Theodore Roosevelt and the Trusts


Thick dark smoke billowing out of smokestacks several stories high proliferated across city skylines, heralding America's rise to world prominence and industrial supremacy.  After the Civil War, Americans embraced the smog and dirt of rapidly rising cities as a sign that America was fulfilling its destiny as a world power. Eager immigrants withstood the dangerous trip across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Traveling in crowded ships, they left all they knew behind them in the hope that America would bring those better lives.  With all the progress that Americans made, new problems arose.  While many immigrants found work and new homes in America they also experienced racism, lived in dilapidated tenements, and performed dangerous jobs. As industry grew and revolutionized American life, society became stratified: the poor became poorer and the rich, richer. Big businessmen like J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt lived in luxury during what historians call the Gilded Age (1877-1890).  They consolidated smaller businesses and created monopolies; where, for example, Rockefeller drove other oil companies out of business through ruthless tactics and created a giant oil company, Standard Oil.

During the Progressive Era (1890-1917), the Progressive Party formed to try to reform American society and the US government, which they believed was controlled by special interests and big business. Conservation of America's natural beauty was yet another way that Americans ushered in this period of reform.  Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican when he served as President but he believed in much of the Progressive Party's platform (in 1912 he ran for President as a Progressive and lost).  During his terms as President, Roosevelt battled big business to regulate it and prevent monopolies from harming American society. He believed that these so-called robber barons (or captains of industry, depending on one's view), had helped America advance and become a major influence internationally, but he also wanted to tame them so they could not to harm the average citizen.

Overview of the Lesson

In this two-day lesson students will grapple with the benefits and problems of monopolies through a classroom simulation by looking at the desire of businessmen to create trusts and the harm they can cause society at large. By reading speeches given by Theodore Roosevelt, students will examine the respect he had for businesses and his desire to regulate them to help the general welfare. Through pictures students will identify the disparity of living conditions between big businessmen and the typical industrial worker. Lastly, by looking at political cartoons, students will analyze visual representations of trusts and how the artists perceived the destruction of America.  Accompanying this lesson plan is a PowerPoint that is integral in understanding this time period.


  • Students should be able to explain a monopoly or trust.
  • Students should be able to identify the problems associated with a monopoly.
  • Students should be able to identify the Gilded Age and how monopolies affected Americans.
  • Students should be able to interpret Teddy Roosevelt's opinions of big business and regulation through reading primary source speeches.
  • Students should be able to interpret political cartoons relating to monopolies, and explain how many Americans felt about the power of trusts.


Day One (45-60 minute class)

  1. In order to understand the Progressive Era and trust busting students need to understand the definition of a trust.  The following is a classroom simulation where students will create both a competitive market and one that has a monopoly.  The teacher needs to engage and encourage students for each step. 

Monopoly Simulation

  1. Name three students to act as vendors and give them five pens each.  Explain to the rest of the class that these pens are for sale and they can purchase them from these three vendors using an allotted amount of currency (five pieces per student) that you will distribute.  The vendors are competing for their classmates' business, so they need to be creative in how they market and price the goods and possibly even decide what policies they will have.  For example, are they going to accept returns; promote that they are a "green" company; offer special deals; etc.?  Place your business owners in different corners of the room.  Give the class 5-10 minutes to buy and sell these pens. 
  2. At the end of the time limit ask each vendor how much money they each raised and how many pens they sold.  Have an open class discussion about why they chose to buy pens from a vendor, and why the vendors chose to sell the pens as they did.  Is it difficult or hard to sell the pens? Does it make a difference that other vendors are selling the same product? (5-7 minutes)
  3. Collect all the pens and tell the class that the student who raised the most money is buying out the other vendors and he/she is the sole vendor of pens. There is no other competition.  Give all the pens that were sold or unsold to the remaining vendor. Remember to tell the student that he/she is trying to make money. Ask them to consider how they might change their strategy. Next tell the rest of the class that they must buy at least two pens for an upcoming exam and if they fail to buy pens then they will receive an automatic F.  Give the class 5 minutes to purchase their pens.  Encourage the vendor to make as much money as possible. As a teacher you are trying to create a monopoly situation. (7-9 minutes)
  4. At the end of 5 minutes debrief what took place either in a journal or in a class discussion. Ask the students how easy or difficult it was to acquire the pens.  How did the vendor change his/her selling tactics?  What were some problems?  If you were not able to buy a pen, how did you feel knowing you were going to get an F on your next exam? (5-7 minutes)
  5. Give the students some key terms and go over them as a class.  Using the PowerPoint found under Materials, introduce the terms in Part I. List of key terms: commodity, currency, supply and demand, competitive market, monopoly. Students should take notes based on the PowerPoint. (7-9 minutes)
  6. After you have gone over Part I of the PowerPoint, show the class Part II of the PowerPoint to give them a background of the Gilded Age.  This places the idea of a monopoly or trust in a historical context and lets students see how monopolies affected real people.  (7 minutes)
  7. Give each student copies of Theodore Roosevelt's speeches.  Have the students read each speech. You can read the speeches to them and have them follow along, or they can read individually or with partners.  As they read the speeches have them underline the places where Roosevelt talks about the benefits or good aspects of business, and have them circle the places where Roosevelt talks about the problems with trusts in America. These are challenging readings and may require extra help from the teacher. (8-15 minutes) For further examination of the readings assign the Teddy Roosevelt worksheet for homework.

