Theodore Roosevelt Is Accused of Accepting Corporate Funds Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Theodore Roosevelt was known as an opponent of corruption and corporate excess. During the 1904 presidential election campaign, his opponent, Democrat Alton B. Parker, called the president’s reputation into question when he asserted that Roosevelt had received campaign donations from large corporations in return for promised favors. Several businesses admitted giving money to the president, leading Roosevelt to call for campaign finance reform after his election.

Summary of Event

Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the United States in September, 1901, following the assassination of President William McKinley. Roosevelt began to vigorously enforce antitrust laws, which McKinley had largely ignored, and established the Department of Commerce and Labor, U.S. U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, with authority to collect information on the activities of large corporations. By 1904, when he was nominated by the Republican Party to run for another term, Roosevelt had gained a reputation as a trust-buster and had given the leaders of big business cause to hesitate before they decided that it was in their best interest to support him over his Democratic opponent, Alton B. Parker. [kw]Roosevelt Is Accused of Accepting Corporate Funds, Theodore (1904) Roosevelt, Theodore Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1904 Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Theodore Roosevelt[Roosevelt] Roosevelt, Theodore Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1904 Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Theodore Roosevelt[Roosevelt] [g]United States;1904: Theodore Roosevelt Is Accused of Accepting Corporate Funds[00010] [c]Corruption;1904: Theodore Roosevelt Is Accused of Accepting Corporate Funds[00010] [c]Politics;1904: Theodore Roosevelt Is Accused of Accepting Corporate Funds[00010] [c]Banking and finance;1904: Theodore Roosevelt Is Accused of Accepting Corporate Funds[00010] [c]Government;1904: Theodore Roosevelt Is Accused of Accepting Corporate Funds[00010] Parker, Alton B. Cortelyou, George B.

Theodore Roosevelt.

(Library of Congress)

In September, 1904, Roosevelt handed over control of his presidential campaign to the Republican National Committee, which was chaired by his former secretary of commerce and labor, George B. Cortelyou. When reports surfaced that the Campaign contributions campaign was receiving large contributions from corporations—a practice that was legal and was part of McKinley’s two campaigns for the presidency in 1896 and 1900—the stage was set for the defining controversy of the 1904 campaign, a controversy over the influence of big business on politics.

Parker was a New York judge from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party who disassociated himself from the issue of silver backing for currency, an issue that had been the centerpiece of Democrat William Jennings Bryan Bryan, William Jennings ’s campaigns in 1896 and 1900. This left the Democrats in search of a new issue, and for a time they tried to win over voters by criticizing Republican policies concerning the Philippines Philippines. The campaign proceeded rather uneventfully until October 1, when newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, an ardent backer of Parker, printed an open letter to Roosevelt, asserting that the president had relaxed his crackdown on monopolies and in return was receiving contributions from corporate treasuries. Pulitzer had been apprised of these contributions by former secretary of war, Lamont, Daniel Daniel Lamont, who three weeks later repeated his allegations to Parker. Lamont, a friend of Parker, added that the insurance industry was so certain that Roosevelt would win the election that his victory had already been underwritten. Appalled by this news, Parker, in an October 24 speech, attacked the Republicans for scandalously accepting corporate contributions. He argued that the contributions amounted to outright bribery Bribery;and campaign contributions[campaign contributions] Campaign contributions;and bribery[bribery] and would give corporations four more years to harm the public through monopolies and high prices.

Press reaction to Parker’s charges was at first tepid, but then a reporter wrote of seeing a check for $100,000 from Standard Oil;campaign contributions Standard Oil to the Roosevelt campaign. Roosevelt was particularly sensitive to the association this could create between himself and the Rockefeller-owned oil company, so he immediately directed Cortelyou to return the check, if it existed. Sensing that he had found an issue worth pursuing, Parker gave a series of speeches in late October and early November that made increasingly shrill attacks on the Republicans for accepting corporate money and attacks on Roosevelt for not admitting or ending the practice. Parker also put the alleged scandal in a more conspiratorial framework, implying that some of the money donated to the Republicans had been funneled to the Socialist and Populist parties to draw away Democratic voters and, thus, help the Republican cause. Parker also suggested that a deliberate plan was behind the appointment of Cortelyou to head the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903: to shift him from head of this department to the Roosevelt campaign as head in 1904, which would provide the campaign more leverage in getting money from corporations.

