Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.
It’s 2 a.m. on a cool and rainy night in June 1895. Two men in dark coats are loitering on Second Avenue in New York City, observing a police officer across the street. The officer is sitting on an upturned butter tub, asleep—and snoring so loudly that the two men can hear him clearly above the rain.
Finally, one of the men steps off the curb, crosses the street, and rouses the officer, who tells the stranger to get lost.
Bad move. He just gave lip to Theodore Roosevelt, the head of the city’s four-man police commission—and his boss—who is in disguise, wandering the streets on what he calls a “midnight ramble.” He wants to make sure that his officers are actually working.
He finds, however, that they are not. Versions of this same scene would occur, in the words of photojournalist Jacob Riis, TR’s friend and companion that night, “for three hours along 1st and 2nd and 3rd avenues, from 42nd Street to Bellevue.” Police would be standing on street corners outside saloons, chatting or sleeping or otherwise not doing their jobs. All of them would sass Roosevelt, and all would later regret it.
He begins going on the rambles nearly every Thursday night, sometimes with Riis, sometimes with reporters. Once, he busts an on-duty officer as he’s slurping oysters in a restaurant. The officer—who clearly doesn’t know who he’s speaking to—tells Roosevelt to kick rocks. TR demotes him the next day. It’s just one more chapter in his quest to reform the police department.
As his friend Jacob Riis would say, “There is very little ease where Theodore Roosevelt leads.” From the bars of the Bowery to the halls of power in Washington, TR made a career out of taking on corruption—and we’re about to find out how.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and today, we’re pitting TR against profiteering politicians, treacherous trusts, and fraudulent food. This episode is TR Vs. Corruption.
Nineteenth-century American politics were defined by the spoils system. Party bosses maintained power by handing out favors, like jobs or government contracts, to supporters. In New York City, Tammany Hall was the biggest distributor of spoils, but the system extended to Washington, too.
Theodore Roosevelt hated it. He wrote: “No republic can permanently endure when its politics are corrupt and base; and the spoils system, the application in political life of the degrading doctrine that to the victor belong the spoils, produces corruption and degradation.”
An incident involving his father may have been the reason behind TR’s feeling.
In 1877, when TR was 19, President Rutherford B. Hayes nominated Theodore Senior, or Thee, as Collector of Customs in New York. Thee assumed it was a reward for his philanthropic work. But Hayes actually intended Thee’s nomination to obstruct his rival, Senator Roscoe Conkling, boss of the corrupt New York State Republican machine, who backed his own nominee.
The Senate confirmation process dragged on and on, with Thee at the politicians’ mercy. After more than a month of tortured waiting, his nomination was rejected.
Clay Jenkinson: The political machine crushed him and belittled him, humiliated him.
That’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.
Jenkinson: It was a giant personal setback and a kind of humiliation of all that Thee stood for, and young Roosevelt witnessed this, and it made him very angry. It kind of added fuel to his righteousness about reform.
Shortly after being rejected for the customs post, Thee died from stomach cancer. TR was then at Harvard studying natural history, but his father’s death helped alter the direction of his life. He now felt that a career in public service would be the best way to honor his father’s memory, and in 1881, was elected as the youngest member of the New York State Assembly.
Jenkinson: He began as a New York snob, a highly educated dandy who wore really weird clothing and had a high pitched voice and was just a kind of an eccentric and an outlier and kind of a bluestocking.
Roosevelt was determined to break the spoils system. But in Albany, he was shocked to see lobbyists openly bribing legislators in the hallways of the capitol. Meanwhile, lawmakers sponsored bills that were unfavorable to corporations, then blackmailed companies so they wouldn’t pass them.
Jenkinson: His view was government is good … but government has to be honorable. That you have to expect that the people that you've elected, that the people that you've appointed, or hold bureaucratic positions, are trying to do the right thing, and when they're not, when they are corruptionists or cronies or lazy or inept, then that discredits the very idea of government intervention in the life of the American people.
