Virgil — Teddy Roosevelt’s Hammer: How the ‘Great Trust Buster’ Built the American Dream

Theodore Roosevelt campaigns for the Presidency in 1904. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

Part One of a Series

The Crisis—Then and Now

The new Republican president confronted a national crisis.  The economy had changed so much in previous decades that most Americans felt adrift, helpless in the face of vast social and technological forces that were, simultaneously, exhilarating and grinding.

The new commander-in-chief, himself a Protestant born to wealth in New York City, was strongly oriented toward private property and market capitalism, and yet at the same time, he could see that reforms were needed to avert a national convulsion.  And so even though he had long been regarded as a troublesome figure, once in the White House, he launched an ambitious agenda, aimed at softening the hard edges of the system and securing a better life for all Americans.  The result was not only a successful two-term presidency for him, but three decades of prosperity and social peace for the U.S.

Are we describing the situation today confronting the 45th president, Donald Trump?  Yes.  That is, yes, we are describing the current situation facing the President—how he handles the remainder of his presidency remains to be seen.

And right now, it must be said that most Americans would probably say that the Roosevelt-Trump comparison is inapt, maybe even laughable.  However, the bumpy first seven months of a president’s term will not necessarily define the entirety of his tenure in office.  If early returns were dispositive, then Abraham Lincoln, to name one great president who suffered early calamities, would have been stamped forever as nothing more than an eloquent failure.

Today, one close observer who unabashedly makes the TR-DT comparison is Vice President Mike Pence, whose opinion merits respect.  As he said earlier this month, “In President Donald Trump, I think the United States once again has a president whose vision, energy and can-do spirit is reminiscent of President Teddy Roosevelt.”  Continuing, Pence said, “Then, as now, we have a leader who sees things not just as they are but for what they could be … who understands, in his words, ‘a nation is only living as long as it is striving.’”

Yes, TR was all about striving, all about a man-in-the-arena willingness to take on big challenges.  What we also know for sure is that TR was a well-off New Yorker with a common touch—and the boundless determination to do right by the common folk.  Indeed, during his time in office, the 26th president, serving from 1901-1909, found his greatness. That’s one reason his image is enshrined on Mt. Rushmore.

In other words, as a nation, we’ve been down this road before.  To be sure, it’s a road strewn with challenges, then and now, and yet we can take comfort in the success of past reform efforts.  That is, if TR could do it in his time, then surely, with the benefits of his precedent, we can find a leader who can do it in ours.

Trump’s victory in 2016 was a thunderous rejection of the status quo, both within the Republican Party and for the nation as a whole.  As we all know, only in the last year or two has the political class woken up to the many challenges that have been squeezing the middle class; these include globalization, cyber-technology, and, of course, immigration.  Yes, out there in Middle America, the Silent Majority has roared, and now the MSM is paying attention—although oftentimes, only to sneer and jeer.

In his young presidency, Trump has had a rocky time, but then, so, too, have just about all incumbents.  We can add that the Democrats have also been rocked; they were stunned to lose all four of those contested special House elections earlier this year.

In the meantime, the general public is suspicious of all politicians and all public institutions.  In fact, the Gallup Poll tells us that for most of the last four decades, public satisfaction with the direction of the country has been below 50 percent, and for most of that time, way below.  Today, public satisfaction is a measly 27 percent.

The Square Deal—and the American Dream

Looking back more than a century, we can see that Teddy Roosevelt, too, faced rocks in his path.  He was sworn into office on September 14, 1901, at a trying national moment; his predecessor, President William McKinley, had just been assassinated.  Indeed, McKinley was the third U.S. president to die at the hands of an assassin in just 36 years.

Although the America of 1901 might have been at peace with the world, it was, at the same time, often at war with itself.  In particular, the enormous economic power of modern industry—railroads, steam engines, electricity, the telegraph and telephone—had ripped the nation out of the slow rhythms of rural and agricultural life.

