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26 June, 2013
Theodore Roosevelt; An Intimate Biography
Chapter XVI. The Square Deal in Action
by Thayer, William Roscoe

Having seen briefly how President Roosevelt dealt with Capital, let us look even more briefly at his dealings with Labor. I think that he took the deepest personal satisfaction in fighting the criminal rich and the soulless corporations, because he regarded them not only as lawbreakers, malefactors of great wealth, but as despicably mean, in that they used their power to oppress the poor and helpless classes. The Labor groups when they burst out into violence merely responded to the passion which men naturally feel at injustice and at suffering; to their violence they did not add slyness or legal deceits. But Roosevelt had no toleration for the Labor demagogue, for the walking delegate, and all similar parasites, who preyed upon the working classes for their own profit, and fomented the irritation of Labor and Capital.

Stronger, however, than his sympathy for any individual, and especially for those who suffered without redress, was his love of justice. This he put in a phrase which he invented and made current, a phrase which everybody could understand: "the labor unions shall have a square deal, and the corporations shall have a square deal." At another time he expressed the same idea, by saying that the rich man should have justice, and that the poor man should have justice, and that no man should have more or less.

Time soon brought a test for his devotion to social justice. In the summer of 1902 the coal-miners of Pennsylvania stopped working. Early in September the public awoke with a start to the realization that a coal famine threatened the country. In the Eastern States, in New York, and Pennsylvania, and in some of the Middle Western States, a calamity threatened, which would be quite as terrible as the invasion of an enemy's army. For not only would lack of fuel cause incalculable hardship and distress from cold, but it would stop transportation, and all manufacturing by machinery run by coal. The mine operators and the miners were at a deadlock. The President invited the leaders on both sides to confer with him at the White House. They came and found him stretched out on an invalid's chair, with one of his legs much bandaged, from an accident he had received in a collision at Pittsfield a few weeks before, but his mental vigor was unsubdued. John Mitchell spoke for the miners. The President urged the quarrelers to come to terms. But the big coal operators would not yield. They knew that the distress among the mining population was great, and they believed that if the authorities would only maintain peace, the miners would soon be forced to give in. So the meeting broke up and the "coal barons," as the newspapers dubbed the operators, quitted with evident satisfaction. They felt that they had not only repelled the miners again, but virtually put down the President for interfering in a matter in which he had no legal jurisdiction.

And, in truth, the laws gave the President of the United States no authority to play the role of arbiter in a strike. His plain duty was to keep the peace. If a strike resulted in violent disorders he could send United States troops to quell them, but only in case the Governor of the State in which the riots occurred declared himself unable, by the State force at his command, to keep the peace, and requested assistance from the President. In the coal strike the Governor of Pennsylvania, for reasons which I need not discuss here, refused to call for United States troops, and so did the Pennsylvania Legislature. Roosevelt acted as a patriotic citizen might act, but being the President, his interference had immensely greater weight than that of any private citizen could have. He knew the law in the matter, but he believed that the popular opinion of the American people would back him up.

In spite of the first rebuff, therefore, he persuaded the miners and the operators to agree to the appointment of an arbitration commission, and this suggested a settlement which both contestants accepted. It ended the great coal strike of 1902, but it left behind it much indignation among the American people, who realized for the first time that one of the three or four great industries essential to the welfare and even to the life itself of the Nation, was in the hands of men who preferred their selfish interests to those of the Nation. It taught several other lessons also; it taught, for instance, that great combinations of Labor may be as dangerous as those of Capital, and as heedless of everything except their own selfish control. It taught that the people of the States and of the Nation could not go on forever without taking steps to put an end to the already dangerous hostility between Capital and Labor, and that that end must be the establishment of justice for all. An apologist of the "coal barons" might have pleaded that they held out not merely for their private gain on that occasion, but in order to defeat the growing menace of Labor. Their stubbornness might turn back the rising flood of socialism.

Respecters of legal precedent, on the other hand, criticised the President. They acknowledged his good intentions, but they pointed out that his extra-legal interference set an ominously bad example. And some of them would have preferred to go cold all winter, and even to have had the quarrel sink into civil war, rather than to have had the constitutional ideals of the Nation distorted or obscured by the President's good-natured endeavor. Roosevelt himself, however, never held this opinion. In 1915, he wrote to Mr. Washburn: "I think the settlement of the coal strike was much the most important thing I did about Labor, from every standpoint."