According to historian Edmund Morris, in Roosevelt’s first 48 hours on the Committee on Cities, he introduced four reform bills. Only one passed, but he had made an impression—and a few enemies.
When Roosevelt decided to push a reform bill through the committee he was chairing, several corrupt members teamed up to block it. TR realized he might need to use a stronger weapon than persuasive rhetoric. He hid a broken chair leg behind his desk, then announced he would unilaterally approve the bill while accusing its opponents of blackmail—which nearly caused a riot from his colleagues.
Roosevelt wrote later, “The riot did not come off; partly, I think, because the opportune production of the chair-leg had a sedative effect.”
Another time, Roosevelt’s enemies tried to smear him by enticing him into a compromising position with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Roosevelt balked, then had a detective follow her and discovered that he’d avoided a trap.
Jenkinson: Everyone wanted him to shrug his shoulders in the face of the real world, and TR could never do that. So then his view was, "Well, if you find a problem, you've got to fix it." When he discovered that many of his political associates and even allies were not actually interested in fixing it—that they kind of liked the system of cronyism and they benefited from it—then, that really threw him for a loop. And so he then has to decide, "Am I going to go along or am I going to follow my integrity and maybe flame out early?" And, turns out he was able to master it.
But his nascent career in Albany was marred by the tragic deaths of his wife and his mother on February 14, 1884. TR also felt pressure from the Mugwumps—a faction of the Republican Party—to support the Democratic presidential nominee, Grover Cleveland, over James G. Blaine, the controversial Republican presidential nominee. Roosevelt reluctantly stuck with Blaine.
After Cleveland’s victory, TR sensed his time in politics was up. He left his infant daughter, Alice, with his sister Bamie and took off for his ranch in the Dakotas. In the West, Roosevelt felt he could reinvent himself, free from Eastern rules. He dove into frontier life on his ranch and lived as a local, writing books, galloping across the plains on his horse, and managing a herd of livestock.
But he was still drawn to New York … and to politics. For years, he traveled back and forth. He attended political events and began secretly courting Edith Kermit Carow, whom he would marry in 1886. That winter, severe weather killed his cattle, and he had gone through much of his inheritance. His ability to make a living off of his ranches was seeming less likely by the day. And so he turned to politics again, although a career there also seemed uncertain.
According to Kathleen Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, the West failed to satisfy TR. She writes, “He recognized that he had not yet lived up to his father’s—and now his own—expectation that he would make something of himself, but he did not know what to do next.”
Still, TR threw himself into campaigning for Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 presidential election.
Jenkinson: He wanted a job in the administration of Harrison and he wasn't going to get one, because he wasn't far enough along yet and people were frightened of him. And so he had to settle for U.S. Civil Service commissioner, which could have been just a routine sort of thing … I mean, I can't name a single other U.S. Civil Service commissioner ever, but he decided to make the most of it and he did.
The Civil Service Commission managed the government’s civilian employees. Immediately, Roosevelt complained that Harrison’s hand-picked postmaster general, department-store magnate John Wanamaker, was replacing all of the Democratic postmasters with Republicans and extorting money from them. Harrison largely ignored him, leading Roosevelt to fume, “Wanamaker has been as outrageously disagreeable as he could possibly be … We have done our best to get on smoothly with him; but he is an ill-conditioned creature.”
Undeterred, Roosevelt launched a successful campaign to root out corrupt postal officials. As historian Leonard White writes [PDF], TR “struck terror into the hearts of contumacious postmasters and collectors of customs.”
Jenkinson: He wasn't afraid to take on his own political party. Because, if they challenged him and said, "Well, back away from this corruption in this post office," or, "Back away from Wanamaker," and he'd say, "Well, wait a minute, I'm reading the law. The law says we need to clean up these things and that's precisely what I'm doing. Are you telling me you want me to give up merely on the basis of partisan politics?" And they, of course, they wanted to say, "Yeah, that's exactly what we're telling you," but they couldn't because he was right. They were always about to fire him.
