Sold – The Progressive Valedictory of Theodore Roosevelt

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The 1912 election was one of the great campaigns in American history. It was the decisive battle of the Progressive era, which witnessed the first comprehensive efforts to come to terms with the fundamental problems and conflicts raised by the industrial revolution. The breakthroughs in science and technology, the frenzied search...

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Sold – The Progressive Valedictory of Theodore Roosevelt

The 1912 election was one of the great campaigns in American history. It was the decisive battle of the Progressive era, which witnessed the first comprehensive efforts to come to terms with the fundamental problems and conflicts raised by the industrial revolution. The breakthroughs in science and technology, the frenzied search for new markets and sources of capital, and the unprecedented economic growth of the previous decades had resulted in the creation of “big business” – the giants then called trusts – that exerted enormous economic control and constituted unfettered bastions of power. These combinations of wealth were anything but public minded; the pursuit of their agendas left poverty in its wake and exposed small business to predatory practices of the worst kind. And with many politicians corruptly influenced or in their pockets, they vigorously opposed any oversight on their conduct. TR?declared that “the enslavement of the people by the great corporations” was a real risk that could “only be held in check through the expansion of government power.”

In such a fight it is equally necessary both to cleave steadfastly to a lofty idealism and also to show hard-headed common sense

This epochal election had been four years in the making. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt, who had pursued a reform agenda, declined to run for another term. With his support, William H. Taft was elected president, but the conservative Taft turned out to be a disappointment to Roosevelt and the nation’s progressives, as he opposed the programs and ideas that TR had labored to put into place. So Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican presidential nomination in 1912, and although he won the battle in the primaries, he was denied the nomination by party regulars who stuck with Taft. After losing the nomination, Roosevelt left the Republicans and gained the nomination of the Progressive Party.

Roosevelt conducted a vigorous national campaign for the Progressive Party, making the election a passionate contest for the soul of the American people. Promoting an ambitious program of economic, social, and political reforms, TR and his Progressive supporters provoked an extraordinary debate about the future of the country. They dominated the election and left an enduring legacy that set in motion the rise of mass democracy and the expansion of national administrative power. The party’s platform called for direct democracy, social justice, regulation of business and of the workplace, safety and health standards, conservation, women’s suffrage, and a balance between rights and civic duties; and that was just the beginning.

Roosevelt scored a second-place finish, but he trailed so far behind Woodrow Wilson that everyone realized his party would never win the White House. So rather than being called to lead a growing and prospering party, TR returned to personal pursuits, and in late 1913 he left for a perilous trip to explore an unmapped river in Brazil, the River of Doubt, which flowed from the interior to the Amazon. The expedition members faced insects, floods, hostile natives and capsizing canoes. Several people were lost, including one member who went insane and killed another before running off into the jungle. TR’s son Kermit nearly died when he was swept over a falls, and TR himself lost 57 pounds during the journey and nearly died from malaria and dysentery. He returned in May 1914, his health permanently broken, just as the congressional campaign of that year was getting under way. Despite his condition, he determined to make the trip to Pittsburgh to speak to a conference of Pennsylvania Progressives on June 30, 1914; this would be his first major political address post-1912. The day before his scheduled speech, newspapers carried the word that on June 28, a Serb nationalist had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, setting in motion events that would almost immediately snowbll and absorb the world’s attention – the leadup, onset and battles of World War I. With the diversion of American attention by the war and foreign policy issues, domestic concerns like the progressive agenda would quickly fade from the front pages. The Progressive Party showing in 1914 would be very poor and the party disintegrated at the national level; by 1916 TR was back supporting the Republicans. So although Theodore Roosevelt would make statements in the future, both because of limitations resulting from his health and his own sharp focus on foreign policy, our research indicates that the June 30 address was likely the last truly great live progressive address he would ever deliver.

The Pittsburgh address lasted for over an hour, and in it TR summarized the essentials of his progressive philosophy, and issued a heart-felt and inspirational call for idealism, justice and public spirit. It is a virtual valedictory, one that has as great a relevance and immediacy today as it did when issued in 1914. We offer two lengthy pages (pages 2 and 3) of his first draft, completely in his hand – from his mind to the pen. They are the only manuscript pages from the address that we have seen.


