February 21: 'Age-Long Contest Waged Against Privilege' vs. Taft's Railroad

Theodore Roosevelt's finally giving his big Progressive platform speech, while President Taft offers progress to railroad workers who are killed on the job.

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Theodore Roosevelt's finally giving his big Progressive platform speech, while President Taft offers progress to railroad workers who are killed on the job. (Click here for an introduction to The 1912 Project; click here for previous installments.)

Today's the day! The day for Theodore Roosevelt's big speech in Columbus to the Ohio Constitutional Convention. Roosevelt was scheduled to speak at 11 a.m., but there being no way to broadcast his remarks live, the papers today are mostly full of previews of pieces. The New York Times will tell you that last night, departing from New York, "Col. Roosevelt went to the Pennsylvania Station unaccompanied. He bought some magazines at the newsstand and talked with the newspaper men for a few minutes." They'll also tell you why the speech is such a big deal: "This address is awaited with great interest as in it, his friends predict, he will outline his platform." No one expects Roosevelt to declare his candidacy (on Sunday or Monday he is expected to release a statement saying he would accept the Republican nomination if he was offered it), but the Ohio speech was expected to be his first full-throated argument for why he, a capital-p Progressive, and not President Taft, ought to be the party's nominee.

But why is he making the speech at a Constitutional Convention? Though the Progressive critique -- from both Democrats and Republicans -- centers on the role of big business in society (wages, working conditions, monopolies, and the like) those reforms had largely been blocked as unconstitutional violations of a person's individual liberty to enter into whatever sort of contract they wanted. (See: Lochner v. New York, the 1905 Supreme Court decision that struck down a New York state law mandating a 60-hour work week for bakers.) So, while the Progressives are primarily interested in economic issues, their concerns have sprawled to a whole host of government procedural ones, including direct democracy measures like the recall and referendum, putting judicial decisions up to a vote, and in Ohio, even a complete rewrite of the state constitution.

The papers tomorrow will be full of analysis of the Roosevelt speech, but there's another item in The Times today that gives a sense of what the small-government conservatives were proposing: President Taft, looking for conciliatory measures, has called for raising benefits for railroad workers injured on the job by 25 percent. The Employers' Liability and Workmen's Compensation Commission, The Times reports, had found that over three years there were nearly 12,000 railroad workers killed on the job and "the railroads paid $14,500,000 in settlements and judgments alone." That comes out to about $1,200 per dead railroad worker, or about two years of the country's average annual earnings. But even in proposing that the families of dead railroad workers receive benefits of $1,500, or 40 percent of their wages for eight years ("for loss of an arm payments are to continue seventy-two months, a leg sixty-six months"), Taft still had to rattle through the familiar small-government objections:

  • "In the first place the question arises whether, under the provisions of the commerce clause, the bill could be considered to be a regulation of inter-State and foreign commerce..." (Taft answers that railroads qualify.)
  • "The second question is whether ... compelling of the railroad companies to meet obligations arising from injuries ... is a denial of the due process of law which is enjoined upon Congress by the fifth amendment of the Constitution in dealing with property rights..." (Getting past this one is trickier, but it rests on the finding that railroads are inter-state commerce, while New York bakers are not.)
  • "The third objection is that the right of trial by jury, guaranteed by the seventh amendment, is denied." (He answers that courts can still review individual cases.)

In other words, Taft gets to deem the reform "one of the great steps of progress toward a satisfactory solution of an important phase of the controversies between employer and employee" without actually giving in to the bigger demands of Progressives.

So here was Roosevelt's reply in Columbus. The Evening Herald of Rock Hill, S.C., carries the wire report: "Theodore Roosevelt arrived today and during his stay here was entertained by Dr. Washington Gladden...  Thousands headed by a band, greeted Roosevelt at the station and a force of plain clothes men were inadequate to pave the way for the colonel through the cheering crowd." They then run several long snippets of his speech.

On the Constitution:

I emphatically dissent from the view that it is other wise or necessary to try to devise methods which under the Constitution will automatically prevent the people from deciding for themselves what governmental action they deem just and proper. It is impossible to invent Constitutional devices which will prevent the popular will from being effective for wrong without also preventing it from being effective for right. The only safe course to follow in this great American democracy is to provide for making the popular judgment really effective. ... It is a false constitutionalism, a false statesmanship, to endeavor by the exercise of a perverted ingenuity to seem to give the people full power and at the same time to trick them out of it.

On Progressivism:

I believe in pure democracy. With Lincoln, I hold that 'this country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their Constitutional right of amending it.' We Progressives believe that the people have the right, the power, and the duty to protect themselves and their own welfare; that other human rights are supreme over all other rights; that wealth should be the servant, not the master, of the people. We believe that unless representative government does absolutely represent the people it is not representative government at all. We test the worth of all men and all measures by asking how they contribute to the welfare of the men, women, and children of whom this Nation is composed. We are engaged in one of the great battles of the age-long contest waged against privilege on behalf of the common welfare. We hold it a prime duty of the people to free our government from the control of money in politics. 

On the ends of good government:

It has been well said that in the past we have paid attention only to the accumulation of prosperity, and that from henceforth we must pay equal attention to the proper distribution of prosperity. This is true. The only prosperity worth having is that which affects the mass of the people. We are bound to strive for the fair distribution of prosperity.

From yesterday's comments: Almost forgot, after writing about the sad story of the relationship between Roosevelt and his first daughter Alice -- her mother, his first wife, died shortly after she was born in 1884 -- and how it might explain why Alice's husband, Congressman Nicholas Longworth and her mother's sister husband, Charles Mifflin Hammond, would stick with Taft, commenter carlmacs wrote in with another explanation (and some more gossip) for the intra-family split:

I believe it's a mischaracterization to say that Alice (Roosevelt) Longworth's relationship with her father was strained, at least in the long term. In fact, it was her relationship with her husband in this period (around the 1912 election) that was strained, due to his philandering ways and his ties to Taft instead of TR. The two nearly divorced but stayed together under pressure from her parents, among others.

Nicholas Longworth was the U.S. Representative from the Cincinnati area, which was also where Taft was from. Both men were very connected to the Republican party machine that TR began to buck from 1910 onward. Relationships that had been warm only a few years earlier -- after all, Taft was TR's handpicked successor -- grew chilly very fast.

On Longworth's philandering and the estrangement from Alice, one interesting tidbit is that the couple were married many years without having children. When Alice finally gave birth in her 40s, it was widely believed that Nicholas was not the true father.

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