When Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office as the 26th President of the United States on September 14, 1901, he became the leader of a nation that had changed significantly in recent decades. The population of the United States had almost doubled from 1870 to 1900 as immigrants came to U.S. cities to work in the country's burgeoning factories. As the United States became increasingly urban and industrial, it acquired many of the attributes common to industrial nations—overcrowded cities, poor working conditions, great economic disparity, and the political dominance of big business. At the turn of the twentieth century, Americans had begun to look for ways to address some of these problems. (Source: The Miller Center)
How little has changed since TR’s time, as many of these issues are as topical today as they were during his presidency. In fact, a number of the most significant issues that remain very relevant today form the basis of the TR’s Site’s dynamic, immersive visitor experience and are at the core of our Project Citizen 2.0 Initiative.
In the early twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt was a dynamic force in a relatively new movement known as conservationism. During his presidency, Roosevelt made conservation a major part of his administration. As the new century began, the frontier was disappearing. Once common animals were now threatened. Many Americans, including Roosevelt, saw a need to preserve the nation's natural resources. He wanted to protect animals and land from businesses that he saw as a threat. Roosevelt said, "the rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights, and must be given its first consideration." By the end of his time as president, he had created five national parks, four game refuges, fifty-one national bird reservations as well as the National Forest Service. It could be said that Theodore Roosevelt, through laws, executive orders, and his strong personality, opened the nation's eyes to the natural wonders of the land. Roosevelt had changed the attitude of America. "Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us." (Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)
Immigration & Urban Poverty
Between 1900 and 1915, more than 15 million immigrants arrived in the United States. That was about equal to the number of immigrants who had arrived in the previous 40 years combined. Not only were the numbers of immigrants swelling, the countries from which they came had changed dramatically as well. Unlike earlier immigrants, the majority of the newcomers after 1900 came from non-English speaking European countries. The so-called "new immigrants" had difficulty adjusting to life here. At the same time, the United States had difficulty absorbing the immigrants. Most of the immigrants chose to settle in American cities, where jobs were located. As a result, the cities became ever more crowded. In addition, city services often failed to keep up with the flow of newcomers. Most of the immigrants did find jobs, although they often worked in jobs that most native-born Americans would not take. "In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people." (Source: Library of Congress)
Race and Social Inequities
Theodore Roosevelt reflected the racial attitudes of his time, and his domestic record on race and civil rights was a mixed bag. He did little to preserve black suffrage in the South as those states increasingly disenfranchised blacks. He believed that African Americans as a race were inferior to whites, but he thought many black individuals were superior to white individuals and should be able to prove their merit. He caused a major controversy early in his presidency when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House in October 1901. Roosevelt wanted to talk to Washington about patronage appointments in the South, and he was surprised by the vilification he received in the Southern press; he did not apologize for his actions. Although he appointed blacks to some patronage positions in the South, he was generally unwilling to fight the political battles necessary to win their appointment. One incident in particular taints Roosevelt's reputation on racial issues. In 1906, a small group of black soldiers was accused of going on a shooting spree in Brownsville, Texas, killing one white man and wounding another. Despite conflicting accounts and the lack of physical evidence, the Army assumed the guilt of the black soldiers. When not one of them admitted responsibility, an irritated Roosevelt ordered the dishonorable discharge of three companies of black soldiers (160 men) without a trial. Roosevelt and the white establishment had assumed the soldiers were guilty without affording them the opportunity for a trial to confront their accusers or prove their innocence. "[T]he attitude of the North toward the negro is far from what it should be, and there is need that the North also should act in good faith upon the principle of giving to each man what is justly due him, of treating him on his worth as a man, granting him no special favors, but denying him no proper opportunity for labor and the reward of labor." (Source: The Miller Center)
Big Business and Labor
One of Roosevelt's central beliefs was that the government had the right to regulate big business to protect the welfare of society. In his first message to Congress in 1901, President Roosevelt stated, “There is a widespread conviction in the minds of the American people that the great corporations known as trusts are in certain of their features and tendencies hurtful to the general welfare.” Roosevelt pushed for more government regulation of business, but Congress initially adhered to constitutional restraints and resisted. But that didn’t stop Roosevelt from taking matters into his own hands. Roosevelt’s Justice Department initiated 44 lawsuits against major corporations for violating federal antitrust laws, more than any previous president and earning Roosevelt the nickname “trustbuster.” The most prominent lawsuit was against Northern Securities Company—a giant railroad combination created by a syndicate of wealthy industrialists and financiers led by J. P. Morgan—violated the Sherman Antitrust Act because it was a monopoly. In 1904, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government and ordered the company dismantled. The high court's action was a major victory for the administration and put the business community on notice that although this was a Republican administration, it would not give business free rein to operate without regard for the public welfare. “We demand that big business give the people a square deal; in return we must insist that when any one engaged in big business honestly endeavors to do right he shall himself be given a square deal.” (Source: The Miller Center)
Role of the U.S. in Global Affairs
As President, Roosevelt wanted to increase the influence and prestige of the United States on the world stage and make the country a global power. He also believed that the exportation of American values and ideals would have an ennobling effect on the world. TR's diplomatic maxim was to "speak softly and carry a big stick," and he maintained that a chief executive must be willing to use force when necessary while practicing the art of persuasion. He therefore sought to assemble a powerful and reliable defense for the United States to avoid conflicts with enemies who might prey on weakness. Roosevelt followed McKinley in ending the relative isolationism that had dominated the country since the mid-1800s, acting aggressively in foreign affairs, often without the support or consent of Congress. “In foreign affairs we must make up our minds that, whether we wish it or not, we are a great people and must play a great part in the world. It is not open to us to choose whether we will play that great part or not. We have to play it. All we can decide is whether we shall play it well or ill.” (Source: The Miller Center)
The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site is operated by the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site Foundation, a registered non-profit organization, through a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.
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