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The Roosevelt Presidency and US to November 1904

Six months into his second term, President William McKinley was visiting the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Anarchist assaults had been on the rise in Europe, and McKinley had been warned that he should be cautious. Bam-bam. McKinley was shot twice in the abdomen. His assailant was Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist philosophically and a mill worker from Detroit who believed he was striking a blow against oppression. On the ground and bleeding, McKinley referred to Czolgosz as a "poor, misguided fellow" and asked that he not be hurt. McKinley was rushed to the hospital, where the operation on him was bungled. Eight days later he died. His death saddened the nation and increased the public's hostility toward anarchism and leftists in general. Within a month the state of New York electrocuted Czolgosz and destroyed his body with sulfuric acid.

Across history, successions had been trouble, at times producing murders within royal families and civil wars — bloody drama instances of which were captured by Shakespeare. But those were societies more authoritarian than was the US in 1901. The US was a democracy of some maturity. The vice-president, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, was not universally liked within his own party. That "damned cowboy" the Republican party's National Committee Chairman, Mark Hanna, had angrily called him. Roosevelt elevated to the presidency with no trouble — the youngest of US presidents — and he promised to continue McKinley's "path of peace, prosperity and honor for the country."

Two and a half months later (3 December 1901) in his first annual message to Congress, Roosevelt described an anarchist as "a criminal whose perverted instincts lead him to prefer confusion and chaos to the most beneficent form of social order." He went on to support "calm inquiry ... with sober self-restraint." He said,

All this is true; and yet it is also true that there are real and grave evils, one of the chief being over-capitalization because of its many baleful consequences; and a resolute and practical effort must be made to correct these evils.

Roosevelt was thinking about consolidations of commercial power. Public opinion supported free enterprise and thought of the smaller businessman having to compete unfairly with the new business combinations. Success produced more success and ability to compete. Roosevelt was to remain disturbed by the crippling of competition.

Roosevelt in his State of the Union speech:

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. This springs from no spirit of envy or uncharitableness, nor lack of pride in the great industrial achievements that have placed this country at the head of the nations struggling for commercial supremacy.

He went on to say that It does not rest upon a lack of intelligent appreciation of the necessity of meeting changing and changed conditions of trade with new methods, nor upon ignorance of the fact that combination of capital in the effort to accomplish great things is necessary when the world's progress demands that great things be done. It is based upon sincere conviction that "combination and concentration should be not prohibited but supervised and within reasonable limits controlled."

A crusade for reforms was beginning among editors of newspapers. Magazines such as McClure's, Cosmopolitan, American Magazine, and Colliers had begun publishing articles on abuse against workers, widespread corruption and misuse of land. One writer, Lincoln Steffens, in his book The Shame of the Cities, exposed government and police corruption. College students were hearing their instructors speak of poverty, squalor, injustice and the need for government reforms. Some intellectuals believed that reforms were needed to forestall or prevent socialism.

Pleas for reform poured into President Roosevelt's office. Roosevelt believed in putting controls on child labor and in legislation for minorities and women. But he had to work with Congress and realized that he did not have the power to make Congress pass such legislation. So Roosevelt joined with Congress in leaving issues involving child labor and civil rights to the states.

Roosevelt was from a wealthy family, and he spoke against class hatred. Strong industries, he said, benefited the nation. He crusaded against a financial combination called the Northern Securities Company, which controlled railroads in the nation's northwest. In February 1902 the Department of Justice took Northern Securities to court for violations of the Sherman Act (a law for combating monopoly and improper restraints on competition passed by Congress in 1890 but ignored). The issue went to the Supreme Court, which sided with the Department of Justice, demonstrating the power of government over large corporations. Support for Roosevelt soared while there were those who saw Roosevelt as destroying the foundation of private property and undermining the institution of private enterprise.

