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Reading 1: A selection quoted from President Theodore Roosevelt's State of the Union Address, December 3, 1901

President Roosevelt delivered his first State of the Union message only three months after his inauguration on September 14, 1901, following the death of President McKinley.

In the arid region, it is water, not land, which measures production.  The western half of the United States would sustain a population greater than that of our whole country to-day if the waters that now run to waste were saved and used for irrigation. 

The forest and water problems are perhaps the most vital internal questions of the United States.  The forests are natural reservoirs.  By restraining the streams in flood and replenishing them in drought they make possible the use of waters otherwise wasted.  The forests alone cannot, however, fully regulate and conserve the waters of the arid region.  Great storage works are necessary to equalize the flow of streams and to save the flood waters.  Their construction has been conclusively shown to be an undertaking too vast for private effort.  Nor can it be best accomplished by the individual States acting alone.  Far-reaching interstate problems are involved; and the resources of single States would often be inadequate.  It is properly a national function, at least in some of its features.  It is as right for the National Government to make the streams and rivers of the arid region useful by engineering works for water storage as to make useful the rivers and harbors of the humid region by engineering works of another kind.  The storing of the floods in reservoirs at the headwaters of our rivers is but an enlargement of our present policy of river control, under which levees are built on the lower reaches of the same streams.

The Government should construct and maintain these reservoirs as it does other public works.  The object . . . is to dispose of the land to settlers who will build homes upon it.  To accomplish this object water must be brought within their reach.

The pioneer settlers on the arid public domain chose their homes along streams from which they could themselves divert the water to reclaim their holdings.  Such opportunities are practically gone.  There remain, however, vast areas of public land which can be made available for homestead settlement, but only by reservoirs and main-line canals impracticable for private enterprise.  These irrigation works should be built by the National Government.  The lands reclaimed by them should be reserved by the Government for actual settlers, and the cost of construction should so far as possible be repaid by the land reclaimed.  The distribution of the water, the division of the streams among irrigators, should be left to the settlers themselves in conformity with State laws and without interference with those laws or with vested rights.  The policy of the National Government should be to aid irrigation in the several States and Territories in such manner as will enable the people in the local communities to help themselves.

The reclamation and settlement of the arid lands will enrich every portion of our country, just as the settlement of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys brought prosperity to the Atlantic States.  The increased demand for manufactured articles will stimulate industrial production, while wider home markets and the trade of Asia will consume the larger food supplies and effectually prevent Western competition with Eastern agriculture.  Our people as a whole will profit, for successful home-making is but another name for the upbuilding of the nation.

It would be unwise to begin by doing too much, for a great deal will doubtless be learned, both as to what can and what cannot be safely attempted, by the early efforts, which must of necessity be partly experimental in character.  No reservoir or canal should ever be built to satisfy selfish personal or local interests; but only in accordance with the advice of trained experts, after long investigation has shown the locality where all the conditions combine to make the work most needed and fraught with the greatest usefulness to the community as a whole.  There should be no extravagance, and the believers in the need of irrigation will most benefit their cause by seeing to it that it is free from the least taint of excessive or reckless expenditure of the public moneys.

Whatever the nation does for the extension of irrigation should harmonize with, and tend to improve, the condition of those now living on irrigated land.  We are not at the starting point of this development.  Over two hundred millions of private capital has already been expended in the construction of irrigation works, and many million acres of arid land reclaimed. 

Our aim should be not simply to reclaim the largest area of land and provide homes for the largest number of people, but to create for this new industry the best possible social and industrial conditions; and this requires that we not only understand the existing situation, but avail ourselves of the best experience of the time in the solution of its problems.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What sort of program does Roosevelt propose for the arid region of the West?  What details does he give about what this program would consist of?  What role does he assign to the federal government, and what reasons does he give for concluding that only the federal government could undertake this program?  Do you think his arguments are persuasive?  What roles does he assign to state governments and to the people who will live on the land?  Why do you think he assigned them roles?

2. What arguments does Roosevelt use to gain eastern support?  If you lived in an eastern state, do you think you would support spending government money on irrigation projects in the West?  Why or why not?

3. Roosevelt talks a lot about "homemaking."  What do you think he means by this term?  Why do you think he thought it was so important?  Some historians have said that Reclamation’s program was looking back to Thomas Jefferson’s conviction that American democracy was based on the independent small farmer.  Do you agree?  Why or why not?

4. This speech concentrates on settlers building new homesteads on public lands, but it also mentions the people currently living on irrigated farms.  How does Roosevelt suggest treating them?

5. Many historians consider Theodore Roosevelt one of the first "conservationists."  In 1900, conservation meant the sustained exploitation of natural resources through careful management for the good of the many.  Is this how you would define “conservation” today?  Discuss.

Reading 1 is excerpted from Roosevelt’s first State of the Union message, found on the State of the Union website, (accessed 2/7/12)


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