I find an intimate letter of his which dates from the time of the conflict itself and gives frankly his motives and apology, if we should call it that. He admits that his action was not strictly legal, but he asks that, if the President of the United States may not intervene to prevent a widespread calamity, what is his authority worth? If it had been a national strike of iron-workers or miners, he would have held himself aloof, but the coal strike affected a product necessary to the life and health of the people. It was easy enough for well-to-do gentlemen to say that they had rather go cold and see the fight carried. through until the strikers submitted, than to have legal precedence ignored; for these gentlemen had money enough to buy fuel at even an exorbitant price, and they would be warm anyway, while the great mass of the population froze. I may add that it seems more legal than sensible that any official chosen to preserve the public welfare and health should not be allowed to interpose against persons who would destroy both, and may stir only after the destroyers have caused the catastrophe they aimed at.

Roosevelt's action in the great coal strike not only averted the danger, but it also gave Labor means of judging him fairly. Every demagogue, from the days of Cleon down, has talked glibly in behalf of the downtrodden or unjustly treated working-men, and we might suppose that the demagogue has acquired enlargement of the heart, owing to his overpowering sympathy with Labor. But the questions we have to ask about demagogues are two: Is he sincere? Is he wise?

Sincerity alone has been rather too much exalted as an excuse for the follies and crimes of fanatics and zealots, blatherskites and cranks. Some of our "lunatic fringe" of reformers have been heard to palliate the Huns' atrocities in Belgium, by the plea: "Ah, but they were so perfectly sincere!" Sincerity alone, therefore, is not enough; it must be wise or it may be diabolical. Now Roosevelt was both sincere and wise. He left no doubt in the strikers' minds that he sympathized with their sufferings and grievances and with their attempts to better their condition, so far as this could be achieved without violence, and without leaving a permanent state of war between Labor and Capital. In a word, he did not aim at merely patching up a temporary peace, but at finding, and when found, applying, a remedy to the deep-rooted causes of the quarrel.

In his first message to Congress, the new President said: "The most vital problem with which this country, and, for that matter, the whole civilized world, has to deal, is the problem which has for one side the betterment of social conditions, moral and physical, in large cities, and for another side the effort to deal with that tangle of far-reaching questions which we group together when we speak of 'labor.'"

By his settlement of the coal strike, Roosevelt showed the workers that he would practice towards them the justice which he preached, but this did not mean that he would be unjust towards the capitalists. They, too, should have justice, and they had it. He never intended to coddle laborers or to make them feel that, having a grievance, as they alleged, they must be specially favored. Since Labor is, or should be, common to all men, Roosevelt believed that every laborer, whether farmer or mechanic, employer or employee, merchant or financier, should stand erect and look every other man straight in the eyes, and neither look up nor down, but with level gaze, fearless, uncringing, uncondescending. The laws he proposed, the adjustments he arranged, had the self-respect, the dignity, of the individual, for their aim. He knew that nothing could be more dangerous to the public, or more harmful to the laboring class itself, than to make of it a privileged class, absolved from the obligations, and even from the laws, which bound the rest of the community. By this ideal he set a great gulf between himself and the demagogues who fawned upon Labor and corrupted it by granting its unjust demands.

He had always present before him a vision of the sacred Oneness of the body politic. This made him the greatest of modern Democrats, and the chief interpreter, as it seems to me, of the highest ideal of American Democracy. The ideal of Oneness can never be realized in a State which permits a single class to enjoy privileges of its own at the expense of all other classes; and it makes no difference whether this class belongs to the Proletariat or to the Plutocracy. Equality before the law, and justice, are the two eternal instruments for establishing the true Democracy. And I do not recall that in any of the measures which Roosevelt supported these two vital principles were violated. The following brief quotations from later messages summarize his creed:
'In the vast and complicated mechanism of our modern civilized life, the dominant note is the note of industrialism, and the relations of capital and labor, and especially of organized capital and organized labor, to each other, and to the public at large, come second in importance only to the intimate questions of family life.'
The corporation has come to stay, just as the trade union has come to stay. Each can do and has done great good. Each should be favored as long as it does good, but each should be sharply checked where it acts against law and justice.

