William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > XV. Roosevelt and Congress
William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
XV. Roosevelt and Congress
IN a previous chapter I glanced at three or four of the principal measures in internal policy which Roosevelt took up and fought through, until he finally saw them passed by Congress. No other President, as has been often remarked, kept Congress so busy; and, we may add, none of his predecessors (unless it were Lincoln with the legislation required by the Civil War) put so many new laws on the national statute book. Mr. Charles G. Washburn enumerates these acts credited to Roosevelt’s seven and a half years’ administration: “The Elkins Anti-Rebate Law applying to railroads; the creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor and the Bureau of Corporations; the law authorizing the building of the Panama Canal; the Hepburn Bill amending and vitalizing the Interstate Commerce Act; the Pure Food and Meat Inspection laws; the law creating the Bureau of Immigration; the Employers’ Liability and Safety Appliance Laws, that limited the working hours of employees; the law making the Government liable for injuries to its employees; the law forbidding child labor in the District of Columbia; the reformation of the Consular Service; prohibition of campaign contributions from corporations; the Emergency Currency Law, which also provided for the creation of the Monetary Commission.” 1   1
  Although the list is by no means complete, it shows that Roosevelt’s receptive and sleepless mind fastened on the full circle of questions which interested American life, so far as that is controlled or directed by national legislation. Some of the laws passed were simply readjustments—new statutes on old matters. Other laws were new, embodying the first attempt to define the attitude which the courts should hold towards new questions which had grown suddenly into great importance. The decade which had favored the springing-up and amazing expansion of the Big Interests, had to be followed by the decade which framed legislation for regulating and curbing these interests. Quite naturally, the monopolists affected did not like to be harnessed or controlled, and, to put it mildly, they resented the interference of the formidable young President whom they could neither frighten, inveigle, nor cajole.   2
  And yet it is as evident to all Americans now, as it was to some Americans at the time, that that legislation had to be passed; because if the monopolists had been allowed to go on unrestrained, they would either have perverted this Republic into an open Plutocracy, in which individual liberty and equality before the law would have disappeared, or they would have hurried on the Social Revolution, the Armageddon of Labor and Capital, the merciless conflict of class with class, which many persons already vaguely dreaded, or thought they saw looming like an ominous cloud on the horizon. It seems astounding that any one should have questioned the necessity of setting up regulations. And will not posterity wonder, when it learns that only in the first decade of the twentieth century did we provide laws against the cruel and killing labor of little children, and against impure foods and drugs?   3
  Year after year, the railroads furnished unending causes for legislative control. There were the old laws which the railroad men tried to evade and which the President, as was his duty, insisted on enforcing; and still more insistent and spectacular were the new problems. Just as three or four hundred years ago the most active and vigorous Frenchmen and English men tried to get possession of large tracts of land, or even of provinces, and became counts and dukes, so the Americans of our generation, who aspired to lead the pushing financier class, worked day and night to own a railroad. Naturally one railroad did not satisfy a man who was bitten by this ambition; he reached out for several, or even for a transcontinental system. The war for railroad ownership or monopoly was waged intensely, and in 1901 it nearly plunged the country into a disastrous financial panic. Edward H. Harriman, who had only recently been regarded as a great power in the struggle for railroad supremacy, clashed with James J. Hill, of Minnesota, and J. P. Morgan, a New York banker, over the Northern Pacific Railroad. Their battle was nominally a draw, because Wall Street rushed in and, to avert a nation-wide calamity, demanded a truce. But Harriman remained, until his death in 1909, the railroad czar of the United States, and when he died, he was master of twenty-five thousand miles of road, chief influencer of fifty thousand more miles, besides steamboat companies, banks, and other financial institutions. He controlled more money than any other American. I summarize these statistics, in order to show the reader what sort of a Colossus the President of the United States had to do battle with when he undertook to secure new laws adequate to the control of the enormously expanded railway problems. And he did succeed, in large measure, in bringing the giant corporations to recognize the authority of the Nation. The decision of the Supreme Court in the Northern Securities case, by which the merger of two or more competing roads was declared illegal, put a stop to the practice of consolidation, which might have resulted in the ownership of all the railroads in the United States by a single person. Then followed the process of “unscrambling the omelet,” to use J. P. Morgan’s phrase, in order to bring the companies already illegally merged within the letter of the law. Probably a lynx-eyed investigator might discover that in some of the efforts to legalize operations in the future, “the voice was Jacob’s, but the hands were the hands of Esau.”   4
  The laws aimed at regulating transportation, rates, and rebates, certainly made for justice, and helped to enlighten great corporations as to their place in the community and their duties towards it. Roosevelt showed that his fearlessness had apparently no bounds, when in 1907 he caused suit to be brought against the Standard Oil Company in Indiana—a branch of a monopoly which was popularly supposed to be above the law—for receiving a rebate from a railroad on the petroleum shipped by the Company. The judge who tried the case gave a verdict in favor of the Government, but another judge, to whom appeal was made, reversed the decision, and finally at a re-trial, a third judge dismissed the indictment. “Thus,” says Mr. Ogg, “a good case was lost through judicial blundering.” 2   5