After five years as commissioner, TR was itching for a new challenge. One revealed itself in his home city of New York: a committee of Republican officials tried to draft him as their candidate for mayor. TR’s wife Edith argued against that plan: It would cost too much money, especially if he ended up losing. TR conceded, but immediately regretted it.
A reform-minded Republican, William L. Strong, eventually won. He offered Roosevelt, who had been campaigning for a job, an intriguing gig: New York City Police Commissioner, one of four men to hold the role. TR was elected the board’s president.
At that time, corruption was as much a part of the police department as badges and nightsticks. It supported a seedy underworld where prostitution, alcohol, gambling, and graft thrived. As one example, a captain named Joseph Eakins was accused of allowing brothels in his precinct to operate while he looked the other way.
On Roosevelt’s first day at police headquarters, a chief told him that his efforts at reform would be useless. “It will break you. You will yield. You are but human,” Chief Thomas Byrnes said.
TR never took a threat lying down.
Jenkinson: You've got to clean that up so that people have trust in government and then when government has to do the hard things, which it sometimes has to do, the people will swallow hard and accept it. But if government is filled with just these thuggish people who are in it for themselves and their cronies, then the people are not going to have confidence in government's ability to improve our lives. So that's sort of the groundwork for what he called the square deal.
Roosevelt enlisted Jacob Riis to show him the real face of the city after dark—and the photojournalist knew what to show him. Saloons where whiskey flowed on Sundays. Brothels operating under police protection. Two immigrant families renting a single room in a tenement. Children sleeping in the filth-slicked streets.
The sights deeply affected Roosevelt. A year after he became police commissioner, a deadly heat wave struck New York City. TR saw children sleeping on roofs and fire escapes to beat the heat. Sometimes they fell off during the night.
When the city failed to respond to the crisis, Roosevelt had his police officers give out free ice to poor residents—according to Edward Kohn, author of Hot Time in the Old Town, TR personally supervised the distribution of ice—and visited their homes to make sure they were OK.
Jenkinson: He felt a deep sympathy for the underdog, the underclass in America, and realized that these were not bums. They were recent immigrants for the most part, helpless, with little or no English and no skills that really would command the market, and they were exploitable and they were being exploited. And he felt, "This just isn't fair. We're too great a country to have this sort of desperation being preyed upon by corporate capitalism."
Roosevelt and the three other police commissioners systematically removed the police brass—including Eakins and Byrnes—who had allowed graft to flourish. He appointed Peter Conlin as the new chief of police. Next, Roosevelt took on enforcement of the ban on saloons selling liquor on Sundays.
The Sunday excise law, as it was formally called, had been around in some form since 1857, but there were loopholes allowing hotel restaurants to sell alcohol to their guests. It also didn’t address private clubs, which sold drinks to their dues-paying members. That meant the law largely affected working-class bars frequented by immigrants.
But to TR, it seemed like a win-win. Richard Zacks, author of Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, writes that TR had two main reasons for enforcement.
One, he wanted to demonstrate the newfound incorruptibility of his police force. Zachs writes that Roosevelt “tried to frame it not as a crusade against liquor, but rather against blackmail and selective enforcement of the law.”
Two, Roosevelt knew that “saloons acted as unofficial clubhouses for Tammany Hall,” Zacks continues. By closing them on Sunday, he could strip the Democratic machine of its favored meeting places.
TR told the New York Evening Sun, “I do not deal with public sentiment. I deal with the law.”
But his actions caused enormous controversy.
Jenkinson: We now know that it was really hard on immigrants, who were working six days a week, and these saloons were not like bars you go slam a few down in. They were social clubs at the time. People were rightly offended by this, in knowing that the rich had access to all of their private clubs, but that the regular citizens of New York—and particularly German-American immigrants—were being singled out by the enforcement of this law.
On Sunday, June 23, 1895, Roosevelt deployed more than 2000 officers to monitor about 8000 saloons across New York. Pub owners signaled their compliance by raising their window shades to reveal empty barrooms. The campaign deprived thousands of New Yorkers of a relaxing beer on their only day off from work, but some found a way around the Excise Law. Drinkers traveled all the way to Coney Island in Brooklyn, which was a separate city until 1898, and outside TR’s jurisdiction. Others tried to enter saloons through the side door, but many were turned away.
The next Saturday, Mayor Strong and Roosevelt gave a press conference on the steps of City Hall. A large crowd of German-American residents—who traditionally drank beer at family gatherings on Sundays—denounced TR’s enforcement as too broad.
It was unfair, they said, for vice-ridden saloons and wholesome family picnics to be caught in the same net. Moreover, German immigrants as a whole supported Mayor Strong, and felt betrayed.
According to Zacks, Otto Kempner, a leader in the German-American community, shouted, “Only bigots could enforce such laws. It is an asinine exercise of authority.” TR roared back: “You people want me to enforce the law only a little bit, a little teeny bit … I do not know how to do such a thing, and I shall not begin to learn now!”
The disagreement looked like it would come to a head in September 1895. About 30,000 German-Americans turned out for a huge parade up Lexington Avenue to celebrate liberty and beer.
One of the organizers trolled Police Commissioner Roosevelt with a formal invitation to the festivities, “more as a taunt or a joke,” according to Zacks. But they evidently didn’t know TR very well.
Jenkinson: My favorite of all the stories is when he's invited to the German-American parade ... And he goes, even though they didn't really want him to come. They just wanted to snub him. He goes and he's up there and he's watching the whole parade and then some guy in the group, he calls out, "Wo ist der Roosevelt?"
For those of you who don’t speak German, that’s, “Where is Roosevelt?”
Jenkinson: And instead of, like, ducking, he says, "Hier bin ich, hier bin ich."
Which translates to, “Here I am, here I am.”
Jenkinson: And he kind of turned it around. They kind of loved him, like "Jesus, this guy has so much courage. And he's so game. He's so willing to do this stuff."
Roosevelt also fought the city’s rampant prostitution. Unlike his peers, he believed the male customers were as much a part of the problem as the female workers. In his autobiography, he wrote, “public opinion and the law should combine to hunt down the ‘flagrant man swine’ who himself hunts down poor or silly or unprotected girls … Our duty to achieve the same moral level for the two sexes must be performed by raising the level for the man, not by lowering it for the woman.”
As with the saloons, corruption in the police department allowed illegal brothels to remain open for business. Roosevelt fired at least one officer for negligence in enforcing laws against prostitution, but some newspaper editorials accused Roosevelt of prudish heavy-handedness. The New York Mercury called the officer’s firing “as gross an act of injustice as was ever seen at a Massachusetts witch burning” and said Roosevelt was a “blue-blooded Knickerbocker Puritan gone to seed.”
A minor scandal ensued when an officer arrested a young woman, who was merely lost and asking a man for directions, on suspicion of being a prostitute. Newspapers protested the besmirching of an innocent girl’s honor by an overzealous police force. She was acquitted of the charges, and Roosevelt suffered an embarrassing defeat. An attempt to regain the moral high ground by raiding the city’s most elegant brothel also backfired.
Roosevelt would not be dissuaded. If the law was on the books, he would enforce it. But his black-and-white worldview was not universally popular or practical. TR squabbled with the other commissioners despite their common motives. Citizens evaded the saloon closures and solicitation laws. Some officials felt that TR’s outsize personality got in the way. And in 1898, the consolidation of all five boroughs into the City of Greater New York meant that the city’s police commission would be replaced with a new leadership structure. Seeing the end of his usefulness in New York, Roosevelt campaigned for a higher-profile position in the McKinley administration—and he got it.
We’ll be right back.
