Monday, July 13, 2015

Theodore Roosevelt: The first progressive President

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (1858-1919)
President (19011909)
During the presidential election of 1896 classical liberals controlled the republican party, or what was otherwise known as the Grand Old Party (GOP).  They believed that the best way to preserve and protect the Constitution, and thereby natural rights, was to prevent the young and rising progressive 
voice of Theodore Roosevelt from gaining influence on the party. They had to prevent him from becoming president.  

Roosevelt was always the smartest guy in the room. He was brave, as he proved as commander of the rough riders.  He was strong, as he proved by participating in a 2,500-mile safari through British East Africa and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, He was a brilliant, as he proved by writing more history books in his lifetime than most people will ever read in their lives.  He was also a great public speaker, as he proved many times on the campaign trail.  So when he decided to joint the progressive movement, this made him all the more dangerous.  He had to be stopped. 

Up to this time, the presidency was a relatively powerless position, and this was by design of the founding fathers who did not want the U.S. government to have the power to control individuals as the British Monarchy did.  It was for this reason James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights, and why a steep system of checks and balances was created.  Up to this time, nearly every president respected such Constitutional restraint, refusing to use the office of the president to advance their agendas.

Plus most presidents up to this time respected the idea that all liberties, or rights, were handed down from a higher power, and they referred to them as inalienable rights, or natural rights.  They believed that individuals made flawed decisions, but were far better capable of making the best decisions than any government.  They also believed that because humans were flawed, the world could not be made perfect, that true euphoria could only be obtained after death in Heaven.

The progressives, on the other hand, believed their experts could make the tough decisions to perfect the flaws of individuals.  Yet standing in their way was the Constitution, and the idea that since the habits of mankind never changed, so too should the Constitution never change.  Surely it could be amended, yet making such changes were intentionally made difficult to prevent people from making changes based on modern emotion.

So now they were fit with the task of convincing people that the Constitution should not be etched in stone, that it was a living document that should be changed to meet the needs of the modern world.  They needed a leader to convince people, or to fool them, into ceding some of their personal liberties to the state.

One of the first signs that progressives yearned for a leader came from an Essay called Leaders of Men by Woodrow Wilson (who would later become president himself) in 1890.  He said a "true leader" used the people like "tools."  He said of the people:
"They must get their ideas very absolutely put, and are much readier to receive a half truth which they can promptly understand than a whose truth which has too may sides to be seen all at once.  The competent leader of men cares little for the internal niceties of other people's characters: he cares much -- everything -- for the external uses to which they may be put... He supplies the power; others supply only the materials upon which that power operates... It is the power which dictates, dominates,; the materials yield.  Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader."  
Wilson, along with other progressives, believed Theodore Roosevelt was just that man.  Leaders of the GOP also saw Roosevelt as a rising star among the ranks of progressives, and they knew he had eyes on the presidency.  So for the good of the party, and for the good of of the nation, they devised an ingenious plan to stop him: they would select him as McKinley's Vice President. 

Yes, indeed, this was a very ingenious plan, or so they thought.  It would get Roosevelt out of the way for four, eight, maybe even twelve years.  

You see, back then the vice presidency was pretty much a menial job, relegated to sitting around and waiting to break a tie in the Senate or for the president to die. As of September 1901, his vote was needed only once.  So as vice president, as the GOP had hoped, he accomplished nearly nothing.

However, on September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot twice by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.  One was a superficial puncture to his sternum, but the other went into his abdomen.  He was rushed to surgery and survived the initial assassination attempt, although died eight days later due to gangrene.  Vice President Roosevelt was immediately sworn in as the 26th President of the United States. 

So the effort to get Roosevelt out of the way had backfired.  He became the first progressive president, and as was feared, he quickly moved to increase the powers of the President and Congress.  As noted by Johah Goldberg in his 2007 history of the progressive movement called "Liberal Fascism," said:
As president, he regularly exceeded the bounds of his traditional and legal powers, doing his will first and waiting (or not) for the courts and the legislatures to catch up.
As Glenn Beck said in his 2012 book "Cowards:
"His (Roosevelt's) "Square Deal"... started the ball rolling.  It got the nose of big government under the Constitution's tend by regulating business and the banks.  
His Square Deal involved three C's:
  1. Control of Corporations
  2. Consumer Protection
  3. Conservation
At the time the government had little say in how industries ran their business, and most presidents did not want to get involved for fear that it would set a dangerous precedence, perhaps resulting in future presidents gaining too much power.  

Yet there was pressure by various groups of people for governmental reforms that would improve working conditions for laborers, and make foods safer for consumption.  This sort of created an ideal environment for Roosevelt to advance his progressive agenda. 

Workers wanted fair pay and working conditions, and industries wanted to keep wages low.  According to AP U.S.: History Notes, this sort of came to a head in 1902 during the athracite coal strike in Pennsylvania.  Coal mining was dirty and dangerous work, and 140,000 coal minors went on strike demanding a 20 percent pay raise and a reduction in their work day from 10 hours to nine hours. Of course winter was approaching, so the decline in coal reserves that resulted created lots of tension around the nation.

Of course where there is a problem there is an opportunity to advance the progressive agenda, and Roosevelt would take full advantage. He went against established precedent and, instead of allowing industries to solve their own problems, he decided to do it for them.  

