Theodore Roosevelt: A Square Deal for Every Man

PresidentTheodore Roosevelt’s colorful life on and off the political stage introduced a number of equally colorful phrases into American English: muckrakers, Rough Riders, the strenuous life, nature-fakers, Bull Moose. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” summed up his international policy; “A square deal for every man” is what he strove for domestically.

Although he came from a wealthy New York family, the young Roosevelt rejected a life of leisure. Inspired by Abraham Lincoln, he entered public life with zeal for reforming the Republican Party, and in turn, the entire nation. Biographer Aida Donald writes that he believed “the party ought not only to be brought back to reform, to fair dealing for all who worked, and to social justice for all, but also the best men ought to lead in the struggle.”

Railing against the corrupt elements of his own party made him many enemies, but his commitment to social justice and his belief that an honest man should be rewarded for honest work led to his broad popularity and meteoric rise to political power. He entered public life in 1882 as a New York state assemblyman; in the next two decades he would serve as federal civil service commissioner, New York City police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York, and vice president of the United States. Just 19 years after winning his first election, Roosevelt would find himself an “accidental president,” entering the nation’s highest office after President William McKinley’s assassination.

His life was a struggle to balance opposing forces. As a sickly child, he embraced serious scholarship until resolving as a teenager to pursue “the strenuous life.” He remained an author and scholar as well as a vigorous outdoorsman all his life. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service as the leader of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry in the Battle of San Juan Heights during the Spanish-American War, and the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War—making him the only person to be awarded the highest honor for military service and the highest honor in the pursuit of peace. Balancing the needs of the honest working man with the needs of a robust business sector became the major goal of his domestic policies as president. In a letter to Sir George Trevelyan, March 9, 1905, he wrote, “Somehow or other we shall have to work out methods of controlling the big corporations without paralyzing the energies of the business community…”

This commitment to fairness was at the heart of Roosevelt’s political philosophy throughout his life, eventually coming together in a series of acts known as the Square Deal. Together, these acts epitomize the progressive movement of the early 20th century.

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