The Accidental President

In his 1913 autobiography, Roosevelt reflected on the ways the nation’s needs had changed since the days of the founding fathers, when “what was demanded by our people was the largest liberty for the individual.” Roosevelt felt that over the century between the country’s founding and his tenure as president, that need had reversed. “There had been in our country a riot of individualistic materialism,” he wrote, “under which complete freedom for the individual…turned out in practice to meet perfect freedom for the strong to wrong the weak.” He immediately set out to repair the damage the riot of individualistic materialism had caused.

One of the first major reformist moves by this “accidental president” was to bring suit against the Northern Securities Company, a holding company that controlled the stock of several railroads in the west. Roosevelt declared it an illegal monopoly that restricted trade and thereby drove up prices; he ordered the U.S. Attorney General to file suit. It was the first time that the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act—which was the first Federal law to limit monopolies— had been invoked against an existing corporation, rather than being used simply to prevent future monopolies from being formed.

One of the things that galled Roosevelt the most was financier J. P. Morgan’s insistence that he and the president could work out a backroom deal to solve the problem. “Have your man get in touch with my man and fix it,” Morgan said. To Roosevelt, it was obscene that big business would presume to be the equal of the government. To Morgan, Roosevelt’s actions were simply ungentlemanly. The Justice Department’s eventual victory over Northern Securities cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a trustbuster, but the Roosevelt administration did make efforts to work with corporations before filing suit in the future.

With his willingness to battle graft, big business, and corrupt capitalists well established, Roosevelt went one step further and became the first president to intervene in a strike. The United Mine Workers of America walked out in May 1902, demanding a shorter workday, higher pay, fair weighing of the coal they mined (wages were tied to production), and recognition of the union’s existence. Management refused, and neither party was willing to compromise. By October, with winter looming and a coal shortage threatening the country, Roosevelt saw “the certainty of riots which might develop into social war” and invited representatives of both sides to Washington for discussions. This marked the first time that the U.S. government had mediated in labor negotiations.

Seeking a balance that would appease all parties, Roosevelt wrote, “the labor unions shall have a square deal, and the corporations shall have a square deal.” George Baer, spokesman for the coal barons, wrote, “The rights and all interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for—not by the labor agitators—but by the Christian men whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country.” Such an unchecked belief in business as usual among a divinely anointed ruling class must have chafed Roosevelt, the longtime champion of meritocracy.

coal strike 3b15423uCoal StrikeTalks were at an impasse until the president threatened to bring in the army to run the mines. Faced with a situation that would be a blow to both labor and management, the UMWA agreed to end the strike as long as a presidential commission would investigate the strikers’ demands. Ironically this suggestion was first offered by Roosevelt’s adversary J. P. Morgan, whose railroad interests were being severely affected by the strike. In 1903 this commission made its decision. Coal operators were not forced to recognize the union, and no change was made to the process of coal weighing, but miners were awarded a 10% wage increase and a nine-hour workday, down from 12. A massive coal shortage was averted, and Roosevelt touted the compromise as “a square deal for both sides. A new phrase for Roosevelt’s progressive policies was coined.