William Roscoe Thayer (18591923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
X. The World which Roosevelt Confronted
TO understand the work of a statesman we must know something of the world in which he lived. That is his material, out of which he tries to embody his ideals as the sculptor carves his out of marble. We are constantly under the illusions of time. Some critics say, for instance, that Washington fitted so perfectly the environment of the American Colonies during the last half of the eighteenth century, that he was the direct product of that environment; I prefer to think, however, that he possessed certain individual traits which, and not the time, made him George Washington, and would have enabled him to have mastered a different period if he had been born in it. In like manner, having known Theodore Roosevelt, I do not believe that he would have been dumb or passive or colorless or slothful or futile under any other conceivable conditions. Just as it was not New York City, nor Harvard, nor North Dakota, which made him Roosevelt, so the Roosevelt in him would have persisted under whatever sky.
The time offers the opportunities. The gift in the man, innate and incalculable, determines how he will seize them and what he will do with them. Now it is because I think that Roosevelt had a clear vision of the world in which he dwelt, and saw the path by which to lead and improve it, that his career has profound significance to me. Picturesque he was, and picturesqueness made whatever he did interesting. But far deeper qualities made him significant. From ancient times, at least from the days of Greece and Rome, Democracy as a political ideal had been dreamed of, and had even been put into practice on a small scale here and there. But its shortcomings and the frailty of human nature made it the despair of practical men and the laughing stock of philosophers and ironists. Nevertheless, the conviction that no man has a right to enslave another would not die. And in modern times the English sense of justice and the English belief that a man must have a right to be heard on matters concerning himself and his government, forced Democracy, as an actual system, to the front. The demand for representation caused the American colonists to break away from England and to govern themselves independently. Every one now sees that this demand was the just and logical carrying forward of English ideals.
At about the same time, in France, Rousseau, gathering into his own heart, from many sources, the suggestions and emotions of Democracy, uttered them with a voice so magical that it roused millions of other hearts and made the emotions seem intellectual proofs. As the magician waves his wand and turns common pebbles into precious stones, so Rousseau turned the dead crater of Europe into a molten volcano. The ideals of Fraternity and Equality were joined with that of Liberty and the three were accepted as indivisible elements of Democracy. In the United States we set our Democratic principles going. In Europe the Revolution shattered many of the hateful methods of Despotism, shattered, but did not destroy them. The amazing genius of Napoleon intervened to deflect Europe from her march towards Democracy and to convert her into the servant of his personal ambition.
Over here, in spite of the hideous contradiction of slavery, which ate like a black ulcer into a part of our body politic, the Democratic ideal not only prevailed, but came to be taken for granted as a heaven-revealed truth, which only fools would question or dispute. In Europe, the monarchs of the Old Regime made a desperate rally and put down Napoleon, thinking that by smashing him they would smash also the tremendous Democratic forces by which he had gained his supremacy. They put back, so far as they could, the old feudal bases of privilege and of more or less disguised tyranny. The Restoration could not slumber quietly, for the forces of the Revolution burst out from time to time. They wished to realize the liberty of which they had had a glimpse in 1789 and which the Old Regime had snatched away from them. The Spirit of Nationality now strengthened their efforts for independence and liberty and another Spirit came stalking after both. This was the Social Revolution, which refusing to be satisfied by a merely political victory boldly preached Internationalism as a higher ideal than Nationalism. Truly, Time still devours all his children, and the hysterical desires bred by half-truths prevent the coming and triumphant reign of Truth. While these various and mutually clashing motives swept Europe along during the first half of the nineteenth century, a different current hurried the United States into the rapids. Should they continue to exist as one Union binding together sections with different interests, or should the Union be dissolved and those sections attempt to lead a separate political existence? Fortunately, for the preservation of the Union, the question of slavery was uppermost in one of the sections. Slavery could not be dismissed as a merely economic question. Many Americans declared that it was primarily a moral issue. And this transformed what the Southern section would gladly have limited to economics into a war for a moral ideal. With the destruction of slavery in the South the preservation of the Union came as a matter of course.
The Civil War itself had given a great stimulus to industry, to the need of providing military equipment and supplies, and of extending, as rapidly as possible, the railroads which were the chief means of transportation. When the war ended in 1865, this expansion went on at an increasing rate. The energy which had been devoted to military purposes was now directed to commerce and industry, to developing the vast unpeopled tracts from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and to exploiting the hitherto neglected or unknown natural resources of the country. Every year science furnished new methods of converting natures products into mans wealth. Chemistry, the doubtful science, Midas-like, turned into gold every thing that it touched. There were not native workers enough, and so a steady stream of foreign immigrants flocked over from abroad. They came at first to better their own fortunes by sharing in the unlimited American harvests. Later, our Captains of Industry, regardless of the quality of the new comers, and intent only on securing cheap labor to multiply their hoards, combed the lowest political and social levels of southern Europe and of western Asia for employees. The immigrants ceased to look upon America as the Land of Promise, the land where they intended to settle, to make their homes, and to rear their children; it became for them only a huge factory where they earned a living and for which they felt no affection. On the contrary, many of them looked forward to returning to their native country as soon as they had saved up a little competence here. The politicians, equally negligent of the real welfare of the United States, gave to these masses of foreigners quick and unscrutinized naturalization as American citizens.
