The First Family, August 24th, 1907 - Source: Wiki Commons
Chapter XIII: A Grand Bargain: The Unlucky Fortune of Jurgis Rudkus
Subsequent to the legislative elections, President Roosevelt, despite his eagerness to plow ahead with progressive reform, took some time to define the image of his presidency in advance of the upcoming presidential race. The 60th Congress would not meet for its first session until December of 1907. In that interim, the president fostered a more harmonious representation of himself than the prototypical blustering cowboy that so often flooded the popular imagination. Unlike any of his recent predecessors, Roosevelt allowed reporters into the now-renovated White House and cultivated incessant coverage for his administrations. It had been many years since the United States president built a decent relationship with newspaper correspondents,and the incumbent thought it wise to change that.
Newsmen followed the daily activities of the personable leader, capturing frequent informal photographs and witty one-liners. He granted them, essentially, the first modern press briefings. This resulted in considerably favorable coverage that spanned every mainstream publication regardless of its political orientation (aside from extreme partisans). Positive reporting from daily columnists allowed Roosevelt to connect with middle-class supporters who gobbled up the latest presidential news as if it was candy. Especially in the post-Panic period, but even at the onset of his 1898 gubernatorial election, Roosevelt was a celebrity leader - and he knew it, loved it, and used it to his advantage whenever possible.
Around the autumn of 1906, President Roosevelt completing his reading of The Jungle, a novel authored by muckraker and anti-corruption advocate Upton Sinclair. The Jungle was a contemporaneous story of a Lithuanian immigrant as he strives to establish a promising life for himself and his family in the United States. The protagonist, Jurgis Rudkis, works in the meat industry, and it through his viewpoint that the reader is taught the unsanitary and gruesome conditions of the Chicago meatpacking plants. Rudkis endures rancid wage slavery, workplace accidents, and frequent mistreatment by the factory employers until he is driven to homelessness and addiction.
Author Upton Sinclair, who based the tale on his own experience working undercover in the meat industry, meant to expose the very real conditions of the meatpacking plants and that of poor, second-wave immigrants through the fictionalized perspective of Rudkis. Sinclair hoped that capturing the essence of unregulated capitalism and extreme systematic inequality would not only spur interest in worker's rights, but indicate the base faults with capitalism itself. The novel ends with Rudkis finding purpose and financial support in a socialist community, thereby demonstrating socialism's innate humanism and focus on cooperative labor in place of competition. Rudkis learns to embrace community-oriented socialism and his story ends on a hopeful note. With such an ending, Sinclair believed that the readership, numbering in the millions by the end of 1906, would arrive to a similar anti-capitalist conclusion.
President Roosevelt, who initially balked at Sinclair and his audience for instilling socialism in the public psyche, stated his "utter contempt" for the author, and affirmed that "three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods." Once he took the time to read the story, however, the president became appalled by the bleakly described factory conditions. He was disgusted less so by the foundational condition of immigrant workers than the nauseatingly unsanitary meat packing plants, allegedly tossing aside a plate of sausage mid-meal and promptly ordering an investigation of the industrialized workplaces. That research, headed by Commissioner Charles P. Neill, verified the legitimacy of Sinclair's assertions.
When the Congress did convene, Roosevelt required an attentive avenue of reform. The administration toyed with several monumental initiatives, and, due to the favorable congressional elections, coalition-building was far more viable than it had been previously. The Square Deal, as previously inferred, carried with it an ample amount of proposals, and it was up to the president to designate which legislative endeavors were more worthy of immediate implementation. Acting on his own accord, but too pressured by public demands, he would move meatpacking regulation to the top of that list.
Agricultural regulatory measures notwithstanding, Roosevelt funneled his frustrations with the economic status quo into a single objective. The greatest legacy Roosevelt wished to his administration to leave behind was lessening excessive economic inequality. After the numerous scraps over his first two years in office, he witnessed first-hand the dangerous notion of extreme wealth in the hands of a select few puffed-up individuals. Therefore, Roosevelt's number one priority narrowed down to implementing the Bryan-era Constitutional amendment pertaining to the income tax. "The really big fortune," he declared, "the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means, Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective—a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate."