21 February 2012

Theodore Roosevelt's 'charter of democracy'

One hundred years ago today, Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Ohio constitutional convention in what proved the prelude to his presidential campaign, first for the Republican nomination, then as an independent candidate. You can read the complete text here. For many 21st century observers, from this point, if not sooner, Roosevelt changed from an American hero to a sinister promoter of Big Government. Don't mistake him for a modern liberal or a modern "progressive," -- he was a priggish moralist and a warmonger for much of his life -- but judge him by his own words.

I am emphatically a believer in constitutionalism, and because of this fact I no less emphatically protest against any theory that would make of the constitution a means of thwarting instead of securing the absolute right of the people to rule themselves and to provide for their social and industrial well—being.
All constitutions, those of the States no less than that of the nation, are designed, and must be interpreted and administered so as to fit human rights.
Lincoln so interpreted and administered the National Constitution. Buchanan attempted the reverse, attempted to fit human rights to, and limit them by, the Constitution. It was Buchanan who treated the courts as a fetish, who protested against and condemned all criticism of the judges for unjust and unrighteous decisions, and upheld the Constitution as an instrument for the protection of privilege and of vested wrong. It was Lincoln who appealed to the people against the judges when the judges went wrong, who advocated and secured what was practically the recall of the Dred Scott decision, and who treated the Constitution as a living force for righteousness.
We stand for applying the Constitution to the issues of today as Lincoln applied it to the issues of his day; Lincoln, mind you and not Buchanan, was the real upholder and preserver of the Constitution, for the true Progressive, the Progressive of the Lincoln stamp, is the only true constitutionalist, the only real conservative.
The object of every American constitution worth calling such must be what it is set forth to be 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. If the constitution is successfully invoked
to nullify the effort to remedy injustice, it is proof positive either that the constitution needs immediate amendment or else that it is being wrongfully and improperly construed.

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It has been well said that in the past we have paid attention only to the accumulation of prosperity, and that from henceforth we must pay equal attention to the proper distinction of prosperity. This is true. The only prosperity worth having is that which affects the mass of the people. We are bound to strive for the fair distribution of prosperity. But it behooves us to remember that there is no use in devising methods for the proper distribution of prosperity unless the prosperity is there to distribute. I hold it to be our duty to see that the wage—worker, the small producer, the ordinary consumer, shall get their fair share of the benefit of business prosperity. But it either is or ought to be evident to every one that business has to prosper before anybody can get any benefit from it. Therefore I hold that he is the real Progressive, that he is the genuine champion of the people, who endeavors to shape the policy alike of the nation and of the several States so as to encourage legitimate and honest business at the same time that he wars against all crookedness and injustice and unfairness and tyranny in the business world (for of course we can only get business put on a basis of permanent prosperity when the element of injustice is taken out of it).
This is the reason why I have for so many years insisted, as regards our National Government, that it is both futile and mischievous to endeavor to correct the evils of big business by an attempt to restore business conditions as they were in the middle of the last century, before railways and telegraphs had rendered larger business organizations both inevitable and desirable. The effort to restore such conditions, and to trust for justice solely to such proposed restoration, is as foolish as if we should attempt to arm our troops with the flintlocks of Washington’s Continentals instead of with modern weapons of precision. Flintlock legislation, of the kind that seeks to prohibit all combinations, good or bad, is bound to fail, and the effort, in so far as it accomplishes anything at all, merely means that some of the worst combinations are not checked, and that honest business is checked.  What is needed is, first, the recognition that modern business conditions have come to stay, in so far at least as these conditions mean that business must be done in larger units and then the cool—headed and resolute determination to introduce an effective method of regulating big corporations so as to help legitimate business as an incident to thoroughly and completely safeguarding the interests of the people as a whole....

 It is imperative to exercise over big business a control and supervision which is unnecessary as regards small business. All business must be conducted under the law, and all business men, big or little, must act justly. But a wicked big interest is necessarily more dangerous to the community than a wicked little interest. "Big business" in the past has been responsible for much of the special privilege which must be unsparingly cut out of our national life. I do not believe in making mere size of and by itself criminal. The mere fact of size, however, does unquestionably carry the potentiality of such grave wrongdoing that there should be by law provision made for the strict supervision and regulation of these great industrial concerns doing an interstate business, much as we now regulate the transportation agencies which are engaged in interstate business. 

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We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows. We have only praise for the business man whose business success comes as an incident to doing good work for his fellows. But we should so shape conditions that a fortune shall be obtained only in honorable fashion, in such fashion that its gaining represents benefit to the community.
In a word, then, our fundamental purpose must be to secure genuine equality of opportunity. No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered. No watering of stocks should be permitted; and it can be prevented only by close governmental supervision of all stock issues, so as to prevent over capitalization.
We stand for the rights of property, but we stand even more for the rights of man.
We will protect the rights of the wealthy man, but we maintain that he holds his wealth subject to the general right of the community to regulate its business use as the public welfare requires.
We also maintain that the nation and the several States have the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor, which is the chief element of wealth, directly in the interest of the common good. It is our prime duty to shape the industrial and social forces so that they may tell for the material and moral upbuilding of the farmer and the wage—worker, just as they should do in the case of the business man.

*   *   *

 The crook in public life is not ordinarily the man whom the people themselves elect directly to a highly important and responsible position. The type of boss who has made the name of politician odious rarely himself runs for high elective office; and if he does and is elected, the people have only themselves to blame. The professional politician and the professional lobbyist thrive most rankly under a system which provides a multitude of elective officers of such divided responsibility and of such obscurity that the public knows, and can know, but little as to their duties and the way they perform them. The people have nothing whatever to fear from giving any public servant power so long as they retain their own power to hold him accountable for his use of the power they have delegated him. You will get best service where you elect only a few men, and where each man has his definite duties and responsibilities, and is obliged to work in the open, so that the people know who he is and what he is doing, and have the information that will enable them to hold him to account for his stewardship.

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 Keep clearly in view what are the fundamental ends of government. Remember that methods are merely the machinery by which these ends are to be achieved. I hope that not only you and I but all our people may ever remember that while good laws are necessary, while it is necessary to have the right kind of governmental machinery, yet that the all—important matter is to have the right kind of man behind the law.
A State cannot rise without proper laws, but the best laws that the wit of man can devise will amount to nothing if the State does not contain the right kind of man, the right kind of woman.
A good constitution, and good laws under the constitution, and fearless and upright officials to administer the law — all these are necessary; but the prime requisite in our national life is, and must always be, the possession by the average citizen of the right kind of character.
Our aim must be the moralization of the individual, of the government, of the people as a whole. We desire the moralization not only of political conditions but of industrial conditions, so that every force in the community, individual and collective, may be directed toward securing for the average man, and average woman, a higher and better and fuller life’ in the things of the body no less than those of the mind and the soul.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If he were running today, I'd vote for him.