So it fell out that before the end of the nineteenth century a great gulf was opening between Labor and Capital. Now a community can thrive only when all its classes feel that they have COMMON interests; but since American Labor was largely composed of foreigners, it acquired a double antagonism to Capital. It had not only the supposed natural antagonism of employee to employer, but also the further cause of misunderstanding, and hostility even, which came from the foreignness of its members. Another ominous condition arose. The United States ceased to be the Land of Promise, where any hard-working and thrifty man could better himself and even become rich. The gates of Opportunity were closing. The free lands, which the Nation offered to any one who would cultivate them, had mostly been taken up; the immigrant who had been a laborer in Europe, was a laborer here. Moreover, the political conditions in Europe often added to the burdens and irritation caused by the industrial conditions there. And the immigrant in coming to America brought with him all his grievances, political not less than industrial. He was too ignorant to discriminate; he could only feel. Anarchy and Nihilism, which were his natural reaction against his despotic oppressors in Germany and Russia, he went on cultivating here, where, by the simple process of naturalization, he became politically his own despot in a year or two.
But, of course, the very core of the feud which threatens to disrupt modern civilization was the discovery that, in any final adjustment, the political did not suffice. What availed it for the Taborer and the capitalist to be equal at the polls, for the vote of one to count as much as the vote of the other, if the two men were actually worlds apart in their social and industrial lives? Equality must seem to the laborer a cruel deception and a sham unless it results in equality in the distribution of wealth and of opportunity. How this is to be attained I have never seen satisfactorily stated; but the impossibility of realizing their dreams, or the blank folly of doting on them, has never prevented men from striving to obtain them. From this has resulted the frantic pursuit, during a century and a quarter, of all sorts of projects from Babuvism to Bolshevism, which, if they could not install Utopia overnight, were at least calculated to destroy Civilization as it is. The common feature of the propagandists of all these doctrines seems to be the throwing-over of the Past; not merely of the proved evils and inadequacies of the Past, but of our conception of right and wrong, of morals, of human relations, and of our duty towards the Eternal, which, having sprung out of the Past, must be jettisoned in a fury of contempt. In short, the destroyers of Society (writhing under the immemorial sting of injustice, which they believed was wholly caused by their privileged fellows, and not even in part inherent in the nature of things) supposed that by blotting out Privilege they could establish their ideals of Justice and Equality.
In the forward nations of Europe, not less than in the United States, these ideals had been arrived at, at least in name, and so far as concerned politics. Even in Germany, the most rigid of Absolute Despotisms, a phantasm of political liberty was allowed to flit about the Halls of Parliament. But through the cunning of Bismarck the Socialist masses were bound all the more tightly to the Hohenzollern Despot by liens which seemed to be socialistic. Nevertheless, the principles of the Social Revolution spread secretly from European country to country, whether it professed to be Monarchical or Republican.
In the United States, when Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the Presidency in 1901, a similar antagonism between Capital and Labor had become chronic. Capital was arrogant. Its advance since the Civil War had been unmatched in history. The inundation of wealth which had poured in, compared with all previous amassing of riches, was as the Mississippi to the slender stream of Pactolus. The men whose energy had created this wealth, and the men who managed and increased it, lost the sense of their proper relations with the rest of the community and the Nation. According to the current opinion progress consisted in doubling wealth in the shortest time possible; this meant the employment of larger and larger masses of labor; therefore laborers should be satisfied, nay, should be grateful to the capitalists who provided them with the means of a livelihood; and those capitalists assumed that what they regarded as necessary to progress, defined by them, should be accepted as necessary to the prosperity of the Nation.
Such an alignment of the two elements, which composed the Nation, indicated how far the so-called Civilization, which modern industrialism has created, was from achieving that social harmony, which is the ideal and must be the base of every wholesome and enduring State. The condition of the working classes in this country was undoubtedly better than that in Europe. And the discontent and occasional violence here were fomented by foreign agitators who tried to make our workers believe that they were as much oppressed as their foreign brothers. Wise observers saw that a collision, it might be a catastrophe, was bound to come unless some means could be found to bring concord to the antagonists. Here was surely an amazing paradox. The United States, already possessed of fabulous wealth and daily amassing more, was heading straight for a social and economic revolution, because a part of the inhabitants claimed to be the slaves of industrialism and of poverty.
This slight outline, which every reader can complete for himself, will serve to show what sort of a world, especially what sort of an American world, confronted Roosevelt when he took the reins of government. His task was stupendous, the problems he had to solve were baffling. Other public men of the time saw its portents, but he alone seems to have felt that it was his duty to strain every nerve to avert the impending disaster. And he alone, as it seems to me, understood the best means to take.
Honesty, Justice, Reason, were not to him mere words to decorate sonorous messages or to catch and placate the hearers of his passionate speeches; they were the most real of all realities, moral agents to be used to clear away the deadlock into which Civilization was settling.