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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Theodore Roosevelt and Noblesse Oblige (Part One)

(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 ordinary citizen.)

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 second 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.)

-Michael D'Angelo


  1. I found your blog via a FB comment on the NYT article, "The Great Abdication". I look forward to reading through your blog. I am a former Bradenton resident who has lived in Central and South America for over 11 years now...small world!


  2. I believe the statement that "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." is very timely and germane to today's issues. Although, the Status quo, and their benefits are not the Rich this time, as the Rich will always have their benefits.
    The status quo in question is the Bureaucracy and their sense of entitlement of the taxpayers money to support their very own social class of people that has replaced the former working middle class with a bulletproof social class, living off of the rest of theIr working and tax paying brethren. Demanding entitlement to benefits and compensation not afforded to those individuals working in the private sector.
    This will be the true test of our Nation to rein in this ever expanding class, and to provide them
    jobs outside this shadow government so we can dismantle this monster that will distroy all we stand for as a democratic republic. The idealistic notion that government will provide for the less fortunate is a failure, and these people are still cold, hungry, and poor. The Bureaucracy is there to be a self contained, self perpetuating entity, marketing itself as the protector of the people. As the Colonel believed, those more fortunate need to help those less fortunate, but today it will only work outside the framework of government. Government is nothing more then a corporation with the power to tax the public for bad services and an unsustainable business model, and if the citizens do not pay for these services they will be subject to fines and prison.

    Who is left to truly protect the ordinary? We must stop looking to depend on a false Protector, and look to protect ourselves. Nibs 6-26-12

    1. Given the dictionary definition of the term 'entitlement', I would hope every citizen espoused it. The free speech we enjoy here is an entitlement. Our right to a jury trial is an entitlement. This issue, it would seem for you, is what benefits are given and who pays for what the law provides. Don't denigrate legal rights, seek to change those entitlements to which you disagree. I'm not saying that some do not feel a sense that society owes them something, but entitlement is a poor choice of word.

      You've made a fair amount of assertions here. Please give factual background to further the discussion.