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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


The President’s Policies

I SAID I would not meddle with the President’s policies, and neither will I from the point of view of statecraft; for of that I know less than nothing. But how now, looking at them through the man I have tried to show you? Do his “policies” not become the plain expression of his character, of the man? Ask yourself and answer the question whether he has “made good” the promise which any one not wilfully blind could see. Lots of people were uneasy when he became President. It was natural, in the excitement over the murder of President McKinley. Roosevelt was young, he was hot-headed, hasty, things were going to be upset—that was what we heard. Perhaps they looked back and saw that no Vice-President had ever succeeded who did not dismiss the cabinet of his dead chief and set up for himself. But this President did not let the day pass, upon which he took the oath, without asking McKinley’s advisers to stay and be his, all of them. It was politically wise, for it allayed the unrest. But it was something beside that: it was the natural thing for Roosevelt to do. He knew the cabinet, and what they could do.

“You know well enough,” he said once, when we were speaking of it, “that I am after the thing to be done. It is the fitness of the tool to do the work I am concerned about, not my inventing of it. What does that matter?”

He found in Attorney-General Knox, for instance, a corporation lawyer whose very experience as such had made him see clearly the unwisdom, to look at it merely from the point of view of their own security, of the arrogance that lay ill concealed at the bottom of the dealings of organized wealth with the rest of mankind. And splendidly has he battled for the rights of us all—theirs and ours. The utter mystery to me is that corporate wealth has not long before this made out that there can be no worse misfit and no greater peril to itself in a government of the people than to have the feeling grow that money can buy unfair privilege. “But it is true, and always has been,” says my Wall Street neighbor who has the courage of his convictions. Then, if that be so, is he so blind that he cannot see the danger of it, since the very soul of the Republic is in the challenge that it shall not be true forever; that, with every just premium on honest industry, men shall have somewhere near a fair chance at the start; that they shall not be damned into economic slavery any more than into political slavery? Is he so blind that he cannot see that the irrepressible conflict cannot be sidetracked by any subterfuge, by the purchase of delegations, the plotting of politicians, the defeat of Presidents? I used to think that the great captains of industry must be the wisest of men, and so indeed they need be in their special fields. But where is their common sense that they cannot see so plain a thing?

Unless, indeed, they think that the Republic is a mere fake, government by the people and of the people and for the people a fad, a phrase behind which to plot securely for a hundred years more,—life with no other meaning than to fill pockets and belly while they last! In which case I pity them from the bottom of my heart. For what a meaning to read into life, one little end of which lies within our ken, with the key to all the rest, as far as we are able to grasp it here, in fair dealing with the brother!

I have said that I speak for myself in these pages; but for once you may take it that I speak for Theodore Roosevelt too. That is what he thinks. That is the underlying thought of his oft-expressed philosophy, that the poorest plan for an American to act upon is that of “some men down,” and the safest that of “all men up.” For, whether for good or ill, up we go or down, poor and rich, white or black, all of us together in the end, in the things that make for real manhood. And the making of that manhood and the bringing of it to the affairs of life and making it tell there, is the business of the Republic.

How, so thinking, could he have taken any other attitude than he has on the questions that seem crowding to a solution these days because there is at last a man at the head who will not dodge, but deal squarely with them as they come? How should he have “intended insult” to the South, whose blood flowed in his mother’s veins, when he bade to his table one of the most distinguished citizens of our day, by whose company at tea Queen Victoria thought herself honored because he represents the effort, the hope, of raising a whole race of men—our black-skinned fellow-citizens—up to the grasp of what citizenship means? And where is there a man fool enough to believe that the clamor of silly reactionists whom history, whom life, have taught nothing, should move him one hair’s-breadth from the thing he knows is right—even from “the independent and fearless course he has followed in his attempt to secure decent and clean officials in the South”? I am quoting from the Montgomery (Alabama) “Times,” a manly Democratic newspaper that is not afraid of telling the truth. I have just now read the clear, patient, and statesmanlike answer of Carl Schurz to the question, “Can the South solve the negro problem?” He thinks it can if it will follow its best impulses and its clearest sense, not the ranting of those who would tempt it to moral and economic ruin with the old ignorant cry of “Keep the nigger down!” And I know that the South has no truer and fairer friend in that cause than the President, who believes in “all men up,” and who with genuine statesmanship looks beyond the strife and the prejudice of to-day to the harvest-time that is coming.

“On this whole question,” he sighed, when we had threshed it over one day, “we are in a back eddy. I don’t know how we are going to get out, or when. The one way I know that does not lead out is for us to revert to a condition of semi-slavery. That leads us farther in, because it does not stop there.”

