Beck’s Bad History: Roosevelt Was No Socialist

Bad history about a Republican icon.


By John A. Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

One could make a career correcting the daffy ravings of Glenn Beck, but life on the planet is short. And besides, why would a liberaltarian like myself want to stop Beck and his tea baggers from drumming some of the Republican Party's greatest presidents--Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt--out of the conservative movement, on the charge of insufficient purity?

My old pal Grover Norquist once gave me a lesson on the importance of heroes and symbols to a movement--he's been trying to get Reagan's visage on a coin for years. Now the tea bag Cerberi want to disown the two Republicans who made it to Mt. Rushmore, and Beck has announced that Reagan wasn't really a conservative after all.

Confusion to our enemies, says I, and God bless all here.

Nevertheless, Beck's reading of history is so wrong-headed and perverse that we who labor in the archives and the stacks are obligated to correct the record.

In his speech before a conference of conservatives in Washington last week, Beck attacked Roosevelt as a socialist. Well, there actually were real socialists in the U.S. of A. back at the beginning of the 20th century, and I am sure that somewhere in proletarian heaven Gene Debs and the boys are rolling on the beer hall floor, laughing at Beck's notion that the blue-blooded, war-mongering, big-sticked, jingoistic Teddy was any kind of ally. More than once, TR suggested that the gallows and the firing squad were just the things for radical labor leaders and working class agitators.

But as a Harvard-educated scion of old Dutch stock, Roosevelt had no illusions about his own class either. He saw how the industrialists and financiers of the Gilded Age had corrupted American politics; purchased presidents and Congresses, and plundered the country's natural resources. Even worse, as far as Roosevelt was concerned, was the way the robber barons sought to perpetuate their rule--through complex combinations of trusts and monopolies, and the creation of an American aristocracy.

Roosevelt believed in opportunity. It angered him to see the sons of coal miners, hauled from school to work in the breakers, losing a chance to make something of themselves while the sons of the corrupters on Park Ave. bought yachts the size of cruisers, or hung diamond collars on their dogs.

The Roosevelt speech that Beck misquoted was one of the great addresses of American history. Here was a Republican president, warning his people that the country's Jeffersonian ideals were being eroded by the forces of the age. Teddy gave it in 1910; it is known as the "New Nationalism" speech.

"Our country, this great Republic, means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him," he began.

"The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned," said Teddy. "Our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests."

Roosevelt called for popular government that would ban the corrupting influence of corporate money in American politics, and for greater government regulation of Wall St. financiers.

He warned against "lawbreakers of great wealth, who can hire the vulpine legal cunning." And he pushed for the enactment of federal income and estate taxes on "the really big fortune, the swollen fortune" which "by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means."

"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," said Roosevelt.

"We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity…we grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used," he said, but "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."

"No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar's worth of service rendered, not gambling in stocks, but service rendered," he declared. "I believe in shaping the ends of government to protect property as well as human welfare. Normally, and in the long run, the ends are the same; but whenever the alternative must be faced, I am for men and not for property. ... I am far from underestimating the importance of dividends, but I rank dividends below human character."

Roosevelt was no socialist. He had no sympathy for loafers, cheats or rioters: "We need to set our faces like flint against mob violence just as against corporate greed; against violence and injustice and lawlessness by wage-workers just as much as against cunning and greed and selfish arrogance of employers."

And, like his cousin Franklin, he saw the soul-killing threat of dependency in government welfare programs. He sought not to guarantee outcomes, only opportunity.

"The fundamental thing to do for every man is to give him a chance to reach a place in which he will make the greatest possible contribution," said Roosevelt. "Understand what I say there. Give him a chance--not push him up if he will not be pushed. Help any man who stumbles. If he lies down, it is a poor job to try and carry him. But if he is a worthy man, try your best to see that he gets a chance to show the worth that is in him."

Teddy ended with a warning for the greedy of his era, who sought to preserve special privilege and influence by whipping up fears and mischaracterizing reform.

"Those who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable," he said, "if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism."

It can be said of Roosevelt's critics, then and now, that they reveal themselves when attacking him.

  • Check out this month's best political cartoons.
  • Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our digital magazine.
  • Listen to Arne Duncan's podcast about leadership in America's schools.