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Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Square Deal’ with Woodrow Wilson’s ‘New Freedom’

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Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Square Deal’ and Woodrow Wilson’s ‘New Freedom,’ were both programs of reform. Roosevelt covered more areas of reform than Wilson (who focused mainly on economy), and was more of a progressive than Wilson was. As a governor and the first president of the era, Roosevelt set a terrific example of what a president of this time should do. ‘Progressing’ from bad, and implementing various reforms to do so defined the era. These two programs are comparable in the areas of antitrust, tariff, and labor reform. Though Wilson seemed to have many more acts in each category, mostly economic), he only acknowledged these few areas, unlike Roosevelt who acknowledged a whole array of areas such as labor, economy, politics, consumer protection, and environmental conservation.

The Progressive Era was the time period after the depression of the 1890s and before World War I. During this time the United States was going through a period of social change and political tumult. The American Society embarked on a journey of many reforms as a response to the diverse tensions and pressures presented by industrialization, urban growth, and ethnic tension. The roots of this reform clearly lay in the depression of the 1890s (1893 to 1897). The depression dramatized the problems in society, and raised the possibility of more violent upheavals if reform was not instituted. Major areas needing reform were poor public facilities, tax favoritism, corruption, environmental reform, and urban reform.

This was a period of self-examination and renewal; it was a healthful contribution to the nation’s history books. Even if the new regulatory agencies direct primaries, municipal reforms and conservation legislations may not have made all “wrong” things “right, they were able to make some significant change for the better. These new laws and commission’s act had alleviated many citizens and had established the principle of government’s responsibility for the general welfare of the various elements of the social order. The progressive era was a further demonstration of the United States’ success with democratic capitalism; it showed the society’s ability to change itself for the better without a revolution. The most important legacy of the progressive era was the example it set for gradual measured reform. (Gould, 1-10)

During the Progressive Era, there were two prominent Progressive Presidents each with his own policy for “progression” out of the nasty and crude elements that plagued politics, the economy, and society in general. Theodore Roosevelt was the first Progressive President; he was renowned for being a strong president with a strong personality. He was outraged at the injustices experienced as a small business oppressed by a big business, or a worker by a boss, or the forests by the industrial greed of this era. Roosevelt was sympathetic for the individual who suffered the oppression of their more powerful and stronger counterparts, especially felt sympathetic for those without the opportunity to speak up for their rights, but rather his love for justice was what fueled him more. He sought to reform these problems under his policy known as the “Square Deal.”

The purpose of the Square Deal was expressed in this statement of his ” the labor unions shall a square deal, and the corporations shall have a square deal.” Essentially he meant that there should be equality of opportunity, and justice to each individual, or corporation despite their background, status or size. The second major Progressive President was Woodrow Wilson. He wasn’t known for a very strong personality rather he was renowned for his strong sense of conviction. Wilson believed that national identity and character branched out from the “liberty of petty capitalists” to “release their energies” and develop the economy. He felt the emergence of these new monopolistic style trusts were endangering this process by cutting of entire industries to newcomers.

He also felt that members of certain big businesses and certain unidentified political ” bosses” had formed a small “oligarchic” alliance; this small group of men controlled the government and the economy, while the true freedom began to slide away. Thus his policy was known as “New Freedom.” Under the New Freedom he sought to restore power to competition among small corporations rather that regulate large monopolies. Roosevelt’s Square Deal and Wilson’s New Freedom were policies that they used to help improve American economy, society and politics. However Roosevelt tried to reform many areas, Wilson’s focus of reform was mostly economic. (Gould, 97-100) (Auchincloss, 62,81,91,116, & 127) (Whitelaw, 104,11-120,135,138,145-146, & 162)

A major part of both policies was the breaking up and regulating of trusts. Roosevelt never wanted to dissolve or destroy the large corporations rather he saw them as necessary parts of American life. However he felt that these companies must be bounded tightly to strict moral standards. Roosevelt followed the idea of “rules of reason” which was the policy of “busting” bad trusts, leaving good ones alone. He was the person who would decide which trusts were good and which ones were bad. He earned the name of ” trustbuster” when he had filed a suit against the Northern Securities Company (which was followed by 43 other cases). This was Roosevelt’s first case, in which he filed a suit against a large corporation for the purpose of “trust busting.”

The Northern Securities Company was a large holding company that was formed by railroad and banking interests. In 1902 Roosevelt trust busted them by claiming that they violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in holding money against the public good, thus the court ruled to dissolve the company. In two later cases he also attacked the Standard Oil of New Jersey and the American Tobacco Company. He left many of the larger companies that were “serving the public good” alone, but he had dissolved many other large companies that were monopolistic and never really served the interest of American well being or economy.

