Friday, July 12, 2013

Quote of the Day (Theodore Roosevelt, on a ‘President of the Whole People’)

“The candidate is the candidate of a party; but if the president is worth his salt he is the president of the whole people.”– President Theodore Roosevelt, speech at City Park, Little Rock, Arkansas, October 25, 1905

This quote struck me with full force these last couple of days during a week at the Chautauqua Institution devoted to “America 1863”: specifically, how American Presidents in the 1860s determined “the whole people.” James Buchanan was so set on placating Southern slaveholders that the possibility of the most basic rights for African-Americans never entered his mind. Andrew Johnson, who initially wanted to deal harshly with the planter class for driving secession, eventually fell victim to the poisonous consciousness this group inflicted on poor whites by allying himself with the slaveowners against freedmen.

It was only Abraham Lincoln, with his “new birth of freedom,” who enlarged the notion of “the whole people.” The 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, was, as indicated in the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, legislation that Lincoln pushed through an often-recalcitrant Congress. It gave irresistible momentum to the 14th Amendment, which declared that all persons “born or naturalized in the United States” were citizens—not only the slaves that the war revolved around but also the immigrants subject to the prejudice of the “Know-Nothings” in the 1850s. As such, the 14th Amendment sought to put into practice Lincoln’s great line: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free - honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve.”

Andrew Johnson would have been appalled at Theodore Roosevelt’s expansive notion of executive power. But the latter notion rested on T.R.’s belief that the President was the “steward of the people,” a stance that allowed him to arbitrate, more fairly than his predecessors, between capital and labor, and to conserve our national parks for “the whole people” of future generations.

No comments: