Coal Region Books: Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership during the 1902 Coal Strike

In the autumn of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt faced one of the biggest tests of his young presidency. That crisis came straight out of the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin examines Roosevelt’s response to the 1902 coal strike in her study on presidential leadership, Leadership in Turbulent Times.  In her book, she examines four presidents (Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson) and how they led the United States through difficult moments in its history.

Leadership

The Coal Strike of 1902 began in May 1902 when the coal operators in the anthracite fields refused to engage in talks with John Mitchell and the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) for increased wages and recognition of their union. When the operators refused, more than 100,000 miners and laborers walked off the job.

The strike dragged on through the summer with sporadic violence and no negotiations between the strikers and operators. As the cooler autumn months loomed, a slow crisis began to develop as existing supplies of anthracite coal dwindled and prices shot upward. Cities along the Eastern Seaboard relied on anthracite coal from eastern Pennsylvania for their cooking and heating during the winter months. The prospect of a winter without fuel was a life-or-death situation for millions of people.

President Theodore Roosevelt entered the fray between the strikers and the operators and broke all precedent. Presidents had stayed away from engaging in the nasty squabbles between labor and capital throughout the 19th century, believing this to be a private matter to be settled without government interference.

What Roosevelt recognized, as Doris Kearns Goodwin points out, is that a coal famine in the winter of 1902-03 would have been a national disaster and left millions in the freezing cold. Against the wishes of many in his administration, Roosevelt waded into the fight and sought to start negotiations and arbitration between the two opposing forces.

By wielding his “bully pulpit,” Roosevelt used his power to push forward negotiations. He used his restless energy to cajole operators into negotiations and threatened to send Federal troops into the region to nationalize the mines in order to stave off a coal famine.

BurningQuestion - Cartoon
A cartoon from the autumn of 1902 (Ohio State University)

Ultimately, his strategy worked and a deal was struck between the UMWA and the operators on October 23, 1902, bringing about the end of a 163-day strike. Roosevelt’s leadership brought the Federal government into the world of labor relations for the first time and proved a starting point for Roosevelt’s campaign against trusts and the forces of monopoly.

“With the coal strike,” writes Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Theodore Roosevelt had grasped the historical moment that signaled the clear emergence of a domestic purpose for his young administration – to restrain the rampant consolidation of corporate wealth that had developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.”

The book’s examination of presidential leadership provides ample evidence of what constitutes the make-up of a good leader and how national crises such as the 1902 coal strike have been managed historically. Goodwin’s insights into the coal strike and the events that shaped its ultimate conclusion make this section of the book an excellent read for anyone with an interest in the history of the Coal Region.


Featured Image: President Roosevelt during a meeting with labor leaders and coal operators in the autumn of 1902 (Harper’s Weekly) 

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