In 1897, Roosevelt began to emerge as a national political figure. Newly elected president William McKinley appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy. Against the wishes of his boss, Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long, Roosevelt pushed to build up the nation’s fleet of battleships while keeping a close eye on matters in Asia and the Caribbean.
After a suspicious explosion destroyed the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba, the U.S. declared war on Spain. TR quit his post and formed the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.
He and his troops, the Rough Riders, charged up Kettle Hill and helped win a decisive battle on San Juan Hill that quickly led to a U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War.
Back in New York, the Republican Party persuaded TR to run for governor on the strength of his war record. He won by a narrow margin, but soon moved up in the world—partly because the Republican machine wanted the reform-minded Rough Rider out of their hair. He became McKinley’s running mate, and on November 6, 1900, he was elected vice president of the United States when McKinley won a second term.
Less than a year later, McKinley was assassinated, and TR was sworn in as president. And if anyone thought he would ease up on his campaign against corruption as president, well … that was wishful thinking.
As chief executive, Roosevelt continued his war on spoils. He took on the trusts—mega-corporations that controlled multiple companies at once, which were increasingly prevalent in the Gilded Age. Trusts could be used to create monopolies, which might unilaterally dictate prices for goods and services. Monopolies were great for tycoons, who argued that they eliminated inefficiencies among the companies they owned, but they were bad for consumers, who had to pay whatever prices the monopolies charged.
Congress had attempted to regulate trusts to prevent the creation of monopolies with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890. The legislation prohibited “every contract, combination … or conspiracy in restraint of trade,” as well as any attempt to form a monopoly to unreasonably impede fair trade. Unfortunately, the law failed to define terms like “trust,” “monopoly,” and “conspiracy,” and the loose wording made the law hard to enforce. In 1895, the Supreme Court decided in an anti-trust case that the defendant, a sugar company that controlled 98 percent of all U.S. sugar refining, had not violated the Sherman Act. That ruling basically ended the government’s attempts to reign in trusts.
In 1901, railroad magnates James J. Hill and E.H. Harriman, along with banker J.P. Morgan, formed the Northern Securities Company, merging three of the largest railroads in the Upper Midwest. Instantly, Northern Securities became the second-largest company in the world, behind U.S. Steel, and had a capital stock of $400 million.
Critics feared that Northern Securities’s monopoly would allow it to dictate shipping prices from Chicago to Seattle—in other words, impede fair trade.
Enter President Roosevelt.
Jenkinson: He realized, government’s going to have to play a role here because there's no other counterweight to these gigantic accumulations of wealth and power in the hands of people like Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan or in corporations like U.S. Steel or the railroad trusts. And so he realized that unions weren't ready yet to be a sufficient counterweight, and that government was going to have to find some way of protecting the have-nots, to provide what TR called the square deal. If you actually unpack the metaphor of the square deal, it's profound. You know, his view is that this life is a game of poker and the cards are shuffled, you might get a great hand and I might get a weak one. That's just how life works. But if the dealer is putting cards from under the deck into his crony's hands or is misshuffling, then that's not a square deal. As long as the dealing is square, people will accept that life is not equal and fair for everybody, and they won't question the system. … He felt that it was essential that the people have a great deal of trust in their government.
Roosevelt hinted to Congress that he was planning to challenge the Northern Securities Company when he said in his annual message, “the government should have the right to inspect and examine the workings of the great corporations engaged in interstate business.”
The following February, ignoring advice from GOP leaders, Roosevelt instructed his attorney general Philander Knox to sue the monopoly on the grounds that it violated the Sherman Act. According to Larry Haeg, author of Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War, it was the only thing TR, being TR, could do: The law was on the books, and he had to enforce it.
Haeg writes, “Legally, of course, it was Roosevelt’s duty, just as he thought it his duty to enforce the Sunday liquor laws when he was police commissioner. He had solemnly sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”
It was the first time a president had confronted the biggest corporations in America, Dalton writes, and Knox’s suit succeeded in breaking up the company.
