Roosevelt’s The New Nationalism Speech – Christian Cherau

I found it interesting that Theodore Roosevelt brings concern to many areas of government versus corporate culture that are still contested today, be it labor versus capital, definition of corporations, or capital gains.

Roosevelt harkens to the words of Abraham Lincoln to build his case of the importance of labor over capital, specifically with Lincoln’s statement that “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed” (Pg 3). With the United States still adjusting to the massive changes going on with the shift from an agricultural nation to an industrial one, and the profits being made off this radical and rapid transformation, Roosevelt’s warnings could have had higher yield had he made them 20 years before this 1910 speech. However, in that short period of time, capital had cemented itself over all else in American life, especially after the impact it had in shaping the 1896 election courtesy of the footwork by John Hannah. Hannah’s labor, in this case labor to win the election for McKinley, was indeed second fiddle to the sheer volume of capital he drummed up and spent. The implications of the increasing focus of American life on capital means that Roosevelt was already fighting a losing battle to maintain or perhaps, even by 1910, re-instill that idea that labor should be of more importance to Americans than capital.

Roosevelt also brings up a conflict that has re-appeared after recent elections, and that is the identification of a corporation. Recent elections and Supreme Court decisions have contested whether or not a corporation is a “person,” often for the sake of campaign contributions. Roosevelt also argues over the identity of corporations, insisting that they have no impact on the political process, be it financially or influentially. Roosevelt affirms that corporations are a special interest, however “not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office” (Pg 5). Given that corporations are a relatively new form of business organization in 1910, it is interesting to note how Roosevelt was very aware and wary of their increasing influence in politics as the influence of the traditional party boss dissipated.

I want to close with concern over Roosevelt’s idea of capital gains, insofar as he says “We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community” (Pg 6). Roosevelt cites the importance of protecting property several times at the start of his speech, but then comes out with this statement. To me, risking money on the stock market and coming up big is risk that, should it prove successful, be indicatory of major life achievement and the American way of life. Those earnings are still fair earnings, and while they may not directly help Roosevelt’s community in any way, I do not see how they are harming it. Roosevelt essentially is acting as the “A & B” of William Graham Sumner’s essay, telling the rich that if they have money, it much go to helping the community.

One thought on “Roosevelt’s The New Nationalism Speech – Christian Cherau

  1. Identifying TR as A&B in Sumner’s essay is a great analogy. TR spends a lot of the speech talking about the welfare of all Americans, but that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. C needs to give something to D, but he won’t do so without being coerced.

    I’m not sure that TR’s rhetoric about capital and labor would have been better-received if it came two decades earlier. The early 1900’s were still an era of widespread union fervor and power, and as capital became more important, union membership was even more advantageous, and in some cases necessary, for workers. By 1910, labor would have been seen as a necessary counterbalance to the established power of capital, and TR’s point would be even more powerful.

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