AP U.S.: History Notes said:
Roosevelt, going against established precedent, decided to step in. He summoned the mine owners and union representatives to meet with him in Washington. Roosevelt was partly moved by strong public support and took the side of the miners. Still, the mine owners were reluctant to negotiate until Roosevelt, threatening to use his “big stick,” declared that he would seize the mines and operate them with federal troops. Owners reluctantly agreed to arbitration, where the striking workers received a 10 percent pay increase and a nine-hour working day. This was the first time a president sided with unions in a labor dispute, and it helped cement Roosevelt’s reputation as a friend of the common people and gave his administration the nickname “The Square Deal.”
It was also the first time the president was used as a "bully pulpit," and the first time the president made a decision as an "Imperial President."  Classical Liberals feared that this type of precedence would lead to the president having "king-like" powers, leading to a police-state whereby the government could use it's power to force people to act in a certain way.

This was clearly a violation of Constitutional restraint, and yet because he was seen as siding with the "common people," making a decision for the good of the people, there was hardly any outcry about this act was the first seed being planted under the Constitution that would lead to a fundamental transformation from capitalism to socialism, from individual choice to government deciding what's best for us, from a nation where the people policed themselves, to a police state where people could be fined, arrested, and even jailed for making poor decisions.

AP U.S.: Notes continued:
Emboldened by this success and in pursuit of the first element of his Square Deal, Roosevelt began to attack large, monopolistic corporations. Some trusts were effective and legitimate, but many of these companies engaged in corrupt and preferential business practices. In 1902, the Northern Securities Company, owned by J.P. Morgan and James J. Hill, controlled most of the railroads in the northwestern United States and intended to create a total monopoly. Roosevelt initiated legal proceedings against Northern Securities and eventually the Supreme Court ordered that the company be dissolved. Roosevelt’s radical actions angered big business and earned him the reputation of a “trust buster,” despite the fact that his successors Taft and Wilson actually dissolved more trusts.
Roosevelt was also the first president to urge Congress to increase the size and scope of the executive by creating the Department of Commerce and Labor (DOCL).  The department was charged with monitoring corporations to make sure they engaged in fair practices.  The DOCL created the Bureau of Corporations, which was charged with for the benefit of the people (for our own good) to monitor interstate commerce, to help dissolve monopolies, and promote fair competition between companies.

In this way, the DOCL was the first executive department charged with making regulations for industries without direct approval of Congress.  Industries were forced to comply with these regulations or risk fines, or arrest by the newly established police-state.

Later presidents would follow this precedence in creating executive departments with similar power over individuals and industries, such as the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency.  These departments are charged with making regulations for our own good, and people have to obey even when they don't agree with these regulations.

He then pressured Congress to create the Elkins Act, which punished companies with steep fines if they participated in illegal business practices, such as rebating and price fixing.  They he encouraged them to pass the Hepburn Act, which made the Interstate Commerce Commission even more powerful.  It was now able to set rates, inspect company books, and investigate railroads, sleeping car companies, oil pipelines, and other transportation firms.

In response to Upton Sinclairs book "The Jungle," which made the public aware of the poor conditions in which meat was prepared, Roosevelt saw this as another problem that the government could solve, once allowing him a prime opportunity to advance his agenda.

He pressured Congress, and they eventually, and reluctantly, agreed to pass the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.  This gave the government power to prevent mislabeling of food, alcohol and drugs, thus "perfecting" these areas of industry, and preventing individual industrial executives from making flawed decisions.

These acts were good in a way, because they prevented poor business practices, and sort of placed a government seal of approval on prepared foods, so consumers knew they were getting quality food.  However, it also gave the government unprecedented powers over these industries, taking away the natural right to make poor choices.

You see, this is the kind of governmental powers the founding fathers, and the first 24 presidents (we won't count Grover Cleveland twice), yearned to prevent.  It was as thought the first 24 presidents studied and remembered how bad it was for people living under the British Monarchy, or just about every government prior to the signing of the U.S. Constitution, and now all of a sudden people just forgot.  Now there were people, many in high positions (including the president) who violated the same Constitutional restraints meant to protect the government from abducting personal liberties.

Not all of what Teddy did for the country was bad. After all, factories needed cleaning up, and consumers dearly needed assurance that the food they were purchasing was safe for consumption.

He also got the government involved in purchasing and preserving natural resources.  As anyone who lives in Manistee, Michigan can surely attest (or at least those how appreciate Manistee's history), lumber barons moved into the Manistee area and cut down all the Great White Pines in the area. This made the barons rich, and made it so Manistee had the third most millionaires per capita in all of Michigan.

The problem was that these lumber barons, along with lumber barons all over the United States, were not planting new trees to replace the ones they were cutting down.  So, once all the Great White Pines were gone, the lumber barons left town or simply went out of business, to a great disadvantage to local economies.

Roosevelt, who was a great outdoorsman, yearned to remedy this problem as part of his Square Deal (Conservation).  In this way, along with jumping on the progressive bandwagon, he also jumped on the conservation and environmental bandwagon.  Since people were too stupid to make the right decisions on their own, he pushed for laws to force them.  The problem was that most of the laws passed weren't enforced.

Roosevelt was also concerned about all the timberland that was being destroyed, and so he urged Congress to set aside 125 million acres of timberland as national reserves.  This was how forests like the Manistee National Forests came to be protected forests, and how many national parks, such as Yellowstone, came to fruition.  He also guaranteed preservation of some water and coal reserves.

Overall, it wasn't what he did that was so bad, it was how he did it, by creating a powerful government.  As the founders, and the previous 24 presidents understood, power breeds corruption.  Many presidents after Roosevelt, and nearly every president after Woodrow Wilson, abused this power for their own personal gain.

Theodore Roosevelt had succeeded in making the executive into a "Bully Pulpit," making himself the first imperial president.  Yet the damage he did to the Constitution was only the beginning. The precedence he set would later help Wilson move this agenda into another stratosphere.