Tonight, when President Barack Obama delivers his third State of the Union address, he is widely expected to channel the progressive rhetoric of Theodore Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech in 1910 (quoted in my previous post here) that called for the federal government to play an active role in regulating the economy. When he speaks to the nation tonight, President Obama is likely to push back against the demand to shrink the federal government – a common refrain among the current crop of Republican presidential candidates — by pointing to Theodore Roosevelt’s call for an active federal government.
It is certainly true that, in his “New Nationalism” speech, Theodore Roosevelt developed the theme that elite special interests had come to dominate government at all levels, thereby turning government into a tool for their own narrow purposes. President Obama is hoping that a return to this theme will resonate with voters today. However, while the connection between President Obama and Theodore Roosevelt has been widely reported, few commentators have recognized that these same ideas actually can be traced back to an earlier Republican president . . . Abraham Lincoln.
First of all, let us consider Theodore Roosevelt’s defense of an active federal government. In his “New Nationalism” speech in 1910, Roosevelt argued:
The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to[day] is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows. . . . We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.
In Roosevelt’s view, the great industrialization of the America economy following the end of the Civil War had created an unprecedented degree of economic inequality. This economic inequality created a threat to democratic self-government:
At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.
The solution, according to Roosevelt, was for the federal government to police the private markets on behalf of the “have-nots,” in order to ensure that the “haves” do not use their concentrated economic power for objectives that are destructive to the common good. Theodore Roosevelt returned to this theme of the federal government as a counterpoint to the economic elite in his “Autobiography.” In that book, he summarized the evolution in his thinking that led to the “New Nationalism” speech:
[A] few men recognized that corporations and combinations had become indispensable in the business world, that it was folly to try to prohibit them, but that it was folly to leave them without thorough-going control . . . They realized that the government must now interfere to protect labor, to subordinate the big corporation to the public welfare, and to shackle cunning and fraud . . .
The more active federal government that Roosevelt envisioned did, in fact, come into being. The combination of two World Wars, and the response to the Great Depression, led to a more powerful federal government and the subordination of corporate power to government control. However, in recent decades the overarching trend has been towards deregulation and a reduction of government power. The result has been a reduced government role in policing the economy, and an increased anxiety on the part of workers and retirees who feel that they are at the mercy of market forces. It makes sense, therefore, that President Obama would return to progressive themes that speak to similar anxieties that existed during the Roosevelt era.
However, historian Heather Cox Richardson of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has traced Roosevelt’s idea of an active federal government back to an even earlier Republican: Abraham Lincoln. In a 2010 article published in the Marquette University Law Review, entitled “Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Principle,” Professor Richardson argued that Lincoln created a new idea of an activist federal government that focused on promoting economic progress for individuals. She points to Lincoln’s policies in support of homestead legislation, the creation of the Department of Agriculture, and the Land-Grant College Act.
Professor Richardson considers Lincoln’s speech in Milwaukee on September 30, 1859 as the first time that Lincoln publicly espoused his vision for an active federal government. He spoke of a federal government that did not leave poor laborers to their own devices, but rather that provided those born into the lower economic strata with the land and the education that these economically disadvantaged Americans could use as tools in order to better their condition. She summarizes:
Lincoln’s concern about the growing power of Southern slave owners in the 1850s convinced him that the government must not privilege an economic elite. Rather, it must leave the economic playing field free for hard-working individuals to rise. By 1859, the idea of government support for individuals had combined with his conception of a “nonpolitical” politics to suggest that ‘equality’ might mean something more active than simply staying out of the way of the man on the make. For decades, men had called for government promotion of individual economic advancement, an idea that Republicans like Lincoln were ready to adopt.
One important policy initiative of Lincoln’s was the promotion of higher education for all, not just for the wealthy. In 1862, Congress passed the Land-Grant College Act, using public land to fund state universities. A second important policy initiative was the establishment of a federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in 1866 to create homesteads for freed slaves and poor whites in the aftermath of the Civil War. The purpose of this law was to break the hold of the Southern elite on the Southern economy, by promoting self-sufficiency for small farmers.
The fate of the so-called Freedman’s Bureau is telling. After President Lincoln’s death, President Andrew Johnson repudiated the idea that the federal government had any legitimate role to play in promoting economic advancement for the average worker. He attacked the Freedman’s Bureau as a giveaway of tax dollars to the “indigent.” Johnson also attacked the Freedman’s Bureau as a federal program that spent tax dollars exclusively for the benefit of blacks, when the reality was that the legislation was intended to foster farm ownership for poor whites in the South as well as poor blacks. As Professor Richardson summarizes: “Johnson’s equation – that government activism equaled special help for blacks paid for by hard-working taxpayers – became the equation that opponents of government activism have used ever since.”
Tomorrow morning, leaders of the current Republican Party will undoubtedly assail President Obama’s State of the Union address on the grounds that it engages in “class warfare” and divisiveness. However, it is worth recalling that the idea that the federal government should take the lead in reducing economic inequality in our society is an idea that has deep Republican roots.