William Roscoe Thayer (18591923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
XII. The Great Crusade at Home
THESE early diplomatic settlements in Roosevelts Administration showed the world that the United States now had a President who did not seek quarrels, but who was not afraid of them, who never bluffed, becauseunlike President Cleveland and Secretary Olney with their Venezuela Message in 1895he never made a threat which he could not back up at the moment. There was no longer a bed of roses to stifle opposition; whosoever hit at the United States would encounter a barrier of long, sharp, and unbending thorns.
These particular achievements in foreign affairs, and others which I shall mention later, gave Roosevelt and his country great prestige abroad and the admiration of a large part of his countrymen. But his truly significant work related to home affairs. Now at last, he, the young David of the New Ideals, was to go forth, if he dared, and do battle with the Goliath of Conservatism. With him there was no question of daring. He had been waiting for twenty years for this opportunity. Such a conflict or duel has rarely been witnessed, because it rarely happens that an individual who consciously embodies the aims of an epoch is accepted by that epoch as its champion. Looking backward, we see that Abraham Lincoln typified the ideals of Freedom and Union which were the supreme issues of his time; but this recognition has come chiefly since his death. In like fashion I believe that Roosevelts significance as a champion of Liberty, little suspected by his contemporaries and hardly surmised even now, will require the lapse of another generation before it is universally understood.
Many obvious reasons account for this. Most of the internal reforms which Roosevelt struggled for lacked the dramatic quality or the picturesqueness which appeals to average, dull, unimaginative men and women. The heroism of the medical experimenter who voluntarily contracts yellow fever and diesand thereby saves myriads of livesmakes little impression on the ordinary person, who can be roused only by stories of battle heroism, of soldiers and torpedoes. And yet the attacks which Roosevelt made, while they did not involve death, called for the highest kind of civic courage and fortitude.
Then again a political combat with tongues and arguments seldom conveys the impression that through it irrevocable Fate gives its decision to the same extent that a contest by swords and volleys does. Political campaigns are a competition of parties and only the immediate partisans who direct and carry on the fight, grow very hot. The great majority of a party is not fanatical, and a citizen who has witnessed many elections, some for and some against him, comes instinctively to feel that whoever wins the country is safe. He discounts the cries of alarm and the abuse by opponents. And only in his most expansive moments does he flatter himself that his party really represents the State. The Republican Party, through which President Roosevelt had to work, was by no means an ideal instrument. He believed in Republicanism, with a faith only less devoted than that with which he embraced the fundamental duties and spiritual facts of life. But the Republicanism which he revered must be interpreted by himself; and the party which bore the name Republican was split into several sections, mutually discordant if not actually hostile. It seems no exaggeration to say that the underlying motive of the majority of the Republican Party during Roosevelts Presidency was to uphold Privilege, just as much as the underlying purpose of the great Whig Party in England in the eighteenth century was to uphold Aristocracy. Roosevelts purpose, on the contrary, was to clip the arrogance of Privilege based on Plutocracy. To achieve this he must, in some measure, compel the party of Plutocracy to help him. I speak, so far as possible, as a historian,and not as a partisan,who recognizes that the rise of a Plutocracy was the inevitable result of the amassing, during a generation, of unprecedented wealth, and that, in a Republic governed by parties, the all-dominant Plutocracy would naturally see to it that the all dominant party which governed the country and made its laws should be plutocratic. If the spheres in which Plutocracy made most of its money had been Democratic, then the Democratic Party would have served the Plutocracy. As it was, in the practical relation between the parties, the Democrats got their share of the spoils, and the methods of a Democratic Boss, like Senator Gorman, did not differ from those of a Republican Boss, like Senator Aldrich. Roosevelt relied implicitly on justice and common sense. He held, as firmly as Lincoln had held, to the inherent right-mindedness of the plain people. And however fierce and formidable the opposition to his policies might be in Congress, he trusted that, if he could make clear to the average voters of the country what he was aiming at, they would support him. And they did support him. Time after time, when the Interests appeared to be on the point of crushing his reform, the people rose and coerced Congress into adopting it. I would not imply that Roosevelt assumed an autocratic manner in this warfare. He left no doubt of his intention, still less could he disguise the fact of his tremendous personal vigor; but rather than threaten he tried to persuade; he was good-natured to everybody, he explained the reasonableness of his measures; and only when the satraps of Plutocracy so far lost their discretion as to threaten him, did he bluntly challenge them to do their worst.
