The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.
Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:
“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”
One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.
One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:
“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”
Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.
But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.
It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.