Square Deal

Theodore RooseveltThe Square Deal was President Theodore Roosevelt’s domestic program formed upon three basic ideas: conservation of natural resources, control of corporations, and consumer protection. Thus, it aimed at helping middle class citizens and involved attacking the plutocracy and bad trusts while at the same time protecting business from the extreme demands of organized labor.

Square Deal, the phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt during his first term as president to highlight his position on the “labor problem.” Its first public utterance appears to have been in the peroration of a Labor Day address given at the New York State Fair in Syracuse on 7 September 1903. In this speech Roosevelt spoke forcefully of the community of interests binding capital to labor and of the danger to this community in allowing either side to pursue overly selfish ends. In order to ensure continued national prosperity, both property owners and the laboring classes must share in the wealth produced. To maintain this balance, labor and capital must remain on an equal footing and subject to the same laws. In the context of the times, his stress on reciprocity was an obvious attack on the prerogatives of the Trusts. Furthermore, Roosevelt insisted that “a man” should not be judged on the basis of his social standing but rather on his “merits,” including his capacity for work, honesty, commonsense, and devotion to the common good. These virtues were the individual marks of good citizenship, and their preservation was necessary for the future of the republic and the progress of civilization.

Informing Roosevelt’s views were his recent experiences during the anthracite coal strike of 1902 and the Miller affair in July 1903, when he enforced an open shop for all government positions. Roosevelt insisted his responsibility as president was to ensure “fair play among all men, capitalists or wage workers, whether they conduct their private business as individuals or as members of organizations” (Gould, Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 115). He advocated an active role for central government to achieve this end and protect the common good. Over the course of the next several years, in correspondence and speeches, he broadened the scope of the Square Deal to incorporate other elements of his reform philosophy. These ideas were gathered together in a volume entitled A Square Deal, published in 1906 during his second term.

The Square Deal served as the rallying cry for progressive Republicans, even following Roosevelt’s departure from office in 1909. It was refashioned as the New Nationalism (the phrase coined by Herbert Croly) during

Roosevelt’s unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1912. In hindsight, the Square Deal was significant to American politics for two reasons. It represented the first attempt by a modern president to promote a unified vision for domestic reform. However, it was less a programmatic blueprint for governmental action than a political philosophy joining his belief in fair play, the virtue of hard work, free labor ideology, and the role of central government in promoting these ends. While innovative in asserting that subordinate groups in society were entitled to fair treatment, it was essentially conservative in its solution, emphasizing “Hamiltonian means” to achieve “Jeffersonian ends.” Second, it was the first of three “deals” enunciated by reform-minded presidents in the twentieth century, the other two being Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal.


Blum, John Morton. The Republican Roosevelt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Gable, John A.. The Bull Moose Years: Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1978.

Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

There must be ever present in our minds the fundamental truth that in a Republic such as ours the only safety is to stand neither for nor against any man because he is rich or he is poor, because he is engaged in one occupation or another, because he works with his brains or because he works with his hands. We must treat each man on his worth and his 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. Finally we must keep ever in mind that a Republic such as ours can exist only in virtue of the orderly liberty which comes through the equal domination of the law over all men alike; and through its administration in such resolute and fearless fashion as shall teach all that no man is above it and no man below it.

Source: Theodore Roosevelt, quoted in the New York Times, 8 September 1903.

Leave a Reply