We had an opportunity to revisit one of the most prominent and influential family in American politics by watching Ken Burn’s “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” was shown on PBS this week. (The final episode will be on tonight. The whole series can still be seen on computers, tablets and other devices by going to the PBS website.) Centering around Teddy, his niece Eleanor, and his fifth cousin Franklin, it starts in 1858 when Teddy was born and follows the trio to 1962 with Eleanor’s death.
The series is more that learning about a unique family; we also see the evolution of the of the Presidency. Teddy Roosevelt reshaped the role of the President by his hands-on personality and personal progressive standards. Becoming President in 1901, he welcomed the new century by being the first President to have a bath-tub in the White House, the first President to ride in an automobile, and the first President to leave the country while in office. More importantly there were other politically firsts. For example he was the first President to invite an African-American (Booker T. Washington) to the White House for a private dinner. He also was the first President to get involved in a labor strike.
The Second Episode, “In the Arena (1901-1910)” told of Theodore Roosevelt’s life as our President. In May, 1092, 150,000 Anthracite Coal Miners went on strike. Since Anthracite Coal was a harder, more efficient coal that produced less smoke, and it was produced only in central Pennsylvania, it was the coal of choice to use in the northeast portion of the country.
The miners were asking for higher wages (which hadn’t changed for 20 years), shorter work week (Burns’ film reported the miners worked six 16 hour days a week., Wikipedia reported 10 hour days), and to have their Union recognized by the mine owners. The miners, often experiencing cave-ins and explosives, were concern with mining safety. Boys as young as 10 were employed to break large pieces of coal into smaller ones.
Management refused to negotiate with the workers. During the strike the price of coal went from $5/ton to $30/ton. President Roosevelt was concerned that there wouldn’t be coal for the coming winter, and feared that would cause riots. He told Senator Mark Hanna “A coal famine in the winter is an ugly thing and I fear we shall see terrible suffering and grave disaster.”
In early October Roosevelt called a meeting with the mining management. He told them and the union to meet with a group of arbitrators and accept their decision. Management refused. They told the President that he had no constitutional authority to be involved with industrial matters. Roosevelt knew that. The founding fathers did not envision the 20th Century industrial system when they created the constitution. Roosevelt felt he had to intervene for the good of the country. He said, “The President has a moral duty to the American People that is higher than his constitutional duty.”
The President threatened to nationalize the coal mines, and use the U.S. Army to mine the coal. J.P. Morgan, connected to the coal industry through his railroad empire, and other coal industrial leaders, gave in. The strike ended October 23. The Anthracite Coal Strike Commission was created to review the coal mines physical conditions and arbitrated the workers ‘benefits’.
The miners originally wanted a 20% raise, but received 10%. The miners wanted an 8 hour day, but agreed to 9 hours. The miners’ union was not recognized, but a six-man arbitration board was organized with the power to settle labor disputes.
In today’s gridlocked congress, President Obama has taken similar bold stances on many issues. The most recent issue that House has failed to even discuss is Immigration and the President has threatened a Roosevelt-esque, but constitutional, response. President Obama may not have said the bold words that Roosevelt used, but he certainly feels that he has the duty to intervene for the good of our country.
Theodore Roosevelt was proud to be a Republican. Today’s Republican Party would have no place for a present day Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps the elections in November will move the GOP away from its extreme right-wing doctrines to a more moderate position.