Progressive Presidents: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson

Progressive Presidents: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson

Progressive Presidents: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson


The Progressive Era in American history, spanning roughly from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, was a period of significant social, political, and economic change. During this transformative time, a group of presidents emerged, each leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s history and paving the way for a more progressive America.

In this 3,000-word essay, we will delve into the roles and contributions of three influential leaders of this era: Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. Each of these leaders brought their unique vision and policies to the forefront, shaping the course of the Progressive movement and the nation as a whole.

Theodore Roosevelt: The Trustbuster

As we explore the Progressive Era, we must first turn our attention to Theodore Roosevelt, a larger-than-life figure who ascended to the presidency in the wake of President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Roosevelt’s ascent to the highest office in the land marked a turning point in American politics.

Roosevelt, known for his boundless energy and strong-willed persona, embarked on a mission to confront the immense power held by corporate trusts and monopolies. His approach, often described as “trust-busting,” aimed to break the stranglehold that these monopolistic entities had on various industries.

During his presidency, Roosevelt championed antitrust legislation such as the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Hepburn Act, which aimed to curb the excessive influence of big business and promote fair competition. He was not afraid to take on corporate giants like Standard Oil and Northern Securities, earning him the nickname “Trustbuster-in-Chief.”

However, Roosevelt’s legacy extended beyond trust-busting. He was also a fervent advocate for conservation and environmental protection. Through initiatives like the establishment of national parks and monuments, he laid the groundwork for the modern environmental movement.

As we delve deeper into the Progressive era, we will examine Theodore Roosevelt’s policies, his impact on the Progressive movement, and the enduring legacy he left on the American political landscape.

William Howard Taft: The Era of Dollar Diplomacy

William Howard Taft, who succeeded Theodore Roosevelt as the 27th President of the United States in 1909, faced the formidable task of following in the footsteps of his dynamic predecessor. Taft’s presidency marked a continuation of the Progressive movement, albeit with a distinct emphasis on foreign policy and economic interests.

One of Taft’s notable policies was his approach to foreign affairs, famously known as “Dollar Diplomacy.” This foreign policy doctrine aimed to promote American economic interests abroad by using diplomatic means to support American businesses in foreign markets. In essence, it sought to replace “bullets with dollars” as a means of exerting influence.

Under Dollar Diplomacy, Taft’s administration encouraged American businesses to invest in Latin American and East Asian countries, particularly in industries such as infrastructure, mining, and banking. The idea was to strengthen economic ties with these nations and, in doing so, promote political stability and American influence in regions historically prone to instability.

While Dollar Diplomacy had its proponents who saw it as a pragmatic approach to international relations, it also faced criticism. Some argued that it amounted to economic imperialism, as it often prioritized the interests of American corporations over the sovereignty of foreign nations. Taft’s approach drew controversy and tensions in various parts of the world, including in countries like Nicaragua and China.

Despite the challenges and criticisms, William Howard Taft made significant contributions to the Progressive agenda. His administration continued to enforce antitrust laws, and he advocated for safety regulations in the workplace, a move aimed at protecting the rights and well-being of American workers.

As we delve deeper into Taft’s presidency, we will analyze the complexities of Dollar Diplomacy, the domestic policies of his administration, and his place in the broader context of the Progressive Era.

Woodrow Wilson: The Progressive Reformer

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, assumed office in 1913 with a vision of reform and a commitment to advancing the principles of the Progressive movement. His presidency marked a distinct phase in the evolution of progressivism, characterized by his “New Freedom” agenda and his transformative impact on domestic and foreign policy.

Wilson’s background as a former governor of New Jersey and a scholar of political science provided him with a unique perspective on governance. He believed in restoring economic competition and fairness, and he sought to break up monopolistic corporations, much like Roosevelt and Taft before him.

The centerpiece of Wilson’s domestic agenda was the implementation of the “New Freedom” platform, which aimed to promote small businesses, reduce the power of big corporations, and enhance individual economic liberty. Key legislative achievements during his presidency included the Federal Reserve Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act, which aimed to regulate banks and curb anticompetitive practices, respectively.

