Important Essay (and Lesson) of President Theodore Roosevelt on Honesty and Integrity in Government

In a lengthy letter to his 1904 campaign manager, he defines what it means and how it is attained, what sacrifices are required to guarantee it, the personal satisfactions attending it, the necessity of public service and the need for purity of motives and actions by public officials, and what constitutes the place, nature, and allowable extent of political contributions in politics.

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Perhaps the most significant letter on government TR ever wrote to reach the market, directly on the subject regarded as his greatest legacy: The “disinterested and effective work for decent politics depends” on people who “are willing at great personal inconvenience and sacrifice to give their time and money to the service...

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Important Essay (and Lesson) of President Theodore Roosevelt on Honesty and Integrity in Government

In a lengthy letter to his 1904 campaign manager, he defines what it means and how it is attained, what sacrifices are required to guarantee it, the personal satisfactions attending it, the necessity of public service and the need for purity of motives and actions by public officials, and what constitutes the place, nature, and allowable extent of political contributions in politics.

Perhaps the most significant letter on government TR ever wrote to reach the market, directly on the subject regarded as his greatest legacy: The “disinterested and effective work for decent politics depends” on people who “are willing at great personal inconvenience and sacrifice to give their time and money to the service of a cause, the triumph of which represents not one particle of advantage to themselves personally…”

His campaign contributions were made “freely by men who did not ask and who never have received one particle of consideration in the shape of legislation or administrative act as a reward for having so contributed — exactly as no man has been in any way discriminated against for not having contributed”; and the giving of contributions” does not entitle “any giver to any consideration beyond his fellows.”

Late in the 1904 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Alton Parker made the explosive charge that the Republican nominee, President Theodore Roosevelt, though responsible for enforcing the antitrust laws, had accepted large campaign gifts from big corporations. In a speech at Madison Square Garden, Parker attacked the political corruption arising from the acceptance of such gifts, and called for clean elections. Four days before the election, Roosevelt angrily denied the charge, denouncing Parker’s statements as “unqualifiedly and atrociously false.”

The following year the New York Legislature Insurance Investigation Committee, known as the “Armstrong Committee”, met, took testimony on claimed abuses in the field, and on February 2, 1906, issued a report critical of the industry and highlighting a number of questionable practices. The presidents of the three largest insurance companies resigned and some of their corporate officers were indicted for grand larceny. Since the companies had made political contributions, the report also recommended a prohibition on such corporate contributions. It was an admitted fact that corporations gave money to candidates, and that President Roosevelt had been the beneficiary of a good deal of it. Relying on the Armstrong Committee report, the Democratic press therefore revived Parker’s charges of the campaign of 1904 – that TR accepting such funds was corrupt, or at least could lead to corruption.

Cornelius N. Bliss was chairman of the Republican committee in New York in 1887 and 1888, and contributed much to the success of the Benjamin Harrison ticket in his state in the 1888 election. He served as treasurer of the Republican National Committee from 1892 to 1904. He turned down the offer of becoming Secretary of the Treasury under President McKinley, but accepted the post of Secretary of the Interior, maintaining that position until 1899. While in office, Bliss focused on forestry and Indian affairs. Offered by McKinley the vice presidential slot in his 1900 reelection campaign, he declined, so the nod went instead to Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, Bliss was Roosevelt’s campaign manager, and he handled (and indeed solicited) much of the corporate funds that flowed into TR’s campaign coffers. So the slings and arrows of the Democratic press in 1906 were also aimed at him, and at his integrity.

George Cortelyou was one of Roosevelt’s most trusted associates. TR named him to the position of Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1903. Cortelyou left that position in 1904 to become the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and starting in 1905 he also served as the Postmaster General. He left both of those posts to become Secretary of the Treasury in 1907. As Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 1904 presidential campaign, he worked closely with Bliss, TR’s campaign chairman.

Roosevelt was a veritable champion of honesty in government, and indeed made it his primary theme throughout his political career. It defined him, and was a major factor in his term as president, and in his deciding to run for president in 1912 as a candidate of the Progressive Party. He intended it to be his legacy. So this claim of dishonesty hit him where it hurt the most.

What follows is perhaps the most significant letter on government Theodore Roosevelt one could image. It is no mere defense of himself, but constitutes an essay on honesty and integrity in government, what it means and how it is attained, what sacrifices are required to guarantee it, the personal satisfactions attending it, the necessity of public service and the need for purity of motives and actions by public officials, and what constitutes the place, nature, and allowable extent of political contributions in politics.

Now we will let Roosevelt speak eloquently for himself:

