American Portraits

Theodore Roosevelt: Warrior for Public Justice

In this lesson, students will explore how Theodore Roosevelt sought justice by reforming the meat packing industry. Roosevelt’s dedication to justice and the general welfare of the nation will inspire students to be more focused on justice in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


One of the most significant battles that Theodore Roosevelt would win in his war for the common welfare was to increase federal inspection of meat packing houses. The questionable practices of large-scale meat packing giants, the so-called “Beef Trust,” first became known to Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. The Chicago meat packing companies supplied provisions to U.S. Army troops in Cuba, sending canned meat products. The cans contained a visible layer of boric acid that was thought to be a preservative and also helped mask the smell of rotten meat. Many American soldiers derided the product as “embalmed beef” and would not eat it. Teddy Roosevelt would later testify that he would have “eaten his old hat as soon as eat embalmed beef.” However, many soldiers did eat it out of hunger and desperation, sometimes with severe consequences. Scores of soldiers became so ill that they were no longer fit for combat, and many died of food poisoning and dysentery. By some estimates, more soldiers died from embalmed beef than the 379 that fell to Spanish bullets in the war….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Theodore Roosevelt’s dedication to justice inspire us to pursue justice in our own lives?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will explore how Theodore Roosevelt sought justice by reforming the meat packing industry. Roosevelt’s dedication to justice and the general welfare of the nation will inspire students to be more focused on justice in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze Theodore Roosevelt’s performance in the passage of the Meat Inspection Act.
  • Students will understand how they can pursue justice in their own lives.


Theodore Roosevelt grew up in a wealthy family on Long Island, New York. He entered the world of politics as a loyal, pro-business Republican and served in the New York Assembly and as Police Commissioner of New York. He served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy before he left to serve in the Spanish-American War. The accomplishments of his “Rough Riders” at the battle of San Juan Hill made Roosevelt a national hero.  In 1898, Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York. In 1900, he was nominated to serve as President McKinley running mate in his successful re-election effort. Less than six months after being inaugurated as Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt himself became president following McKinley’s assassination in September of 1901.

Theodore Roosevelt had developed into a progressive Republican, and his views made many conservative Republicans wary of his power. However, unlike most progressives, Roosevelt did not believe that reform meant a departure from the values of the Founding. He never sought to invalidate the Founder’s vision as outlined in the Constitution, nor to undermine the capitalist economic system. Roosevelt’s motivation was to institute progressive reforms that made American traditions stronger and to achieve justice for the American people.  He also sought to protect the nation from the real danger of radical reform.

Roosevelt respected private property and understood entrepreneurs’ contributions to the prosperity of the United States. However, he had a vision of a new role for the federal government—to increase regulation of business and to protect American workers and consumers. He believed that “where the whole American people are interested, that interest can be guarded effectively only by the National Government.”  Roosevelt did not see this as in any way being an unconstitutional interference with private property.  As he would describe in his Charter for Democracy Speech:

“In the preamble to the National Constitution, ‘to establish justice’ that is to secure justice as between man and man by means of genuine popular self-government…We are engaged in one of the great battles of the age-long contested war against privileged on behalf of the common welfare.”


  • Spanish-American War
  • Progressive
  • Derided
  • Embalmed
  • Testify
  • Sanitation
  • Turmoil
  • Domestic
  • Reverence

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Theodore Roosevelt?
  • What was his role in passing the Meat Inspection Act?
  • What responsibility did Theodore Roosevelt feel toward the people of the United States?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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