CHAPTER XIX: THE RISE OF THE LION
The Accidental President
The Accidental President
William McKinley was the last of the Civil War Presidents. While Grant and Sherman were the most famous, McKinley has the unfortunate recognition to stand alongside forgotten presidents like William Wheeler (another of the Civil War presidents). McKinley’s assassination so early into his presidency therefore propelled Roosevelt to become the “accidental president.”
Indeed, Roosevelt’s ascension to the presidency was alarming for some. As governor of New York, Roosevelt had engaged in an anti-spoils campaign of meritocracy which broke the power of the Republican and Democratic parties in the state. Before the establishment of governing bureaucracies, most political and governing posts throughout the state were doled out on the spoils system based on whichever party controlled the power of the state. Roosevelt utterly devastated this ancient system which went back to the very birth of the country—the unofficial hidden hand of political governance. Thus the Republicans in New York conspired with the national party to give Roosevelt the Vice Presidency to rid of him in their state. It worked. Unbeknownst to them, McKinley would be shot and Roosevelt would become the President.
Roosevelt’s presidency came, as we know, at the heel of the Bryan Administration. The Bryan Presidency was, to many, a mixed bag. On the one hand he had fought a reactionary campaign that favored the laboring and agrarian classes that were slowly fading into the background with the ascent of the capitalist and middle-class professions who would fuel the progressive movement. Bryan was a president for the prairie folk and not the bourgeoning and emergent urban classes. At the same time, however, Bryan presided over the passing of the 18th Amendment which granted suffrage to women. He also managed to tame the railroads which so decimated the agrarian heartlands of the country which he hailed from. The anti-railroad legislation that he hurried through Congress in 1897 before the Democrats lost their majority to more industrialist-minded Republicans and suffered the blowback from pro-business Democrats, ensured a standard flat rate of agricultural shipment on railroads which wouldn’t impoverish the farmers as was the practice since the end of the Civil War. Bryan’s pro-silver policies, nonetheless, debased the American currency and caused great financial instability. Lastly, with growing European imperialism and colonialism, the Monroe Doctrine was jeopardized and Bryan was forced, by the dictates of necessity, to abandoned his principled anti-imperialist isolationism and began a slow buildup of t he American navy to defend the Western Hemisphere from encroaching French and German aggression.
Bryan left the White House a battered and broken man. His idealism had been crushed by the conspiracy of pro-business Democrats and Republicans, their capitalist masters, and the realities of an emerging global and imperialist world. He had won some major policy achievements for his beloved toiling masses of the world: the Interstate Commerce Act of 1897 had curbed some of the monopolistic power of the railroads but had, by the end of his presidency, lost its teeth as enforcement was simply neglected by pro-railroad politicians and their lackeys; women’s suffrage was, as few know, one of his other most championed causes apart from free silver and anti-railroad legislation; and his free silver policies undeniably helped farmers and poor laborers yet came at the expense of the urban peoples. Yet he also lost some major policy goals. He never achieved his long sought after nationalization of the railroads. The election of McKinley would ensure the re-imposition of the Gold Standard over the whole of the nation. The Venezuelan Crisis marked the turning point away from splendid isolationism toward a more managerial internationalism that Roosevelt would become the public and shining face of.
Thus when Roosevelt became president he was beset by many problems that he saw as needing fixing. Roosevelt saw the threat that a new militant and radical France posed. French interests in Africa had spread out into the Caribbean. Japan was also a growing threat in the Pacific. In fact, Roosevelt saw Japan’s modernization and industrialization as a world historical moment. Japanese wars with China proved Japan was now a rising power and threatened the unofficial Open Door policy in China. Free silver policies benefited the farmers but had wreaked havoc on urban cities and banks—the fiat paper money policies of Bryan had caused an extensive and discriminatory amount of inflation that hit the cities and middle-classes hardest. The hamstringing of Bryan by pro-business Democrats and Republicans had led to the unofficial realignment of politics and the renewed ascendency of the businesses-classes between 1899-1905. These vultures had complete control of the economic life of the nation. While no populist like Bryan, Roosevelt’s governorship in New York showed a modest concern against the dangers of monopolistic practices. Roosevelt had much to do when he ascended to the Oval Office.
A Judge cartoon satirizing the Open Door Policy between imperial powers against China. Japan was quickly becoming a major power in Asia that worried Pacific internationalists, Roosevelt among them.
Knowing he had “won” only because McKinley had won, the first years of the Roosevelt Presidency was largely McKinleyist in orientation. Roosevelt, like most Republicans, was a strong Gold man. This was, in most respects, his sharpest break with Bryan. In fact, he had given many speeches in the 1904 election on behalf of the Gold Standard. One of his actions as President was to sign into law the 1905 Gold Authorization Act which aimed at phasing out 75% of the silver coinage of the Bryan Administration as an effort to curb inflation and bring down cost of living prices which were predominately harsh toward urban tenants.
In the 1906 elections, Republicans were awarded with a slightly larger majority than they had won in 1904. However, by 1907 Roosevelt came into his own. He saw himself as the strong arm of the explosive and dynamic middle-class professions, small business owners, and social professionals. This was the true heart of the progressive movement.