Any one can profess a creed; Theodore Roosevelt lived his.

Nothing better tested his impartiality than the strike of the Federation of Western Miners in 1907. Many murders and much violence were attributed to this organization and they were charged with assassinating Governor Steunenberg of Idaho. Their leaders, Moyer and Haywood, were anarchists like themselves, and although they professed contempt for law, as soon as they were arrested and brought up for trial, they clutched at every quibble of the law, as drowning men clutch at straws to save them; and, be it said to the glory or shame of the law, it furnished enough quibbles, not only to save them from the gallows, but to let them loose again on society with the legal whitewash "not guilty" stamped upon them.

Roosevelt understood the great importance of punishing these men, and he committed the indiscretion of classing them with certain big capitalists as "undesirable citizens." Members of the Federation then wrote him denouncing his attempt to prejudice the courts against Moyer and Haywood, and they resented that their leaders should be coupled with Harriman and other big capitalists as "undesirable citizens." This gave the President the opportunity to reply that such criticism did not come appropriately from the Federation; for they and their supporters had got up parades, mass-meetings, and petitions in favor of Moyer and Haywood and for the direct purpose of intimidating the court and jury. "You want," he said in substance, "the square deal for the defendants only. I want the square deal for every one"; and he added, "It is equally a violation of the policy of the square deal for a capitalist to protest against denunciation of a capitalist who is guilty of wrongdoing and for a labor leader to pro test against the denunciation of a labor leader who has been guilty of wrongdoing." *

[ Autobiography, 531.]

But Moyer and Haywood, as I have said, escaped punishment, and before long Haywood reappeared as leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, an anarchistic body with a comically inappropriate name for its members objected to nothing so much as to industry and work. The I.W.W., as they have been known for short, have consistently preached violence and "action," by which they might take for themselves the savings and wealth of others as a means to enable them to do no work. And some of the recent strikes which have brought the greatest misery upon the laborers whom they misled, have been directed by I. W. W. leaders.

"I treated anarchists and bomb-throwing and dynamiting gentry precisely as I treated other criminals," Roosevelt writes: "Murder is murder. It is not rendered one whit better by the allegation that it is committed on behalf of a cause." * I need hardly state that the President was as consistently vigilant to prevent labor unions from persecuting non-union men as he was in upholding the just rights of the union.

[ Autobiography, 532.]

Consider what this record of his with Capital and Labor really means. The social conditions in the United States, owing to the immense expansion in the production of wealth--an expansion which included the invention of innumerable machines and the application, largely made possible by immigration, of millions of laborers--had changed rapidly, and had brought pressingly to the front novel and gigantic industrial and financial problems. In the solution of these problems Justice and Equality must not only be regarded, but must play the determining part. Now, Justice and Equality were beautiful abstractions which could be praised by every demagogue without laying upon him any obligation except that of dulcet lip service. Every American, young or old, had heard them lauded so unlimitedly that he did not trouble himself to inquire whether they were facts or not; they were words, sonorous and pleasing words, which made his heart throb, and himself feel a worthier creature. And then came along a young zealot, mighty in physical vigor and moral energy, who believed that Justice and Equality were not mere abstractions, were not mere words for politicians and parsons to thrill their audiences by, but were realities, duties, which every man in a Democracy was bound to revere and to make prevail. And he urged them with such power of persuasion, such tirelessness, such titanic zeal, that he not only converted the masses of the people to believe in them, too, but he also made the legislators of the country understand that they must embody these principles in the national statute book. He did not originate, as I have said, all or most of the reforms, but he gave ear to those who first suggested them, and his enthusiasm and support were essential to their adoption. In order to measure the magnitude of Roosevelt's contribution in marking deeply the main principles which should govern the New Age, we need only remember how little his predecessor, President McKinley, a good man with the best intentions, either realized that the New Age was at hand, or thought it necessary even to outline the principles which should guide it; and how little his successor, President Taft, a most amiable man, understood that the New Age, with the Rooseveltian reforms, had come to stay, and could not be swept back by actively opposing it or by allowing the Rooseveltian ideals to lapse.


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