Federal Regulation of Railroads During U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s First Term (1901-1905): Introduction

As previously noted, Theodore Roosevelt and William Carlos Brown (my maternal great-great-uncle) were together on one of Roosevelt’s campaign journeys in the election of 1900. Thereafter during Roosevelt’s first (09/14/1901—03/04/1905) and second (03/04/1905—03/04/1909) presidential terms, these two men also had periodic contacts on railroad issues while Brown was Vice President and Senior Vice President of the New York Central Railroad, one of the most important railroads in the country (02/01/1902 —01/31/1909).

During those eight years, railroads were the first major U.S. industry and made possible the growth of other major industries, including coal, steel, flour milling and commercial farming. They also established major cities like Chicago and with telegraphy transformed communications. (Albro Martin, Railroads Triumphant:The Growth, Rejection and Rebirth of a Vital American Force (1992).)

The importance of the railroads to the U.S. economy affected everyone and prompted much popular dissatisfaction with perceived abuses by the railroads. Roosevelt entered this social and political milieu with a belief that the government should use its resources to help achieve economic and social justice.

He acted on this belief in the fall of 1902 when a miners’ strike threatened a coal shortage in the upcoming winter. Roosevelt called both the mine owners and the labor representatives together at the White House. When management refused to negotiate, Roosevelt told them if the two sides did not talk, he would use troops to seize the mines and run them as a federal operation. Faced with this threat, the owners and labor unions agreed to submit their dispute to a commission and abide by its recommendations. The resulting settlement, Roosevelt said, was a “square deal” or one fair to both sides, and this label soon became synonymous with Roosevelt’s overall domestic program.

As part of this “Square Deal” program or approach Roosevelt advocated increased federal government regulation of corporations acting in interstate commerce, especially the railroads, in both of his presidential terms.

There were two principal developments on this issue in Roosevelt’s first term. The first was his Administration’s commencement in 1902 of an antitrust lawsuit against the Northern Securities Company, which combined the stocks of two competing railroads from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River to Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast. The second was the Administration’s pressing the Congress in 1903 to enact the Elkins Act to enhance the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission over railroad freight rates.

These developments will be discussed in subsequent posts while others will investigate this subject during Roosevelt’s second term as President.


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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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