The politics of the first few years of our nation’s history were dominated by heroic presidents – Washington, Adams, Jefferson. And as the years went on, other dynamic men had a tremendous effect on America – Jackson, Polk, Lincoln.

Then, after the Civil War, power moved to the Capitol Building and Congress set the nation’s agenda. As the industrial revolution transformed American cities and the lives of workers, the White House did little to guide reform or protect Americans from corruption and mistreatment.

That changed in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt stepped into the Oval Office. He used his position to promote an active government that protected the interests of the people over big business. The Progressive movement finally had an ally in the White House. The Progressive lock on the Presidency did not end with Theodore Roosevelt. His popularity secured the election in 1908 of his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, and in 1912, a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson was elected, but he too embraced much of the Progressive agenda.

The two halves of the Gilded Age give us window into the role government has to play in balancing the interests of workers and owners. Before Roosevelt’s presidency, government pursued policies that favored business, and business boomed. Once the Progressives moved into the White House, laws were passed that protected workers, and the wild growth slowed.

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


Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858 to a wealthy New York banker and the daughter of a prosperous Georgia planter. He was anything but the model physical specimen. His eyesight was poor. He wore thick glasses his entire life. As a child he was small and weak. He suffered from acute asthma, which contributed to his frailty.

Taking his father’s advice, he dedicated himself to physical fitness, without which he believed there could be no mental fitness. His hard work paid off, and as he entered Harvard with a muscular frame, his condition bothered him less and less.

He met Alice Hathaway Lee. Although he believed her to be the most unobtainable woman around, he was determined to marry her. Again, he was successful, but his life with Alice was short-lived. In 1884, four years after his graduation, Alice delivered a daughter. Owing to complications, she died in childbirth on the very same day as the death of Roosevelt’s mother.

Devastated, he withdrew to North Dakota Territory, but could not live without the New York pace for long. Returning to New York in 1886, Roosevelt remarried and dedicated his life to public service.

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 in the Republican Party leadership saw him as a reckless cowboy, especially Senator Mark Hanna, President McKinley’s campaign manager. As his popularity soared, he became more and more of a threat. His success with the Rough Riders in Cuba made him a war hero in the eyes of many Americans. Riding this wave, he was elected governor of New York.

During the campaign of 1900, Hanna decided that nominating Roosevelt for the Vice-Presidency would serve two purposes. First, his popularity would surely help President McKinley’s reelection bid. Second, moving him to the Vice-Presidency might decrease his power, since the Constitution gives very little authority 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 gone on to the White House only if the sitting President died in office. The last Vice-President elected in his own right had been Martin Van Buren in 1837. Many conservative Republicans believed Roosevelt could do less harm as vice-president than as governor of New York.

McKinley and Roosevelt won the election, and all was proceeding according to plan until an assassin’s bullet ended McKinley’s life in September 1901.

There had never been a President like him. At only 42-years-old, Roosevelt was the youngest president ever. His energy was contagious, and the whole country was electrified by their new leader.

Soon it was clear that a new type of President was in town. Since Lincoln’s death in 1865, Congress seemed to be running the government, and big business seemed to be running Congress. Philosophically, Roosevelt was outraged by these realities. Although he himself hailed from the wealthy classes, he strongly believed that no individual, no matter how rich and powerful, should control the people’s representatives.

Furthermore, Roosevelt was convinced that if abuse of workers continued to go unchecked, a violent revolution would sweep the nation. An outspoken foe of socialism, Roosevelt believed that capitalism would be preserved with a little restraint and common sense. Within months he began to wield his newfound power.

Roosevelt changed the office in other important ways. He never went anywhere without his photographer. He wanted Americans to see a rough and tumble leader who was unafraid 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.

Unlike his quieter predecessors, Roosevelt knew that if the Washington politicians resisted change, he would have to take his case to the people directly. He traveled often and spoke with confidence and enthusiasm. Americans received him warmly.

The country was thirsting for leadership and Roosevelt became a political and popular hero. Merchandise was sold in his likeness, paintings and lithographs created in his honor, and even a film was produced portraying him as a fairy-tale hero. The White House was finally back in business.


Teddy Roosevelt was one American who believed a revolution was coming. He believed Wall Street fanciers and powerful trust titans to be acting foolishly. While they were eating off fancy china on mahogany tables in marble dining rooms, the masses were roughing it. There seemed to be no limit to greed. If docking wages would increase profits, it was done. If higher railroad rates put more gold in their coffers, it was done. How much was enough, Roosevelt wondered?

