The Bully Pulpit
One could argue that William McKinley was assassinated twice – once by Leon Czolgosz and once by the new president. Most Americans are unaware of McKinley’s accomplishments – an unprecedented economic boom, victory in war, and carrying the nation onto the world stage. They are forgotten because Roosevelt, by his vision, energy and re-making of the presidency, made everyone forget. Looking back on his administration, TR stated:
“I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President … I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power ... I acted for the public welfare, I acted for the common well-being of all our people, whenever and in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.”
His first message to Congress removed any doubts about how he intended to use this office. In a message written by himself, President Roosevelt first eulogized McKinley. Then he burst forth from his bully pulpit in a wave of presidential ambition. He railed against anarchists, pushed for greater government controls over corporations, protection for workers, regulation of railroads, inspections of banks, expansion of forest reserves, flood control and conservation over natural resources. In foreign affairs, he wanted to strengthen the Monroe Doctrine, acquire Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and strengthen the navy by increasing the size of the fleet and building a canal across Central America.
Within his first year, TR mounted attacks on those business corporations, or trusts, which were in violation of the until then little-used Sherman Anti-Trust law, which forbade anyone to restrain commerce. He went after railroads, the oil industry and other combinations that he saw were “hurtful to the general welfare.” He clashed with business tycoons such as J.P. Morgan and intervened in the Coal Strike of 1902, making the coal barons avert a national catastrophe by meeting some of the labor unions’ demands and putting an end to the strike before winter set in. His efforts won praise among everyone but industrialists, and the voting public returned a solid Republican majority in the 1902 elections.
When Germany used force to collect debts owed it in Venezuela, TR, standing on the principles of the Monroe Doctrine, assembled the fleet in Puerto Rico, demanding Germany submit its claims to arbitration. Roosevelt made clear to Europe the reach of America’s sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere.
And TR’s canal dream was taken up by Congress, which began debating the best route through South America – Nicaragua or Panama (part of Columbia). The debate was intense, but Roosevelt seized on Panama when that land rebelled against Columbia and declared itself independent. TR quickly recognized the new state of Panama, sending ships to the area as a show of strength. Columbia protested, as did many in Congress, but TR simply stated, “I took the Canal Zone. I … left Congress, not to debate the Canal, but to debate me.” The deal was formalized in a treaty negotiated in back rooms and forced on a reluctant but cowed Panama.
image of Teddy Roosevelt, coutesy of Library of Congress
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