That did not go over well with J.P. Morgan, who attempted to reason with TR and Knox at a meeting at the White House. Morgan suggested casually, “if we have done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.” Roosevelt snorted, according to Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex, that that could not be done.
The Northern Securities Company sued to overturn the decision, and the appeal went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court announced its decision on March 14, 1904. In a 5-to-4 ruling, the justices sided against the Northern Securities Company. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in the majority opinion that “no scheme or device could more certainly come within the words of the [Sherman] Act … or could more effectively and certainly suppress free competition.”
Roosevelt had won. He had shown that anti-trust legislation, part of his broader attack on corruption in government, withstood judicial scrutiny. From then on, TR’s reputation as a trust-buster was cemented, and his victory at the Supreme Court helped Roosevelt’s election campaign that year.
In November, TR was elected to his first full term as president. Having broken up the second-biggest company in the world, he set his sights on rampant corruption in the food and drug industry—the kind of corruption that threatened people’s lives.
Jenkinson: Then he becomes president and he steps back and thinks, "What are the things that need to be done here? What can a president do? What can I do?" He looks at all these problems and he realizes, well, for example, our food supply has changed because in Jefferson's era, 97 percent of the American people were family farmers and they were essentially feeding themselves. Well now, we're an increasingly urban nation. People are living in cities where they don't even have a garden plot. And so they're buying food in tins. If the food is awful, if it's not clean, if it's tainted, then people don't really have any options because they have to eat and they're not producing their own.
According to Deborah Blum, author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, food had to travel farther and for longer periods of time to reach city dwellers. Manufacturers increasingly used preservatives to ensure that food didn’t rot in transit. The problem was, most preservatives were toxic—and unregulated. Formaldehyde was added to milk to keep it fresh, while boric acid was used to preserve meat. Eating these substances in three meals a day could make people extremely ill. Not to mention that what was listed on the label might be completely different from what was in the can.
Adulterated foods and drugs were a huge public health problem, and there were few federal laws for protecting consumers. Journalists had tried to expose the unsafe conditions in the slaughterhouses and the need for federal inspections, but their efforts were foiled by the so-called Beef Trust. Five major meatpacking companies had joined together to fight government oversight of their Chicago-based industry.
Jenkinson: He then gets a copy of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle …
That’s the 1906 novel that exposed corruption and unsanitary practices in Chicago’s meatpacking plants.
Jenkinson: … reads it and is appalled and he then contacts Upton Sinclair as only Roosevelt would, and says, "I'm sure you're wrong. This looks like just the worse kind of sensationalism. And by the way, I don't appreciate the socialist track in the last chapter, but I'm going to look into this and if you're right, well then, we'll do something about it."
Roosevelt himself had had experience with America’s lax food laws. As a Rough Rider during the Spanish-American War, he experienced putrid meat supplied by the Army. News reports claimed that meatpackers provisioned the military with tons of rotten canned beef preserved with boric acid to mask the stench. Many soldiers who ate it fell ill, and some died.
Roosevelt wrote to the Army’s commanding general to complain, thus stirring the scandal: “The so-called canned roast beef that was issued to us for travel rations … and which we occasionally got even at the front, was practically worthless. Unless very hungry the men would not touch it … There was also a supply of beef … supposed to be fitted by some process to withstand tropical heat. It at once became putrid and smelt so that we had to dispose of it for fear of its creating disease. I think we threw it overboard.”
Jenkinson: And he looks into it and turns out it's worse than in Upton Sinclair and then Roosevelt calls in the meatpackers and said, "What are you going to do about it?" And they say, "Nothing." He says, "Well, I'll give you some time."
Meanwhile, Roosevelt commissioned a secret undercover investigation into meatpacking industry practices, which issued its findings in the damning Neill-Reynolds report.
