Friday, July 15, 2016

Teddy Roosevelt: The first progressive president

Teddy Roosevelt's administration marked a shift in American politics toward a more active president with greater powers.  In essence, he turned the executive into the "bully pulpit."

Most presidents from Thomas Jefferson to William McKinley believed the role of government was limited, and that individuals were better at making decisions than government.  This all changed with the death of William McKinley.  Teddy Roosevelt became president, and he used his energy to increase the powers of the executive, making it possible for future presidents to allow government to intercede in nearly every aspect of our daily lives.

In August of 1898 he returned home from Cuba the most popular man in the United States, and it was mainly for this reason that republican leaders in New York asked him to run for governor.  He was young had tons of energy, and turned out to be a brilliant politician.  It was hear he is thought to have said," said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."  His campaign used his war heroics, even going as far as to have Rough Riders speaking on his behalf, to help his chances.

He was 25-years-old when he was inaugurated as governor of New York in January of 1901.  He became an ardent reformer, or what later would be called "progressive," and later "liberal."  He called for:
  • Laws limiting the long working hours of children
  • Better conditions for workers in factories (sometimes called sweatshops)
  • Signed a law imposing taxes on corporations
William Plat was a former U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate member from New York who was considered the "Political Boss" of the republican party.  He helped Roosevelt gain the governorship, and by 1900 he was tired of him.  He said, "I don't want him raising hell in my state any longer."  

Roosevelt was up for reelection.  The Boss came up with the perfect solution: he began a campaign to have Roosevelt nominated as William McKinley's vice president.  This would turn out to be perhaps the biggest blunder in the history of American politics.  McKinley, with Roosevelt riding on the ticket, easily defeated William Jennings Bryan.

Okay, so I alluded to the fact that Roosevelt would "fundamentally transform" the republican party into a progressive party.  Well, the same was true of the democratic party. It is probably for this reason that Grover Cleveland is often considered as the last classical liberal.  William Jennings Bryan had transformed the democratic party to becoming more progressive (big government) party.  So perhaps the transition was inevitable.  

Regardless, McKinley was now president.  But not for long.  On September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot by an anarchist and by September 13 the president was dead.  This officially made Roosevelt the "Accidental President."

The irony of this news was that, along with the death of McKinley, so too was the death of limited government.  Roosevelt proceeded to fundamentally transform the executive.  He gave it powers that previous presidents believed were unconstitutional (and rightly so). 

Yet because of books like Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," the American people came to realize (or at least to figure) that individual corporations were not going to regulate themselves, and the state's could not be trusted to create regulations fast enough.  So men like Roosevelt believed this was the job of the federal government.

His progressive agenda became known as the "Square Deal."  It incorporated three core principles that are still staunchly used by liberals today.  
  1. Regulating Corporations
  2. Protecting Consumers from the Free Market
  3. Safeguarding Natural Resources from Overuse
To accomplish these, he increased the powers of the executive by becoming the first president to create agencies that would be given the authority to regulate, or make rules or laws for individuals and individual corporations, without the approval of Congress.  The first of these was the establishment of the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, which gave consumers a voice in Washington. 

He distrusted wealthy business owners, and so he started by breaking up monopolies that were created by the formation of trusts. These monopolies were formed when stockholders from various companies turned their stock over to a trustee in exchange for a trust certificate guaranteeing them a dividend.  The companies were run as though they were one company, and therefore this allowed them to set prices as high or low as needed to drive the competition out of business.  

The test case for Roosevelt was J.P. Morgan's attempt to combine three railroads and to combine them into a single corporation called Northern Securities Company.  Roosevelt had attorney general Philander Knox bring suit charging that this was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.  The Supreme Court decided in Roosevelt's favor, thus giving the government the authority to break up other trusts, such as those in the beef, cattle, and oil industries. 

Roosevelt said he was only out to get trusts that he saw were abusing workers or overcharging customers. So, essentially, the federal government decided what trusts could continue to exist.  During Roosevelt's eight years 40 trusts were dissolved. He became known as the "trust buster." 

