History Lessons

by RS on September 26, 2014

For the past few evenings, I’ve been watching The Roosevelts on PBS, and it has spurred me to revisit books I have on the shelves that center on the history of American progressive movements.

Some of what I’ve learned about Teddy Roosevelt, will creep its way into Julius. It might become backstory to flesh out the characters, especially Corinne, who was most likely named after TR’s sister. But most of visiting of the past will go back to FDR’s first term and the early part of his second term.

My interest is these two men were their views about the role of government and their reform policies. They both shared the concept that government was for all people of all classes and not cater to those who held the corporate purse strings.

Theodore Roosevelt considered himself to be a “steward of the people” and would take whatever action necessary for the public’s good unless it was forbidden by law or the Constitution. “I did not usurp power,” he wrote, “but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.” And of course his opponents, like the bankers and industrialists took issue with that because he couldn’t be controlled in the manner that was beneficial towards their business and personal interests.

Now there are a many aspect of TR that goes against my grain like the avid enthusiasm for war, the big game hunting, and his somewhat mixed attitude towards African-Americans, but  in August 1910 just as he left the White House (he would later run as progressive for a third term) he gave the Square Deal speech, which outlined many of the concepts of what would become The New Deal:

Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.

I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service… When I say I want a square deal for the poor man, I do not mean that I want a square deal for the man who remains poor because he has not got the energy to work for himself. If a man who has had a chance will not make good, then he has got to quit… Now, this means that our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics… For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation. The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being.

I remember in 2008 when Obama and McCain were duking it out for the presidency and both men compared themselves to Teddy. Obama, the liberal, for his progressive views on labor; McCain comparing his maverick ways to Teddy’s. I don’t like these self-comparisons in part because the general public has a weak understanding of history and their past leaders, but to ride on the coattails of a man’s personal legacy is plain silly, especially if they haven’t held the office of president.

What irks me, though, are the criticisms that government is too much in our lives, and it comes from people who benefit the most. The Ol’ Man’s mother is 93 years old. She’s been collecting social security for 28 years and she has Medicare. Yet she is vociferously against Obamacare and blames the new law for the long wait to see a neurologist. When I hear these complaints from anyone who has benefitted from “too much government” and tells me it is her right to receive social security because she paid into it, I remind her that it was  “too much government” that passed the legislation for anyone over the age of 67 to receive full SSI benefits and Medicare.

There’s a reason you should know your history. Make an effort to read or watch programs like The Roosevelts, because the next time you open your big, fat pie hole you won’t come across like an ass.

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