Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Teddy Roosevelt And "The New Nationalism"

Think Teddy Roosevelt and what comes to your mind?

Sagamore Hill? San Juan Hill? Yellowstone Park? The White House?

Try Osawatomie, Kansas.

If that name doesn’t ring a bell to you, here’s a little hint. Think John Brown, the fire-eating abolitionist.

Osawatomie Brown, they nicknamed him. Why? Because Osawatomie was the home base of John Brown, the radical abolitionist who engaged in violent rebellion against slavery.

It seems that the New England-born Brown witnessed his son shot and the town of Osawatomie burned to the ground in August 1856 by proslavery forces, during the period when the Kansas territory was at the vortex of national forces gripped in a desperate battle over whether it would be a free or a slave state.

I'll be headed to Osawatomie this summer too. Not just to feel the pulse of the place or to figuratively stand over John Brown's Body. But because of Teddy Roosevelt.

You see, it was to Osawatomie Kansas that Teddy Roosevelt came on Aug 31, 1910, a year after the conclusion of his presidency.

Osawatomie made the news last last year, of course, because President Obama chose it as a place with that historic resonance he was looking for to announce his own statements on American economic policy.

Roosevelt went there for a similar reason --  to deliver a speech, later called the "New Nationalism Address," to give a speech on historically symbolic turf. A speech which is now seen as one of the most important enunciations of progressive ideals in our nation’s history.

It was not TR’s first or last visit to Kansas. The hero of San Juan Hill and former Governor of New York showed up during a campaign visit in 1903, when he was running for Vice President. His “Ride Across Kansas’ was a whistlestop tour, it seems, but it attracted national attention for the adulation he received. “The applause was spontaneous and loud, and it appeared to come from people of all degrees of politics,’ noted the New York Times that year. “It was not so much for Roosevelt as a candidate for Vice President, but for ‘Teddy,’ the Rough Rider and the man.”

By 1910, Roosevelt had already served as President, fiught his political battles, taken on the Wall Street Trusts, and left office.

America's Rough Rider, recently retired, went on a safari to Africa, returned home to New York, and contemplated the political landscape before him.

Teddy Roosevelt was not done speaking out on the issues facing America.

"My proper task," wrote Roosevelt as he prepared the speech he was to give at the dedication of the John Brown Park, "is clearly to announce myself on the vital questions of the day, to set the standards so that it can be seen, and take a position that cannot be misunderstood.”

Among its tenets: Social responsibility of the wealthy. A progressive income tax. A graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes. Transparency in corporate enterprise.

Government supervision of capitalism. Judges that rule for human welfare over property interests. Reining in of ‘state’s rights’ demagogues, in favor of a Hamiltonian concept of federal power.

And a legislature that represents all the people -- not special interests, who ‘twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.’

Roosevelt used the park dedication to attack the ideals of "state's right" demagogues, as he called them. He was interested in a Hamiltonian concept of appropriate use of federal power to protect the rights of individuals against those who would subvert them for personal or corporate gain.

When it came to the relationship between workers and owners, Roosevelt envisioned a balance between labor and capital.

    "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed,. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a Communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln's. I am only quoting it; and that is one side; that is the side the capitalist should hear. Now, let the working man hear his side. "Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.... Nor should this lead to a war upon the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor; . . . property is desirable; is a positive good in the world."

What Roosevelt decried was an imbalance. “Ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism,” intoned Roosevelt before 30,000 listeners on the hot August plains of Kansas.

Sound familiar? It should. Roosevelt was a kind of a front man for the 1910 equivalent of the OWS crowd, engaged “with many of the same issues that confront us now, notably the power of finance and the dangers of concentrated economic power,” wrote the Washington Post in 2011.

President Obama's speech at Osawatomie, delivered in Dec 2011, was of the same ilk -- and powerful enough for the New York Times to declare it "the most potent blow the president has struck against the economic theory at the core of every Republican presidential candidacy and dear to the party’s leaders in Congress. The notion that the market will take care of all problems if taxes are kept low and regulations are minimized may look great on a bumper sticker, but, he said: “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” Not before the Great Depression, not in the ’80s, and not in the last decade."

It is fitting but also somewhat sobering that both Roosevelt and Obama chose to speak out on the issue of economic justice in a park dedicated to John Brown, who stood against the forces of slavery in America with such violence that he was tried, convicted and sentenced to execution for treason because of his actions.

John Brown put his body on the line. Unflinchingly.  But before they could hang him, he declared this.  

    Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment,” said Brown after the verdict. “I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done - as I have always freely admitted I have done - in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right.”

Roosevelt wasn't hung. But he was derided by many in his day for his progressivism -- in fact he was called a socialist, a charge he dismissed as being ’a slander to socialists.’ And most of the principles he enunciated eventually saw the light of day as the 20th century unfolded.

While there are many who would argue that, in the 21st century, Roosevelt’s ideas are facing their most severe challenge in 100 years, they remain one of the clearest enunciations of progressive principles to be found.

A footnote: it seems his 1910 visit to Osawatomie Kansas to celebrate the John Brown was not his last to the “Sunflower State.”  He did return one last time -- in 1916, to rally Kansans for the war effort.

According to the New York Times, 100,000 people thronged the streets of Kansas City to see Roosevelt. It was a triumphant return, marred only by someone hurling an open jack knife at the beloved American hero.

The assailant, according to the newspaper account, was “a tall, slender man dressed in brown, who had apparently been drinking.” 

 The butt end of the knife, we’re told, hit the arm of one of Roosevelt’s secretaries harmlessly, clattered to the ground, and was picked up by an American Legionnaire who, “closing it carefully, handed it to a nearby policeman.”

“Col Roosevelt first heard of the incident when he was having luncheon at the Muelenbach Hotel as the guest of the Commercial Club,”
noted the Times reporter. “He put it aside with a laugh.”

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