Furthermore, Wilson’s commitment to social and labor reforms resulted in the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to monitor business practices and protect consumers. His presidency also saw the introduction of labor reforms, such as the Adamson Act, which established an eight-hour workday for railroad workers.

Woodrow Wilson’s progressive ideals extended to foreign policy as well. He advocated for a foreign policy based on moral principles and self-determination. Although initially reelected in 1916 with the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” regarding World War I, Wilson eventually led the United States into the conflict, believing it was a war to make the world “safe for democracy.”

As we examine Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in greater detail, we will delve into his domestic and foreign policies, the impact of the New Freedom agenda, and the legacy he left on the Progressive movement and the world stage.

Comparing the Progressive Presidents

As we explore the Progressive Era through the lenses of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, it becomes evident that each of these leaders made significant contributions to the Progressive movement, albeit with distinctive approaches and priorities. Comparing and contrasting their presidencies offers valuable insights into the diversity of progressive ideals and actions during this transformative period.

While all three presidents shared a commitment to addressing the excesses of big business and promoting fairness, they differed in their strategies. Roosevelt, often hailed as the “Trustbuster-in-Chief,” focused on antitrust legislation and conservation, aiming to tame corporate giants and protect natural resources. Taft, on the other hand, introduced the concept of “Dollar Diplomacy,” prioritizing economic interests in foreign policy. Wilson, with his New Freedom agenda, emphasized the importance of individual economic liberty and pushed for comprehensive domestic reforms.

Moreover, their foreign policies diverged significantly. Roosevelt was known for his active involvement in international affairs, exemplified by his mediation efforts in the Russo-Japanese War and his pursuit of a “big stick” diplomacy. Taft, through Dollar Diplomacy, aimed to exert American influence through economic means. Wilson, in contrast, initially focused on neutrality in international conflicts but eventually led the United States into World War I with a vision of promoting global democracy.

Despite these differences, there were also commonalities among the Progressive Presidents. All three recognized the need to address the challenges posed by monopolistic corporations, and each contributed to antitrust legislation in their own way. They shared a commitment to improving the lives of ordinary Americans through labor and social reforms, reflecting the broader ethos of progressivism.

Comparing these presidents allows us to appreciate the multifaceted nature of the Progressive movement and its evolving priorities. It highlights the complexities of leadership during a period of rapid change and the enduring impact of their policies on American society.

Legacy of the Progressive Presidents

The legacies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson continue to shape American society and politics to this day. Collectively, they left an indelible mark on the Progressive movement and the nation as a whole.

Roosevelt’s legacy is perhaps most evident in the realm of conservation and environmental protection. His establishment of national parks and monuments laid the foundation for modern environmentalism. Additionally, his trust-busting policies paved the way for greater government regulation of business practices, a trend that would persist in the decades to come.

Taft’s legacy is closely tied to the concept of Dollar Diplomacy, which, although controversial, marked a shift in how the United States engaged with the world economically. It set a precedent for American economic involvement abroad, influencing future foreign policy decisions.

Woodrow Wilson’s legacy is notable for the enduring principles of his New Freedom agenda, including the creation of the Federal Reserve System and the protection of consumers through the FTC. His vision of self-determination and global democracy also played a pivotal role in shaping the nation’s role on the international stage.

Furthermore, the Progressive Presidents left a lasting impact on the trajectory of American politics. Their commitment to addressing economic inequality, regulating corporate power, and improving the lives of ordinary citizens set a precedent for future generations of leaders and progressive movements. The foundations they laid in areas such as antitrust legislation, environmental conservation, and labor rights continue to influence policy discussions and reforms in the 21st century.


Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, as the Progressive Presidents of their time, navigated the complexities of a rapidly changing America. Each brought their unique approach to addressing the challenges of the era, leaving behind a legacy that continues to shape the nation’s politics and policies.

Roosevelt’s trust-busting efforts and conservation initiatives, Taft’s Dollar Diplomacy, and Wilson’s New Freedom agenda all played pivotal roles in advancing the ideals of the Progressive movement. While their methods and priorities differed, their collective impact on American society, both domestically and in the realm of foreign affairs, was profound.

