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Teddy Roosevelt's attack on excessive concentration of wealth

President Barack Obama speaking about the economy during a visit to Osawatomie High School in Kansas on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Barack Obama speaking about the economy during a visit to Osawatomie High School in Kansas on Tuesday.

I’m not sure what has been the reddest of red states over the long haul, but Kansas would have to be in the running. Since being admitted to the Union in 1861 (just as the union was disuniting), Kansas has participated in 37 presidential elections and been carried by the Republican candidate 31 times, including the last 11 in a row.

So President Obama probably didn’t choose Osawatomie, Kan., as the site for his big Tuesday speech because he hoped to put Kansas into play. But obviously Obama was hoping to associate himself with former Repub President Theodore Roosevelt, who gave a famous speech there in 1910.

I wasn’t blown away by the Obama speech, although I thought it was fine and do believe at the moment that he is identifying a set of themes that will continue to put the Repubs on the political defensive. But Obama's familiar insistence “asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share” of taxes sounds pretty tepid compared to the Teddy Roosevelt speech, which covered many similar themes but more bluntly.

You can read the whole Roosevelt speech here. But in case you don’t click through, below are some samples of the Rooseveltian rhetoric from Osawatomie’s previous moment in the national spotlight, featuring an attack on the excessive concentration of wealth that Obama would dare to go near. Said Roosevelt in 1910:

Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt

In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows."

***

"At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new."

***

"I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service. One word of warning, which, I think, is hardly necessary in Kansas. When I say I want a square deal for the poor man, I do not mean that I want a square deal for the man who remains poor because he has not got the energy to work for himself. If a man who has had a chance will not make good, then he has got to quit."

***

"The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation…. There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done…Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public-service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs."

***

"The effort at prohibiting all combination has substantially failed. [This is a reference to the effort at 'trust-busting' that he iinaugurated as president, but which he felt had not been pursued vigorously by his successor, William Howard Taft.] The way out lies, not in attempting to prevent such combinations, but in completely controlling them in the interest of the public welfare.

***

"The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows…

"We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

"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 — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered."

***

"The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective-a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate."

***

"I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us."

***

"The right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest is universally admitted. Let us admit also 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. The fundamental thing to do for every man is to give him a chance to reach a place in which he will make the greatest possible contribution to the public welfare. Understand what I say there. Give him a chance, not push him up if he will not be pushed. Help any man who stumbles; if he lies down, it is a poor job to try to carry him; but if he is a worthy man, try your best to see that he gets a chance to show the worth that is in him. No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living, and hours of labor short enough so after his day’s work is done he will have time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community, to help in carrying the general load. We keep countless men from being good citizens by the conditions of life by which we surround them. We need comprehensive workman’s compensation acts, both State and national laws to regulate child labor and work for women, and, especially, we need in our common schools not merely education in book-learning, but also practical training for daily life and work."

***

"We need to set our faces like flint against mob-violence just as against corporate greed; against violence and injustice and lawlessness by wage-workers just as much as against lawless cunning and greed and selfish arrogance of employers. If I could ask but one thing of my fellow countrymen, my request would be that, whenever they go in for reform, they remember the two sides, and that they always exact justice from one side as much as from the other. I have small use for the public servant who can always see and denounce the corruption of the capitalist, but who cannot persuade himself, especially before election, to say a word about lawless mob-violence. And I have equally small use for the man, be he a judge on the bench or editor of a great paper, or wealthy and influential private citizen, who can see clearly enough and denounce the lawlessness of mob-violence, but whose eyes are closed so that he is blind when the question is one of corruption of business on a gigantic scale."

***

"Those who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism."

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Comments (16)

The good old days when progressives (Republican or Democrat, apparently) were not beaten and meek, subservient to the conservative framing of every issue.

I did not know Teddy Roosevelt was so blunt and direct. These comments are so appropriate for today, and should be broadcast widely. Obama's speech was timid, compared to this. What if we actually tried to live up to Roosevelt's principles? It would be a different world--and this is what the Occupy movement is all about.

Teddy Roosevelt was an anti-capitalist, big government progressive. He insisted that only a powerful federal government could regulate the economy and guarantee "social justice." His platform called for a national health service, an inheritance tax, and an income tax ... government powers that didn't exist at the time.

"The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows."

He opposed what conservatives view as a free society and Barack Obama's progressive platform and policies are quite consistent with the founders of the big-government progressive movement.

Teddy Roosevelt was the original RINO.

...Teddy Roosevelt was the original RINO...

No, how about Lincoln? A RINO that "liberated" the property of honest plantation owners...

Can't get much more big government than that.

Get over it, the current definition of Republican is a pathetic shade of puke of its former glory.

Mr. Tester’s repeated – and intellectually vapid – defense of his interpretation of Social Darwinism strays, as usual, from reason into right wing propaganda. I doubt he would recognize genuine conservatism if it hit him in an anatomically tender spot, and expect a stirring defense of some combination of aristocracy and anarchy from him in a future post. The sort of “free society” envisioned by Mr. Tester hasn’t existed since the Middle Ages, and then it existed only for royalty. Most of the population lived as serfs. Mr. Tester presumably doesn’t see himself in that latter role.