Let the South ponder it well, for it is true. And let it be glad that there is a man in the White House to voice its better self. “A nation cannot remain half free and half slave” or half peon. And it can never throw off its industrial fetters and take the place to which it is entitled until it is willing to build upon the dignity of manhood and of labor, of which serfdom, by whatever name, is the flat denial.

Truly, the world moves with giant strides once the policy of postponement is sidetracked and notice is served that the man at the throttle is willing to give ear. I wonder now how many of us, when it comes right down to hard facts, consider government, the Republic, the general scheme of the world, a kind of modus vivendi to make sure we are not interfered with while we are at the game—never mind the rest? But yesterday the shout arose that the President was inviting “labor men” to break bread at the White House—white men, these. Well, why not labor men, if they are otherwise fit companions for the President of the United States? That these were, no one questioned. It was at that luncheon, I suppose, that one of them made the remark that at last there was a hearing for him and his fellows. I have forgotten the precise occasion, but I remember the President’s pregnant answer:

“Yes! The White House door, while I am here, shall swing open as easily for the labor man as for the capitalist, and no easier.”

It seems as if it was in the same week that the President had been denounced in labor meetings as “unfriendly” because he would not let union rules supersede United States law in the office of the public printer. Only a little while before, resolutions of organized labor had denounced him as “unfair” because he had opposed mob-rule with rifles in an Arizona mining dispute, and the editors of “organs” that had not yet got through denouncing him as a time-server because of his action in the anthracite coal strike were having a hard and bewildering time of it. How many of their readers they succeeded in mixing up beside themselves, I don’t know. Some, no doubt; for even so groundless a lie as this, that President Roosevelt had jumped Leonard Wood over four hundred and fifty veteran soldiers to a major-generalship because he was his friend, found believers when it was repeated day after day by the newspapers that cared even less for the four hundred and fifty veterans than they did for Leonard Wood, merely using him as a convenient screen from behind which to hit Roosevelt. Whereas, the truth is that General Wood was not “jumped” a single number by his friend, but came up for confirmation in the regular routine of promotion by seniority of rank, all the jumping having been done years before by President McKinley for cause, and heartily applauded by the American people. Of all this his defamers were perfectly well aware; and so they must have been of the facts in the labor situation of which they tried to make capital, if I may use so odd a term. It was just as simple as all the rest of President Roosevelt’s doings.

“Finance, tariff,” he said to me once,— “these are important. But the question of the relations of capital and labor is vital. Your children and mine will be happy in this country of ours, or the reverse, according to whether the decent man in 1950 feels friendly toward the other decent man whether he is a wage-worker or not. ‘I am for labor,’ or ‘I am for capital,’ substitutes something else for the immutable laws of righteousness. The one and the other would let the class man in, and letting him in is the one thing that will most quickly eat out the heart of the Republic. I am neither for labor nor for capital, but for the decent man against the selfish and indecent man who will not act squarely.”

To a President of that mind came the coal-strike question in October, 1902, with its demand for action in a new and untried field—a perilous field for a man with political aspirations, that was made clear without delay. Then, if ever, was the time for the policy of postponement, had his personal interests weighed heavier in the scale than the public good. To me, sitting by and watching the strife of passions aroused all over the land, it brought a revelation of the need of charity for the neighbor who does not know. From the West, where they burn soft coal, and could know nothing of the emergency, but where they had had their own troubles with the miners, came counsel to let things alone. Men who thought I had the President’s ear sent messages of caution. “Go slow,” was their burden; “tell him not to be hasty, not to interfere.” While from the Atlantic seaboard cities, where coal was twelve dollars a ton, with every bin empty and winter at the door, such a cry of dread went up as no one who heard it ever wants to hear again. From my own city, with its three million toilers, Mayor Low telegraphed to the President:

  • I cannot emphasize too strongly the immense injustice of the existing coal situation to millions of innocent people. The welfare of a large section of the country imperatively demands the immediate resumption of anthracite coal mining. In the name of the City of New York I desire to protest through you, against the continuance of the existing situation, which, if prolonged, involves, at the very least, the certainty of great suffering and heavy loss to the inhabitants of this city, in common with many others.
  • Governor Crane of Massachusetts came on to Washington to plead the cause of the Eastern cities, whose plight, if anything, was worse. The miners stood upon their rights. Organized capital scouted interference defiantly, threatening disaster to the Republican party if the President stepped in. The cry of the cities swelled into a wail of anguish and despair, and still the mines were idle, the tracks of the coal roads blocked for miles with empty cars. In the midst of it all the “hasty” man in the White House wrote in reply to my anxious inquiry:

    “I am slowly going on, step by step, working within my limited range of powers and endeavoring neither to shirk any responsibilities nor yet to be drawn into such hasty and violent action as almost invariably provokes reaction.”

