Home  »  Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography  »  XV. The Peace of Righteousness. Appendix B: The Control of Corporations and “The New Freedom.”

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). An Autobiography. 1913.

XV. The Peace of Righteousness. Appendix B: The Control of Corporations and “The New Freedom.”

In his book “The New Freedom,” and in the magazine articles of which it is composed, which appeared just after he had been inaugurated as President, Mr. Woodrow Wilson made an entirely unprovoked attack upon me and upon the Progressive party in connection with what he asserts the policy of that party to be concerning the trusts, and as regards my attitude while President about the trusts.

I am reluctant to say anything whatever about President Wilson at the outset of his Administration unless I can speak of him with praise. I have scrupulously refrained from saying or doing one thing since election that could put the slightest obstacle, even of misinterpretation, in his path. It is to the interest of the country that he should succeed in his office. I cordially wish him success, and I shall cordially support any policy of his that I believe to be in the interests of the people of the United States. But when Mr. Wilson, after being elected President, within the first fortnight after he has been inaugurated into that high office, permits himself to be betrayed into a public misstatement of what I have said, and what I stand for, then he forces me to correct his statements.

Mr. Wilson opens his article by saying that the Progressive “doctrine is that monopoly is inevitable, and that the only course open to the people of the United States is to submit to it.” This statement is without one particle of foundation in fact. I challenge him to point out a sentence in the Progressive platform or in any speech of mine which bears him out. I can point him out any number which flatly contradict him. We have never made any such statement as he alleges about monopolies. We have said: “The corporation is an essential part of modern business. The concentration of modern business, in some degree, is both inevitable and necessary for National and international business efficiency.” Does Mr. Wilson deny this? Let him answer yes or no, directly. It is easy for a politician detected in a misstatement to take refuge in evasive rhetorical hyperbole. But Mr. Wilson is President of the United States, and as such he is bound to candid utterance on every subject of public interest which he himself has broached. If he disagrees with us, let him be frank and consistent, and recommend to Congress that all corporations be made illegal. Mr. Wilson’s whole attack is largely based on a deft but far from ingenuous confounding of what we have said of monopoly, which we propose so far as possible to abolish, and what we have said of big corporations, which we propose to regulate; Mr. Wilson’s own vaguely set forth proposals being to attempt the destruction of both in ways that would harm neither. In our platform we use the word “monopoly” but once, and then we speak of it as an abuse of power, coupling it with stock-watering, unfair competition and unfair privileges. Does Mr. Wilson deny this? If he does, then where else will he assert that we speak of monopoly as he says we do? He certainly owes the people of the United States a plain answer to the question. In my speech of acceptance I said: “We favor strengthening the Sherman Law by prohibiting agreements to divide territory or limit output; refusing to sell to customers who buy from business rivals; to sell below cost in certain areas while maintaining higher prices in other places; using the power of transportation to aid or injure special business concerns; and all other unfair trade practices.” The platform pledges us to “guard and keep open equally to all, the highways of American commerce.” This is the exact negation of monopoly. Unless Mr. Wilson is prepared to show the contrary, surely he is bound in honor to admit frankly that he has been betrayed into a misrepresentation, and to correct it.

Mr. Wilson says that for sixteen years the National Administration has “been virtually under the regulation of the trusts,” and that the big business men “have already captured the Government.” Such a statement as this might perhaps be pardoned as mere rhetoric in a candidate seeking office—although it is the kind of statement that never under any circumstances have I permitted myself to make, whether on the stump or off the stump, about any opponent, unless I was prepared to back it up with explicit facts. But there is an added seriousness to the charge when it is made deliberately and in cold blood by a man who is at the time President. In this volume I have set forth my relations with the trusts. I challenge Mr. Wilson to controvert anything I have said, or to name any trusts or any big business men who regulated, or in any shape or way controlled, or captured, the Government during my term as President. He must furnish specifications if his words are taken at their face value—and I venture to say in advance that the absurdity of such a charge is patent to all my fellow-citizens, not excepting Mr. Wilson.

