When President William
McKinley died from an assassin’s bullet on September 14, 1901,
his vice president for the six months of McKinley’s second term,
Theodore Roosevelt, was sworn in as the nation’s youngest chief
executive ever (42 years old). Three months later in his
first annual message to Congress, Roosevelt set forth his
administration’s antitrust policy. He acknowledged both
the social benefits and problems resulting from the emergence of
large business corporations. He would soon earn the
nickname, “Trustbuster,” but his preference was for the federal
government to regulate, rather than prohibit or dismantle, big
business. However, on February 19, 1902, Roosevelt’s
Justice Department sued in federal court under the Sherman
Antitrust Act (1890) to break up J. P. Morgan’s railroad trust,
the Northern Securities Company. It was the first of 45
antitrust suits filed by his administration.
Pennsylvania coalminers walked off the job in May 1902,
Roosevelt pressured the reluctant mine owners to the negotiating
table by threatening a government takeover of the mines.
In October, an arbitration panel settled the dispute largely in
favor of the strikers, though stopping short of formal union
recognition. The precedent-setting executive action was
the first time a president had intervened on the side of labor.
In 1903, Roosevelt signed an act establishing the Bureau of
Corporations, which was charged with inspecting and publicizing
corporate earnings; the Elkins Act, which outlawed
freight-rebates for large shippers; and an act creating the
Department of Commerce and Labor. In March 1904, the U. S.
Supreme Court upheld the Roosevelt administration’s lawsuit
against Northern Securities for violating the Sherman Antitrust
assuming the presidency in 1901, Roosevelt had dinner and a
lengthy discussion with Booker T. Washington, the nation’s most
prominent black leader. It was the first time a black
person had been officially entertained at the White House, and
the event provoked heated criticism by white Southern and
Democratic politicians and newspapers. In a speech on
Memorial Day 1902, Roosevelt forcefully condemned the lynching
of blacks, and spoke out at other times against the practice.
In 1903, the president ignored objections and named a black man,
Dr. William D. Crum, as Collector of the Port of Charleston,
South Carolina. Later that year, he closed a post office
in Indianola, Mississippi, when white residents protested
against his appointment of a black postmistress.
Roosevelt’s foremost legacies concerned environmental
conservation, often in the face of strong opposition. In
May 1902, Crater Lake (Oregon) was the first of five national
parks he established, and the Newlands (Nevada) Reclamation Act
he signed the next month was the first of 21 federal irrigation
projects under his watch. The next year, Pelican Island
(Florida) became the first of 51 federal bird reservations and
Luquillo (Puerto Rico) the first of 150 national forests
established during his presidency (and the only tropical forest
to the present). The administration’s policies concerning
environmental conservation and business regulation had their
roots most visibly in the
presidency of Republican Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893), but
Roosevelt applied federal authority far more extensively and
vigorously in both areas.
policy, the most notable event of Roosevelt’s first term was the
Panama Canal Treaty. In January 1903, Secretary of State
John Hay signed a treaty with Colombia in which the United
States purchased a 99-year lease to a canal zone in Panama (then
part of Colombia). When the Colombian senate rejected the
treaty, Roosevelt and Hay concluded that the South American
nation had negotiated in bad faith. That November, French
engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla led a successful revolt against
Colombian rule in Panama. Roosevelt had been aware of the
plan and, although he gave no verbal support, had ordered the
Pacific fleet to the area. On November 18, the Panama
Canal treaty gave the United States sovereignty over a canal
zone in return for $10 million ($202 million in 2002 dollars)
and $250,000 annual rent (which was raised over the years).
Construction began in 1904, and the Panama Canal opened in 1914.
The Republican Nomination
Before McKinley’s assassination, four vice
presidents—John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and
Chester Arthur—had assumed the nation’s highest office upon the
death of a president. Not one had then won his party’s
nomination for a presidential term in his own right.
However, Theodore Roosevelt’s strong leadership and popularity
made it likely that he would break historical precedence by
winning the GOP presidential nomination in 1904. In the
spring of 1902, about six months after assuming the presidency,
Roosevelt assembled an informal campaign committee.