To be sure, these techno-changes were mostly for the better, in terms of the long-run direction of the economy, and yet all change has a downside.  And one of those downsides was a loss of social cohesion, as immigrants—from American farms and from the four corners of the world—made their way to find jobs in the new industrial hubs.  Thus it was that from 1860 to 1900, the population of the U.S. more than doubled, from 31.4 million to 76.2 million.

Moreover, the big cities were exploding, in more ways than one.  The population of Chicago, for example, grew by 1500 percent from 1860 to 1900 as workers flocked to new jobs at the stockyards and factories.  Not surprisingly, those zooming decades were tumultuous.  In 1886, for instance, an anarchist threw a bomb into a crowd of striking workers at Haymarket Square on the city’s West Side; a total of 11 people, including seven policemen, were killed.  Soon thereafter, seven conspirators were hanged, and many others sentenced to long prison terms.

Elsewhere around the world too, leftist ferment was rising; in Germany, the Social Democratic Party had been founded in 1863, and in Britain, the Labour Party was launched in 1900.  Connecting all such movements, including those in the U.S., was the Socialist Internationale.  And of course, even further to the left were the red communists.

So this was the national and international context during which Roosevelt assumed his presidency.  The new chief could see that fresh approaches were needed; to simply “stand pat” in the face of left-wing unrest would guarantee that the left would ultimately win.  The better solution was to pre-empt; the great voice of history told TR that he had to reform obvious national failings, in order to preserve essential national strengths.

In particular, we might linger over his First Message to Congress, transmitted on December 3, 1901—these being the days before presidents delivered their in-person State of the Union address.  TR’s epistle was nearly 20,000 words long, and  it laid out, in detail, the 26th president’s vision of economic and social reform:

The tremendous and highly complex industrial development which went on with ever accelerated rapidity during the latter half of the nineteenth century brings us face to face, at the beginning of the twentieth, with very serious social problems.  The old laws, and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law, were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth.  Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productive power of mankind, they are no longer sufficient.  [emphasis added]

Yet at the same time, TR sought to strike a conservative balance between the old rights of property and the new needs of labor; his goal was to preserve the former while acknowledging the latter:

There have been abuses connected with the accumulation of wealth; yet it remains true that a fortune accumulated in legitimate business can be accumulated by the person specially benefited only on condition of conferring immense incidental benefits upon others.  Successful enterprise, of the type which benefits all mankind, can only exist if the conditions are such as to offer great prizes as the rewards of success.

So we can see, again, the need for balance—for a national harmony of interests.  After all, it was the nation as a whole that hosted and protected both entrepreneurs and workers.  Hence the need for a fair framework:

Corporations … depending upon any statutory law for their existence or privileges, should be subject to proper governmental supervision, and full and accurate information as to their operations should be made public regularly at reasonable intervals.

Yet, Roosevelt continued, profound change required an equally profound response:

When the Constitution was adopted, at the end of the eighteenth century, no human wisdom could foretell the sweeping changes, alike in industrial and political conditions, which were to take place by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Next TR cued up his reform agenda—what would come to be known as the Square Deal—aimed at preserving both private rights and public rights:

The most vital problem with which this country, and for that matter the whole civilized world, has to deal, is the problem which has for one side the betterment of social conditions, moral and physical, in large cities, and for another side the effort to deal with that tangle of far-reaching questions which we group together when we speak of “labor.” … There must also in many cases be action by the Government in order to safeguard the rights and interests of all.

TR’s Square Deal was, for sure, ambitious.  In 1902, he mediated a coal strike in Pennsylvania.  The following year, 1903, he prodded Congress into passing the Elkins Act, which regulated crony price-favoritism by the railroads.  And that same year, he also signed into law the creation of a Department of Commerce and Labor, which soon gave rise to the Federal Trade Commission, as well as a separate Department of Labor.

We might pause to note that elsewhere in the world, failure to enact reform was having dire consequences.  In 1905, for instance, the reactionary Czar Nicholas II of Russia withstood a bloody-but-failed revolution, and learned nothing as a result.  As we all know, just a dozen years later, in 1917, came the bloodily successful Bolshevik Revolution—and that one cost the czar his life, even as it consigned his country to seven decades of Soviet agony.

