Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. described himself as a “Lincoln Republican.” That term means pretty much anything someone wants today, but back in Roosevelt’s day it meant something specific: government of the people, by the people, and for the people. When most people owned a small farm or business or were wage workers socially and economically not too different from owners and managers, society was more egalitarian.
|Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.|
That is, before the Civil War. North or South, with one glaring exception, society was democratic — with a small d. The new Republican party was for the “little guy,” for fundamental human rights such as life, liberty, and private property. The Democratic party (capital D), on the other hand, was elitist, justifiably so in their opinion.
This is easy to explain. Today’s Republican/corporate greed mindset is sometimes epitomized by misquoting Charles Erwin Wilson’s statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee when he agreed to divest himself of his GM stock when nominated for Secretary of Defense to avoid a conflict of interest.
Wilson said he had not done so before because he hadn’t seen the potential for any problems: “I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” This apology is always turned into a boast presumably indicative of corporate (and thus Republican) greed: “What’s good for GM is good for America.”
From 1803 to 1937, however, when cotton was the single largest export from the United States, there was an unapologetic boast that many people in the United States could and did make, and which led to the Civil War: “What’s good for cotton is good for the country.” Prosperity was believed to rely absolutely on cotton — and prior to the Civil War cotton was believed to rely absolutely on chattel slavery. Just ask David Christy or read his 1855 book, Cotton is King.
A Democrat was therefore held to be inherently elitist, while a Republican was considered populist (small p). Later, after the war, Republicans were in power for decades, so the new Robber Barons were (as might be expected) Republicans and the party began to assume an elitist orientation. Democrats, as members of the party that had lost the war, were now champions of the oppressed classes, and elements of the party turned populist.
It became essential at that point to distinguish between the populist Republicans and the elitist Republicans. The populist Republicans — who were called “progressive” in part because the Democrats had grabbed the term “populist” — became known as “Lincoln Republicans,” and the new conservative and elitist members of the party paradoxically became known as “the Old Guard.” Many of the populist Democrats formed the Populist Party, while (later) the progressive Republicans formed the Progressive Party.
All of this is a long way of explaining why Roosevelt agreed to be the 1912 candidate for president for the Progressive Party. He was for government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and therefore against concentrated capital ownership, and thus against concentrated power.
|William Howard Taft|
Still, broad-based capital ownership seemed to be of secondary importance to Roosevelt, even though it is the obvious remedy to concentrated capital ownership. This is possibly because as president he was focused primarily on breaking up or regulating concentrated power directly, whether in the private sector or in the State. His efforts bore more fruit after he was out of office, however, causing many authorities to assert rather snidely that Roosevelt was ineffective, or at least not as effective as his successor, William Howard Taft.
Such authorities ignore the possibility, even probability, that had Roosevelt not set the machinery in motion, it is highly likely that Taft would never have done anything. Although handpicked by Roosevelt, Taft proved to be weak and vacillating. He ended up in the pockets of the very vested interests whose monopoly over economic and financial (and thus political) power Roosevelt worked so hard to break.
It is also possible that a rift that occurred between Roosevelt and Peter S. Grosscup may have had something to do with Roosevelt downplaying the importance of widespread, democratic ownership of capital. This, in turn, was probably due to Roosevelt’s focus on the inherent evils of monopoly, and his determination to apply principles without regard to circumstance or legality. Grosscup, in fact, noted that Roosevelt was the sort to let his idealism run away with him, causing the Rough Rider to ride roughshod over others a little too easily.
For example, in 1907 Roosevelt’s administration won what seemed to be a great victory over the trusts in the Standard Oil rebate case, a part of the campaign to break up Standard Oil. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was virtually the poster child for laissez faire capitalism. It represented everything the president detested; it was, to Roosevelt, quintessentially un-American.
|Kenesaw Mountain Landis|
Unfortunately, it appears that Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944) of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois was so anxious to bring down Standard Oil that he made some substantive and procedural errors in the case. On appeal, Grosscup overturned Landis’s decision and remitted the $29,240,000 fine.* This did not affect the other charges brought against Standard Oil, which was broken up in 1911.
*Most sources today give this amount as $29.5 million, but the figure reported in the newspapers at the time was $29.24 million. Vide “Review of the Year 1909: A Record of Achievement,” The News and Courier (Charleston, North Carolina), Sunday, December 22, 1909, 15.
Despite his sense of fair play and justice, Roosevelt was never one for half measures, or, when striving for a goal, any diversion from the objective. He was outraged.
As far as Roosevelt was concerned, Grosscup had betrayed the progressive, Lincoln Republican cause by finding in favor of the worst of the trusts on what seemed like legal technicalities and some rather obscure points of law. Even statements in favor of Grosscup’s decision by leading legal authorities did nothing to diminish what Roosevelt clearly took as treachery.
Ironically, Grosscup had been complaining for years that the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, under which Standard Oil was being prosecuted, was inadequate. Grosscup claimed that in some cases the Sherman Act actually led to the situation it was intended to eliminate. He continued to make this point even after his retirement in 1911.
|Peter Stenger Grosscup|
We have not been able to find any evidence that it was in fact the case, but we would not be surprised to discover that Grosscup’s frequent animadversions on the problems associated with the Sherman Act were a factor in Congress passing the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914. What is certain is that Roosevelt had asked Grosscup to help draft a reform of corporate law shortly before Grosscup overturned the Standard Oil decision, which seems to have derailed the effort.
It is not important at this point to understand the legal issues involved in Grosscup’s decision in the Standard Oil case. What is important is that, however guilty we may think people (including corporations) are, or how guilty they are in other matters, we cannot condemn or judge them guilty of something if there is no proof, or if they are innocent of the crime of which they are accused.
The presumption of innocence in the absence of proof is an essential pillar of society, whether civil, domestic, or religious. Adopting a stance that (at least in this instance) was more populist than progressive, Roosevelt forgot the absolute necessity of proof in his anxiety to break up Standard Oil — and that led to a breach between Grosscup and Roosevelt. Not to exaggerate, but this was a disaster. Grosscup was one of the strongest and soundest progressive voices for broad-based capital ownership.
Grosscup understood the social and legal (as well as economic) importance of widespread private property in the means of production. Roosevelt was the man best able to lead a revolutionary program that had the potential to dwarf even the impact of Lincoln’s Homestead Act, with the added feature that it would have been sustainable. Land, after all, is finite, while there is no effective limit to industrial or commercial capital.
Roosevelt’s hasty temper, however, almost always gave way to his sense of fair play — eventually. The two men did become reconciled. (Roosevelt also became reconciled with Taft shortly before Roosevelt died.) Grosscup became a “Bull Moose” and endorsed Roosevelt for president in 1912. By then, however, the damage had been done. Broad-based capital ownership had been relegated to a back burner.#30#