Jenkinson: They come back and they tell him, "If we did what you're asking, you would bankrupt the industry and blah, blah, blah." Then, Roosevelt says, "All right. You give me no choice. I'm going to publish the report." And the public is appalled and they demand change and Congress … is forced to attend to this and he gets the Meat Inspection Act of 19-6.
When Roosevelt delivered the Neill-Reynolds report to Congress, he wrote [PDF] in an accompanying letter, “the report shows that the stock yards and packing houses are not kept even reasonably clean, and that the method of handling and preparing food products is uncleanly and dangerous to health … the conditions shown by even this short inspection to exist in the Chicago stock yards are revolting. It is imperatively necessary in the interest of health and of decency that they should be radically changed.”
Congress did pass the Meat Inspection Act, and Roosevelt signed it into law on June 30, 1906. It banned the sale of adulterated or mislabeled meat products as food, and required that livestock be slaughtered in a sanitary environment. It also mandated federal inspections of food animals before and after slaughter.
On the same day, Roosevelt signed another bill with a similar purpose. The Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded food or drugs. In grocery stores and pharmacies, consumers would no longer find spoiled meat freshened with borax, children’s candies tinted with lead, whiskey consisting of prune juice and cheap alcohol, or fruit colored with coal-tar dyes. They could be sure that the drugs they purchased for common colds were actually the medicines they claimed to be.
Two weeks after the Pure Food and Drug Act came into force, The New York Times reported, “Already the effects of it are amazing. The masquerade of alcohol, opium, cocaine, and other injurious drugs as nerve tonics or cure for stomach and lung diseases is at an end … The trade in nostrums and patent medicines is utterly demoralized.”
Jenkinson: One of the things that's so important about Roosevelt is he could never back down. He does this on a whole range of areas where he sees a problem. He tries to handle it quietly. When that won't work, he uses the bully pulpit and publicity to attend to these issues and actually winds up getting stuff done. He's absolutely masterful in his capacity to use publicity as a tool to move the public to accomplish things that he had in mind.
Roosevelt’s reputation as a trustbuster and enemy of corruption was solid before the public. He had gone after more than 40 trusts. But when a national crisis demanded it, TR was willing to negotiate.
We’ll be right back.
In 1907, an economic panic was brewing. People who had deposited their savings in America’s banks and trust companies—a type of financial institution that competed with banks—had no insurance against loss when the companies made bad investments with their money. As Dalton writes, “inadequate regulation left depositors unprotected, and as long as trust companies could speculate in stocks and make unreliable loans to customers who bought stocks on margin, no one could guarantee that any worldwide downturn would not provoke an American panic and depression.”
And that’s what was beginning to happen. Wild speculation had led to the failure of several companies, and worried customers began to pull their money out of the ones that remained. Some felt that Roosevelt’s anti-trust activities also made companies nervous and liable to make fewer investments.
Jenkinson: And so we didn't have a Federal Reserve system yet, and so we had no backstop, and the economy was subject to wild fluctuations, and people were just getting used to the stock market, and to the big banks, and the deep investments and trusts and so on. And so in 19-7, the economy comes apart, and there's a panic.
J.P. Morgan called a meeting with New York’s other leading bankers and U.S. treasury officials. They devised a plan to shore up the failing companies by pooling the bankers’ funds and $25 million from the U.S. Treasury. It wasn’t enough. Then Morgan suggested that U.S. Steel buy the failing Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company to avert the collapse of its investors. Morgan was concerned, however, that Roosevelt’s trust-busting stance could get in the way of the deal.
Jenkinson: Roosevelt didn't really understand economics. He was deeply versed in history, and war, and political theory, and international relations, and American literature, and a lot of other things, but he was not an economist, and he didn't really understand how it worked. That sounds more critical than I mean it to be, but it wasn't his best suit. He gets convinced that if he lets U.S. Steel purchase a Tennessee-based steel corporation that's in trouble, that this will stop the hemorrhaging, that this will help to shore up and provide public confidence in some other ways. And J.P. Morgan plays a critical role in this. He's essentially a one man Federal Reserve system for the time.