In 1902 he used what was now referred to as the "bully pulpit" to settle a dispute between business and labor.  In May, 15,000 workers went on strike to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions in coal mines. The mine owners hired non-union replacement workers.  Ticked off, the striking workers terrorized the replacement workers.  

Since coal was a essential for a functioning economy -- it was used to generate electricity, heat, power railroads, and heat homes, businesses, and schools -- the strike caused schools to close, coal prices to quadruple, and families to freeze during the winter.  It also resulted in riots as people fought to obtain coal from the few remaining locomotives that carried it.  

Previous presidents supported state's rights, and the rights of individual corporations, and therefore, if they got involved, they would support the corporations.  Roosevelt decided to take a different approach.  Even though he had no legal right to interfere, he invited both sides to Washington.  An arbitrator came up with a plan the strikers accepted but the mine owners rejected. 

So he tried speaking softly, now he got out his big stick.  He unconstitutionally ordered U.S. troops to prepare to take over the mines.  Workers were allowed to go back to work, and an arbitrator worked out an agreement that required a 10 percent wage increase, reduction in workday hours, and safer working conditions. Of course in order to do this coal prices were raised 10 percent.  

The people were happy that the president took away some of the liberties of the coal operators to the benefit of the common worker.  Roosevelt's popularity skyrocketed.

Modern libertarians won't like his next move, but many conservatives would.  For years people had wanted to create a channel across Panama so ships wouldn't have to travel thousands of miles around the tip of South America.  The Colombian government had rejected this idea.

However, a group in Panama had wanted to break away from Columbia and form their own government. Roosevelt decided he would support these radicals obtain their independence in exchange for the right to a Canal Zone where a canal could be dug out.  After ten years of construction, the Panama Canal opened in 1914.

Did Roosevelt have the Constitutional right to tinker in national affairs for his own personal gain the way he did? This is a question that made Roosevelt's actions so controversial.  The answer is still debated to this day.  However, this action created a precedent for future presidents to act upon.

During the 1904 election, Alton B. Parker, a judge from New York, ran as a conservative against liberal William Randolph Hearst for the democratic nomination.  Parker won the nomination, although was no match against the popular Roosevelt.  Parker received only 140 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 336.

Roosevelt would gloat about the results: "I have the greatest popular majority and the greatest electoral majority ever given a candidate for president."  But then he went on to say that he would not run for reelection in 1908.  This was a decision he would come to regret.

By 1906 various investigative reporters were reporting on abuses in the workplace. Roosevelt often responded to these reporters, calling them "Muckrakers."  One example of such "muckraking" was the book "The Jungle," by Upton Sinclair, which reported on the unfair and uncleanly working conditions in the meat packing industry.

They also gave Roosevelt an opportunity to solve more problems, and buy more votes for his party (or for the progressive cause, if you will).  He acted by creating regulations that would create more consumer protections and better working conditions.  Keep in mind here that Sinclair was a socialist, and he was after the workers more so than the consumers.

To get started, he encouraged Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in June of 1906.  This act mandated that food prepared in factories be properly labeled and and safely produced.  It lead to the formation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which had the ability to set regulations on the workplace without the permission of Congress.

The FDA went on to:
  • Ban foreign and interstate traffic in adulterated or mislabeled food and drug products
  • Direct the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry to inspect products and refer offenders to prosecuters
  • Required active ingredients be placed on the label of a drug's packaging 
  • It required that drugs could not fall below purity levels established b the U.S. Pharmacopeia or the National Formulary.
The actions of Roosevelt here were very popular. However, how good were they actually in retrospect? Conservatives would argue that cleaning up the meat packing industry should have been left to the states, not the federal government.  Likewise, creating laws and regulations is the job of Congress, not the executive branch.

By the turn of the century many railroad owners recognized their costs were increasing, so they decided to take advantage of the increased demand for their services by increasing their rates.  Passengers and shippers were unhappy with this, and the fact that railroads were giving free passes to loyal shippers.

