“Give me this day my daily bread …” --- is this the familiar prayer we learned --- once upon a time? How are ordinary citizens to measure their progress?
In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt was still a young man (51) by historical standards but already a former president. His term had run from the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 through 1908. After completing an administration featuring an agenda of activist, progressive reform, T.R. declined to run for a third term in the election of 1908. He was honoring the tradition of George Washington. Instead, he threw his overwhelming popular support behind his then-Vice President and hand picked successor, William Howard Taft.
To be progressive in 1910 was to belong to
middle class. But Mr. Taft had botched T.R.’s progressive agenda and was now the nation’s top
reactionary. The effect was akin to a
political about-face. Systematically,
Mr. Taft began to roll back T.R.’s progressive reforms in a bow to the
Republican Party’s affluent, conservative base.
T.R.’s alarm was palpable, his political unrest deepening.
In August 1910 T.R. was to make a case during a speech in
which would become famous for what he had called “New Nationalism.” Some
labeled it “Communistic,” “Socialistic” and “Anarchistic” in various quarters,
while others hailed it “the greatest oration ever given on American soil.” Osawatomie, Kansas
In his New Nationalism speech, T.R. reflected that there had been “two great crises in our country’s history: first, when it was formed, and then, again, when it was perpetuated … .” The third great crisis was upon us, the struggle “to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity.”
T.R. insisted that only a powerful federal government could regulate the economy and guarantee social justice. His central tenet was government protection of property rights, a traditional approach. But he elevated human welfare, the second critical component, to a higher priority. T.R. understood that the success of any presidential administration must be measured by this and would be impossible otherwise.
“At many stages in the advance of humanity,” T.R. said, the “conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress.” The goal was “to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.”
As was the case 100 years ago, today it can be expected, however, that the privileged classes will be hospitable only to those reforms which spare their privileges. Nevertheless, it would be intriguing to view the vexing problem of inequality of opportunity through the lens of human welfare ahead of any other legitimate interest. The goal would secure the benefits of the existing organization, while casting the net of opportunity over a larger social area.
Conservative principles, traditions and national history require only the gradual alteration of adverse social conditions in the name of progress. Perhaps a people can best exhibit its common sense so clearly as to be contemporary without breaking the ties of historical anchorage. To move too suddenly by uprooting any essential element of the national tradition would come at a severe penalty, as ordinary citizens discovered when they decided to cut slavery out of their national composition.
It is assumed that ordinary citizens wish to escape the need to regain their health by means of another surgical operation. They must then consider carefully how much of a reorganization of traditional institutions, policies and ideas are necessary to achieve a new, more stable national balance. They must also consider that any disloyalty to democracy by way of national policy will in the end be fatal to national unity.
The book, Life among the Ordinary: Completing Our Nation's Great Unfinished Business, undertakes such an exercise. T.R.’s extraordinary 1912 presidential campaign provides a working blueprint.