Comparing and Contrasting America’s First Progressive Presidents Michael B. Chapman
June 14, 2012
Comparing and Contrasting America’s First Progressive Presidents The progressive movement of the early 20th century was brought about by an “uneven playing field,” that was the result of government and business corruption, special interests blatantly exercising power, and a vast disparity between the general well being of the rich and the poor. From the progressive movement emerged two presidents that changed the course of history in the United States. Woodrow Wilson, a deeply racist man who nonetheless is considered one of America’s greatest presidents, and Theodore Roosevelt, a man who was born rich yet appealed to the masses as an every-man, shared many similarities in their politics and ideals. By taking a look at both men’s presidencies and comparing and contrasting their principals while they were in office and before, one can gain insight into how well their actions in office matched their rhetoric while campaigning and the progressive movement’s effectiveness as a whole. The Progressive Party arose out of the need for “equal opportunity, industrial justice, and public welfare as a priority” (N/A, 1912). Theodore Roosevelt, who was at one time the Republican Party’s leader, founded the Progressive Party. Roosevelt held almost every civic office imaginable before becoming the President of the United States. Roosevelt was a civic commissioner, New York state Assemblyman, soldier, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, governor, and explorer before becoming president (Gerstle, 1999). During his eclectic career, Roosevelt acquired an appreciation for the hard-working Americans that the Progressive Party would later represent. Throughout Roosevelt’s political career he espoused the “rights of man” (Roosevelt, 1910). Roosevelt supported organized labor, anti-trust laws, and removing special interests from politics. Roosevelt’s attitude towards big business in the early 20th century can be summed up by these words; “In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth” (Roosevelt, 1910). Although Roosevelt championed the cause of the working man he also held deeply racist ideals (Gerstle, 1999). Roosevelt believed in the superiority of the “American Race,” and even though he supported the mixing of races that occurred in America’s melting pot, he believed that African Americans were inferior and should not be included in the melting pot. This is one of the many ways that Roosevelt was similar to Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th President, held any of the same convictions and ideals as Theodore Roosevelt, yet went about their implementation in a much different way. Wilson was a champion of the same anti-trust ideals that Roosevelt held but rather than bringing lawsuits against corporations individually as Roosevelt did, Wilson was instrumental in the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, which helped to more clearly define some of the “uncertainty” surrounding earlier anti-trust laws (Pearlman, 1984). Wilson was also pro-labor organization, and avoided a national railroad worker strike by implementing a shorter work day and higher minimum wage for the workers (Pearlman, 1984). Wilson essentially took the political ideals that Roosevelt helped to make popular and went a step further with them. Wilson’s racism was much worse than Roosevelt’s as well. Wilson’s infamous “like writing history with lightning” quote has been used extensively to highlight his racial...
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