About the Author: Melissa Smith has taught A.P. U.S. History for over 20 years. She has been involved in the A.P. U.S. History reading for 18 years as a reader, a table leader, the DBQ question leader, and currently as an exam leader. She also recently served on the Test Development Committee for the SAT U.S. History Subject Test.
A Square Deal
The Square Deal refers to Theodore Roosevelt’s domestic policies that focused on the “Three C’s”:
- Control of corporations,
- Consumer protection
- Conservation of natural resources.
These reforms fundamentally redefined the relationship between the federal government and the economy. Roosevelt sought, and accomplished, a restructuring of the American rules of commerce with the goals of protecting labor and consumers from the unscrupulous actions of corporations while also protecting corporations from the unreasonable and sometimes violent demands of labor. In 1910, Roosevelt summarized his domestic policies by saying:
I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.
Roosevelt largely succeeded in accomplishing these goals and set the precedent for greater government involvement in the economy of the United States for decades to come.
Square Deal… A Progressive Idea
The Progressive movement began in the late nineteenth-century, largely in reaction to an economic depression in the 1890s. This economic turmoil highlighted the many societal problems caused by income inequality, poor working and living conditions, and corrupt politicians. Progressive reformers worked toward achieving a wide range of improvements to American society, often contradicting each other or working at cross-purposes.
However, what tied Progressive reformers together was a general consensus about embracing the principles of democracy, social justice, modern standards of efficiency, and the need for government regulation. Theodore Roosevelt was largely sympathetic to the Progressive reformers. Before becoming president, Roosevelt had worked in government at the municipal, state, and federal levels and championed civil service reforms with boundless energy. As the New York City Police Commissioner, he witnessed the effects of poverty and deplorable living conditions on many people in his city. As New York’s governor he had to address problems caused by trusts, labor disputes, and political corruption.
What tied Progressive reformers together was a general consensus about embracing the principles of democracy, social justice, modern standards of efficiency, and the need for government regulation.
Once Roosevelt became President, he immediately recognized the national impact of these problems as well as the potential for a powerful federal government to ameliorate these problems by passing laws, setting standards, and enforcing policies that could make a real difference in the lives of millions of people.
As President, Roosevelt immediately recognized the national impact of these problems and believed in the potential for a powerful federal government to ameliorate these problems
Controlling the Corporation
One of the problems that Roosevelt immediately began to tackle was the unfair hold that a few rich men and their companies had on the economy of the United States. Monopolies paid low wages to their workers and often required horrific working conditions. These companies also hurt the middle class by raising prices on the goods and services they provided as well as severely restricting competition− squashing many middle-class entrepreneurial dreams. For example, the Standard Oil Company created a reliable product offered to consumers at reasonable prices, but they did so aided by illegally colluding with railroad companies to obtain favorable transportation costs and deliberately undercutting competitors to drive them out of business. Additionally, the American Tobacco Company sold cigarettes at high prices while aggressively marketing their products as necessary in treating a wide variety of medical problems from asthma to influenza.
Roosevelt argued, too, that some large trusts were more efficient than small businesses and were to be praised for their success.
Theodore Roosevelt was not against all trusts, however, as he recognized a difference between “good” trusts (those that did not abuse their power and contributed to the growth of the American economy) and “bad” trusts (those that unfairly raised prices and exploited consumers). Roosevelt argued, too, that some large trusts were more efficient than small businesses and were to be praised for their success.
In 1890 Congress had passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, recognizing the dangers trusts posed to the economy. Several presidents failed to effectively enforce this law, however, until Roosevelt occupied the office. While president, Roosevelt used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act twenty-five times−earning himself a reputation as a “trust-buster.” Most significantly, in 1905 the Supreme Court agreed to dissolve the Northern Securities Company for monopolizing railroads in the northwestern part of the country. This case set the legal precedent for dissolving companies in violation of anti-trust legislation, a precedent that would lead to the end of two of the largest trusts in the nation−the Standard Oil Company and the American Tobacco Company in 1911.
While president, Roosevelt used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act twenty-five times−earning himself a reputation as a “trust-buster.”
Roosevelt’s desire to control corporations extended beyond trust busting. In 1903, Roosevelt signed the Elkins Act, which prohibited railroads from giving rebates to their most favored and wealthy customers. The Hepburn Act in 1906 increased the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission and allowed it to set railroad shipping rates−a reform that Progressives and even the earlier Populists had been demanding for years. Roosevelt also created a new cabinet department, the Department of Commerce and Labor, to control the excesses of big business. At the end of Roosevelt’s presidency, he even hosted a White House Conference on Dependent Children to focus on child welfare and labor issues. All of these court cases, laws, departments, and conferences were new territory for the federal government. Never before had a president or a federal government been so involved in regulating the economy. Most presidents approached the economy with a “laissez-faire” attitude and allowed capitalists to run their companies how they saw fit. Now, Roosevelt was demanding ethical standards for large companies, insisting that they do not abuse their economic might to exploit workers and consumers.
