The Square Deal

The Square Deal is the name given to Theodore Roosevelt’s domestic legislative program. Roosevelt did not create this phrase; it was already familiar to nineteenth century Americans. His recurrent usage of it, however, linked it to him in the public mind after the 1902 anthracite coal strike. In that labor dispute, Roosevelt mediated an end to the troubles by treating both the bosses and the workers equally.

In 1903, Roosevelt started using the term with some frequency. For example, on May 27, 1903, President Roosevelt included the phrase in speeches to two different audiences in Montana. To the colored citizens of Butte, Montana, he said: “In Santiago I fought beside the colored troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry. If a man is good enough to have him shot at while fighting beside me under the same flag, he is good enough for me to try to give him a square deal in civil life.” That same day, Roosevelt told the Silver Bow Labor and Trades Assembly of Butte that he was “one who tries to be an American president, acting upon the principle of giving a square deal to each and every one.”

Roosevelt specifically applied the Square Deal to African American citizens, as he did in a letter in June 1903 to journalist Rollo Ogden: “[A]ll I wanted was a square deal for the negro. If he is fit to vote by the test we apply to a white man, let him vote. If he is unfit, don’t. If he is unfit in an office turn him out; not because he is a negro, but because he is unfit. If, on the other hand, he is fit, appoint him; again, not because he is a negro, but because he is fit.”

The term applied more broadly, as when Roosevelt asserted in July 1903, that “This administration stands for a square deal all around,” or when he wrote to Chicagoan Paul Lacey,  “…if there is one thing that I do desire to stand for it is for a square deal, for an attitude of kindly justice as between man and man, without regard to what any man’s creed or birthplace or social position may be, so long as, in his life and in his work, he shows the qualities that entitle him to the respect of his fellows.” Roosevelt told civil servant Frank C. Nunemacher that he thought “that the motto of ‘fair play for the working man and a square deal to every American, whether employer or employee’ is as good a one as could possibly be desired.” In 1904, he confessed to journalist Ray Stannard Baker “my favorite formula—A square deal for every man.”

As Roosevelt used the phrase with such regularity, it soon became associated with him. Private citizens wrote, praising him for the lofty ideal and sometimes reminding him that they wanted a square deal from the government, too, as railroad baron E. H. Harriman did in 1905. A 1904 campaign booklet entitled “A Square Deal for Everyman,” compiled by Robert J. Thompson, included famous examples of Roosevelt’s use of the term, including his speech on May 6, 1903, at the Grand Canyon. Author Owen Wister repeated the phrase in his 1905 cover story for the Saturday Evening Post, “After Four Years: A Square Deal for Every Man.” The phrase appeared in Harper’s Weekly, and on the cover of Puck magazine in 1905. It graced sheet music and was used in advertisements during and after Roosevelt’s presidency.

Subsequently, historians have applied the term Square Deal to mean the legislation and acts connected with Roosevelt’s presidency, especially those which seemed to be undergirded by this sense of fair play and egalitarianism. The Northern Securities case, the Elkins and Hepburn Acts, the creation of the Bureau of Corporations, and his administration’s other actions connected with trust busting, for example, speak to Roosevelt’s desire to equalize the power imbalance between corporations and common people. The Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act are well-known examples of Roosevelt’s belief that corporations should not profit at the expense of the public’s wellbeing. More recently, historians have distilled the Square Deal to the “three C’s” of consumer protection, corporate regulation, and conservationism, as shorthand for the most important domestic goals of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.