The Interests had undeniably reached such proportions that unless they were chastened and controlled, the freedom of the Republic could not survive. And yet, in justice, we must recall that when they grew up in the day of small things, they were beneficial; their founders had no idea of their becoming a menace to the Nation. The man who built the first cotton-mill in his section, or started the first iron-furnace, or laid the first stretch of railroad, was rightly hailed as a benefactor; and he could not foresee that the time would come when his mill, entering into a business combination with a hundred other mills in different parts of the country, would be merged. in a monopoly to strangle competition in cotton manufacture. Likewise, the first stretch of railroad joined another, and this a third, and so on, until there had arisen a vast railway system under a single management from New York to San Francisco. Now, while these colossal monopolies had grown up so naturally, responding to the wonderful expansion of the population they served, the laws and regulations which applied to them, having been framed in the days when they were young and small and harmless, still obtained. The clothes made for the little boy would not do for the giant man. I have heard a lawyer complain that statutes, which barely sufficed when travel and transportation went by stage-coach, were stretched to fit the needs of the public in its relation with transcontinental railroads. This is an exaggeration, no doubt, but it points towards truth. The Big Interests were so swollen that they went ahead on their own affairs and paid little attention to the community on which they were battening. They saw to it that if any laws concerning them had to be made by the State Legislatures or by Congress, their agents in those bodies should make them. A certain Mr. Vanderbilt, the president of one of the largest railroad systems in America, a person whose other gems of wit and wisdom have not been recorded, achieved such immortality, as it is, by remarking, The public be damned. Probably the president and directors of a score of other monopolies would have heartily echoed that impolitic and petulant display of arrogance. Impolitic the exclamation was, because the American public had already begun to feel that the Big Interests were putting its freedom in jeopardy, and it was beginning to call for laws which should reduce the power of those interests.
As early as 1887 the Interstate Commerce Act was passed, the earliest considerable attempt to regulate rates and traffic. Then followed anti-trust laws which aimed at the suppression of pools, in which many large producers or manufacturers combined to sell their staples at a uniform price, a practice which inevitably set up monopolies. The Trusts were to these what the elephant is to a colt. When the United States Steel Corporation was formed by uniting eleven large steel plants, with an aggregate capital of $11100,000,000, the American people had an inkling of the magnitude to which Trusts might swell. In like fashion when the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern Railroads found a legal impediment to their being run by one management, they got round the law by organizing the Northern Securities Company, which was to hold the stocks and bonds of both railroads. And so of many other important industrial and transportation mergers. The most powerful financial promoters of the country, led by Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, were busy setting up these combinations on a large scale and the keenest corporation lawyers spent their energy and wits in framing charters which obeyed the letter of the laws, but wholly denied their spirit.
President Roosevelt worked openly, with a definite purpose. First, he would enforce every law on the statute book, without exception in favor of any individual or company; next, he suggested to Congress the need of new legislation to resist further encroachments by capitalists in the fields where they had already been checked; finally, he pointed out that Congress must begin at once to protect the national resources which had been allowed to go to waste, or to be seized and exploited by private concerns.
I do not intend to take up in chronological sequence, or in detail, Roosevelts battles to secure proper legislation. To do so would require the discussion of legal and constitutional questions, which would scarcely fit a sketch like the present. The main things to know are the general nature of his reforms and his own attitude in conducting the fight. He aimed directly at stopping abuses which gave a privileged few undue advantage in amassing and distributing wealth. The practical result of the laws was to spread justice, and equality throughout the country and to restore thereby the true spirit of Democracy on which the Founders created the Republic. He fought fairly, but warily, never letting slip a point that would tell against his opponents, who, it must be said, did not always attack him honorably.
At first, they regarded the President as a headstrong young manhe was the youngest who had ever sat in the Presidential chairwho wished to have his own way in order to show the country that he was its leader. They did not see that ideals which dated back to his childhood were really shaping his acts. He had seen law in the making out West; he had seen law, and especially corporation law, in the making when he was in the New York Assembly and Governor of New York; he knew the devices by which the Interests caused laws to be made and passed for their special benefit, or evaded inconvenient laws. But he suffered no disillusion as to the ideal of Law, the embodiment and organ of Justice. Legal quibbles, behind which designing and wicked men dodged, nauseated him, and he made no pretense of wishing to uphold them.
The champions of the Interests found out before long that the young President was neither headstrong nor a mere creature of impulse, but that he followed a thoroughly rational system of principles; and so they had to abandon the notion that the next gust of impulse might blow him over to their side. They must take him as he was, and make the best of it. Now, I must repeat, that, for these gentlemen, the very idea that anybody could propose to run the American Government, or to organize American Society, on any other standard than theirs, seemed to them preposterous. The Bourbon nobles in France and in Italy were not more amazed. when the Revolutionists proposed to sweep them away than were the American Plutocrats of the Rooseveltian era when he promoted laws to regulate them. The Bourbon thinks the earth will perish unless Bourbonism governs it; the American Plutocrat thought that America existed simply to enrich him. He clung to his rights and privileges with the tenacity of a drowning man clinging to a plank, and he deceived himself into thinking that, in desperately trying to save himself and his order, he was saving Society.
Most tragic of all, to one who regards history as the revelation of the unfolding of the moral nature of mankind, was the fact that these men had not the slightest idea that they were living in a moral world, or that a new influx of moral inspiration had begun to permeate Society in its politics, its business, and its daily conduct. The great ship Privilege, on which they had voyaged with pomp and satisfaction, was going down and they knew it not.