Although he himself was a man of means, he criticized the wealthy class of Americans on two counts. First, continued exploitation of the public could result in a violent uprising that could destroy the whole system. Second, the captains of industry were arrogant enough to believe themselves superior to the elected government. Now that he was President, Roosevelt went on the attack.

The President’s weapon was the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed by Congress in 1890. This law declared illegal all combinations “in restraint of trade.” For the first twelve years of its existence, the Sherman Act was a paper tiger. United States courts routinely sided with business when any enforcement of the Act was attempted.

For example, the American Sugar Refining Company controlled 98% of the sugar industry. Despite this virtual monopoly, the Supreme Court refused to dissolve the corporation in an 1895 ruling. The only time an organization was deemed in restraint of trade was when the court ruled against a labor union.

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.

Roosevelt knew that no new legislation was necessary. When he sensed that he had a sympathetic Court, he sprang into action. The first trust giant to fall victim to Roosevelt’s assault was none other than the most powerful industrialist in the country, J. Pierpont Morgan.

Morgan controlled a railroad company known as Northern Securities. In combination with railroad moguls James J. Hill and E. H. Harriman, Morgan controlled the bulk of railroad shipping across the northern United States.

Morgan was enjoying a peaceful dinner at his New York home on February 19, 1902, when his telephone rang. He was furious to learn that Roosevelt’s Attorney General was bringing suit against the Northern Securities Company. Stunned, he muttered to his equally shocked dinner guests about how rude it was to file such a suit without warning.

Four days later, Morgan was at the White House with the President. Morgan bellowed that he was being treated like a common criminal. The President informed Morgan that no compromise could be reached, and the matter would be settled by the courts. Morgan inquired if his other interests were at risk, too. Roosevelt told him only the ones that had done anything wrong would be prosecuted.

This was the core of Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership. He boiled everything down to a case of right versus wrong and good versus bad. If a trust controlled an entire industry but provided good service at reasonable rates, it was a “good” trust to be left alone. Only the “bad” trusts that jacked up rates and exploited consumers would come under attack. Who would decide the difference between right and wrong? The occupant of the White House trusted only himself to make this decision in the interests of the people.

The American public cheered Roosevelt’s new offensive. The Supreme Court, in a narrow 5 to 4 decision, agreed and dissolved the Northern Securities Company. Roosevelt said confidently that no man, no matter how powerful, was above the law. As he landed blows on other “bad” trusts, his popularity grew and grew. He gained the nickname, the “Trust Buster.”


1908 was not a good year for Teddy Roosevelt. The nation was recovering from a financial panic that had rocked Wall Street the previous year. Many leading industrialists unjustly blamed the crisis on the President. The Congress that he had finessed in his early term was now dominated by conservative Republicans who took joy at blocking the President’s initiatives. Now his time in the White House was coming to a close.

He had promised not to seek a third term when he was elected in 1904. No prior President had ever broken the two-term tradition. Roosevelt would keep his word.

He decided that if he could no longer serve as President, the next best option was to name a successor that would carry out his programs. He found the perfect candidate in William Howard Taft.

Taft and Roosevelt were best friends. When Roosevelt was sworn in as chief executive, Taft was serving as governor of the Philippines. Roosevelt offered his friend a seat on the Supreme Court, but his work in the Philippines and the ambitions of Mrs. Taft propelled him to decline. In 1904, he became Secretary of War and his friendship with Roosevelt grew stronger.

By 1908, Roosevelt was convinced that Taft would be the ideal successor. His support steamrolled Taft to the Republican nomination, and the fall election against William Jennings Bryan proved to be a landslide victory.

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.

Upon leaving the White House, Roosevelt embarked on a worldwide tour, including an African safari and a sojourn through Europe. Taft was left to make his own mark on America.

But he lacked the political skill of his predecessor to keep both the progressive and conservative wings of his party happy. He ended up alienating both sides.

The defining moment came with the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. Progressives hated the measure, which raised rates, and conservatives lauded it. Taft signed the bill, and his progressive supporters were furious.

The rupture widened with the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy. Richard Ballinger was Taft’s Secretary of the Interior. His appointment shocked Gifford Pinchot, the nation’s chief forester and longtime companion of Theodore Roosevelt. Pinchot rightly saw that Ballinger was no friend to Roosevelt’s conservation initiatives. When Pinchot publicly criticized Ballinger, Taft fired Pinchot, and progressives were again outraged. The two wings of the party were now firmly on a collision course.

Despite criticism from progressive Republicans, Taft did support many of their goals. He broke twice as many trusts in his one term as Roosevelt had broken in his two. Taft limited the workday of federal employees to 8 hours and supported the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which empowered the Congress to levy a federal income tax. He created a Children’s Bureau and supported the 17th Amendment, which allowed for senators to be directly elected by the people instead of the state legislatures.