Roosevelt harbored fears that he might somehow lose the election. He decided to strike back at Parker close to election day to prevent Parker from having time to offer a rebuttal. On November 4, Roosevelt issued a statement categorically denying any impropriety in accepting perfectly legal contributions from corporations. He then characterized Parker’s charges as slanderous, unsupported assertion. Roosevelt also defended Cortelyou for his integrity; Cortelyou also had been reluctantly spared from the cabinet only after other equally qualified persons had turned down the position of party chair. Roosevelt vowed that he would go into his second term unhampered by promises or obligations beyond serving the best interests of the United States. On November 8, the voters went to the polls and gave Roosevelt one of the most decisive presidential victories in decades: Roosevelt beat Parker by more than 2.5 million votes.

Neither Roosevelt nor Parker, however, escaped from the 1904 election with an unblemished record on corporate contributions. Roosevelt received almost $2.2 million in campaign contributions, 70 percent of which came from corporations. While this amount did not approach the scale of the corporate funding McKinley received in his presidential races, stories persisted for years of an alleged secret meeting at the White House in October, 1904, in which Roosevelt was said to have begged a group of business tycoons for contributions, promising to leave their respective businesses alone during his second term. Roosevelt denied these allegations, but in testimony in 1912 before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, he did concede that in 1904 he had asked railroad magnate Harriman, E. H. E. H. Harriman to raise $250,000 to help ensure a Republican victory in the New York gubernatorial election, an outcome related to Roosevelt’s own prospects in carrying the state.

Parker told the same Senate subcommittee that he did not know who contributed to his 1904 campaign nor did he know the breakdown of those contributions; the funds he received were substantial, however. Parker was apparently unaware that tobacco and transportation magnate Ryan, Thomas Fortune Thomas Fortune Ryan had been reviled by William Jennings Bryan as the epitome of Wall Street influence on the Democratic Party and was a generous contributor to the 1904 Parker campaign.

Impact

Roosevelt was destined to win the 1904 presidential election, regardless of Parker’s allegations. Indeed, this election, and its scandalous allegations of colluding with big business, would have received little more than a footnote in U.S. political history if it had not inspired campaign finance reform. After the issue became public knowledge, neither candidate would dare dismiss its significance. Parker took a hand in promoting reform in New York, and although it took until 1907, New York lawmakers passed an act that placed their state in the forefront of states that prohibited corporations from making political contributions. Roosevelt made a call for federal campaign finance reform in his annual messages to the U.S. Congress in 1905 and 1906, and in 1907 his administration achieved success when the Tillman Act of 1907 Tillman Act (named for its primary sponsor, Senator Tillman, Benjamin Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina) became law. The act prohibited political contributions by any bank or corporation organized under the laws of Congress, and it began a long process of federal reform that eventually produced such milestone legislation as the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 (amended 1911, 1925) and the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. Roosevelt, Theodore Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1904 Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Theodore Roosevelt[Roosevelt]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corrado, Anthony, et al. The New Campaign Finance Sourcebook. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. Places in broad historical perspective the 1904 scandal over corporate contributions and its impact on campaign finance reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001. Biography of Theodore Roosevelt that concentrates on his time as president. A wealth of detail provided on the dispute over corporate contributions in the 1904 election campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, Irving. They Also Ran: The Story of the Men Who Were Defeated for the Presidency. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. The chapter on Alton B. Parker provides a full sketch of his career and run for the presidency.

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