20 August 2011

"Malefactors of Great Wealth"

 Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they spent several weeks exploring Cape Cod. On this day in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Provincetown, Massachusetts to set the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument for a 252 foot tower that was completed three years later. Upon this occasion, Roosevelt gave a speech in which he first traced a view of the significance of the Pilgrims, and then proceeded to defend his anti-Trust policies. I am has a detailed timeline of the process of planning and building the monument, including a description of Roosevelt's arrival.

Unlike my post three weeks ago in which I pasted the entirety of Alexander Hamilton's "Report on the Public Credit" into this blog, I am here pasting a few short excerpts. Using Roosevelt's own words, I aim to offer through the rhetoric of his speech a context for his bullying of corporate interests who believe the Roosevelt administration and Congress overstepped its Constitutional bounds in the regulations they put forth.

The text of President Roosevelt's speech was published by the Government Printing Office and is available online through the Internet Archive.

He eloquently expressed a basic element of the craft of history: judging people of the past by their own standards.
... there is nothing easier than to belittle the great men of the past by dwelling only on the points where they come short of the universally recognized standards of the present. Men must be judged with reference to the age in which they dwell, and the work they have to do. (6)
Address of President Roosevelt on the occasion of the laying of the corner stone of the Pilgrim Memorial Monument (1907)
The President wisely observed a shift from standing for oneself to standing for others.
That liberty of conscience which [the Pilgrim] demanded for himself, we now realize must be as freely accorded to others as it is resolutely insisted upon for ourselves. (7-8)
He drew from the Pilgrims and from the Puritans who followed in their wake a lesson of duty: doing good.
There is no use in our coming here to pay homage to the men who founded this nation unless we first of all come in the spirit of trying to do our work to-day as they did their work in the yesterdays that have vanished. The problems shift from generation to generation, but the spirit in which they must be approached, if they are to be successfully solved, remains ever the same. The Puritan tamed the wilderness, and built up a free government on the stump-dotted clearings amid the primeval forest. His descendants must try to shape the life of our complex industrial civilization by new devices, by new methods, so as to achieve in the end the same results of justice and fair dealing toward all. (17-18)

Roosevelt asserted that the Puritans were not "laissez-faire theorist[s]" (19). They sought regulation of conduct that violated the public interest.
The spirit of the Puritan was a spirit which never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal; and this is the spirit which we must show to-day whenever it is necessary. (20-21)
He appealed to common sense as he delved into thorny issues of federalism in the regulation of corporate activity.
The utterly changed conditions of our national life necessitate changes in certain of our laws, of our governmental methods. Our federal system of government is based upon the theory of leaving to each community, to each State, the control over those things which affect only its own members and which the people of the locality themselves can best grapple with, while providing for national regulation in those matters which necessarily affect the nation as a whole. It seems to me that such questions as national sovereignty and state's rights need to be treated not empirically or academically, but from the standpoint of the interests of the people as a whole. National sovereignty is to be upheld in so far as it means the  sovereignty of the people used for the real and ultimate good of the people; and state's rights are to be upheld in so far as they mean the people's rights. Especially is this true in dealing with the relations of the people as a whole to the great corporations which are the distinguishing feature of modern business conditions.

Experience has shown that it is necessary to exercise a far more efficient control than at present over the business use of those vast fortunes, chiefly corporate, which are used (as under modern conditions they almost invariably are) in interstate business. When the Constitution was created none of the conditions of modern business existed. They are wholly new and we must create new agencies to deal effectively with them. There is no objection in the minds of this people to any man's earning any amount of money if he does it honestly and fairly, if he gets it as the result of special skill and enterprise, as a reward of ample service actually rendered. But there is a growing determination that no man shall amass a great fortune by special privilege, by chicanery and wrongdoing, so far as it is in the power of legislation to prevent; and that a
fortune, however amassed, shall not have a business use that is antisocial. (21-25)
The core of his criticism of corporations, and his expressions of resolve to stay the course through the balance of his years as President, are found in two key paragraphs. The second and longer of these two is the source of my title, an oft-remembered phrase. Brief passages from this paragraph are commonly quoted in editorials and essays. Some of the passages left out of such editorials, however, make Roosevelt seem quite radical by today's standards. The paragraph deserves to be read as a whole. Roosevelt is quite clear that he views the aim of government to promote the interests of virtuous business and to prosecute to the full extent of the law (and to legislate in order to facilitate such prosecution) practices which are not virtuous.
In the last six years we have shown that there is no individual and no corporation so powerful that he or it stands above the possibility of punishment under the law. Our aim is to try to do something effective; our purpose is to stamp out the evil; we shall seek to find the most effective device for this purpose; and we shall then use it, whether the device can be found in existing law or must be supplied by legislation. Moreover, when we thus take action against the wealth which works iniquity, we are acting in the interest of every man of property who acts decently and fairly by his fellows; and we are strengthening the hands of those who propose fearlessly to defend property against all unjust attacks. No individual, no corporation, obeying the law has anything to fear from this Administration. (44-46)

During the present trouble with the stock market I have, of course, received countless requests and suggestions, public and private, that I should say or do something to ease the situation, There is a world-wide financial disturbance; it is felt in the bourses of Paris and Berlin; and British consols are lower than for a generation, while British railway securities have also depreciated. On the New York Stock Exchange the disturbance has been peculiarly severe. Most of it I believe to be due to matters not peculiar to the United States, and most of the remainder to matters wholly unconnected with any governmental action; but it may well be that the determination of the Government (in which, gentlemen, it will not waver), to punish certain malefactors of great wealth, has been responsible for something of the trouble; at least to the extent of having caused these men to combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of the Government and thereby secure a reversal of that policy, so that they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil-doing. That they have misled many good people into believing that there should be such reversal of policy is possible. If so I am sorry; but it will not alter my attitude. Once for all let me say that so far as I am concerned, and for the eighteen months of my Presidency that remain, there will be no change in the policy we have steadily pursued, no let up in the effort to secure the honest observance of the law; for I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country — the people through their governmental agents or a few ruthless and domineering men, whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable, because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization. I wish there to be no mistake on this point; it is idle to ask me not to prosecute criminals, rich or poor. But I desire no less emphatically to have it understood that we have sanctioned and will sanction no action of a indictive type, and above all no action which shall inflict great and unmerited suffering upon innocent stockholders or upon the public as a whole. Our purpose is to act with the minimum of harshness compatible with attaining our ends. In the man of great wealth who has earned his wealth honestly and uses it wisely we recognize a good citizen of the best type, worthy of all praise and respect. Business can only be done under modern conditions through corporations, and our purpose is heartily to favor the corporations that do well. The Administration appreciates that liberal but honest profits for legitimate promoting, good salaries, ample salaries, for able and upright management, and generous dividends for capital employed either in founding or continuing wholesome business ventures, are the factors necessary for successful corporate activity and therefore for generally prosperous business conditions. All these are compatible with fair dealing as between man and man and rigid obedience to the law. Our aim is to help every honest man, every honest corporation, and our policy means in its ultimate analysis a healthy and prosperous expansion of the business activities of honest business men and honest corporations. (46-52)
Finally, Roosevelt steers a course between excessive individualism and excessive collectivism.
It will be highly disastrous if we permit ourselves to be misled by the pleas of those who see in an unrestricted individualism the all-sufficient panacea for social evils; but it will be even more disastrous to adopt the opposite panacea of any socialistic system which would destroy all individualism, which would root out the fiber of our whole citizenship. (58)
President Roosevelt, a Republican, was far more radical than President Obama. Those who disparage Obama as a Progressive have much to learn about American history.

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