The Square Deal: Definition & History

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  • 0:04 The Square Deal
  • 1:43 Labor & Corporations
  • 3:10 Conservation of Nature
  • 3:53 Public Welfare
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will be introduced to a number of the policies which contributed to Roosevelt's Square Deal during the 19th century and gain insight into how these policies have influenced American culture and society well into the 21st century.

The Square Deal

Throughout American history, political figures have spent a considerable amount of time arguing in favor of capitalism and defending the socio-economic system against critics who emphasize its negative aspects. Yet, while the nation has indeed been successfully built on a capitalist system, we should be careful not to overlook the potential risks and historical abuses of such a system. Capitalism requires a careful balance between economic competition and responsibility, and when these requirements get out of balance, the consequences can be profound and far reaching.

During the Gilded Age of the 19th century (1870-1900) advances in science and technology gave a significant boost to the nation's manufacturing and agricultural industries, but it also ushered in an era of considerable abuses and unfair labor practices. Because competition for employment was strong, and the industries were poorly regulated, corporations and employers frequently took advantage of employees, forcing them to work long hours in unsafe environments, often for insufficient wages. Additionally, the rapid growth of industrial manufacturing was beginning to take a significant toll on the natural environment, as territories became increasingly urban.

During his first term as president (1901-1904), Theodore Roosevelt began promoting a collection of progressive policies which he believed would correct the negative effects of industrialization and improve the quality of life for Americans. These policies, referred to as the Square Deal, focused primarily on controlling corporations, the conservation of nature, and public welfare. Rather than a specific set of policies, the Square Deal refers to many of Roosevelt's policies enacted throughout his presidency.

Labor and Corporations

Although Roosevelt's Square Deal policies covered many areas of public life, a large chunk of them addressed the oppressive labor conditions and unregulated corporations that had begun to develop during the later half of the 19th century. A significant component of the Square Deal policies were aimed at regulating trade and manufacturing to ensure that there were oversights and controls to keep business fair and equitable. Many also protected businesses against unreasonable labor unions.

Another important influence of the Square Deal policies was the protection of women and children in the workplace. Acting on public pressure and Roosevelt's endorsement, Congress chartered the National Child Labor Committee in 1907. Although the committee had existed since 1904, this Congressional act gave them the federal authority to investigate the abuses and potential exploitation of these groups, and, in the case of Washington, D.C., seriously restricted the practice of child labor. Additionally, several of these policies attempted to impose new safety regulations that would protect the health and well-being of, among others, railroad workers, sailors, and miners.

Roosevelt's labor policies significantly increased workplace safety by encouraging or establishing certain standards that formed many of the policies on which American labor continues to operate. For example, the implementation of eight-hour work days for irrigation workers influenced the standard eight-hour work day that many enjoy today. Also, certain standards for wages and a prohibition on involuntary labor helped to influence the establishment of a minimum wage.

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