    Long after it was over, Secretary of the Navy Moody told me of what was happening then in Washington.

    “I remember the President sitting with his game leg in a chair while the doctors dressed it,” he said (it was after the accident in Massachusetts in which the President’s coach was smashed and the secret service man on the driver’s seat killed). “It hurt, and now and then he would wince a bit, while he discussed the strike and the appeals for help that grew more urgent with every passing hour. The outlook was grave; it seemed as if the cost of interference might be political death. I saw how it tugged at him, just when he saw chances of serving his country which he had longed for all the years, to meet—this. It was human nature to halt. He halted long enough to hear it all out: the story of the suffering in the big coast cities, of schools closing, hospitals without fuel, of the poor shivering in their homes. Then he set his face grimly and said:

    “‘Yes, I will do it. I suppose that ends me; but it is right, and I will do it.’

    “I don’t agree with labor in all its demands,” added the Secretary. “I think it is unreasonable in some of them, or some of its representatives are. But in the main line it is eternally right, and it is only by owning it and helping it to its rights that we can successfully choke off the exorbitant demands.” And in my soul I said amen, and was glad that with such problems to solve the President had found such friends to help.

    Many times, during the anxious days that followed, I thought with wonder of the purblind folk who called Roosevelt hasty. For it seemed sometimes as if the insolence of the coal magnates were meant to provoke him to anger. But no word betrayed what he felt, what thousands of his fellow-citizens felt as they read the reports of the conferences at the White House. The most consummate statesmanship steered us safely between reefs that beset the parley at every point, and the country was saved from a calamity the extent and consequences of which it is hard to imagine. Judge Gray, the chairman of the commission that settled the strike, said, when it was all history, that the crisis confronting the President “was more grave and threatening than any since the Civil War, threatening not only the comfort and health, but the safety and good order of the nation.” And he gave to the President unstinted praise for what he did. The London “Times,” speaking for all Europe in hailing the entrance of government upon a new field full of great possibilities, said editorially, “In the most quiet and unobtrusive manner, President Roosevelt has done a very big thing, and an entirely new thing.”

    He alone knew at what cost. Invalid, undergoing daily agony as the doctors scraped the bone of his injured leg, he wrote to the Governor of Massachusetts, who sent him “the thanks of every man, woman, and child in the country”:

    “Yes, we have put it through. But, heavens and earth! it has been a struggle.”

    It was the nearest I ever knew him to come to showing the strain he had been under.

    The story of the strike, and of how it was settled by the President’s commission, none of us has forgotten. That commission did not make permanent peace between capital and labor, but it took a longer stride toward making a lasting basis for such a peace than we had taken yet; and I can easily understand the President’s statement to me that, if there were nothing else to his credit, he would be content to go out of office upon that record alone. For it was truly a service to render. I had supposed that we all understood until I ran up against a capitalistic friend of the “irreconcilable” stripe. He complained bitterly of the President’s mixing in; had he kept his hands off, the strike would have settled itself in a very little while; the miners would have gone back to work. I said that I saw no sign of it.

    No, he supposed not; but it was so, all the same. “We had their leaders all bought,” said he.

    He lied, to be plain about it, for John Mitchell and his men had proved abundantly that they were not that kind. And, besides, he could not speak for the mine-operators; he was not one of them. But the thing was not for whom he spoke, but what it was he said, with such callous unconcern. Think of it for a moment and tell me which was, when all is said and done, the greater danger: the strike, with all it might have stood for, or the cynicism that framed that speech? The country might outlive the horrors of a coal-famine in mid-winter, but this other thing would kill as sure as slow poison. Mob-rule was not to be feared like that.

    There comes to my mind, by contrast, something John Mitchell said to the Southwestern miners’ convention, soon after the strike, that shows the quality of the man and of his leadership.

    “Some men,” he said, “who own the mines think they own the men, too; and some men who work in the mines think they own them. Both are wrong. The mines belong to the owners. You belong to yourselves.”

    Upon those who said that the President had surrendered the country, horse, foot, and dragoons, to organized labor, his action a few months later, in sending troops within the hour in which they were demanded to prevent violence by miners in Arizona, ought to have put a quietus. But it did not; they gibbered away as before. The reason is plain: they did not themselves believe what they said. The Miller case followed hard upon it, with no better effect. But the Miller case is so eloquent both of the President’s stand upon this most urgent of all questions in our day, and of his diplomacy,—which is nothing else than his honest effort, with all the light he can get upon a thing, to do the right as he sees it,—that it is worth setting down here as part of his record, and a part to be remembered.