In 1903 he persuaded Congress to form a Department of Commerce and Labor. Along with a Bureau of Commerce, which would investigate and regulate business practices. In the 1905 case of Swift vs. U.S. (“stream of commerce”) it was decided that corporations must be held accountable. The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was further strengthened under Roosevelt. He wanted to strengthen it because he wanted to make railroad legislature stronger, especially for the farmers who were at the mercy of railroad middlemen. Thus he wanted to strengthen the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

Under the Elkin’s Act (1903) he was able to make rebates illegal. Under the Hepburn Act (1906) the ICC was given the power to inspect books, fix maximum rates, disallow free passes to legislators, put burden of proof on business instead of ICC, and allow regulation of pipelines. Wilson felt that he stood for “regulated competition while Roosevelt stood for “regulated monopoly.” The Federal Trade Commission Act, which as instituted to promote free and fair trade competition created the Federal Trade Commission. It investigated economically unfair business practices and it regulated and attempted to rectify these practices. The commission regularly generated statistics of economic and business conditions, and offered them to the public.

Another Major step towards trust busting under Wilson was the Clayton Antitrust Act. The Clayton Antitrust Act was designed to clarify the Sherman antitrust Act in terms of new economic issues that had arisen in this new era. The practices such as local price-cutting and price discrimination were made illegal. Both Wilson and Roosevelt attempted reform of he corporations, however Wilson attempted to totally break up large trust, while Roosevelt felt they were necessary if they had and special benefits towards society. (Gould, 97-100)(Auchincloss, 62,81,91,116, & 127)(Whitelaw, 104,11-120,135,138,145-146, & 162)

The Square Deal and New Freedom also addressed the issue of taxes and tariffs, with a keen interest in better outcomes for the average person rather than the wealthy one. During Roosevelt’s Presidency the tariffs were generally high. Under Wilson a prominent tariff was the Underwood-Simmons Tariff, which reduced the previous tariffs to about 29 percent. It also included a graduated income tax, which later was made legal via the constitution as the sixteenth amendment, this made up for monetary loss. Wilson, noticed that it followed his principle of “New Freedom,” thus he heavily advocated it.

The Supreme Court originally declared the income tax, as unconstitutional, however it was later ratified as the Sixteenth Amendment. This new power was first used in the Tariff Act of 1913, which had set the tax of corporate income at 1 percent. It also levied a 1 percent tax on all rich families. The Income tax has been greatly increased, as the tariffs have been lowered. The tariff and tax reform was greater during Wilson’s Presidency than Roosevelt’s Presidency. (Gould, 97-100) (Auchincloss, 62,81,91,116, & 127) (Whitelaw, 104,11-120,135,138,145-146, & 162)

One of the most notorious aspects of the Industrial Revolution was the increasingly worsening condition for laborers within the work place, and also deprivation of certain rights (fair wages and work hours). During the Roosevelt Presidency a major labor relation movement was the 1902 Coal strike. The strike was led by John Mitchell led 140, 000 out on strike for 20 percent pay raise, 8 hour day, and union recognition. The owner’s spokesman George Baer flatly to give any of these demands refused. Roosevelt decided that he would arbitrate the dispute, the workers agreed to this, however the owners did not. Roosevelt finally threatened to use the military and take over the mines, and the owners finally agreed to let Roosevelt arbitrate. In March of 1903 Roosevelt made a settlement, the workers and owners agreed on a 9-hour day, a 10 percent raise, but no union recognition. However these coal companies were also encouraged to raise the prices to compensate for the costs of raises. This was the first time that the federal government didn’t arbitrate on the side of management; rather it treated both sides as equals. Labor reform was also a part of the New Freedom Policy.

The Keating-Owen Act of 1916 (inspired by ‘The Bitter Cry of Children’ by John Spargo) prohibited the interstate transportation of products made by children (attempting to induce the practice of keeping kids under 14 out of the labor force). Though law was never passed it showed growing recognition for the need of child labor laws and regulation. The Adamson Act of 1916 set an 8-hour working day, and said the overtime work should be paid a time and one-half overtime. Also in 1916 the Workmen’s Compensation Act (Kern-McGillicuddy Act) accounted for restitution by boss for workers who are injured at work. Though the labor reform of this time period did not result in major change, rather it brought attention to the need for greater change and reform. (Gould, 97-100) (Auchincloss, 62,81,91,116, & 127) (Whitelaw, 104,11-120,135,138,145-146, & 162)

Though the Square Deal and New Freedom were both reform programs, the Square Deal covered more areas of reform and had a larger impact on the Progressive era. The Square Deal set a precedent for future reform agendas, for example New Freedom. It pushed ahead new ideas that weren’t really raised to public attention. Therefore the Roosevelt seems to have been more of a Progressive than Wilson was.


Gould Lewis L., The Progressive Era, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1974.

Whitelaw Nancy, Theodore Roosevelt Takes Charge, Albert Whitman & Company, Morton Grove, Illinois, 1992.

Auchincloss Louis, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Holt and Company, New York, New York, 2001.

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