Mr. Wilson says that the new party was founded “under the leadership of Mr. Roosevelt, with the conspicuous aid—I mention him with no satirical intention, but merely to set the facts down accurately—of Mr. George W. Perkins, organizer of the Steel Trust.” Whether Mr. Wilson’s intention was satirical or not is of no concern; but I call his attention to the fact that he has conspicuously and strikingly failed “to set the facts down accurately.” Mr. Perkins was not the organizer of the Steel Trust, and when it was organized he had no connection with it or with the Morgan people. This is well known, and it has again and again been testified to before Congressional committees controlled by Mr. Wilson’s friends who were endeavoring to find out something against Mr. Perkins. If Mr. Wilson does not know that my statement is correct, he ought to know it, and he is not to be excused for making such a misstatement as he has made when he has not a particle of evidence in support of it. Mr. Perkins was from the beginning in the Harvester Trust but, when Mr. Wilson points out this fact, why does he not add that he was the only man in that trust who supported me, and that the President of the trust ardently supported Mr. Wilson himself? It is disingenuous to endeavor to conceal these facts, and to mislead ordinary citizens about them. Under the administrations of both Mr. Taft and Mr. Wilson, Mr. Perkins has been singled out for special attack, obviously not because he belonged to the Harvester and Steel Trusts, but because he alone among the prominent men of the two corporations, fearlessly supported the only party which afforded any real hope of checking the evil of the trusts.

Mr. Wilson states that the Progressives have “a programme perfectly agreeable to monopolies.”

The plain and unmistakable inference to be drawn from this and other similar statements in his article, and the inference which he obviously desired to have drawn, is that the big corporations approved the Progressive plan and supported the Progressive candidate. If President Wilson does not know perfectly well that this is not the case, he is the only intelligent person in the United States who is thus ignorant. Everybody knows that the overwhelming majority of the heads of the big corporations supported him or Mr. Taft. It is equally well known that of the corporations he mentions, the Steel and the Harvester Trusts, there was but one man who took any part in the Progressive campaign, and that almost all the others, some thirty in number, were against us, and some of them, including the President of the Harvester Trust, openly and enthusiastically for Mr. Wilson himself. If he reads the newspapers at all, he must know that practically every man representing the great financial interests of the country, and without exception every newspaper controlled by Wall Street or State Street, actively supported either him or Mr. Taft, and showed perfect willingness to accept either if only they could prevent the Progressive party from coming into power and from putting its platform into effect.

Mr. Wilson says of the trust plank in that platform that it “did not anywhere condemn monopoly except in words.” Exactly of what else could a platform consist? Does Mr. Wilson expect us to use algebraic signs? This criticism is much as if he said the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence contained nothing but words. The Progressive platform did contain words, and the words were admirably designed to express thought and meaning and purpose. Mr. Wilson says that I long ago “classified trusts for us as good and bad,” and said that I was “afraid only of the bad ones.” Mr. Wilson would do well to quote exactly what my language was, and where it was used, for I am at a loss to know what statement of mine it is to which he refers. But if he means that I say that corporations can do well, and that corporations can also do ill, he is stating my position correctly. I hold that a corporation does ill if it seeks profit in restricting production and then by extorting high prices from the community by reason of the scarcity of the product; through adulterating, lyingly advertising, or over-driving the help; or replacing men workers with children; or by rebates; or in any illegal or improper manner driving competitors out of its way; or seeking to achieve monopoly by illegal or unethical treatment of its competitors, or in any shape or way offending against the moral law either in connection with the public or with its employees or with its rivals. Any corporation which seeks its profit in such fashion is acting badly. It is, in fact, a conspiracy against the public welfare which the Government should use all its powers to suppress. If, on the other hand, a corporation seeks profit solely by increasing its products through eliminating waste, improving its processes, utilizing its by-products, installing better machines, raising wages in the effort to secure more efficient help, introducing the principle of coöperation and mutual benefit, dealing fairly with labor unions, setting its face against the underpayment of women and the employment of children; in a word, treating the public fairly and its rivals fairly: then such a corporation is behaving well. It is an instrumentality of civilization operating to promote abundance by cheapening the cost of living so as to improve conditions everywhere throughout the whole community. Does Mr. Wilson controvert either of these statements? If so, let him answer directly. It is a matter of capital importance to the country that his position in this respect be stated directly, not by indirect suggestion.

Much of Mr. Wilson’s article, although apparently aimed at the Progressive party, is both so rhetorical and so vague as to need no answer. He does, however, specifically assert (among other things equally without warrant in fact) that the Progressive party says that it is “futile to undertake to prevent monopoly,” and only ventures to ask the trusts to be “kind” and “pitiful”! It is a little difficult to answer a misrepresentation of the facts so radical—not to say preposterous—with the respect that one desires to use in speaking of or to the President of the United States. I challenge President Wilson to point to one sentence of our platform or of my speeches which affords the faintest justification for these assertions. Having made this statement in the course of an unprovoked attack on me, he cannot refuse to show that it is true. I deem it necessary to emphasize here (but with perfect respect) that I am asking for a plain statement of fact, not for a display of rhetoric. I ask him, as is my right under the circumstances, to quote the exact language which justifies him in attributing these views to us. If he cannot do this, then a frank acknowledgment on his part is due to himself and to the people. I quote from the Progressive platform: “Behind the ostensible Government sits enthroned an invisible Government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics, is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.… This country belongs to the people. Its resources, its business, its laws, its institutions, should be utilized, maintained, or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest.” This assertion is explicit. We say directly that “the people” are absolutely to control in any way they see fit, the “business” of the country. I again challenge Mr. Wilson to quote any words of the platform that justify the statements he has made to the contrary. If he cannot do it—and of course he cannot do it, and he must know that he cannot do it—surely he will not hesitate to say so frankly.

