Ex-presidents almost always follow a small number of well-worn scripts. Some rush to cash in on their celebrity. Some do charitable good deeds. Some just lay low.
Exactly one century ago, on August 31, 1910, we had an ex-president who took a brash and bold leap that took him far beyond these narrowly circumscribed roles. On that day, in the middle of Middle America, a former president — Theodore Roosevelt — essentially called on his fellow citizens to smash the nation’s rich down to democratic size.
We need, Roosevelt told a massive assembly of 30,000 listeners, to “destroy privilege.” Ruin for our democracy, he warned, will be “inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few.”
Those listeners — in Osawatomie, Kansas — roared their approval. Back East, apologists for grand fortune would be aghast. Editorial writers would label Roosevelt “frankly socialistic,” even “anarchistic.” A later historian, George Mowry, would call TR’s talk, soon to be known as his “New Nationalism” address, ”the most radical speech ever given by an ex-President.”
Time hasn’t dimmed that radicalism. Indeed, TR’s speech speaks powerfully to us today, mainly because we confront, a hundred years after he spoke in Osawatomie, the same concentrated wealth and power that TR so feared.
As President, between 1901 and early 1909, Roosevelt had taken on a plutocracy just as entrenched as ours today. He won some battles and ducked many others. But he left the White House feeling the nation, under his successor William Howard Taft, would be headed in the right direction.
But Taft disappointed Roosevelt and outraged the progressive wing of Roosevelt’s Republican Party. TR saw a burning need to spell out a clearer vision for his nation’s future, and he jumped at the invitation from Osawatomie to help dedicate the historic small city’s John Brown Memorial Park.
The event quickly figured to be the biggest in Kansas political history. Roosevelt had just finished a triumphal global tour. He ranked, observers agreed, as the “world’s most popular citizen.”
Kansans would pull out all the stops to set the stage for a memorable speech. By the appointed day, Osawatomie had never looked better. Bands and dignitaries would be everywhere.
“We are ready for plutocrat and peasant,” wrote one local editor, “to honor the ground where John Brown made his decisive stand for freedom.”
Plutocrats never did show. But average Kansans did. They started coming the day before TR’s scheduled appearance, in a driving rain, via “foot, bicycles, motors, buggies, wagons, trains.”
The rain, fortunately, would stop before the mud became too deep. Roosevelt would have open skies when he stepped up onto his podium, a kitchen table, to begin his address. The “surging throng,” says historian Robert La Forte, “continually cheered” for the next hour and a half.
Most Americans today would cheer, too. Are you outraged by the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico? Our national resources, Roosevelt pronounced, “must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.”
Think corporations wield too much clout?
“The Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good,” Roosevelt noted. “But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.”
We must “prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes,” TR enunciated, and hold corporate officials “personally responsible when any corporation breaks the law.”
Again and again, Roosevelt urged his listeners to demand state “and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting.” The absence of that restraint, he noted, “has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.”
But TR didn’t stop there. Restraining fortunes based on “unfair money-getting” had to be only a first step. A fortune “gained without doing damage to the community,” he added, deserves no praise. Americans needed to set a higher standard. We should permit fortunes “to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.”
And even those fortunes, Roosevelt added, needed to be checked, because the “really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities” that “differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means,” qualities that help ensure the “political domination of money.”
To check the growth and limit the power of these fortunes, Roosevelt called for a progressive income tax and an “inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the sizes of the estate.”
Three years after TR’s Osawatomie speech, we would have an income tax in the United States. Six years later after Osawatomie, we would have an estate tax. By the middle of the 20th century, many of the corporate regulatory reforms that Roosevelt demanded on that August day a century ago would be the law of the land.
By that mid century, the plutocracy that Roosevelt decried had essentially disappeared. The United States had become a middle class nation where average workers, as TR envisioned in 1910, had “a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living, and hours of labor short enough” to leave them “time and energy” to bear their “share in the management of the community.”
Now that mid 20th century middle class has disappeared. We live amid plutocracy once again. In fact, 2010 marks the first year since 1916 that we don’t even have an estate tax on the books. The heirs of the super rich can this year inherit billions in inheritance totally tax-free.
A hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt refused to accept these sorts of concentrations of enormous wealth. At Osawatomie, he helped inspire a generation-long struggle to break up these concentrations. That struggle succeeded.
Our struggle has only just begun. We can succeed, too.