: Photograph

Woodrow Wilson during the 1912 election campaign. His academic appearance matched his idealistic personality.


Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party had some big ideas, but Roosevelt lost the election of 1912. However, Wilson took some of those ideas and helped get them turned into law. He let the Federal Trade Commission get started to watch over businesses. A child labor law and workers’ compensation law were also passed. Wilson agreed to a rule to protect some railroad workers from having to work too much overtime.

Progressive ended up liking Wilson, and the American people liked him so much they elected him to a second term in 1916.


So, the government can do a lot to decide how much power the rich and the workers have. In the 1800s, the government always stepped in for the business owners, but in the 1900s, progressive presidents did more to help the workers.

Some would say that America’s political leaders in the Gilded Age did not do enough to make sure the people who were doing the work were also getting the money. It turns out that this argument is still going on now. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, and even with today’s Occupy Wall Street movement, there are people who feel that the government has not done enough to make sure that all Americans get a fair share of America’s money.

What do you think? How should the government balance the power of the rich and poor?



BIG IDEA: A series of progressive presidents in the first decades of the 1900s, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt, tried to balance the power of workers and owners and took trusts and monopolies to court.

Theodore Roosevelt took an interesting road to the White House. He was born rich, became a national hero in the Spanish-American War, was briefly a cowboy, became Governor of New York, and eventually vice president. Republican leaders who didn’t like Roosevelt chose him to be vice president on purpose, because they believed he would be sidelined and would have no influence. They didn’t expect McKinley to be assassinated.

As president, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to balance the needs of workers and owners. When trusts were beneficial to the growth of the nation, he ignored them. When he thought business leaders were hurting people and the nation, he took them to court to break up their monopolies.

Roosevelt grew tired of the job and helped William Howard Taft win as his successor. Taft continued Roosevelt’s trustbusting ways. In 1912, Roosevelt came back, this time with his own Bull Moose Party to try to win back his old job. Republicans were split between Taft and Roosevelt, giving the electoral win to Woodrow Wilson, a democrat.

Wilson was also a progressive, and used government’s power to promote reform. During his time in office he created the Federal Reserve to stabilize the nation’s banking system and the Federal Trade Commission to oversee business practices.



Trust Buster: Nickname for President Theodore Roosevelt, referring to the numerous lawsuits he filed against monopolies using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

New Freedom:
President Wilson’s campaign promise. He wanted to reduce tariffs and limit the power of banks and trusts.


Mark Hanna: President McKinley’s campaign manager who disliked Theodore Roosevelt and arranged for his selection as McKinley running mate.

William Howard Taft: Republican president who succeeded Roosevelt. He had previously served as Governor of the Philippines. His presidency did not go well and he lost his bid for reelection after Roosevelt ran as an independent. He later served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Bull Moose Party: Nickname for the independent party that nominated former president Roosevelt in 1912 after he lost his bid for the Republican nomination.

Woodrow Wilson: Democratic president from New Jersey. He was president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey. He defeated Roosevelt and Taft to win the presidency in 1912 and was president during World War One.


Sherman Anti-Trust Act: 1890 law banning business combinations “in restraint of trade.” Often used against unions, Theodore Roosevelt used it to take monopolies to court, giving him the nickname “Trustbuster.”

Clayton Antitrust Act:
1914 law that clarified the Sherman Ant-Trust Act. It was used by President Wilson to continue antitrust court battles.


Election of 1912: Presidential election in which Republican president Taft lost his bid for reelection when Roosevelt ran as an independent. Due to the split in the Republican Party, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency.


Federal Reserve: Government organization charged with maintaining a steady overall economy. They control the amount of money printed and in circulation. They also control the interest rates banks pay to borrow money.

Federal Trade Commission:
Government organization charged with monitoring business activities, especially to limit the creation of monopolies.

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