Mr. Wilson must know that every monopoly in the United States opposes the Progressive party. If he challenges this statement, I challenge him in return (as is clearly my right) to name the monopoly that did support the Progressive party, whether it was the Sugar Trust, the Steel Trust, the Harvester Trust, the Standard Oil Trust, the Tobacco Trust, or any other. Every sane man in the country knows well that there is not one word of justification that can truthfully be adduced for Mr. Wilson’s statement that the Progressive programme was agreeable to the monopolies. Ours was the only programme to which they objected, and they supported either Mr. Wilson or Mr. Taft against me, indifferent as to which of them might be elected so long as I was defeated. Mr. Wilson says that I got my “idea with regard to the regulation of monopoly from the gentlemen who form the United States Steel Corporation.” Does Mr. Wilson pretend that Mr. Van Hise and Mr. Croly got their ideas from the Steel Corporation? Is Mr. Wilson unaware of the elementary fact that most modern economists believe that unlimited, unregulated competition is the source of evils which all men now concede must be remedied if this civilization of ours is to survive? Is he ignorant of the fact that the Socialist party has long been against unlimited competition? This statement of Mr. Wilson cannot be characterized properly with any degree of regard for the office Mr. Wilson holds. Why, the ideas that I have championed as to controlling and regulating both competition and combination in the interest of the people, so that the people shall be masters over both, have been in the air in this country for a quarter of a century. I was merely the first prominent candidate for President who took them up. They are the progressive ideas, and progressive business men must in the end come to them, for I firmly believe that in the end all wise and honest business men, big and little, will support our programme. Mr. Wilson in opposing them is the mere apostle of reaction. He says that I got my “ideas from the gentlemen who form the Steel Corporation.” I did not. But I will point out to him something in return. It was he himself, and Mr. Taft, who got the votes and the money of these same gentlemen, and of those in the Harvester Trust.

Mr. Wilson has promised to break up all trusts. He can do so only by proceeding at law. If he proceeds at law, he can hope for success only by taking what I have done as a precedent. In fact, what I did as President is the base of every action now taken or that can be now taken looking toward the control of corporations, or the suppression of monopolies. The decisions rendered in various cases brought by my direction constitute the authority on which Mr. Wilson must base any action that he may bring to curb monopolistic control. Will Mr. Wilson deny this, or question it in any way? With what grace can he describe my Administration as satisfactory to the trusts when he knows that he cannot redeem a single promise that he has made to war upon the trusts unless he avails himself of weapons of which the Federal Government had been deprived before I became President, and which were restored to it during my Administration and through proceedings which I directed? Without my action Mr. Wilson could not now undertake or carry on a single suit against a monopoly, and, moreover, if it had not been for my action and for the judicial decision in consequence obtained, Congress would be helpless to pass a single law against monopoly.

Let Mr. Wilson mark that the men who organized and directed the Northern Securities Company were also the controlling forces in the very Steel Corporation which Mr. Wilson makes believe to think was supporting me. I challenge Mr. Wilson to deny this, and yet he well knew that it was my successful suit against the Northern Securities Company which first efficiently established the power of the people over the trusts.

After reading Mr. Wilson’s book, I am still entirely in the dark as to what he means by the “New Freedom.” Mr. Wilson is an accomplished and scholarly man, a master of rhetoric, and the sentences in the book are well-phrased statements, usually inculcating a morality which is sound although vague and ill defined. There are certain proposals (already long set forth and practiced by me and by others who have recently formed the Progressive party) made by Mr. Wilson with which I cordially agree. There are, however, certain things he has said, even as regards matters of abstract morality, with which I emphatically disagree. For example, in arguing for proper business publicity, as to which I cordially agree with Mr. Wilson, he commits himself to the following statement:

“You know there is temptation in loneliness and secrecy. Haven’t you experienced it? I have. We are never so proper in our conduct as when everybody can look and see exactly what we are doing. If you are off in some distant part of the world and suppose that nobody who lives within a mile of your home is anywhere around, there are times when you adjourn your ordinary standards. You say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll have a fling this time; nobody will know anything about it.’ If you were on the Desert of Sahara, you would feel that you might permit yourself—well, say, some slight latitude of conduct; but if you saw one of your immediate neighbors coming the other way on a camel, you would behave yourself until he got out of sight. The most dangerous thing in the world is to get off where nobody knows you. I advise you to stay around among the neighbors, and then you may keep out of jail. That is the only way some of us can keep out of jail.”