  But the greatest of Roosevelt’s works as a legislator were those which he carried through in the fields of conservation and reclamation. He did not invent these issues; he was only one of many persons who understood their vast importance. He gives full credit to Mr. Gifford Pinchot and Mr. F. H. Newell, who first laid these subjects before him as matters which he as President ought to consider. He had himself during his days in the West seen the need of irrigating the waste tracts. He was a quick and willing learner, and in his first message to Congress (December 1, 1901) he remarked: “The forest and water problems are perhaps the most vital internal problems of the United States.” Years later, in referring to this part of his work, he said:
  The idea that our natural resources were inexhaustible still obtained, and there was as yet no real knowledge of their extent and condition. The relation of the conservation of national resources to the problems of national welfare and national efficiency had not yet dawned on the public mind. The reclamation of arid public lands in the West was still a matter for private enterprise alone; and our magnificent river system, with its superb possibilities for public usefulness, was dealt with by the National Government not as a unit, but as a disconnected series of pork-barrel problems, whose only real interest was in their effect on the reelection or defeat of a Congressman here and there—a theory which, I regret to say, still obtains. 3
  The public lands saved mounted to millions of acres. The long-standing practice of stealing these lands was checked and put a stop to as rapidly as possible. Individuals and private companies had bought for a song great tracts of national property, getting thereby, it might be, the title to mineral deposits worth fabulous sums; and these persons were naturally angry at being deprived of the immense fortunes which they had counted on for themselves. A company would buy up an entire watershed, and control, for its private profit, the water-supply of a region. Roosevelt insisted with indisputable logic that the States and Counties ought them selves to own such natural resources and derive an income from them. So, too, were the areas restored to man’s habitation, and to agriculture, by irrigation, and by reforesting. A company, having no object but its own enrichment, would ruthlessly cut down a thousand square miles of timber in order to convert it into wood pulp for paper, or into lumber for building; and the region thus devastated, as if a German army had been over it, would be left without regard to the effect on the climate and the water supply of the surrounding country. Surely this was wrong.   7
  It seems to me as needless now to argue in behalf of Roosevelt’s legislation for the conservation of national resources as to argue against cannibalism as a practice fit for civilized men. That lawyers of repute and Congressmen of reputation should have done their utmost, as late as 1906, to obstruct and defeat the passage of the Meat Inspection Bill must seem incredible to persons of average sanity and conscience. If any of those obstructionists still live, they do not boast of their performance, nor is it likely that their children will exult over this part of the paternal record.   8
  In order not to exaggerate Roosevelt’s importance in these fundamental reforms, I would repeat that he did not originate the idea of many of them. He gladly took his cue for conservation from Gifford Pinchot, and for reclamation from F. H. Newell, as I have said; the need of inspecting the packing-houses which exported meat, from Senator A. J. Beveridge, and so on. The vital fact is that these projects got form and vigor and publicity, and were pushed through Congress, only after Roosevelt took them up. His opponents, the packers, the land-robbers, the mine-grabbers, the wood-pulp pirates, fought him at every point. They appealed to the old law to discredit and damn the new. They gave him no quarter, and he asked for none because he was bent on securing justice, irrespective of persons or private interests. It followed, of course, that they watched eagerly for any slip which might wreck him, and they thought they had found their chance in 1907.   9
  That was a year of financial upheaval, almost of panic, the blame for which the Big Interests tried to fasten on the President. It resulted, they said, from his attack on Capital and the Corporations. A special incident gave plausibility to some of their bitter criticism. Messrs. Gary and Frick, of the United States Steel Corporation, called on the President, and told him that the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and that, if it went under, a general panic would probably ensue. To prevent this financial disaster, their Corporation was willing to buy up enough of the Tennessee Company to save it, but they wished to know whether the President would allow the purchase. He told them that he could not officially advise them to take the action proposed, but that he did not regard it as a public duty of his to raise any objection. They made the purchase, and the total amount of their holdings in the Tennessee Company did not equal in value what they had originally held, for the stock had greatly shrunk. The Attorney-General subsequently informed the President that he saw no reason to prosecute the United States Steel Corporation. But the President’s enemies did not spare their criticism. They circulated grave suspicions; they hinted that, if the whole truth were known, Roosevelt would be embarrassed, to say the least. What had become of his pretended impartiality when he allowed one of the great Trusts to do, with impunity, that which others were prosecuted for? The public, which seldom has the knowledge, or the information, necessary for understanding business or financial complexities, usually remarks, with the archaic sapience of a Greek chorus, “There must be some fire where there is so much smoke.” But the public interest was never seriously roused over the Tennessee Coal and Iron affair, and, six years later, when a United States District Court handed down a verdict in which this matter was referred to, the public had almost forgotten what it was all about.   10
  The great result from Roosevelt’s battle for conservation, which I believe will glorify him, in the future, to heroic proportions as a statesman, is that where he found wide stretches of desert he left fertile States, that he saved from destruction, that he seized from the hands of the spoilers rivers and valleys which belonged to the people, and that he kept for the people mineral lands of untold value. Nor did he work for material and sanitary prosperity alone; but he worked also for Beauty. He reserved as National Parks for the use and delight of men and women forever some of the most beautiful regions in the United States, and the support he gave to these causes urged them forward after he ceased to be President.   11

Note 1. C. G. Washburn, 128, 129. [ back ]

Note 2. Ogg, 50. [ back ]

Note 3. Autobiography, p. 430. [ back ]



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