Through his presidency, Roosevelt invoked the Sherman Act to dissolve 44 monopolies, including those held by Standard Oil and American Tobacco. He believed in “good trusts,” companies that controlled an entire industry but did so responsibly, but rallied against those that existed only to increase profits and that exploited workers and consumers to do so.
Boosted by his landslide re-election victory in 1904 (he won by 2.5 million popular votes, more than any candidate before him), he set to work taking power away from the greediest corporations. The cornerstone of Roosevelt’s Square Deal policies are a series of acts designed to undercut monopolies and protect workers and consumers: the Elkins and Hepburn Acts, the Pure Food & Drug and Meat Inspection Acts, and the Antiquities Act.
Elkins and Hepburn Acts
In a blow to railroad robber barons, the 1906 Hepburn Act gave more power to the organization that regulated the railroads, the Interstate Commerce Commission—so much power that the U.S. government then became the controllers of the country’s largest industry. The 1903 Elkins Act had already empowered the ICC to fine railroads that offered rebates and the companies that extorted those rebates. Now the ICC, and not railroad companies, was able to set rates for the transporting both people and goods. Corporations were also forced to sell off the steamship lines and coal mines they owned, dismantling their hold on such a huge segment of the industry. Together the Elkins and Hepburn Acts gave farmers and small business men a more level playing field when it came to shipping their goods cross-country. No longer could oversized trusts bully their way out of standard shipping rates and pad own their pockets with the savings.
Pure Food & Drug and Meat Inspection Acts
Jacob Riis, Roosevelt’s press ally from his days as the New York City police commissioner, was just one of the early 20th-century reporters known as muckrakers. Roosevelt himself inspired the term when he dismissively likened these investigative, progressive journalists to the “Man with the Muck-rake” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, always with their heads down looking at the filth. In popular middle class magazines and tabloid newspapers, Ida Tarbell exposed the Standard Oil Company, Riis cast a light on inner-city slums, and Upton Sinclair exposed revolting conditions in the meatpacking plants of Chicago, directly leading to the 1906 Meat Inspection Act.
The allegations Sinclair made in The Jungle horrified Roosevelt, but he mistrusted Sinclair’s Socialist agenda and called him a crackpot, “hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful.” He sent his own commissioners to inspect Chicago’s meatpacking plants, who returned believing that all but the worst atrocities in Sinclair’s novel were based on bleak reality. Roosevelt didn’t release this report, but it did form the basis of the 1906 Meat Inspection Act, which mandated that the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspect all livestock prior to and after slaughter, and established mandatory safety and sanitary conditions in slaughterhouses.
The Pure Food and Drug Act, passed the same year, was the precursor to the modern-day Food and Drug Administration. It called for all habit-forming drugs to be correctly labeled with exact ingredients and dosages. Licensed physicians now had to write prescriptions for the strongest drugs. Not only did this curb the misleading claims of patent medicine sellers, but it also prevented the meatpacking industry from adding unknown preservatives, such as formaldehyde, to slaughtered meat.
Roosevelt was the first president to focus on conservation as a national issue. His experiences ranching in the Dakota Territory and his early life as an outdoorsman made him sympathetic to the growing preservationist movement, which sought to protect America’s open spaces from rampant development, mining, and deforestation. Recognizing the need to balance conservation with business’s need to expand, he proposed a way to restrict the use of certain public lands. The Antiquities Act allowed the president to declare areas as national monuments, and offered a faster way to protect public land than petitioning Congress to create a national park. After the act, corporations could no longer drill in or build a railroad through on public land without a permit from the federal government. The first area to be designated under the new act was the Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, a popular climbing destination that has ties to many local Native American tribes.
During his tenure, Roosevelt oversaw the creation of five national parks and 18 national monuments, plus the preservation of 200 million acres as national forests and mineral reserves.
PHOTO CREDIT: LOC LC-DIG-STEREO-1S01976
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle
Roosevelt’s support for the 1906 Meat Inspection Act was inspired in part by the atrocious working conditions described by Upton Sinclair in his classic of muckraker literature, The Jungle, which tells the story of an extended Lithuanian family trying to succeed in Chicago.
[Mikolas] is a beef-boner, and that is a dangerous trade[….] Your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a bone. Then your hand slips up on the blade and there is a fearful gash. And that would not be so bad, only for the deadly contagion. The cut may heal, but you can never tell. Twice now, within the last three years, Mikolas has been lying at home with blood-poisoning—once for three months and once for nearly seven. The last time, too, he lost his job, which means six weeks more of standing at the doors of the packing-houses, at six o’clock on bitter winter mornings, with a foot of snow on the ground and more in the air. There are learned people who can tell you out of the statistics that beef-boners make forty cents an hour, but, perhaps, these people have never looked into a beef-boner’s hands.