Day Two (45-60 minute class)

  1. Debrief the Theodore Roosevelt speeches.   You can lead a discussion based upon the questions in the worksheet from Day One. (5-7 minutes)
  2. Create a gallery walk by placing each political cartoon, found under Materials, on its own poster board or large piece of paper.  Display these pictures around the room as if the students would be walking in an art gallery. Give each student a marker or pen and tell them that this is an interactive gallery where they can write their thoughts, observations, and questions about the cartoons that they are viewing on the large pieces of paper.  This is sometimes referred to as a graffiti wall because they are allowed to write on the big paper. Remind students to be appropriate when writing on the paper.  This is a silent exercise since they are in an art gallery.  Students can move at their own pace through the gallery, but if your students need more structure, start each student or pair of students at a picture and after 1-2 minutes tell student to rotate to the next picture. (15-20 minutes)
  3. Use the Think, Pair, Share method to debrief the political cartoons.  Give the students time to write their thoughts in their notebooks or journals, and then discuss with a partner before sharing as a class. Here are some prompts for thought and discussion: What were the artists saying about trusts? How were businesses portrayed and how did that affect your view on business?  How was Theodore Roosevelt portrayed? How might these political cartoons affect you if you saw them in a newspaper during the late 1800s or early 1900s?  Make sure in your discussion to read some of the thoughts and questions from the big paper. (7-10 minutes)
  4. Show the class Part III of the PowerPoint. This gives the background and new key terms to the Progressive Era.  Key Terms: Trust-busters, Theodore Roosevelt, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and Clayton Anti-Trust Act. (7-10 minutes)
  5. Give each student a piece of white 81/2 X 11 paper.  Instruct them that they are to use markers or crayons to create a bumper sticker for a Model T Ford that has a slogan and/or picture that the Progressive Party member or trust-buster might put on his car.  When they are done have them display their sticker on the wall.  If time permits, have each student explain their sticker. (11-20 minutes)


  1. Quiz on the key terms from the Monopolies, Theodore Roosevelt, and Trust-Busting PowerPoint.
  2. Students can write their own persuasive speech or jingle to talk about the problems with or the benefits of monopolies.
  3. Students can create a collage of the conditions of the poor workers and contrast that with the progression and advances that business made for America during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  4. Students can research the viewpoints of the workers and the business owners and create a debate over whether trusts should be regulated. 


  • "Business of America, 1850-1900 (Overview)." American History. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 22 Aug. 2008 .
  • "Theodore Roosevelt: Controlling the Trusts speech (1901)." American History. 2008.       ABC-CLIO. 26 Aug. 2008 .
  • Fink, Leon, and Thomas Paterson. "Theodore Roosevelt Announces the New         Nationalism, 1910." Major Problems in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era: Documents and Essays. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin College Division,      2000. 392-93.