    Miller was an assistant foreman in the government bookbindery. He was discharged by the public printer, upon the demand of organized labor, on charges of “flagrant non-unionism,” he having been expelled from Local Union No. 4 of the International Brotherhood of Bookbinders. His discharge was in defiance of the civil service laws, and the matter having come before the President, he ordered that he be reinstated. In doing so he pointed to this finding of the anthracite coal strike commission which organized labor had accepted:

  • It is adjudged and awarded that no person shall be refused employment or in any way discriminated against on account of membership or non-membership in any labor organization, and that there shall be no discrimination against or interference with any employé who is not a member of any labor organization by members of such organization.
  • “It is, of course,” was the President’s comment, “mere elementary decency to require that all the government departments shall be handled in accordance with the principle thus clearly and fearlessly ennunciated.” But there are people who do not understand, on both sides of the line. Seventy-two unions in the Central Labor Union of the District of Columbia “resolved” that to reinstate Miller was “an unfriendly act.” The big leaders, including Mr. Gompers and Mr. Mitchell, came to plead with the President. Miller was not fit, they said.

    That was another matter, replied the President. He would find out. As to Miller’s being a non-union man, the law he was sworn to enforce recognized no such distinction. “I am President,” he said, “of all the people of the United States, without regard to creed, color, birthplace, occupation, or social distinction. In the employment and dismissal of men in the government service I can no more recognize the fact that a man does or does not belong to a union as being for or against him than I can recognize the fact that he is a Protestant or a Catholic, a Jew or a Gentile, as being for or against him.”

    The newspapers did not tell us that the White House rang with applause, as did Clarendon Hall on that other occasion when he met the labor men as a police commissioner. I do not know whether it did or not, for I was not there. But if in their hearts there was no response to that sentiment, they did not represent the best in their cause or in their people; for of nothing am I better persuaded than that, as the President said in his Labor Day speech at Syracuse, “Our average fellow-citizen is a sane and healthy man who believes in decency and has a wholesome mind.” And that was the gospel of sanity and decency and wholesomeness all rolled into one.

    Well, these are his policies. Can any one who has followed me so far in my effort to show what Theodore Roosevelt is, and why he is what he is, conceive of his having any other? And is there an American worthy of the name who would want him to have any other? Cuba is free, and she thanks President Roosevelt for her freedom. But for his insistence that the nation’s honor was bound up in the completion of the work his Rough-Riders began at Las Guasimas and on San Juan hill, a cold conspiracy of business greed would have left her in the lurch, to fall by and by reluctantly into our arms, bankrupt and helpless, while the sneer of the cynics that we were plucking that plum for ourselves would have been justified. The Venezuela imbroglio that threatened the peace of the world has added, instead, to the prestige of The Hague Court of Arbitration through the wisdom and lofty public spirit of the American President. The man who was called hasty and unsafe has done more for the permanent peace of the world than all the diplomats of the day. The Panama Canal is at last to be a fact, with benefit which no one can reckon to the commerce of the world, of our land, and most of all to the Southern States, that are trying to wake up from their long sleep. I confess that the half-hearted criticism I hear of the way of the administration with Panama provokes in me a desire to laugh; for it reminds me of the way the case was put to me by a man, than whom there is no one in the United States who should know better.

    “It is just,” he said, “as if a fellow were to try to hold you up, and you were to wrench the gun away from him, so”—with an expressive gesture; “and then some bystander should cry out, ‘Oh, the poor fellow! you ’ve taken away his gun! Maybe he would n’t have shot at all; and then it is his gun, anyway, and you such a big fellow, and he so small. Oh, shame!’”

    We can smile now, but Assistant Secretary of State Loomis lifted the curtain enough, the other day, to give us a glimpse of what might have been, had the Colombian plot to confiscate the French canal company’s forty millions of property, when the concession lapsed in another year, been allowed to hatch. Half the world might have been at war then. I think we may all well be glad, as he truly said, that “there was in Washington, upon this truly fateful occasion, a man who possessed the insight, the knowledge, the spirit, and the courage to seize the opportunity to strike a blow, the results of which can be fraught only with peace and good to the whole world.”

    I am not a jingo; but when some things happen I just have to get up and cheer. The way our modern American diplomacy goes about things is one of them. You remember, don’t you, when the captains were conferring at Tientsin about going to the relief of the ministers there that were besieged in their embassies, and the little jealous rivalries of the powers would not let them get anywhere, the French and Russians pulling one way, the Germans another, the British another, and so on, how Captain McCalla got up and said:

    “Well, gentlemen, you have talked this matter over pretty thoroughly and have come to no decision. And now I will tell you what I am going to do. My minister is in danger, and I am going to Peking.” Wherefore they all went.

