Roosevelt's Reforms

By the early 20th century, most of the larger cities and more than half the states had established an eight-hour day on public works. Equally important were the workmen's compensation laws, which made employers legally responsible for injuries sustained by employees at work. New revenue laws were also enacted, which, by taxing inheritances, incomes and the property or earnings of corporations, sought to place the burden of government on those best able to pay.

It was clear to many people -- notably President Theodore Roosevelt and Progressive leaders in the Congress such as Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette -- that most of the problems reformers were concerned about could be solved only if dealt with on a national scale. Roosevelt, who was passionately interested in reform and determined to give the people what he called a "Square Deal," initiated a policy of increased government supervision in the enforcement of antitrust laws. Later, extension of government supervision over the railroads prompted the passage of major regulatory bills. One of the bills made published rates the lawful standard, and shippers equally liable with railroads for rebates.

Roosevelt's striking personality and his "trust-busting" activities captured the imagination of the ordinary individual, and approval of his progressive measures cut across party lines. In addition, the abounding prosperity of the country at this time led people to feel satisfied with the party in office. His victory in the 1904 election was assured.

Emboldened by a sweeping electoral triumph, Roosevelt applied fresh determination to the cause of reform. In his first annual message to Congress after his reelection, he called for still more drastic railroad regulation, and in June 1906 Congress passed the Hepburn Act. This gave the Interstate Commerce Commission real authority in regulating rates, extended the jurisdiction of the commission and forced the railroads to surrender their interlocking interests in steamship lines and coal companies.

Other congressional measures carried the principle of federal control still further. The pure-food law of 1906 prohibited the use of any "deleterious drug, chemical or preservative" in prepared medicines and foods. This was soon reinforced by an act requiring federal inspection of all concerns selling meats in interstate commerce.

Meanwhile, Congress had created a new Department of Commerce and Labor, with membership in the president's Cabinet. One bureau of the new department, empowered to investigate the affairs of large business aggregations, discovered in 1907 that the American Sugar Refining Company had defrauded the government of a large sum in import duties. Subsequent legal actions recovered more than $4 million and convicted several company officials. The Standard Oil Company of Indiana was indicted for receiving secret rebates on shipments over the Chicago and Alton Railroad. The fine imposed, amounting to $29,240,000 on 1,462 separate contracts, reflected the spirit of the time.

Conservation of the nation's natural resources, putting an end to wasteful exploitation of raw materials and the reclamation of wide stretches of neglected land were among the other major achievements of the Roosevelt era. The president had called for a far-reaching and integrated program of conservation, reclamation and irrigation as early as 1901 in his first annual message to Congress. Whereas his predecessors had set aside 18,800,000 hectares of timberland for preservation and parks, Roosevelt increased the area to 59,200,000 hectares and began systematic efforts to prevent forest fires and to retimber denuded tracts.