“In such a fight it is equally necessary both to cleave steadfastly to a lofty idealism and also to show hard-headed common sense in trying to remove this idealism from the domain of words into the domain of deeds. We realize that mere material well being is never enough in itself, and yet we realize also that material well being is absolutely essential because without it as a foundation there will be nothing whatever on which to build the lofty superstructure of a higher life. We stand for social and industrial justice for all, and therefore we feel bound to work with heart and brain for that material prosperity the lack of which will prevent our doing social and industrial justice to anyone. We do not intend to let the business man of brains use those brains to the detriment either of the men who work with or under him, of the men who are his rivals, or of the general public; but we wish to shape conditions so that if he acts squarely he will succeed, and this not only as a matter of justice to him, but because his success is a matter of prime importance to the success of wage worker and farmer alike. We wish to pass prosperity round; and for that very reason we desire that there may be in evidence prosperity sufficient to pass around.

“Now the present national administration is pursuing a course that prevents the existence of prosperity, and that does not offer a single serious or intelligible plan for passing it around should it, in spite of their efforts, at some future time return to our people. This is true both as regards the Trust question and the tariff question. As regards both the only wise course to follow is that set forth in the National Progressive platform. The nation should deal with both by continuing executive action through administrative commissions of ample power. One commission would shape our foreign policy so as with their knowledge, disinterestedly to give proper encouragement to our merchants while also giving proper protection to our wage workers, our farmers, and our businessmen. The other commission would exercise strict supervision and control over big business, treating it with entire justice and drawing the line not on size, but on misconduct; that is safeguarding and encouraging the big business man who does well, and who regards his great abilities as a trust to be exercised in the interest of the public as in his own interest, but checking him effectually and promptly when he exercises them to the  detriment either of the smaller business man with whom he competes, of the wage workers who should share with the benefits of his and their common efforts, or of the general public whom he serves.

“As regards the tariff, I wish especially to call your attention to the promise made by President Wilson and his supporters two years ago. They asserted that their method of treating the tariff reduction would reduce the cost of living and would solve the Trust question because, as they said, the Trusts were the creatures of the tariff. We then answered that their promises were false, that no such results as they stated could or would follow from the course they advocated, and that only by the methods we proposed could either the Trust or the tariff question be dealt with so as to abate the existing evils and at the same time increase the general well being. Two short years have proved us right. Their promises have not been kept. Their performance has brought disaster upon the nation. The cost of living has not been reduced. But the ability of the average man to earn a living has been greatly reduced. Not the slightest progress has been made towards solving the Trust question. But the business community has been harmed and harried to no purpose; and the prosperity of the business man has been checked, exactly as the prosperity of the farmer and the wage worker has been checked. As for the farmer, the present tariff, the administration’s tariff, was deliberately framed so as to sacrifice his interest. He had no friend in high quarters and his welfare was comtempuously sacrificed. At every point where his interest was covered he was made to suffer. As for the wage worker, the cuts in the tariff were so arranged that he suffered even more than his employer; for he was thrown out of employment, and lost the means to earn his livlihood; for the employer, sometimes he has been able to struggle on with the loss of profits, sometimes he has had to close his shop. In business in which any of the big Trusts were covered, it was the small competitors of the Trusts who were injured, and in many cases ruined. Tariff reduction as put into practice by the present administration has benefitted no one except a few foreign rivals and competitors. It has done grave injury to the business community and the farming community, and has caused suffering to the wage workers, and the whole policy of the administration has been to cause our people in business, our people on the farms, our people with dinner pails to look towards the future with grave concern and apprehension.”

Journalist William Allen White said of Theodore Roosevelt, “He poured into my heart such visions, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude toward life and patriotism and the meaning of things, as I had never dreamed men had.” This speech shows how. And importantly, although the Progressive Party did not succeed, many of its programs did. Later in 1914, President Wilson signed the Federal Trade Commission Act to regulate some business practices and the Clayton Act to expand Antitrust protections. In 1920, women received the right to vote. The New Deal enacted social security and some other ideas. And President Truman created the National Security Council to advise on foreign policy matters. However, the wide-ranging regulatory scheme of which TR dreamed has never been put in to place.                

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