Andrew Carnegie – I look forward to Mr. Tester characterizing Carnegie as an anti-capitalist “liberal” – vigorously defended both Individualism (he liked to capitalize it) and Capitalism (that one, too), but Carnegie also acknowledged that the combination of those two brought with them significant social costs, which he believed *had to* be addressed and ameliorated by those who benefited from the system. His solution was progressive taxation – “up to 50% of income” – and a huge inheritance tax (Mr. Tester would, in error, refer to it as a “death tax”).

The rationale for Carnegie’s solution was his firm belief (I doubt that Carnegie ever had any other sort of belief besides a “firm” one) that wealth *did not belong to the wealthy,* but instead had merely been temporarily entrusted to them by the society. Since you can’t take it with you when you die, he argued, wealth beyond what was necessary to live “comfortably,” ought to be used – that is, the wealthy had an *obligation* to do so – for the benefit of society as a whole. The result included numerous libraries scattered across the country, not to mention art museums and other cultural facilities in just about every major metropolitan area. Carnegie didn’t fund them all, but he funded a lot of them, and set an example that others of the era often followed.

Carnegie wrote about all this in 1889, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Teddy Roosevelt – member of the upper class that he was – was exposed to Carnegie’s ideas at some point before he became president.

Obama provides pretty thin rhetorical soup compared to the elder Roosevelt, but it’s far better than the “Them that has, deserve to get more” canard being followed by the current clown parade traipsing through Iowa.

And just to make it clear,
'Social Darwinism' owed little to Darwin and much to Herbert Spencer, who is credited with the term 'survival of the fittest'.

Defend big-government collectivism all you want you nanny statists, none of Roosevelt's demands for "social justice" were constitutional. They were nothing but a undeserved rich man's guilty conscience trying to buy his way into office.

Teddy Roosevelt, while trying to break coporate power, was also disdainful of the policies of William Jennings Bryan, who advocated distributing wealth more equally. Rather he was for hard work and self advancement--the "strenuous life".

He was also an internationalist, a lonely voice for military preparedness in the years before WW 1, an advocate for women's suffrage, and a rabid defender of the environment. His ideas were not a perfect fit with either party, then or now. One smart dude.

Thanks so much for this article. Teddy Roosevelt was one of a kind, as was his cousin FDR. We could use a few dozen like them in the Congress to help reverse the damage to our democracy and our society done by the right-wing belief that taxation is theft rather than a means to economic justice.

Journalist Sara Robinson isn't the only one to see our current condition as very near to fascism, in our case corporatism. Dr. Lawrence Britt studied fascism in various countries and identified 14 areas common to all. It's very interesting to read the list because almost every item is either in effect or being fought for by right-wing ideologues.

The 14 are entitled: powerful and continuing nationalism, disdain for the recognition of human rights, identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause, supremacy of the military, rampant sexism, controlled mass media, obsession with national security, religion and government are intertwined, corporate power is protected, labor power is suppressed, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, obsession with crime and punishment, rampant cronyism and corruption, and fraudulent elections.

Google "The 14 Characteristics of Fascism" for more information on each.

"I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us."

This statement should be given to every elected official in the country.

Dennis, the name calling is silly. Calling anyone a nanny-stater, commie, socialist, leftist does not strengthen your argument. In fact when you say "Democrat Party", as you often do, you are merely demonstrating your difficulties with parts of speech.

That being said which policies of TR's were unconstitutional? Specifically, where in the language of specific legislation would indicate that? Where in the constitution is your argument supported?

Lastly, TR was a very complex individual and I don't you think you can reduce his motives to mere guilt. But, then again, "guilt" is another one of your buzzwords.

C'mon Dennis Tester, who meets your criteria as a true Republican? Or are you standing alone in your right wing corner?

Reading Mr. Tester's condemnation of Roosevelt, as well as other comments, I wonder, has there ever been a president that today's GOP, in a moment of complete honesty, would embrace as being fully representative of their principles?

Lincoln, as noted, was a big government man not afraid of exercising federal power, and who some even feared would become a kind of American Caesar. Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive. Eisenhower was a RINO by today's definition, certainly. Nixon was a big government guy and paranoid and corrupt to boot. Ronald Reagan was a serial tax raiser and deficit spender who grew the size of government dramatically, and who believed in progressive taxation (despite that conservatives like to invoke his name with near-religious reverence). GHW Bush raised taxes. The Tea Party evolved largely out of disgust with Dubya's big government and deficit spending ways.

It seems that todays' right wing/TP-dominated GOP have never had a president they would consider one of their own, and so, in 2011 they seem to be selecting ... Newt Gingrich?? Another flip-flopping big government moderate who has all the same traits they find unacceptable in Romney.

Goodness. It must be terribly frustrating to be a right winger. The whole assemblage of presidents past were a bunch of big government progressives, every one of them! No wonder these good folk tend to be a crabby bunch.

Tangentially, I can't think about Teddy Roosevelt without remembering the movie, "The Wind and the Lion". It's not much good for learning history, but it is a great deal of fun and one of the delights of the film is Brian Keith's portrayal of Teddy Roosevelt - a really bang-up job. The man was born to play Roosevelt. "Perdicaris alive, or the Raisuli dead!" I need to watch that movie again.

Mr. Groth you are so correct on the portrayal of TR by Brian Keith, that was a delightful performance.

Leadership be it political or business leadership has strayed considerably from the ideals of "big men" that it is no wonder we are in a pathetic state in both our economy and in our politics.

Lance (#13) I think they approve of the Cheney/Bush administration and would like to see it return and continue its Project for the New American Century agenda.

Bernice - I think they'd like to see Cheney return, anyway...