Roosevelt and Morgan made a gentlemen’s agreement: Morgan’s deal would stave off complete collapse of the stock market and save American jobs, and Roosevelt would not prosecute U.S. Steel under anti-trust law.
U.S. Steel had other motives, though. Its executives wanted to eliminate its competition and acquire the Tennessee company’s assets—facts they kept from Roosevelt.
Jenkinson: And so he goes for it, and years later it's made clear to him that he was actually kind of tricked or duped. That he wouldn't have had to do that, that that was a much more self-serving acquisition than he was led to believe, that it's not the best use of the federal government to wink at restraint of trade, and that he probably had other options. So was he duped? I don't know. I think that's maybe a little strong. He was susceptible ... he knew we were in a very significant national economic emergency, and like all people who are working suddenly and in a reactive way at a perceived or real emergency, he did things that if he'd had a year to think about and read about, he might not have done.
The agreement became a wedge between TR and his Republican successor in the White House, William Howard Taft. While TR had a reputation as a major trust-buster, Taft actually went after more trusts in his single term, and his Justice Department accused U.S. Steel of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act with its acquisition of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. Taft’s charge blew up Roosevelt’s deal with Morgan and took a swing at his integrity. And if that wasn’t awkward enough, Taft didn’t warn Roosevelt ahead of the news breaking on October 27, 1911—TR’s 53rd birthday.
The case—and the rift between Taft and Roosevelt over control of the party’s ideology—led Roosevelt to challenge Taft in the 1912 presidential election. Roosevelt ran as the nominee of his own pro-labor, anti-corruption Progressive Party, seeking to continue his trajectory of reform that began 30 years earlier. With his “New Nationalism” platform, Roosevelt advocated a judiciary that worked better for the people, women’s suffrage, labor rights including worker’s compensation, a national health service, and other demands. The promises were so radical that the conservative Taft and his followers broke from Roosevelt completely, along with some of Roosevelt’s former allies.
When the votes were cast, TR didn’t win—and neither did Taft. Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy split the Republican vote and handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
In his 1913 autobiography, Roosevelt reflected on his legacy of taking on corruption: “Where there is no chance of statistical or mathematical measurement, it is very hard to tell just the degree to which conditions change from one period to another. This is peculiarly hard to do when we deal with such a matter as corruption. Personally, I am inclined to think that in public life we are on the whole a little better and not a little worse than we were 30 years ago, when I was serving in the New York legislature. I think the conditions are a little better in national, in state, and in municipal politics. Doubtless there are points in which they are worse, and there is an enormous amount that needs reformation. But it does seem to me as if, on the whole, things had slightly improved.”
Erin McCarthy: Were things genuinely better after his reforms? Were people safer, were they healthier, were they more politically aware of what was happening? Jenkinson: You know, I think that for many people the jury is still out. … Did he make our food supply safer? I think that there's an honest debate about that. Did he bring attention to the problem of a nation that's no longer agricultural and self-sufficient? Yes. And do we now largely agree with him? Indeed. You know, every drug has to be vetted, all foods are monitored, we go farther and farther to honesty in labeling, to nutritional labeling, and so on. We are from any libertarian point of view a nanny state, and the nanny state was inaugurated in large part by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt believed that in an advanced urban industrial country, there has to be an entity that's looking out for people and for small companies and for the have-nots, and that entity, whether we like it or not, is government, and we shouldn't wring our hands about it. We should just make sure that government is honest, that the people are ethical, that the standards are being evenly applied, that we study things before we just slap solutions on them. I think Roosevelt was right about that, and so you can make the libertarian case against Roosevelt, and people do, but I think on the whole he inaugurated modernity in a world where the stakes are so high.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Kat Long, with research by me, Kat Long, and Michael Salgarolo. Fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced TR in this episode.
The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
Special thanks to Clay Jenkinson.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs.
History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.