Theodore Roosevelt: Who Is a Progressive?

Theodore Roosevelt attempted to run for President of the United States in 1912 due to his dissatisfaction with the person who held the position at the time, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt declared him a Progressive only in name and accused him of opposing the policies supported by the movement. As such, he gave a speech on April 31, in which he described his opinion on what a Progressive is, the party’s goals, and its principal enemies. Roosevelt lost the election, but the speech is illustrative for the purposes of identifying the movement’s values.

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The Characteristics of a Progressive

Roosevelt’s definition of progressivism is inclusive and allows most people to apply the label to themselves. According to Roosevelt (1912), progressives believe in goodness, justice, and righteousness of all people, claiming that positive change can come from any person and is not limited to those with education and ability. Anyone can be a Progressive if he or she supports at least some of the values of social justice, which, in Roosevelt’s time, revolved around worker protection. However, influential people who do not hold the same convictions and oppose or ignore them are designated as reactionaries and the opposition.

Anti-Progressive Characteristics and Activities

As is mentioned above, anyone who does not support progressive values despite having the ability to do so, whether due to indifference or active hostility, is a reactionary anti-progressive. Roosevelt (1912) describes them as having no confidence in the people or passionate convictions and disregarding appeals to popular conscience and intelligence. In his opinion, such people would engage in activities that favored profits over honesty or social justice, such as the manufacture of whiskey from alcohol, colors, and flavors. Anti-progressives believe that their interests, which they may conflate with those of the state, take precedence over those of the ordinary people.

Goals of Progressivism

Progressivism champions social justice and the interests of the many over those of the few. Roosevelt (1912) claimed that he stood for “the adequate control, the real control, of all big business, and especially of all monopolistic big business” that hurt consumers. According to Skowronek, Engel, and Ackerman (2016), his proposed method for doing so involved a powerful government that would regulate people from above without supervision. This notion was likely a significant contributor to Roosevelt’s eventual loss to Woodrow Wilson, who opposed the idea.

Progressive Achievements

During his eight-year tenure as President of the United States as well as before and after it, Roosevelt promoted the values of progressivism in legislation. Roosevelt (1912) mentioned victories such as the amendment of the Rate Bill and the change to the Presidential election mechanism. The former involved changing a piece of legislation that would have damaged the government’s prior achievements in railway control. The latter is the change from having state government choose electors for the college to selecting them via popular vote. However, Roosevelt’s speech mostly concerns the dangerous actions of the anti-Progressive movement.


Roosevelt’s speech attempted to establish a definition of Progressivism that would be popular and accessible. Anybody who believed in people could claim the labels, and people who distrusted humanity were identified as the principal opponents. Roosevelt promoted social justice and increased governmental control that would eliminate the issues of exploitative business and especially of monopolies. However, he did not list many achievements and eventually lost the election by a wide margin.


Roosevelt, T. (1912). Who is a Progressive? Web.

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Skowronek, S., Engel, S. M., & Ackerman, B. (Eds.). (2016). The progressives’ century: Political reform, constitutional government, and the modern American state. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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