Toward a Modern Politics
Roosevelt personally wrote that was “conservative on most matters.” As he himself said, “The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.” Roosevelt was a steadfast defender of property rights, something that would never make him an ally of socialism. Nonetheless, the best way to look at Roosevelt’s propertarianism was that he wanted property ownership in more hands than concentrated in a few hands. In this respect he was akin to a distributist. Trust busting, in the Rooseveltian mind, was a way of advancing middle-class property interests.
To this end he aligned himself, somewhat, with the populist cause against the railroads. It was not the case that Roosevelt was anti-railroad, he was pro-railroad. But he wanted fairer railroad practices that didn’t destroy the already dwindling property rights of farmers whom he had a sympathy with as a self-imaged “man of the prairies.” The Hepburn Act, passed in 1907, gave reinforcement to the Interstate Commerce Act passed during the Bryan Administration. The Act achieved two important things. First, it banned railroad rebates which was the corrupt method of business favoritism where railroad magnates used as a form of price discrimination. Second, it set a standardized price for railroad transit and passage. Admittedly, this was not evenly distributed over all sections of the country, but it largely aided farmers and agrarian producers to have fairer prices for the transportation of their goods to market with minimal backdoor profits to the railroads.
Soon after, Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drug Act. This legislation established a federal bureau for meat and food inspections to make sure American produce was healthy and not tainted when sent and sold to market. Roosevelt’s aim, in overseeing the Pure Food and Drug Act, was partly motivated by his own philosophy of physiognomy. Roosevelt believed that healthier eating habits would produce a healthier, more manly, and physically robust population. It was, to some degree, a form of soft social engineering that was guided by the emergent philosophy of eugenics which Roosevelt was an adamant believer in.
A man also moved by his war experiences, Roosevelt pushed for the McCumber Act, also passed in 1907, which established a primitive welfare state for American military veterans. This was aimed at helping the aged veterans, now out of work, who couldn’t sustain their lives upon retirement or competition with low skilled labor. After all, military pay wasn’t particularly profitable to begin with. The Act established a monthly pension of $12 for veterans at the age of 62; $15 at the age of 65; and $70 at age 75 and continuing until death.
Concurrent with these domestic affairs, Roosevelt unleashed a vicious campaign for the enlargement of the American navy. Most Democrats and a handful of Republicans, mostly from the interior of the country, opposed his efforts of procuring large funds to build a modern American navy. Roosevelt was a friend and disciple of Alfred Mahan, and he strongly concurred with the belief that a strong navy was the hallmark of modern and powerful nations. Roosevelt argued that a strong navy would secure the American continent from European meddling. After all, hadn’t Bryan reluctantly reached the same conclusion because of the Venezuelan crisis? Here, Roosevelt found strong allies with the capitalist and pro-business wings of the Democratic and Republican parties. The business magnates, who were inwardly fuming at the rather mild concessions they had to make thus far under the Roosevelt Administration, jumped at the chance of having a strong arm to protect their industrial interests around the globe.
In additional to the new internationalism, Roosevelt also strongly advocated for the Naturalization Act—an immigrational law which established a bureau of naturalization and restricted immigration to keep out ruffians, degenerates, and undesirables from entering the country. One of the major provisions was that the new immigration initiative was to privilege the Germanic peoples of Northwest Europe, “no alien shall hereafter be naturalized or admitted as a citizen of the United States who can not speak the English language.” The act intended to restrict Chinese and Southern European immigrants from swarming the country in large numbers as had been happening in the past two decades. Roosevelt also spoke about how these preventative measures helped American workers from being undercut by cheap labor.
Theodore Roosevelt and his administration and staff outside the White House. It was during the Roosevelt Presidency that he officially gave the Presidential Mansion its lasting nickname.
In short, what Theodore Roosevelt had done was to transform the executive branch from the traditionally weakest of the three branches of government into the strongest branch of the government. He pressed and challenged Congress which was, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, the real engine and strongest branch of the federal order. Now it was reversed. Roosevelt had also begun the move to choose Judges for the Supreme Court that would be friendly to his causes. While Roosevelt admired Lincoln, whom he saw as his spiritual political father, Roosevelt surpassed Lincoln since Lincoln’s strong executive was a wartime executive. While Fremont dithered Lincoln ran the show as Vice President. Things were relaxed when peace reunited the Union and Lincoln sat back as President. Roosevelt managed to change the very wheels of the executive. He was now an active peacetime president managing the affairs of the domestic economic and domestic disputes, and an active president managing foreign affairs and foreign disputes. Roosevelt transformed the tame executive branch into becoming a royal executive branch as Tocqueville long ago noted as always a possibility, “If the existence of the Union were perpetually threatened, and if the chief interests were in daily connection with those of other powerful nations, the executive government would assume an increased importance in proportion to the measures expected of it, and those which it would carry into effect.”
Roosevelt would win a resounding reelection in 1908 against fellow New Yorker Alton B. Parker, the chosen candidate of the pro-business Democrats who, in their return from exile, forever crushed the spirit of the populist “serpent” in the Democratic Party and shifted the party toward a more managerial-corporate style of “progressivism” emerging in the Republican Party. Now, however, we shall leave the Lion personally to examine the causes of his presidency and the making of modern American politics with the activist peacetime executive that came to define Roosevelt’s administration.
 Equivalent to OTL’s Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.
 This is historically true. Bryan was an ardent champion of women’s suffrage during his lifetime as part of his populist-democratic idealism.
 Historically it was passed in 1906.
 Same as in our timeline, see the Naturalization Act of 1906.
 Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book 1, Chapter 8.