A Blog of the Global Justice Movement

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Raw Judicial Power XVII: The Second Civil War

Theodore Roosevelt's accomplishments as president appear to be little appreciated, even by his admirers. As for those who tend to disparage everything about the first Roosevelt, what was done was — as far as they are concerned — in spite of, not because of the Rough Rider . . . a nickname that suggests a certain pugnacious attitude unacceptable these days except for politically correct causes.

Although known as the "Trust Buster," today's commentators like to point out that William Howard Taft "busted" more trusts than Roosevelt. Yes — but had Roosevelt not laid the groundwork, it is highly unlikely that Taft, who put himself under the thumb of the Old Guard Republicans almost from the first, would have done any trust busting at all — or even been president.

Roosevelt's first notable act as president was to deliver a 20,000-word speech to Congress asking them to begin curbing the power of the trusts. His aggressive action in investigating conditions and causes of the miners' strike in 1902 led to pay increases and shorter hours. Roosevelt was also responsible for the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

By the end of his second term, it appeared that the danger to the country caused by the growing conflict between socialism and capitalism had been averted. This was an illusion. The radicals on both sides of the political spectrum, somehow understanding that it was Roosevelt's prestige and energy alone that had brought about the reforms, had simply been biding their time. The extreme socialists felt that Roosevelt had not gone anywhere far enough and was still a hidebound capitalist, while the Old Guard Republicans — the capitalists — claimed that he had socialized the country. Both sides felt that drastic action was necessary. Tensions were, while more subtle and hidden than a decade previously, even greater than before.

Both groups claimed to believe that Roosevelt was simply an opportunist, able and personable to be sure, but still out only for his own advantage; with his dog Spot, he could have made a fortune selling used automobiles, had there been many around. To a large degree, this is the view that has persisted down to the present day. As one commentator summed up his understanding of Roosevelt's character and motives,

"He was a shrewd opportunist with an eye on the main political chance, it is true, and the sum of his legislative accomplishments was small. Yet his constant sermonizing about the malpractices of big business and high finance, and his successful and important struggle for the conservation of natural resources, stirred millions of citizens into a high state of righteous indignation. In brief, his chief contribution to the reform cause was the publicity he gave to it." (Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1954, 2.)

Not surprisingly, there is little understanding of the act of social justice in this analysis, and no appreciation of the immense difficulties Roosevelt faced in trying to reverse the direction in which American society was heading. He was up against the combined forces of socialism and capitalism.

Both capitalism and socialism are based on the belief that only by cutting consumption and saving can new capital formation be financed. This is the one thing on which capitalists and socialists (and to which today we add the Keynesians, Monetarists and Austrians) can all agree, and on which they can all be equally wrong.

The capitalists and socialists were thus united on the one issue by means of which they could do the most damage: the redefinition of fundamental rights presumably secured by the Constitution. While this tendency had been evident from the beginning of the republic, it accelerated dramatically following the Supreme Court's decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases.

All things considered, it is astounding that Roosevelt was able to do as much as he did. Even more astounding is the fact that what could legitimately be called his greatest achievement was yet to come — and has widely been interpreted as a failure.

In 1908 Roosevelt evidently felt safe enough to retire from the presidency. He picked William Howard Taft as his successor, slighting his vice president, Charles Fairbanks. The selection of Taft turned out to be the worst political decision of Roosevelt's career.

In Roosevelt's defense, Taft seemed the obvious choice. His honesty and integrity were unquestioned, and he had been personally groomed by Roosevelt to take over the presidency. Understanding progressivism in the sense that Roosevelt employed the term, and not how it has been redefined since 1912, Taft was, to all appearances, solidly progressive, and committed to restoring the vision of America's Founding Fathers, purged of the "original sin" of chattel slavery.

Taft, however, had a serious flaw in his character. He liked to be liked. Where Roosevelt used his personality to help persuade people to support his political efforts, Taft used his political efforts to try and get people to be his friend. There is some evidence that Taft realized his mistake and tried to make up for it. He became an exemplary Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1921-1930), possibly inspiring to some degree the work of William Winslow Crosskey, who clerked for him in the 1920s.

As Justice Felix Frankfurter commented to Justice Louis Brandeis, he could not "understand why a man who is so good a Chief Justice . . . could have been so bad as President." Taft evidently felt such remorse at his failure to continue Roosevelt's program that he refused even to think about it, allegedly remarking once that he didn't even remember being president.

Given Taft's evident weakness, the Old Guard Republicans, led by Senator Nelson Aldrich, moved quickly to try and dismantle Roosevelt's reforms. They managed a few victories, but these came at great cost, alienating the moderate Republicans and Democrats who had been Roosevelt's power base.

As a result of the scandals that followed seemingly one after another during Taft's administration — the "Ballinger Affair" being the most notable — the socialists grew rapidly in power. In reaction, moderate Republicans began distancing themselves from the Old Guard. Moderate Democrats, disgusted with the reactionary core of the Republican Party, seemed to lump all Republicans together. They began drifting into the socialist/populist camp almost by default, evidently believing that, while socialism wasn't all that good, capitalism was definitely bad.

Outraged, Theodore Roosevelt allowed himself to be persuaded to run again for president, this time as the candidate of the newly formed Progressive Party, originally formed in 1906 in Utah as the American Party by disgruntled Republicans convinced that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints wielded far too much political power. Jettisoning the anti-Mormon elements, the party adopted the name "Progressive Party" and eventually persuaded a reluctant Roosevelt to run.

