Roosevelt's election to the presidency in his own right in 1904 freed him from many of the inhibitions he felt during his first administration. His popularity was so apparent that the Democrats had trouble finding a candidate to oppose him. Willam Jennings Bryan, the eloquent progressive who had lost twice to McKinley, had no appetite for a third try, this time against a Republican with strong progressive credentials of his own; he threw his support to the then-radical publisher, William Randolph Hearst, but the party was not prepared to accept the father of yellow journalism as its leader. The Democrats nominated instead a virtually unknown party loyalist, Judge Alton B. Parker of the New York State Supreme Court, who promptly alienated the mass of Bryan Democrats on the night of his nomination with a call for affirmation of the gold standard. Against such political clumsiness, T. R. faced no trouble. Nevertheless, unpersuaded of his own already preponderant strength, Roosevelt risked compromising his progressive standing by making quiet overtures to conservative party, corporate, and financial leaders. The corporate community, antireform though it was, knew more surely than did Roosevelt that Parker was a loser; it put on a happy face, contributed handsomely to T. R.'s campaign when asked, and left Parker to a quiet campaign on his own back porch. On 8 November 1904, Roosevelt swept the country with 336 electoral votes to Parker's 140, and 7.6 million popular votes to Parker's 5.1 million, the most lopsided popular margin of victory since national records had been kept. Roosevelt said he was delightfully "stunned" by the victory.
The year 1906 would be a landmark for progressive legislation, with the passage of the Meat Inspection, Pure Food and Drug, and Hepburn Railroad acts. These measures underlined the federal government's permanent entry as a regulator of the economic life of the nation. Each vested in a federal agency the power to investigate and to fix some of the conditions under which goods could be transported and sold across state lines. In the case of the Hepburn Act, Roosevelt won for the ICC limited rate-making powers, a form of price control that was unprecedented for the federal government.
The measures moved the American polity significantly toward the modern regulatory state, but it is important to understand that all three had powerful support from business groups. Many meat-packers resented the bad name the industry had earned at home and abroad because of the shipment of tainted meats by unscrupulous or simply negligent packaging companies. Similarly, adulteration and misrepresentation of packaged foods and pharmaceuticals hurt more scrupulous businesses, especially those trying to crack foreign markets. Finally, the seemingly arbitrary rate-making practices of the railroad industry had aroused the ire of shippers as well as farmers across the country. Aside from those particular businesses that feared immediate damage to their profits, opposition came from those who worried about where the move to increased federal power might someday lead and from others who saw a threat to orderly government in the arming of administrative agencies with broad discretionary powers of investigation and enforcement. Against these latter arguments, Roosevelt established the point that effective and therefore more orderly government depended precisely on the "continuous disinterested administration" of independent regulatory commissions.
The most enduring triumph of Roosevelt's administration lay in his program for the regulation of the country's natural resources. At the time he became president, private interests were in the process of laying waste to the country's remaining riches, as they had already done to the timber, soil, and water resources of the older settled regions of the continent. During the McKinley administration, millions of acres of public lands had been allowed to slip into the control of private interests without provision for government supervision or restraints on destructive use. Mineral rights had been sold off at prices far below market value. Virtually nothing had been done to safeguard recreational sites or to require replenishment of renewable resources. The movement for conservation (not yet dubbed with that name) had so far been confined to a number of engineers, agronomists, scientists, and public servants—an educated elite that foresaw clearly the ultimate exhaustion of vital assets on which the country had long counted for its economic growth. By winning Roosevelt as an ally, as they did even before he entered the White House, they gained a leader with an incomparable talent for combining the scientific imperatives of modern resource management with an appeal to the moral imperatives of a democratic civilization. It was the latter, of course, that would turn an elite interest into a broad popular cause.
The main lines of Theodore Roosevelt's conservation program were developed by Gifford Pinchot and Frederick H. Newell, easterners with a mission to prevent the continued destruction that uncontrolled private "development" had inflicted on the eastern third of the country, in concert with westerners of similar concerns such as George H. Maxwell of California and Congressman Francis Newlands of Nevada. They called for multiple-purpose projects for development of water and land resources; public-land leasing contracts that required controlled grazing of grasslands and selective cutting and replanting of timber; a land-use fee system that could make public management self-supporting; and the preservation of scenic lands for recreation and the protection of wildlife.
Legislation achieved some of the movement's objectives, but the core of the program depended on the president's use of executive orders and other administrative prerogatives. The Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 designated revenues from public-land sales to the construction of irrigation projects for the conversion into arable land of the vast arid regions of the American West. During Roosevelt's administration alone, more than thirty such projects, including the Roosevelt Dam in Arizona, were begun. The Newlands Act has been responsible for subsidizing the creation and maintenance of some of the country's most valuable agricultural land today. It is a worthy monument to the Roosevelt administration, although it is flawed by eighty-five years of uncontrolled violations of the act's provision that purported to limit reclaimed and irrigated land to 640 acres per owner.
Congressional legislation in 1905 also set up the Forest Service with broad powers to manage the country's forest reserves, including the water resources within them, and the power to make arrests for violations of its regulations. Roosevelt named Pinchot chief forester, and Pinchot promptly launched a veritable revolution. He used his authority to withdraw from use thousands of acres of land, not only in order to prevent unruly exploitation of timber stands but to keep the fast-growing electric utility companies from preempting valuable waterpower sites before an orderly program could be established.
In the conservation struggle, Roosevelt and his allies made much use of moral rhetoric, frequently appealing to Americans' antimonopoly sentiments and turning the cause into one of "the interests" versus "the people." There is little doubt that the national conservation program disrupted established lines of power between the special interests and state legislative and congressional blocs. Moreover, the entire constellation of issues that was embodied in the conservation movement clashed directly with principles of the business ethic: here was an area where, more clearly than in most, private profit appeared to contradict the social ethic, the public's long-term interest in protection of the national endowment. Yet it is inaccurate to treat the issue in "monopoly" and "antitrust" terms. Roosevelt himself came to acknowledge that he could count more often on the big corporations than he could on smaller and upwardly scrambling business groups for support of his regional programs. The most intractable problem lay in overcoming the parochial interests of state politicians and the shortsighted interests of local businessmen on the make. The big interstate corporations had long-term stakes in efficient resource management almost as much as the general public did. They could be more easily (though not very easily) converted to multiple-purpose uses of forest and water resources than could smaller, single-purpose business firms. And some of them would even enjoy some market advantages in the withdrawal of lands from the entry of potential competitors.
Roosevelt always played the political game with skill. Antimonopoly rhetoric evoked the clearest public response, so he used it. On the other hand, he knew that the more powerful potential antagonist was a public that might come to view conservation as a threat to its ambitions for economic development. Consider his support for San Francisco's plan to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a natural wonder often compared to the Yosemite Valley, for a reservoir to serve the city's growing water needs. He wrote to the outraged naturalist John Muir:
I will do everything in my power to protect not only the Yosemite, which we have already protected, but other similar great natural beauties of this country; but you must remember that it is put of the question permanently to protect them unless we have a certain degree of friendliness toward them on the part of the people of the State . . . and if they are used so as to interfere with the permanent material development of the State . . . the result will be bad.
Roosevelt asked Muir not to put him "in the disagreeable position of seeming to interfere with the development of the State for the sake of keeping a valley . . . under national control."