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This Day in History: TR Signs Bill Creating Department of Labor and Commerce

Group portrait of the cabinet of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt

Group portrait of the cabinet of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt (at far left). March 4, 1909. Photo courtesy of M. A. DeWolfe Howe (1919), PD.

On this day in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill creating the Department of Commerce and Labor, the ninth Cabinet office. In his first State of the Union address delivered on December 3, 1901, Roosevelt called for the creation of the department. Although there had been a long-standing dispute between labor forces and business interests, Roosevelt did not believe that labor and capital were in conflict with one another. Rather, he thought that combining the functions of various information and statistics bureaus into one department would be more efficient. Roosevelt told Congress in his annual message:

There should be created a Cabinet officer, to be known as Secretary of Commerce and Industries, as provided in the bill introduced at the last session of the Congress. It should be his province to deal with commerce in its broadest sense; including among many other things whatever concerns labor and all matters affecting the great business corporations and our merchant marine.

The course proposed is one phase of what should be a comprehensive and far-reaching scheme of constructive statesmanship for the purpose of broadening our markets, securing our business interests on a safe basis, and making firm our new position in the international industrial world; while scrupulously safeguarding the rights of wage-worker and capitalist, of investor and private citizen, so as to secure equity as between man and man in this Republic.

Senator William P. Frye (R-Maine) translated these ideas into legislation, which he introduced in the 57th Congress. The bill passed despite Democratic minority opposition to the bill on the grounds that Labor would be submerged and that the distrust between labor and business would destroy the usefulness of the Department. President Roosevelt appointed his private secretary, George B. Cortelyou, the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor.

Labor union leader Samuel Gompers refused to accept the idea that there was a community of interests between labor and business forces. Pro-labor forces led by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) continued to oppose the combined department and lobbied for a single Department of Labor. In 1908, the AFL persuaded the Democratic Party to adopt a plank in its platform pledging "the enactment of a law creating a Department of Labor, represented separately in the President's Cabinet." However, it was not until the Democratic Party recaptured Congress that the efforts finally paid off. New York Representative William Sulzer introduced a bill establishing a separate Department of Labor in 1912 and a reluctant President William Howard Taft signed the bill into law in 1913.

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