(Note: This is the first segment in a three part series introducing readers to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt (TR), who commands considerable influence over this awe-inspired writer.)
Do the citizens of wealth, power and privilege have any public responsibilities to help those who lack such privilege or are less fortunate? Why is there mistrust for the tendencies of the wealthy to form tight, self-protective social cliques? Why are they the more resentful of outside monitoring?
Preserving the benefits of the status quo, balanced against the need for change, even change which is incremental, as opposed to radical, presents one intricate dilemma. In the Revolutionary War fervor, Thomas Jefferson had stated that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson believed that constitutions ought to be changed frequently to keep up with the will of the moment, that “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs to the living generation.” Moreover, Jefferson felt that every constitution and every law, naturally, should expire within approximately 20 years.
Later, however, after his presidential term concluded, a more circumspect Thomas Jefferson had refined his views of change with an eloquence that stands the test of time, without rival:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws must and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Previously, we saw that it was Thomas Jefferson, who objected to Hamilton’s banking system as flowing from principles adverse to liberty. This was accomplished by creating an influence of the Treasury over members of Congress, inherently susceptible to corruption, and tending to narrow the government into fewer hands and approximate it to a hereditary form. And it was Andrew Jackson, who swore an oath as an obligation of the government to grant no privilege that aids one class over another. Mr. Jackson vowed to act as honest broker between classes, and to protect the weak and defenseless against the abuses of the rich and powerful.
But it was Theodore Roosevelt, who keyed in on the essence of the Jefferson/Jackson lineage, as part of a concept known as noblesse oblige. The term of art is a French phrase literally meaning "nobility obliges." According to this concept, citizens of wealth, power and privilege were balanced by public responsibilities to help those who lack such privilege or are less fortunate. T.R. had been raised in New York City, in a family where the occupation of his Dutch father was listed as an “altruist,” or a “selfless” individual. An altruist had sufficient means, such that he found ways to give away his money for a living.
Although T.R. had come from wealth, there had always been “foreign” elements in him. He had an independent streak, which had never shown much respect for wealth. This streak manifested itself in disturbing differences of will, rather than mere quirks of character, that belied something vaguely traitorous about him. “I find I can work best with those people in whom the money sense is not too highly developed,” he had said. He mistrusted the tendencies of the wealthy to form tight, self-protective social cliques, which, in business, spilled over to combinations in restraint of trade. The tighter each grouping, the more obsessed it became with its own cohesion, and the more resentful of outside monitoring.
(The next segment in our three part series speaks to the great issue which T.R. had identified: to reform the “unnatural alliance of politics and corporations” to enthrone privilege.)