Postmaster General Henry C. Payne and James S. Clarkson,
surveyor of the Port of New York, distributed the federal
government’s largest blocks of patronage with an eye to
Roosevelt’s nomination. Joseph B. Bishop, editor of the
New York Commercial Advertiser, and Nicholas Murray Butler,
president of Columbia University, oversaw the campaign in New
York State. In 1902, 13 Republican state delegations
endorsed Roosevelt, giving him 286 of the 498 votes needed for
nomination. In early 1903, the president’s new personal
secretary, William Loeb Jr., coordinated campaign information
and advice from across the nation.
only obstacle was a possible challenge from
Senator Mark Hanna
of Ohio, chairman of the Republican National Committee and a key
advisor to the late McKinley. Conservatives unhappy with
Roosevelt’s vigorous antitrust policy encouraged Hanna to run,
while the president sought his endorsement and promise not to
run. The Ohio senator was coy about his intentions,
stating ambiguously that the nomination was Roosevelt’s to lose.
With the backing of the business community, fellow senators, and
party officials, Hanna would have made a formidable opponent.
On the other hand, his influence, though still potent, had waned
since McKinley’s assassination, his health was poor, and he
failed to establish a presidential campaign organization.
It was, however, the intervention of Ohio’s other U.S. senator,
Joseph Foraker, a fellow Republican but political foe, that
precipitated the end of Hanna’s chance for the nomination.
In early 1903,
the Roosevelt campaign became concerned about “lots of Hanna
talk” they heard in the Midwest and New York. The
situation culminated in a game of political one-upmanship prior
to the Ohio Republican State Convention in June. In May,
Hanna’s Ohio backers announced that the upcoming gathering would
focus on state issues and not endorse the president’s nomination
a year early. In response, Senator Foraker remarked that
the state’s Republican rank and file would “be very much
disappointed” if the convention did not express its support of
Roosevelt’s nomination. Senator Hanna, in turn, explained
to the president and the press that such an action would be
premature. On May 25, Roosevelt wrote Hanna and released a
public statement arguing that the question “was bound to arise”
at the state convention, and “those who favor my administration
and nomination will endorse them, and those who do not will
to take a side, Hanna replied that he would not interfere with
the Ohio convention endorsing the president. The delegates
complied, which virtually assured Roosevelt’s nomination.
Nevertheless, with the added incentive of an
in the second half of 1903, some Republican businessmen
continued into early 1904 to offer financial support for a Hanna
candidacy. However, on February 15, the Ohio senator died
of typhoid fever. A few months later at the Republican
National Convention that nominated Roosevelt, a huge portrait of
the late Hanna hung on the podium. To replace Hanna as
national party chairman, Roosevelt turned to Secretary of
Commerce and Labor George B. Cortelyou after Winthrop Murray
Crane, Elihu Root, and
Cornelius Bliss each turned down the offer. The
appointment was unpopular with party officials because
Cortelyou, the former private secretary to Roosevelt and
President Grover Cleveland, was considered a dutiful civil
servant who would bend to the president’s will.
National Convention was held at the Chicago Coliseum on June
21-23, 1904. Although not present, Roosevelt controlled
practically every aspect of it. He handpicked Root, the
former secretary of war, and Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon
as the temporary and permanent convention chairmen,
respectively. That both men were conservatives was part of
the president’s dual strategy of unifying the party and
moderating his image before the general election.
Roosevelt chose all the convention speakers and edited their
remarks. In order to shore up support in New York, the
president chose Frank Black, whom he had succeeded as governor,
to deliver the nominating (and the only unedited) speech.
In two delegate disputes, Roosevelt backed a biracial Louisiana
delegation against the state’s “lily-white” one, and Wisconsin
conservatives over Governor Robert La Follette’s progressives.
National Platform extolled the party’s history, credited
Republican economic policy with restoring the nation’s
prosperity, and praised Republican foreign policy for
establishing Cuban independence, territorial government in
Puerto Rico, stability in the Philippines, and construction of
the Panama Canal. The document upheld traditional GOP
support for protective tariffs. It deemed business
corporations and labor unions a logical result of recent
economic trends, but warned that neither should impinge upon
“the rights and interests of the people.” A call for
reduced Congressional representation for states that
unconstitutionally limited the right to vote was an oblique
reference to Southern suppression of black voting rights.
Roosevelt considered it the only disingenuous plank in the
platform because, although morally correct, it was politically
presidents were not mandated to fill vacancies in the vice
presidency until ratification of the 25th Amendment
to the U.S. Constitution in 1967, Roosevelt’s first term was
served without one. He showed little interest in the
vice-presidential nomination in 1904, suggesting Robert Hitt, a
70-year-old Illinois congressman, but letting delegates make the
selection. They chose Senator Charles Fairbanks of
Indiana, whose conservative principles and Midwestern home
balanced the president’s New York-bred progressivism.