In August, Roosevelt became the first US president to ride in an automobile. Meanwhile, since May, coal miners in Ohio, Illinois, West Virgina and Pennsylvania had been on their biggest strike ever. The strikes threatened to shut down industries that used coal. The miners wanted a twenty-percent increase in pay, an eight-hour day and recognition of their union. Mine owners refused to negotiate. One of the owners, George Baer, cited Darwinistic struggle as his reason for refusing, and in a letter leaked to the press he claimed that the "rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country." President Roosevelt was opposed to the closed union shop, but he became the first president to side with organized labor. He ordered a commission to solve the conflict. Speaking before the commission, Baer closed his argument saying, "These men don't suffer. Why, hell, half of them don't even speak English."

On October 23 the strike ended. The owners did not recognize the United Mine Workers' Union but the miners won a nine-hour day and a 10-percent wage increase for engineers, firemen and pump men. And the miners won the right to submit future grievances to a board of conciliation.

Roosevelt was concerned also with environmental issues and the great outdoors. In recent decades, lands had been passing out of government hands into private ownership for mining, oil extraction and timber cutting. Roosevelt wished to protect forests, watershed and federally owned lands. In 1902 he and Congress created reforms — the Newlands Reclamation Act — which requisitioned money from the sale of public lands, and he applied this money to the construction of dams and other works to improve the supply of water to agriculture.

The Panama Canal

In 1902 Roosevelt was interested in what would become known as the Panama Canal. In his 1902 State of the Union speech he said,

The canal will be of great benefit to America, and of importance to all the world. It will be of advantage to us industrially and also as improving our military position.

The British government had given up its rights to the joint construction of a canal with the United States, and a French company was eager to sell to the United States its right-of-way across Panama. Panama was a part of Colombia, and Colombian politicians were holding up negotiations, and Roosevelt described Colombia's president, José Manuel Marroquín, as "a villainous monkey." Opportunity presented itself to Roosevelt in the form of people in Panama wishing to free themselves from Colombian rule. A rebellion in Panama soon followed. On 3 November 1903, the rebels announced Panama's independence, and the Roosevelt administration recognized Panama within hours. On November 18 a treaty is signed by the US and Panama giving the US exclusive rights over the Panama Canal Zone.

1904 Elections

In the summer of 1903 an automobile had been driven from San Francisco to New York City in sixty-three days. That year, another car, a Packard, did it in fifty-three days, and that year auto sales soared, with Oldsmobile selling around 4,000 cars. In 1904, numerous people took cross-country driving vacations. The American Automobile Association organized a tour from New York to the Exposition in St. Louis, and fifty-nine autos made the trip.

And the internal combustion engine that was powering the automobiles was put on an double-winged aircraft called the Kitty Hawk, built by bicycle makers, the Wright brothers. In December 1903 it had its first flight, in North Carolina, with Orville Wright at the controls. The flight was into a 20-mile-per-hour wind, lasted 12 seconds and went a total distance of 120 feet (36.5 meters).

Another big event came in February 1904. Japan's navy attacked the Russians at Port Arthur (in Manchuria), starting the Russo-Japanese War. In May, US Army engineers began work on the Panama Canal — a project that was to take eleven years to complete. In June a fire on the steamboat General Slocum in New York City's East River killed 1,021. Also that month the Republican Party had its National Convention and nominated Roosevelt for other four years as President. The anti-progressive wing of the party was placated with the vice-presidency to Indiana Senator Charles Fairbanks, who is said to have had close ties to the railroad industry.

Over the summer, Roosevelt campaigned from his home and received big contributions from the wealthy railroad tycoon Edward H. Harriman, the steel baron Henry Frick, and from the finance king J P Morgan. Roosevelt appealed to the common voters with what he called "the Square Deal," saying "I shall see to it that every man has a square deal, no less and no more."

In November, Roosevelt won 336 electoral votes to 140 for his Democratic opponent, a conservative New York judge, Alton B Parker. He took every state outside of the South, including Missouri. Voters in the South were still influenced by their hostility to the Republican Party, President Lincoln's party.

The United States was already focused mainly on the rivalry between two major parties — a normal dichotomy in team contests. The Socialist Party candidate, Eugene V Debs, won just under 3 percent of the votes. His description of wage-labor as wage-slavery and associating it with imperialism had not moved the electorate. But he did better than the Prohibition Party candidate, who won 1.92 percent of the vote.

The Republican Party kept its majority in the House, with 251 seats to 135 for the Democrats.

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.