The Progressive Era
|Digital History ID 3141|
One of the most significant issues Roosevelt confronted as president was how best to deal with the growth of corporate power. Between 1897 and 1904, a total of 4,227 firms merged to form 257 corporations. The largest merger combined nine steel companies to create U.S. Steel. By 1904, some 318 companies controlled nearly 40 percent of the nation's manufacturing output. A single firm produced over half the output in 78 industries.
Many Progressives feared that concentrated, uncontrolled, corporate power threatened Republican government. Public opinion feared that large corporations could impose monopolistic prices to cheat consumers and could squash small independent companies.
Roosevelt's Justice Department launched 44 anti-trust suits, prosecuting railroad, beef, oil, and tobacco trusts. Henry Clay Frick, the steel baron complained, "We bought the son of a bitch and then he didn't stay bought." The most famous anti-trust suit, filed in 1906, involved John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company. It took five years for Roosevelt to win his case in the Supreme Court. In the end, however, Standard Oil was broken into 34 separate companies.
Theodore Roosevelt did not oppose bigness in and of itself. He only opposed irresponsible corporate behavior. He distinguished between "good trusts" and bad trusts" and advocated regulating big corporations in the public interest by means of a government commission.