Meanwhile, back here, operating within a peaceful constitutional framework, TR continued his reformist work; in 1906, he signed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

Roosevelt’s Hammer

We could cite many other pieces of reformist legislation, and yet we might stop to focus on a single action that serves as a capstone to TR’s presidency.  Or, better to say, will be remembered as the hammer that Roosevelt used to hammer out justice and opportunity for the American people.

That action was the epochal anti-trust case, Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 15, 1911.  With the legal thunderclap, the principle was established: Here in the United States, the people, not the big corporations, would rule.

It should be remembered that Standard Oil was the great monopoly of the age; it controlled 90 percent of the national oil market.  The Court’s decision, following the guidelines of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, broke Standard Oil into 34 separate companies.

Yet at the same time, we must also immediately note that TR was no kind of confiscator.  After the Court’s action, those 34 spinoffs were all still privately owned; indeed, Rockefeller’s wealth actually increased in the wake of the breakup.   Moreover, it’s been demonstrated that the economic well-being of the country rose, too, as those corporate pieces all had to compete with each other.  As we know, monopolies can be smug, but competitors have to be on their toes.

Still, what was most important was that the company’s economic and political power was rightfully decreased; Uncle Sam would never have to bow down to plutocratic control.  (Interestingly, TR’s victory came two years after he had left the White House, but everyone recognized it as his victory; the “Great Trust Buster” had laid the groundwork, and it was his hand-picked successor, President William Howard Taft, who oversaw the final resolution of the case.)

At the time, the case was understood to be a watershed.  In particular, we might note the words of Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Republican appointee to the Court.  In his written opinion, Harlan recalled the circumstances of 1890, the year in which the Sherman Anti-Trust law was sponsored by a Republican Senator, John Sherman of Ohio (brother of Gen. William T. Sherman of Civil War renown), enacted by a Republican Congress, and signed into law by a Republican president, Benjamin Harrison.

Looking back on the year 1890 from the perspective of 21 years later, Harlan wrote:

All who recall the condition of the country in 1890 will remember that there was everywhere, among the people generally, a deep feeling of unrest.  The Nation had been rid of human slavery … but the conviction was universal that the country was in real danger from another kind of slavery sought to be fastened on the American people, namely, the slavery that would result from aggregations of capital in the hands of a few individuals and corporations controlling, for their own profit and advantage exclusively, the entire business of the country, including the production and sale of the necessaries of life.

To the contemporary reader, it might seem startling to speak of economic “slavery.”  And yet that’s how America looked to many—even to many Republicans—back then.

Of course, as we all know, slaves have a way of rebelling—and when they do, it’s never pretty.  Happily, thanks to TR, Harlan, and the other careful reformers and trust-busters, the American situation never reached that boiling point.

As TR proved, peaceful and legal progress is the way to social stability and continued economic growth.  Indeed, because of that placid progress, the lot of the average improved considerably in the 20th century, as the American Dream was opened up to all.  It’s the continuation of the American Dream that ought to be the paramount goal of political figures today.

Still, there are no permanent victories, and today it seems as if we’ve been lapsing back into the bad old days—although this time, it’s not Big Oil and the railroads we have to worry about, but rather Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

Yet once again, the specter of hard-left Bernie Sanders-type ideology is haunting our politics.  And so once again, conservative reformers must step forward, to preempt and thus preserve.

So we can see: The work of prudential reform must never end.  As TR knew, capitalism is a wonderful thing, and yet in any era, it always needs to be checked, and it always needs to be balanced.

The New Nationalism: Always and Forever

What TR himself said in his famed “New Nationalism” speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, on August 31, 1910, can be said to apply, just as much, to today.  In that address, TR described “the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.”  A century ago, that was how one “drained the swamp.”

Roosevelt then added:

At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.  That is nothing new.

We can flag those last words, “nothing new,” because that point applies to our time.

Indeed, the TR-ish struggle to reform, thereby securing the full blessings of citizenship, must always be new.  Because in any era, if the struggle for reform ever grows old and tired, then we will lose those blessings.

Next in Part Two: The New Corporate Dominance of the 21st Century


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