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, March 26, 1906, 6 full pages to Bliss and marked “Personal”. “I hope you have not been bothered by these outrageous assaults upon you in connection with the campaign contributions. I have felt the keenest indignation as I have read them. No upright and honest man who knows anything of the real facts will attack you, and every thinking man knows that you stand as pre-eminent among the men of the very type upon whom all chance of disinterested and effective work for decent politics depends, for you are the most conspicuous representative of that class — as yet, I am thankful to say, considerable in numbers — whose members are willing at great personal inconvenience and sacrifice to give their time and money to the service of a cause, the triumph of which represents not one particle of advantage to themselves personally save in so far as they share with the rest of our eighty millions of people in the credit that comes from honorable and efficient conduct of the affairs of the people as a whole. A free government can only exist if good citizens at election time are given the chance to express their views, and if the cause of good government has the arguments on its behalf presented fairly through the press, on the stump, and in pamphlets, no less than through private conversation. This of course means that there must be organization, and when the organization covers three million square miles of territory, inhabited by eighty millions of people, and when it is desired to elect a President, the members of the House of Representatives, and the Legislatures which elect United States Senators, there must be expense. So far from its being true that there is any lavish and unusual expenditure of money at an American election such as the national election in 1904, the reverse is the fact. I was interested in comparing the figures which show that the expenditures in the Presidential election in 1904 were less than the expenditures at the last preceding election for Members of Parliament in the British Isles, although there is there a very stringent ‘corrupt practices act,’ and although the voting constituency in the British Isles is so much smaller. Not one successful attempt has been made or can be made to show that a dollar of this amount was spent improperly by the sanction of any responsible person, nor indeed has the attempt been made to show that it has been spent improperly at all; while it is not only true that there has come to me no suggestion that the giving of contributions entitles any giver to any consideration beyond his fellows, but it is furthermore true that on a number of occasions (as, for instance, in connection with the tobacco interests and in connection with a wealthy man who wished to be considered for the position of Minister to Belgium) contributions were immediately declined when it was found either that the donor hoped for some favor, or even that the Government was about to take some action which affected the donor or donors; while as soon as it was known that certain big financiers, as well as influential politicians like Mr. Odell, had urged the appointment of James H. Hyde as Ambassador to France, Mr. Cortelyou, and I believe you also, protested strongly, and the financiers in question at once accepted my explanation of why it would be impossible to put so young and untried a man in any such position, and abandoned all effort to press him.

“As I understand, the amount of money raised in the 1904 campaign was about one-half as large as that raised in the 1896 campaign; it is publicly stated that it was but one half as large as the amount raised for President Cleveland’s campaign in 1892. This, however, is aside from the point, which is that the money was spent legitimately in legitimate campaign expenses and that no pretense has been made to the contrary; and that it was contributed freely by men who did not ask and who never have received one particle of consideration in the shape of legislation or administrative act as a reward for having so contributed — exactly as no man has been in any way discriminated against for not having contributed. Mr. Frick was one of my staunchest allies; Messrs. Ryan and Belmont two of our most resolute opponents. Not only has no single act been done by the administration or by Congress which could be construed by its most frantic opponent into favoring the financial interests of the one side or discriminating against the financial interests of the other, but I do not believe that even the most mendacious critic would assert such to be the case. There is a peculiar baseness in the hypocrisy of the men who now attack you for receiving contributions in1896, when in that year it was known to everyone who knew anything at all in New York that the big corporations of the highest repute and standing were contributing and were frantically applauded for doing so.

“Just before the campaign closed Mr. Cortelyou issued an address in which he spoke as follows: ‘The campaign has been conducted with a much smaller fund then any presidential campaign for the past twelve years. The fund this year, although made up of contributions from more than four thousand persons, has been about one half as large as the Republican fund when President McKinley was elected in 1896 and about one half as large as the Democratic fund when President Cleveland was elected in 1892. Every part of this fund has come from voluntary contributions made without demand, importunity or pressure; and without any agreement, pledge, promise, assurance or understanding, express or implied, regarding the policy or the action of the administration, or looking to any benefit or advantage to any contributor except the benefit which will come to all business and to all our people from the continuance of Republican policies and Republican administration.’

“This described with exactness the course you and he had followed; it was in every respect right; and if the campaign were to be waged over again I should have nothing to say to both of you save to tell you to conduct the campaign in the precise manner in which you actually did conduct it. That all the contributors were worthy no man can say, any more than it is possible to say that all those are worthy who are contributing to the Red Cross fund for the Japanese sufferers which is being collected under my authority. But in one case as in the other the immense majority of those contributing were and are worthy men influenced by worthy motives. Indeed, considering the action taken by the administration in the various suits against the Beef Trust, the Tobacco Trust, against the railroad companies in the matter of rebates, etc , etc., and in view of the course we have pursued throughout in all corporation matters, it ought to be wholly unnecessary so much as to allude to any allegation that any contribution from any source has been allowed to influence in the slightest degree any administrative act of mine, or any legislation I have recommended, since I have been President. I have already stated that no attempt to influence me in such matters has ever been made by anyone connected with the campaign.

“So much for the general situation. Now, as to you personally. The two hardest positions and the most important in any political campaign are those of Chairman and Treasurer of the National Campaign Committee. You accepted the treasurership in 1896, in 1900, and finally, with great reluctance, again in 1904, at my repeated and urgent request. Not merely is it true that you wanted nothing and would take nothing for yourself, but during my entire time as President you have come to me for no favor, and have merely, when I asked you, been willing to give me counsel and advice, just as Root gave it when he was out of the Cabinet; just as President Nicholas Murray Butler, of Columbia University, gives it, as Albert Shaw gives it, and as President Wheeler, of the University of California, gives it, as many other citizens in private life give it. In other words, you have rendered the highest public service, not only absolutely without any kind of reward, but at the cost of great personal inconvenience. For this you have had not one particle of acknowledgment, except the sense of being one of those men whose best effort has always been at the command of the nation, and whose public service has been as efficient as it was faithful and disinterested; and you have won the lasting respect, admiration and affection of all those who know you intimately, and especially of Your attached friend, Theodore Roosevelt.”

The judgment of history would please Roosevelt. Today, after over a century, his name is associated with honesty and integrity in government; they are almost synonymous. What he cared the most about remains his greatest legacy, and a standard against which all others can be measured.

 

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