    I had to cheer then, and I have to give a cheer off and on yet for the man at the helm, and to thank God that he sent me over the sea to cast in my lot with a country and with a people that do not everlastingly follow worm-eaten precedent, but are young enough and strong enough and daring enough to make it when need be.

    “But about his financial policy, about his war upon the trusts, the corporations, which they say is going to defeat him for reëlection, you have said nothing. You have offered no defense.” Well, good friend, if you have found nothing in these pages that answers your question, I am afraid there is little use in my saying anything now on the subject. Defense I have not offered, because, in the first place, I am quite unable to see that there is need of any. If there were, I should think the coal strike experience, or, later yet, the disclosures in the ship-building trust case as to what it is that ails Wall Street, would have given everybody all the information he could wish. The President is not, Congress is not, making war upon corporations, upon capital. They are trying to hold them—through publicity, by compelling them to obey the laws their smaller competitors have to bow to, and in any other lawful and reasonable way—to such responsibility that they shall not become a power full of peril to the people and to themselves. For that might mean much and grave mischief,—would mean, indeed, unless the people were willing to abdicate, which I think they are not. That mischief I should like to see averted.

    “It is not designed to restrict or control the fullest liberty of legitimate business action,”—I quote from the President’s last message,—and none such can follow. “Publicity can do no harm to the honest corporation. The only corporation that has cause to dread it is the corporation which shrinks from the light, and about the welfare of such we need not be over-sensitive. The work of the Department of Commerce and Labor has been conditioned upon this theory, of securing fair treatment alike for labor and capital.”

    That is all, and nothing has been done that is not in that spirit. Perhaps it is natural that a corporation like the Standard Oil Company, which has amassed enormous wealth through a monopoly that enabled it to dictate its own freight rates to the utter annihilation of its competitors, should object to have the government step in and try to curtail unfair profits. Perhaps it is natural for it to object to the antirebate law, though it comes too late to check its greed.

    Perhaps it is natural for some speculating concerns to wish to keep their business to themselves; but it seems to me we have seen enough swindling exposed, to be plain about it, these last few months, to make a good many people wish there had been some way of finding out the facts before it was too late. That, again, is all there is to that. Nobody is to be hurt, nobody can be hurt, except the one that deserves to be. I have faith enough in the American people to believe that the time has not yet come, and will not soon come, when the speculators can defeat a man running for the Presidency on the platform of an equal chance to all and special favors to none. If they can, it is time we knew it.

    And, in the next place, I have not the least idea in the world that the men who are plotting against the President do, or ever did, seriously question the fairness of his policy. It is him they do not want. Let a witness that is certainly on the inside tell why. I quote from an editorial in the “Wall Street News”—another newspaper that dares to tell the truth, it seems:

  • It is not because President Roosevelt is antagonistic to capital, or a partner in that hatred of wealth which is so odious and so threatening, that certain financial interests, expert in the manipulation of the markets, are scheming to prevent his election to a second term. They know very well that he is no enemy to capital. They know that by birthright, by education and by long political training he is a supporter of sound money, an advocate of a protective tariff, a firm upholder of the rights of property. They know that he is the last man in the world to lead in an assault on capital lawfully applied to the development of the commercial enterprises of the country. They have no fear that he will be led by ambition or impulse into paths of socialism, or that he will, for one moment, give the authority of his name and office to the aid of organized labor in any movement to crush out competition, and thus to establish a monopoly more destructive to the interests of the country than even the most corrupt, oppressive, and powerful trust.
  • What, then, is the reason why these financial interests are scheming to defeat him? The answer is plain.
  • They cannot control him.
  • All efforts to control him through his ambition have failed. Any attempt to control him by grosser forms of bribery would, of course, be useless. Effort to move him by sophistical arguments framed by clever corporation lawyers into departure from the paths of duty and law have not succeeded. He is a friend of capital. He is a friend of labor. But he is no slave of either.
  • And so those Wall Street interests have decided that he is to be driven out of office. They will prevent his renomination, if they can. If not, they will try to beat him at the polls with money. “All the money is to be on the other side this year.” They made the beginning in New York this last fall. It is no secret that enormous amounts of money were thrown into the campaign in the last two weeks to turn the election. Low and reform were sacrificed. Next it is to be Roosevelt. “Money talks,” is their creed. Other arguments are wasted.

    Well, as to that, we shall see. There is still the American people to hear from.