This is not the way either history or contemporaries recorded Roosevelt's acceptance of the Progressive Party's nomination. One cartoon depicted Roosevelt (in full "Rough Rider" garb, naturally) handing over the presidency to Taft in 1908, then in the next panel holding a gun in Taft's face in 1912 saying, "Give it back!" Granting Roosevelt the dignity of having some honesty, however, we can take him at his own words, as reported by Henry Knox Smith:

"Some time in 1911 I called upon Colonel Roosevelt at the Outlook office, on leave from Washington. I told him I was going home for a few days. He pounced down on me instantly: 'H. K., don't you dare go back to Connecticut and do anything for my nomination for the Presidency in 1912!' Then he said: 'I've had eight years of the Presidency. I know all the honor and pleasure of it and all of its sorrows and dangers. I have nothing more to gain by being President again and I have a great deal to lose. I am not going to do it!' — then he went to the window and looked out on Fourth Avenue for some moments, and turned and added with great emphasis — 'unless I get a mandate from the American people.' I know much better now than I did then what was before his far-seeing eyes as he stood there looking out over the housetops — the fierce strife ahead, the menacing issues lying within it, the far-reverberating results that would follow, the sacrifice that would be required of him." (Herbert Knox Smith, "Introduction," Social Justice and Popular Rule, Volume XVII of the Complete Works of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926, xiv.)

A master-stroke at the Progressive Party convention was to include women as delegates. Both Taft and Woodrow Wilson (who got the Democratic nomination) avoided the issue of women's suffrage. Jane Addams herself gave a seconding speech for Roosevelt's nomination.

Roosevelt, however, annoyed the South by insisting on excluding Southern black Republican delegates, whom he regarded as selling out to the reactionary element in the Republican Party to gain power. That this was not an instance of racism is made evident by the fact that black delegates from other areas were welcome, and Roosevelt alienated whatever remnant of Southern support he might have possessed by publicly dining with blacks during the campaign — after the "notorious" dinner at the White House in 1901 with Booker T. Washington.

The results were almost as good as could have been expected, falling just short of what was needed to win the election — the closest the United States has ever come to a third party candidate getting elected president. While today's hardcore conservative Republicans blame Roosevelt for splitting the Party, the G.O.P. had already split over disgust with the reactionary elements.

The Democrats, too, lost people to Roosevelt, but possibly more to Eugene C. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, than to the Progressive Party. On the whole, it was the independent voters and the moderate Republicans who went with Roosevelt over fear of the Democratic Party's increasingly socialist slant — and therein lies the real cause of the Democratic Party's victory.

In a sense, the popular history of how Roosevelt won the election for the Democrats is correct, but not because he split the Republican Party. The Democrats won because, initially coming across as extremely socialist/populist, they realized that the more effective Roosevelt and his progressivism were far more acceptable to the average American. The Democrats began to copy Roosevelt, and modify their socialist stance by adopting explicitly progressive planks — chief among which were an income tax and reform of the financial system.

This kept the moderate Democrats, who were inclined to Roosevelt, in the Party, but alienated the radical socialists, who went to Debs. It also helped the Democratic Party "sell" the cold and aloof Woodrow Wilson, a "laissez-faire Jeffersonian," to the American voter, especially the progressive elements in the Democratic Party. As one historian favorable to Wilson admitted,

"One of the most interesting developments of the campaign was the manner in which progressives reacted to Roosevelt's and Wilson's appeals. In the early weeks, before Wilson found himself and his great vital issue [i.e., economic freedom], progressives wondered whether he was a progressive after all. In contrast to Roosevelt's warm appeals for social justice, Wilson's early speeches seemed cold indeed. But as he gathered momentum, as he began to talk in glowing, if general, phrases of social righteousness and economic justice, many progressives claimed him as their new leader and hastened to his support. The significant development of the campaign was Roosevelt's failure to unite progressive Republicans and progressive Democrats." (Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, op. cit., 22.)

By having the free marketer Wilson as a candidate, the Democrats were at one and the same time able to paint themselves as anti-socialist, bring in the support of the socialist-populists who had supported William Jennings Bryan, accuse Roosevelt of being a socialist who desired to enslave the people (some of Wilson's speeches against Roosevelt have been described as "vicious") and promote the "New Freedom" of promised federal indifference and states' rights over Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" and an increasing regulatory role for the federal government as well as social legislation. The Democrats won, but with a relatively small margin. Roosevelt came in second, Taft — who also tried to present himself as a progressive — third, and Debs a distant fourth.

Roosevelt, however, still won in a very real sense. Had he not "forced" the Democrats to adopt the main elements in his progressive platform — and, with the unconscious assistance of William Jennings Bryan to stick with them and keep the promises — the voters would very likely have re-elected Taft. The Old Guard Republicans, using that as a mandate, would have been able to implement financial reforms in a way that favored the wealthy over the good of the country.

The Federal Reserve System, even for the few years it was allowed to operate properly (1914-1916), would have been a very different institution, one more closely resembling the creation of conspiracy theorists than anyone will admit. The financial hegemony and alliance between government and big money that has had such a devastating effect on the global economy recently would have been solidly in place by 1914. This would have caused a reaction far worse than we have so far experienced with the rioting over the European debt crisis, the Tea Party, and the Occupy movement, especially in light of the stresses on society caused by World War I.



The Progressive Party disappeared almost immediately after the election, but it's work, in a sense, had been done.  Bereft of Roosevelt's leadership, progressivism would, from that time forward, follow the lead of populism and become just one more form of socialism.

Even though he did not win, Theodore Roosevelt can be credited with saving the country by running for president in 1912. It is a lesson today's candidates and potential candidates for public office would do well to keep in mind. The flexibility he was able to get built into the system by his insistence on financial reform and social justice ensured that America would emerge relatively unscathed from a global conflict that destroyed Russia and laid the foundation for World War II. It would not be until the second Roosevelt and the "New Deal" that the seeds sown by the Supreme Court in the Slaughterhouse Cases would again take root and threaten America — only this time more effectively.

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