So in 1903 he signed the Elkins Act, named for Senator Steven B. Elkins.  It strengthened the Interstate Commerce Committee (ICC) that was created in 1887 when Grover Cleveland signed the Interstate Commerce Act.  Now the ICC had the ability to impose fines on railroads for offering rebates, and punish shippers who accepted the rebates.

In 1906 he signed the Hepburn Act, named after its sponsor, republican William Peters Hepburn.  This act fortified the Interstate Commerce Committee, giving it the authority to set maximum rates, to restrict use of free passes, and the ability to enforce the regulations it created.  It also brought other businesses that transport goods and services under the control of the ICC, including terminals, storage facilities, pipelines, ferries, and trucking.

Both of these acts benefited consumers at the expense of the railroads. These Acts were justified under the false pretense that railroads were rich and could afford it. What the new laws did was retard the growth of the south, which the railroads could no longer afford to subsidize.  This was one of the unintended consequences of government interventions into the marketplace "with good intentions."

In essence, Roosevelt did something that would cause many of the founding fathers, and most of the previous presidents, roll over in their graves: he turned the government into a giant watchdog. Many people were fearful of what a large central government might do to personal liberties.  One newspaper wrote that Roosevelt's programs were "the most amazing program of centralization that any President of the United States has ever accomplished."

History would show that they were justified in their fear.  Roosevelt, in essence, opened a Pandora's Box, setting precedents that nearly every president after him used to their advantage to push forth an agenda and to obtain votes. Before Roosevelt, this was never done out of fear of what might happen if they did.

Fearing that Roosevelt's agenda might harm the country, conservatives decided to take Roosevelt's promise not to run for reelection to heart.  They started to work to delay his agenda any way they could, hoping that the next president wouldn't be so "progressive."

Congress was successful, although the president sometimes found ways to push forth his agenda (similar to what Obama would later do) to push forth his agenda anyway: by using executive orders.  One of his executive orders blocked the misuse of natural resources (forests, wildlife areas, vital waterways, natural wonders like the Grand Canyon).  He also assembled a conference of state and territorial governors to discuss conservation.

Surely these are all nice things.  Surely it's great to see the federal government preserving natural resources.  it's great to see all the natural parks and forests from being destroyed.  Still, many wondered if this was proper use of the executive branch.

All of Roosevelt's actions were noble, but they all increased the power and scope of government.  They created regulations, each of which took away another personal liberty.  Plus they were expensive, and would require sacrifices by the populace.

This was one of the reasons tariffs stayed generally high during his term in office, and he refused to even hear arguments about tariffs while he was president. This was also the reason why Roosevelt became the first president to push for a progressive income tax system.

Among his last actions was to utilize the precedent created by the McKinley administration (a time when he was vice president) to show the mite of the U.S. military, and the ability of the U.S. to be a world power. Japanese immigrants in California were the subject of discrimination.  Leaders in Japan made clear their disappointment.  Roosevelt responded by sending 16 battle ships (The Great White Fleet) on a goodwill cruise around the world.  This would be the "greatest display of naval power ever brought together in one squadron."

While protectionists would consider this a bad move on his part, I think it was good.  It, along with the actions of Mckinley, helped clear the path to the United States becoming a Superpower.

During his last two years in office Roosevelt worked hard to push forth more progressive programs, but Congress decided not to act on any of them because they knew Roosevelt would be out of office in 2008. They figured his successor wouldn't be so progressive, or at least have the energy, and things would return to normal.

Roosevelt personally selected his secretary of war, his friend William Howard Taft, to be the leader of the next administration.  Roosevelt believed Taft was the best person to continue on pushing forth the progressive agenda.  Little did he know that Taft was not a supporter of the progressive agenda at all, and was actually a conservative.

So, while many today associate the democratic party with the progressive movement, the father of the movement was actually Teddy Roosevelt -- a republican.  He is the father of modern liberalism.  He created the "activist president," thereby setting the precedent for the president to be active during times of peace as well as times of war.