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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART VII. PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRACY AND THE WORLD WAR
» CHAPTER XXI

«·Colonial Administration · Legislative and Executive Activities·»


The Roosevelt Domestic Policies

Social Questions to the Front.—From the day of his inauguration to the close of his service in 1909, President Roosevelt, in messages, speeches, and interviews, kept up a lively and interesting discussion of trusts, capital, labor, poverty, riches, lawbreaking, good citizenship, and kindred themes. Many a subject previously touched upon only by representatives of the minor and dissenting parties, he dignified by a careful examination. That he did this with any fixed design or policy in mind does not seem to be the case. He admitted himself that when he became President he did not have in hand any settled or far-reaching plan of social betterment. He did have, however, serious convictions on general principles. “I was bent upon making the government,” he wrote, “the most efficient possible instrument in helping the people of the United States to better themselves in every way, politically, socially, and industrially. I believed with all my heart in real and thorough-going democracy and I wished to make the democracy industrial as well as political, although I had only partially formulated the method I believed we should follow.” It is thus evident at least that he had departed a long way from the old idea of the government as nothing but a great policeman keeping order among the people in a struggle over the distribution of the nation’s wealth and resources.

Roosevelt’s View of the Constitution.—Equally significant was Roosevelt’s attitude toward the Constitution and the office of President. He utterly repudiated the narrow construction of our national charter. He held that the Constitution “should be treated as the greatest document ever devised by the wit of man to aid a people in exercising every power necessary for its own betterment, not as a strait-jacket cunningly fashioned to strangle growth.” He viewed the presidency as he did the Constitution. Strict constructionists of the Jeffersonian school, of whom there were many on occasion even in the Republican party, had taken a view that the President could do nothing that he was not specifically authorized by the Constitution to do. Roosevelt took exactly the opposite position. It was his opinion that it was not only the President’s right but his duty “to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or the laws.” He went on to say that he acted “for the common well-being of all our people whenever and in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.”

The Trusts and Railways.—To the trust question, Roosevelt devoted especial attention. This was unavoidable. By far the larger part of the business of the country was done by corporations as distinguished from partnerships and individual owners. The growth of these gigantic aggregations of capital had been the leading feature in American industrial development during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In the conquest of business by trusts and “the resulting private fortunes of great magnitude,” the Populists and the Democrats had seen a grievous danger to the republic. “Plutocracy has taken the place of democracy; the tariff breeds trusts; let us destroy therefore the tariff and the trusts”—such was the battle cry which had been taken up by Bryan and his followers.

President Roosevelt countered vigorously. He rejected the idea that the trusts were the product of the tariff or of governmental action of any kind. He insisted that they were the outcome of “natural economic forces”: (1) destructive competition among business men compelling them to avoid ruin by coöperation in fixing prices; (2) the growth of markets on a national scale and even international scale calling for vast accumulations of capital to carry on such business; (3) the possibility of immense savings by the union of many plants under one management. In the corporation he saw a new stage in the development of American industry. Unregulated competition he regarded as “the source of evils which all men concede must be remedied if this civilization of ours is to survive.” The notion, therefore, that these immense business concerns should be or could be broken up by a decree of law, Roosevelt considered absurd.

At the same time he proposed that “evil trusts” should be prevented from “wrong-doing of any kind”; that is, punished for plain swindling, for making agreements to limit output, for refusing to sell to customers who dealt with rival firms, and for conspiracies with railways to ruin competitors by charging high freight rates and for similar abuses. Accordingly, he proposed, not the destruction of the trusts, but their regulation by the government. This, he contended, would preserve the advantages of business on a national scale while preventing the evils that accompanied it. The railway company he declared to be a public servant. “Its rates should be just to and open to all shippers alike.” So he answered those who thought that trusts and railway combinations were private concerns to be managed solely by their owners without let or hindrance and also those who thought trusts and railway combinations could be abolished by tariff reduction or criminal prosecution.

The Labor Question.—On the labor question, then pressing to the front in public interest, President Roosevelt took advanced ground for his time. He declared that the working-man, single-handed and empty-handed, threatened with starvation if unemployed, was no match for the employer who was able to bargain and wait. This led him, accordingly, to accept the principle of the trade union; namely, that only by collective bargaining can labor be put on a footing to measure its strength equally with capital. While he severely arraigned labor leaders who advocated violence and destructive doctrines, he held that “the organization of labor into trade unions and federations is necessary, is beneficent, and is one of the greatest possible agencies in the attainment of a true industrial, as well as a true political, democracy in the United States.” The last resort of trade unions in labor disputes, the strike, he approved in case negotiations failed to secure “a fair deal.”

He thought, however, that labor organizations, even if wisely managed, could not solve all the pressing social questions of the time. The aid of the government at many points he believed to be necessary to eliminate undeserved poverty, industrial diseases, unemployment, and the unfortunate consequences of industrial accidents. In his first message of 1901, for instance, he urged that workers injured in industry should have certain and ample compensation. From time to time he advocated other legislation to obtain what he called “a larger measure of social and industrial justice.”

Great Riches and Taxation.—Even the challenge of the radicals, such as the Populists, who alleged that “the toil of millions is boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few”—challenges which his predecessors did not consider worthy of notice—President Roosevelt refused to let pass without an answer. In his first message he denied the truth of the common saying that the rich were growing richer and the poor were growing poorer. He asserted that, on the contrary, the average man, wage worker, farmer, and small business man, was better off than ever before in the history of our country. That there had been abuses in the accumulation of wealth he did not pretend to ignore, but he believed that even immense fortunes, on the whole, represented positive benefits conferred upon the country. Nevertheless he felt that grave dangers to the safety and the happiness of the people lurked in great inequalities of wealth. In 1906 he wrote that he wished it were in his power to prevent the heaping up of enormous fortunes. The next year, to the astonishment of many leaders in his own party, he boldly announced in a message to Congress that he approved both income and inheritance taxes, then generally viewed as Populist or Democratic measures. He even took the stand that such taxes should be laid in order to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth and greater equality of opportunity among citizens.


«·Colonial Administration · Legislative and Executive Activities·»