(Note: This is the final segment in a series introducing readers to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Balancing the need for change against preserving the benefits of the status quo poses an intricate dilemma. T.R. believed under the concept of "noblesse oblige" that citizens of wealth, power and privilege were balanced by public responsibilities to help those who lack such privilege or are less fortunate. The great issue was to reform the "unnatural alliance of politics and corporations” to enthrone privilege. "Conduct," not "size," was the overriding consideration. Labor was not only an economic, but also a moral, a human problem...)
Can a true, complex US industrial and political democracy exist, absent the ability for ordinary individuals to combine in a collective capacity to secure their basic human rights? Does the great entrepreneurial risk-taker who reaps large profits have any balancing obligations owed to American society and the law?
Individually, the worker was impotent to negotiate a wage contract with the great companies; they could make fair terms only by uniting into unions to bargain collectively. Individual workers were thus forced to cooperate to secure their basic human rights, compelled to unite in unions of their industry or trade. These unions “were bound to grow in size, in strength, and in power for good and evil as the industries in which the men were employed grew larger and larger.”
A democracy can be such in fact only if there is some rough approximation in similarity in stature among the men composing it. One of us can deal in our private lives with the grocer or the butcher or the carpenter or the chicken raiser, or if we are the carpenter or butcher or farmer, we can deal with our customers, because /we are all of about the same size/. Therefore a simple and poor society can exist as a democracy on a basis of sheer individualism. But a rich and complex industrial society cannot so exist; for some individuals, and especially those artificial individuals called corporations, become so very big that the ordinary individual is utterly dwarfed beside them, and cannot deal with them on terms of equality. It therefore becomes necessary for these ordinary individuals to combine in their turn, first in order to act in their collective capacity through that biggest of all combinations called the Government, and second, to act, also in their own self-defense, through private combinations, such as farmers’ associations and trade unions. (emphasis mine)
A willingness to do equal and exact justice to all citizens did not, according to T.R., “imply a failure to recognize the enormous economic, political and moral possibilities of the trade union.” T.R. concluded his discussion of the topic thus:
Just as democratic government cannot be condemned because of errors and even crimes committed by men democratically elected, so trade-unionism must not be condemned because of errors or crimes of occasional trade-union leaders. The problem lies deeper. While we must repress all illegalities and discourage all immoralities, whether of labor organizations or of corporations, we must recognize the fact that to-day the organization of labor into trade unions and federations is necessary, is beneficent, and is one of the greatest possible agencies in the attainment of a true industrial, as well as a true political, democracy in the United States.
Not surprising, a balancing act, a weighing and mature contemplation of competing interests, was necessary. The individual risk-taker took full advantage of the national security apparatus and the law of contracts, on the one hand, to protect and preserve his capital investment and vast profit potential. Consequently, that same risk-taker had the resulting obligation, on the other hand, to permit the law to change to a sufficient degree to protect and improve the fundamental human rights of the workers who made those profits possible.
After completing two presidential terms featuring an agenda of activist, progressive reform along these lines, T.R. declined to run for a third term in the election of 1908. He was maintaining the tradition of George Washington. Instead, he threw his overwhelming popular support behind his then-Vice President and hand picked successor, William Howard Taft.
T.R. saw Mr. Taft as an able administrator under T.R.’s leadership and an extension of himself. Essentially, it was understood that Mr. Taft would consolidate and expand T.R.’s activist, progressive agenda with all the necessary machinery of government already in place and smartly operating.
Unfortunately, events did unfold quite as T.R. had envisioned. The powerful forces of conservatism fought back smartly, setting in motion an epic clash. When the dust had finally settled, the political landscape had been transformed. The ordinary citizen’s identification with the more familiar “Republicans vs. Democrats” of today had been born.