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Trust-busting: A Response to Business Concentration

Most Republicans viewed their election victory in 1900 as an endorsement of the party’s policies toward business. Theodore Roosevelt, who became president in September 1901, did not fully share that view. Rather than simply maintain the status quo, Roosevelt sought a mid-course between Republican laissez faire policies and the socialism advocated by some reform elements. The president found an ally in an increasingly concerned public that had been wary of big government solutions in the past, but was now more receptive. The trusts` continuing growth in numbers and power convinced many that action was needed. Roosevelt took the following steps during his first administration to “keep order” in the American economy:

  • Department of Commerce and Labor. In 1903, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to establish a new cabinet-level department to increase the federal government’s purview over the interstate commerce actions of business and to monitor labor relations. Big business interests lobbied heavily to halt this innovation — the first new executive department since the Civil War — but failed. (Commerce and Labor would be separated into independent department in 1913.)
  • Bureau of Corporations. As an arm of the newly created department, a Bureau of Corporations was established to find violations under the existing antitrust legislation. The Bureau began investigations into the activities of the meatpacking, oil, steel and tobacco industries, among others.
  • Antitrust Law Suits. Roosevelt instructed his attorney general, Philander C. Knox, to launch a series of lawsuits against what were deemed offensive business combinations. Such giants as J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust and James B. Duke’s tobacco trust were targets of the government’s attorneys. In all, forty-four suits were brought during Roosevelt’s administration.
Trust-busting was not a term the president favored. He believed the offending corporations needed to be regulated, not destroyed. Many of his big business critics, however, failed to note the difference. Liberal Catholic bishops produced a document known as the Bishops` Program of Social Reconstruction after World War I. Regarding the concentration of wealth, the bishops` opined that:
For the third evil mentioned above, excessive gains by a small minority of privileged capitalists, the main remedies are prevention of monopolistic control of commodities, adequate government regulation of such public-service monopolies as will remain under private operation, and heavy taxation of incomes, excess profits, and inheritances.

See other Theodore Roosevelt domestic activity.