Still, when Roosevelt returned to America, progressives pressed him to challenge Taft for the party leadership. As 1912 approached, the fight was on.


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

Roosevelt’s decision to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912 was most difficult. Historians disagree on his motives. Defenders of Roosevelt insist that Taft betrayed the progressive platform. When Roosevelt returned to the United States, he was pressured by thousands of progressives to lead them once more. Roosevelt believed that he could do a better job uniting the party than Taft. He felt a duty to the American people to run.

When progressive members of the Republican Party accused the conservatives at the party convention in Chicago of tampering with the vote, they convened in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, and formed the National Progressive Party. Later that summer, they nominated Roosevelt. Questioned by reporters, Roosevelt said he felt as strong as a “bull moose,” giving the party the nickname the, Bull Moose Party.

Critics of Roosevelt are not quite so kind. Roosevelt had a huge ego, and his lust for power could not keep him on the sidelines. He stabbed his friend in the back and overlooked the positive sides of Taft’s Presidency. Whatever the motive, the election of 1912 would begin with two prominent Republican candidates.

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 former friends hurled insults at each other as the summer of 1912 drew near. Taft had the party leadership behind him, but Roosevelt had the people. Roosevelt spoke of a New Nationalism, a broad plan of social reform for America.

Rather than destroying every trust, Roosevelt supported the creation of a Federal Trade Commission to keep a watchful eye on unfair business practices. He proposed a minimum wage, a workers’ compensation act, and a child labor law. He proposed a government pension for retirees and funds to assist Americans with health care costs. He supported the women’s suffrage amendment. The time of laissez faire was over. The government must intervene to help its people Roosevelt and his progressive followers argued. Taft and his supporters disagreed, and the battle was left for the voters to decide.


Progressives did not come only in the Republican flavor. Thomas Woodrow Wilson also saw the need for change. Born in Staunton, Virginia, Wilson served as president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey. He combined a southern background with northern sensibilities.

His 1912 platform for change was called the New Freedom. Wilson was an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. The agrarian utopia of small, educated farmers envisioned by Jefferson struck a chord with Wilson. Of course, the advent of industry could not be denied, but a nation of small farmers and small businesspeople seemed entirely possible. The New Freedom sought to achieve this vision by attacking what Wilson called the triple wall of privilege: the tariff, the banks, and the trusts.

Tariffs protected the large industrialists at the expense of small farmers. Wilson signed the Underwood-Simmons Act into law in 1913, which reduced tariff rates. The banking system also pinched small farmers and entrepreneurs. The gold standard still made currency too tight, and loans were too expensive for the average American. Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, which made the nation’s currency more flexible.

Unlike Roosevelt, Wilson did not distinguish between “good” trusts and “bad” trusts. Any trust by virtue of its large size was bad in Wilson’s eyes. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 clarified the Sherman Act by specifically naming certain business tactics illegal. This same act also exempted labor unions from antitrust suits, and declared strikes, boycotts, and peaceful picketing legal. No longer could business owners use antitrust legislation against their workers.

In two years, he successfully attacked each wall of privilege. Now his eyes turned to greater concerns, particularly the outbreak of the First World War in Europe.

Primary Source: Photograph

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


When Wilson’s first term expired, he felt he had to do more. The nation was on the brink of entering the First World War, bloodiest conflict in human history, and Wilson had definite ideas about how the postwar peace should look. But he would have to survive reelection first.

As an appeal to the Roosevelt progressives, he began to sign many legislative measures suggested by the Bull Moose campaign. He approved of the creation of a Federal Trade Commission to act as a watchdog over business. A child labor bill and a workers’ compensation act became law. Wilson agreed to limit the workday of interstate railroad workers to 8 hours. He signed a Federal Farm Loan Act to ease the pains of life on the farm.

Progressive Republicans in the Congress were pleased by Wilson’s conversion to their brand of progressivism, and the American people showed their approval by electing him to a second term.


So, clearly government has tremendous power to tip the scale of power between the wealthy and the workers. In the 1800s, government usually intervened on behalf of business owners, but in the 1900s, progressive presidents worked more aggressively to champion the concerns of workers.

Some would argue that America’s political leaders did not go far enough, that they should have done more to distribute power and wealth among the people who labored every day to create that wealth. Moreover, this did not end after the Gilded Age. Throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, and even within today’s Occupy Wall Street movement, there are those who feel government has not done enough to redistribute wealth.

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



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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