Never before had a president or a federal government been so involved in regulating the economy. Most presidents approached the economy with a “laissez-faire” attitude and allowed capitalists to run their companies how they saw fit.
Protecting the Consumer
Another goal of Roosevelt’s Square Deal was consumer protection.
Another goal of Roosevelt’s Square Deal was consumer protection. For too long consumers had no choice but to buy dubious products with questionable safety standards. Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle exposed the harsh realities of the working conditions of America’s meat packing plants as well as the disgusting quality of America’s canned food. Roosevelt read The Jungle and sent two trusted men to Chicago to investigate and hopefully to debunk Sinclair’s story. When their report confirmed the basic tenets of the novel, however, Roosevelt supported government regulation of the meat industry and within a few months signed the Meat Inspection Act into law. Relatedly, Roosevelt also signed the Pure Food and Drug Act into law to regulate the addition of dangerous chemicals and preservatives into foods as well as the sketchy patent medicines of the day that contained high levels of alcohol or opium.
Roosevelt recognized that a poor and brutalized working class would often turn to radical and dangerous notions in an attempt to improve their lives.
While Theodore Roosevelt was concerned about the quality of consumer goods, he was also concerned about working conditions in the country. Roosevelt recognized that a poor and brutalized working class would often turn to radical and dangerous notions in an attempt to improve their lives. If the federal government could be more involved in regulating and improving the conditions of workers, then the dangers of socialism and anarchism could be reduced. In 1902, anthracite coal miners began a labor strike, demanding a 20% increase in wages, a nine-hour workday, and recognition of their union. As the strike dragged on into the winter months, many cities faced coal shortages and a loss of their source of heat. Advisors informed Roosevelt that he had no legal right to intervene in this dispute, but Roosevelt argued that cold and freezing citizens required government action. Roosevelt created a neutral commission to negotiate an end to the labor dispute and a resumption of work at the mines. This was a significant change in the role of the federal government in negotiating labor disputes. Many strikes of the late-nineteenth century ended with U.S. presidents sending in federal troops to break up the strike at the request of the company owners (and political campaign donors). Roosevelt, instead, used the federal government to act as a neutral arbiter to reach a reasonable solution for both workers and company owners.
Roosevelt, breaking precedent of past presidents, used the federal government to act as a neutral arbiter to reach a reasonable solution for both workers and company owners.
Conservation of Lands
The third component of the Square Deal was the conservation of natural resources. Theodore Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman. After a trip to Yosemite National Park with his friend John Muir, Roosevelt described a night under the giant sequoia trees as “like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”
While Roosevelt may have naturally favored preservation−maintaining the natural state of America’s land and resources−he recognized the business interests of western farmers and miners and supported the ideals of conservation−using natural resources in a sustainable way. Roosevelt clearly supported reasonable use of the land and its resources when he signed into law the Newlands Reclamation Act in 1902, which sold public lands to raise money for irrigation projects. Roosevelt also appointed Gifford Pinchot, a supporter of conservation, to lead the newly created National Forest Service in 1905. Roosevelt took many actions to preserve America’s natural beauty as well. By signing the Antiquities Act into law in 1906, Roosevelt created a process to designate national monuments.
During his presidency, Roosevelt created 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, and added over 150 million acres to the protection of the national forests.
During his presidency, Roosevelt created 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, and added over 150 million acres to the protection of the national forests. While the federal government had created a few national parks before Roosevelt’s time in office, Roosevelt completely changed the trajectory for the role of the federal government in conservation. Today, there are 59 national parks in the United States as well as 87 national monuments and numerous other memorials, historic sites, and preserves in the national park system.
A Square Legacy
The legacy of the Square Deal is impressive. Theodore Roosevelt fundamentally changed the role of the federal government from one that was largely hands-off in temperament to one that took a much more active role in regulating the excesses of many businesses and industries. Roosevelt broke up numerous trusts and began to regulate how businesses conducted themselves. He passed regulations to ensure safer and higher quality consumer products. He arbitrated labor disputes between workers and their employers.
The Square Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government from one that was largely hands-off in temperament to one that took a much more active role in regulating the excesses of many businesses and industries.
Additionally, he protected millions of acres of land so that their beauty and majesty could be appreciated for generations to come. This acceptance of a more active and regulatory government undoubtedly became the basis for the New Deal in the 1930s. Faced with economic ruin and despair, President Franklin D. Roosevelt increased government regulations of banks, the stock market, and farms, while creating jobs for the unemployed and needy.
By the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson supported even further government involvement and regulations in the economy and in society. Johnson’s Great Society built off the precedents of both FDR and TR when he created Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Job Corps and numerous other government programs to address the nation’s problems. Before Roosevelt’s Square Deal, this kind of government action was unheard of. But for over a century after the Square Deal, the federal government has continued to aid American citizens through its regulations of industry, consumer safety, and the environment.