November 13

This Day in History

Old West

Nov 13, 1909:

Ballinger-Pinchot scandal erupts

The Ballinger-Pinchot scandal erupts when Colliers magazine accuses Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger of shady dealings in Alaskan coal lands. It is, in essence, a conflict rooted in contrasting ideas about how to best use and conserve western natural resources.

Ballinger was an appointee of President William Taft, the man who had succeeded the committed conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had developed most of his environmentally friendly policies with the assistance of his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. By 1909, Roosevelt, Pinchot, and other conservationists feared that Taft, though a fellow Republican, and Ballinger were systematically undermining the accomplishments of the previous administration by reopening to exploitation public lands that had been closed.

The Colliers article charged that Ballinger improperly used his office to help the Guggenheims and other powerful interests illegally gain access to Alaskan coal fields, confirming the worst fears of Pinchot and Roosevelt. Despite the fact that he had stayed on as chief forester in the Taft administration, Pinchot began to criticize openly both Ballinger and Taft, claiming they were violating the fundamental principles of both conservation and democracy. Livid with anger, Taft immediately fired Pinchot, inspiring yet another round of scandalous headlines.

The controversy over the Ballinger-Pinchot affair soon became a major factor in splitting the Republican Party. After returning from an African safari, Roosevelt concluded that Taft had so badly betrayed the ethics of conservation that he had to be ousted. Roosevelt mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Taft on the independent Bull Moose ticket in 1912. In truth, subsequent scholarship has shown that Ballinger had not technically misused the power of his office and the charges of corruption were unjustified. However, the Ballinger-Pinchot scandal reflected the ongoing tension between those who emphasized the immediate use of natural resources and those who wanted them conserved for the future, a discussion that remains active today.

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