As we reflect on the Progressive Era and the contributions of these Presidents, we must recognize that their legacy extends far beyond their time in office. Their commitment to social justice, economic fairness, and the well-being of the American people continue to inspire leaders and movements seeking to build a more equitable and progressive future for the United States.

Their stories remind us of the enduring power of leadership and the potential for positive change in even the most challenging of times. The Progressive Presidents of the early 20th century have left an enduring mark on American history, one that serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of progress and reform.

Class Notes – Theodore Roosevelt – Progressive President

The actions of the muckrakers and a newly active middle class were heard by the then Vice President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. When the President, a very conservative William McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became President. Roosevelt was the son of a wealthy old money family. He was involved in government from when he was very young. It was his belief that the wealthy had an obligation to serve. This led him to government service. He became the Assistant Secretary of War, left to form the Rough Riders and took them to Cuba where he fought in the famous battle of San Juan Hill during the taking of Cuba in the Spanish American War.



Teddy Roosevelt


I. Theodore Roosevelt – Progressive

A. The “Square Deal” – Reforms – Increase in Federal Power, ended Laissez Faire. (Result of Roosevelt’s belief in “Noblesse Oblige.”)

“Let the watchwords of all our people be the old familiar watchwords of honesty, decency, fair-dealing, and commonsense.”… “We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less.””The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us.”

–New York State Fair, Syracuse September 7, 1903

1. Sherman Anti trust Act (Felt trusts should be judged on actions)

2. Mediated Coal Strike

3. Elkins Act (1903)

-Made it illegal for railroads and shippers to offer rate rebates. Railroad had to set rates. They couldn’t change w/out notice.

4. Hepburn Act (1906)

-Gave ICC the power to set maximum railroad rates.

5. Pure Food and Drug Act – Passed in 1906 and amended in 1911 to include a prohibition on misleading labeling.

6. Meat Inspection Act (1906)

7. Conservation

-Strengthening of Forest Bureau and created National Forest Service.

-Creation of much national park land.

-Appointment of Gifford Pinchot, professional conservationist to be in charge of national forests.

B. Roosevelt and William Howard Taft

1. Roosevelt did not run for a third term.

2. He was only in his mid fifties.

3. Stayed involved in politics.

4. Became dissatisfied with Taft and ran for a third term with a
third party, the Progressive Party, which was later nicknamed the “Bull Moose Party.” Bull Moose Party–Nickname for the Progressive Party of 1912. The bull moose was the emblem for the party, based on Roosevelt’s boasting that he was “as strong as a bull moose.”

C. Election of 1912

TR is “Dee-Lighted” to throw his hat into the ring of the 1912 presidential election.
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin

1. Roosevelt runs for the Progressive Party a.k.a. The Bull Moose Party.

2. Republicans split and the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson won

Woodrow Wilson – Progressive President

When Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat won the election of 1912 he received only 42% of the vote. The Progressive candidates; Roosevelt, Taft and Debs totaled 58% of the vote. Clearly America still sought progressive change. Wilson, an educator and the son of a Presbyterian Minister, recognized this and embarked on a program to continue Progressive reform called the “New Freedom.”


Woodrow Wilson

I. Woodrow Wilson – The “New Freedom” reforms

A. Underwood Tariff of 1913

-First lowering of tariffs since the Civil War

-Went against the protectionist lobby

B. Federal Trade Act (1914)

-Set up FTC or Federal Trade Commission to investigate and halt unfair and illegal business practices. The FTC could put a halt to these illegal business practices by issuing what is known as a “cease and desist order.”

C. Clayton Antitrust Act (1914)

-Declared certain businesses illegal
(interlocking directorates, trusts, horizontal mergers)

-Unions and the Grange were not subject to antitrust laws. This made unions legal!

-Strikes, boycotts, picketing and the collection of strike benefit funds ruled legal

C. Creation of Federal Reserve System (1914)

– Federal Reserve Banks in 12 districts would print and coin money as well as set interest rates. In this way the “Fed,” as it was called, could control the money supply and effect the value of currency. The more money in circulation the lower the value and inflation went up. The less money in circulation the greater the value and this would lower inflation.

D. Federal Farm Loan Act set up Farm Loan Banks to support farmers.