I emphatically disagree with what seems to be the morality inculcated in this statement, which is that a man is expected to do and is to be pardoned for doing all kinds of immoral things if he does them alone and does not expect to be found out. Surely it is not necessary, in insisting upon proper publicity, to preach a morality of so basely material a character.

There is much more that Mr. Wilson says as to which I do not understand him clearly, and where I condemn what I do understand. In economic matters the course he advocates as part of the “New Freedom” simply means the old, old “freedom” of leaving the individual strong man at liberty, unchecked by common action, to prey on the weak and the helpless. The “New Freedom” in the abstract seems to be the freedom of the big to devour the little. In the concrete I may add that Mr. Wilson’s misrepresentations of what I have said seem to indicate that he regards the new freedom as freedom from all obligation to obey the Ninth Commandment.

But, after all, my views or the principles of the Progressive party are of much less importance now than the purposes of Mr. Wilson. These are wrapped in impenetrable mystery. His speeches and writings serve but to make them more obscure. If these attempts to refute his misrepresentation of my attitude towards the trusts should result in making his own clear, then this discussion will have borne fruits of substantial value to the country. If Mr. Wilson has any plan of his own for dealing with the trusts, it is to suppress all great industrial organizations—presumably on the principle proclaimed by his Secretary of State four years ago, that every corporation which produced more than a certain percentage of a given commodity—I think the amount specified was twenty-five per cent—no matter how valuable its service, should be suppressed. The simple fact is that such a plan is futile. In operation it would do far more damage than it could remedy. The Progressive plan would give the people full control of, and in masterful fashion prevent all wrongdoing by, the trusts, while utilizing for the public welfare every industrial energy and ability that operates to swell abundance, while obeying strictly the moral law and the law of the land. Mr. Wilson’s plan would ultimately benefit the trusts and would permanently damage nobody but the people. For example, one of the steel corporations which has been guilty of the worst practices towards its employees is the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Bryan’s plan would, if successful, merely mean permitting four such companies, absolutely uncontrolled, to monopolize every big industry in the country. To talk of such an accomplishment as being “The New Freedom” is enough to make the term one of contemptuous derision.

President Wilson has made explicit promises, and the Democratic platform has made explicit promises. Mr. Wilson is now in power, with a Democratic Congress in both branches. He and the Democratic platform have promised to destroy the trusts, to reduce the cost of living, and at the same time to increase the well-being of the farmer and of the workingman—which of course must mean to increase the profits of the farmer and the wages of the workingman. He and his party won the election on this promise. We have a right to expect that they will keep it. If Mr. Wilson’s promises mean anything except the very emptiest words, he is pledged to accomplish the beneficent purposes he avows by breaking up all the trusts and combinations and corporations so as to restore competition precisely as it was fifty years ago. If he does not mean this, he means nothing. He cannot do anything else under penalty of showing that his promise and his performance do not square with each other.

Mr. Wilson says that “the trusts are our masters now, but I for one do not care to live in a country called free even under kind masters.” Good! The Progressives are opposed to having masters, kind or unkind, and they do not believe that a “new freedom” which in practice would mean leaving four Fuel and Iron Companies free to do what they like in every industry would be of much benefit to the country. The Progressives have a clear and definite programme by which the people would be the masters of the trusts instead of the trusts being their masters, as Mr. Wilson says they are. With practical unanimity the trusts supported the opponents of this programme, Mr. Taft and Mr. Wilson, and they evidently dreaded our programme infinitely more than anything that Mr. Wilson threatened. The people have accepted Mr. Wilson’s assurances. Now let him make his promises good. He is committed, if his words mean anything, to the promise to break up every trust, every big corporation—perhaps every small corporation—in the United States—not to go through the motions of breaking them up, but really to break them up. He is committed against the policy (of efficient control and mastery of the big corporations both by law and by administrative action in coöperation) proposed by the Progressives. Let him keep faith with the people; let him in good faith try to keep the promises he has thus repeatedly made. I believe that his promise is futile and cannot be kept. I believe that any attempt sincerely to keep it and in good faith to carry it out will end in either nothing at all or in disaster. But my beliefs are of no consequence. Mr. Wilson is President. It is his acts that are of consequence. He is bound in honor to the people of the United States to keep his promise, and to break up, not nominally but in reality, all big business, all trusts, all combinations of every sort, kind, and description, and probably all corporations. What he says is henceforth of little consequence. The important thing is what he does, and how the results of what he does square with the promises and prophecies he made when all he had to do was to speak, not to act.