Theodore Roosevelt, Address at the Coliseum, San Francisco, Sept. 14, 1912
LIMITATION OF GOVERNMENTAL POWER
In one of his campaign speeches Mr. Wilson made a sweeping assault on the Progressive
platform and programme and defined his own position as to social and industrial justice.
According to the stenographic report of his speech, Mr. Wilson stated that there is no
hope for social reform through the platform of the Progressive party, saying: "In the
very form itself is supplied the demonstration that it is not a serviceable instrument.
They do propose to serve civilization and humanity but they cannot serve civilization and
humanity with that kind of government.... The history of liberty is a history of the
limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it."
And he then continues to uphold what he calls "representative" government and
"representative" assemblies as against the platform that we propose, and also to
uphold the Democratic proposals for dealing with labor and the trusts as against the
Mr. Wilson is fond of asserting his platonic devotion to the purposes of the
Progressive party. But such platonic devotion is utterly worthless from a practical
standpoint, because he antagonizes the only means by which those purposes can be
made effective. It is idle to profess devotion to Progressive principles and at the same
time to antagonize the only methods by which they can be realized in actual fact.
They key to Mr. Wilson's position is found in the statement I have just quoted, when he
says that "The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental
power, not the increase of it."
This is a bit of outworn academic doctrine which was kept in the schoolroom and the
professorial study for a generation after it had been abandoned by all who had experience
of actual life. It is simply the laissez-faire doctrine of the English political
economists three-quarters of a century ago. It can be applied with profit, if anywhere at
all, only in a primitive community under primitive conditions, in a community such as the
United States at the end of the eighteenth century, a community before the days of Fulton,
Morse and Edison. To apply it now in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth
century, with its highly organized industries, with its railways, telegraphs, and
telephones, means literally and absolutely to refuse to make a single effort to better any
one of our social or industrial conditions.
Moreover, Mr. Wilson is absolutely in error in his statement, from the historical
So long as governmental power existed exclusively for the king and not at all for the
people, then the history of liberty was a history of the limitation of governmental power.
But now the governmental power rests in the people, and the kings who enjoy privilege are
the kings of the financial and industrial world; and what they clamor for is the
limitation of governmental power, and what the people sorely need is the extension of
If Mr. Wilson's statement means nothing, then he ought not to have made it.
If it means anything, it means that every law for the promotion of social and
industrial justice which has been put upon the statute-books ought to be repealed, and
every law proposed should be abandoned, for without exception every such law represents an
increase of governmental power. Does Mr. Wilson mean to repeal the interstate commerce
commission law? If not, does he deny that it represents a great increase of governmental
power over the railroads ? Let him take whichever horn of the dilemma he chooses. Either
his statement ii not in accordance with the facts or else he is bound if it is in
accordance with the facts as he sees them, to include in his programme the repeal of the
Interstate Commerce Commission Act.
Again, every Progressive State in the Union has passed laws for factory inspection;
every such law means an increase of governmental power. Is Mr. Wilson in favor of
repealing those laws? If he is not, then what does he mean by saying that the
history of liberty is the history of the limitation of governmental power?
The fact is that his statement is a mere bit of professorial rhetoric, which has not
one particle of foundation in the facts of the present day.
Again, we propose to limit the hours of working girls to eight hours a day; we propose
to limit the hours of working men in continuous industries to eight hours a day, and to
give them one day's rest a week. Both of these proposals represent an increase in the
exercise of governmental power, an extension of governmental power. Does Mr. Wilson mean
that he is against this extension? If not, then his sentence which I have just quoted and
which represents the key-note of his speech, means nothing whatever.
In other words, Mr. Wilson's promise is either a promise that is not to be kept or else
it means the undoing of every particle of social and industrial advance we have made and
the refusal to go forward along the lines of industrial and social progress.
He stands for a policy which necessarily means, if that policy is honestly put
into effect, that he must be against every single progressive measure, for every
progressive measure means an extension, instead of a limitation, of governmental control.
We propose to do away with occupational disease. Is he against this proposition? He
must be if he believes in limitation of government control.
We propose a workman's compensation act. Is he against this proposition ? He must be if
he sincerely means that he is in favor of the limitation of governmental control.
We propose to regulate the conditions of work in factories, the conditions of life in
tenement-houses, the conditions of life and work in construction camps every one of these
proposals means an extension of governmental control. Is he against them ?
Either he is against his own principle or he is against these reforms. He can choose
either horn of the dilemma he wishes; but one or the he must choose.
He has definitely committed himself to the use of the taxing power only for the
purpose of raising revenue. In that case he is against its use to put out of existence the
poisonous - match industry. He is against its use for the purpose of preventing opium
coming into this country. He is against its use for preventing wildcat banking. In short,
he is against its use in every case where we now use it to tax out of existence dangers
The trouble with Mr. Wilson is that he is following an outworn philosophy and that the
history of which he is thinking is the history of absolute monarchies and Oriental
despotisms. He is thinking of government as embodied in an absolute king or in an
oligarchy or aristocracy. He is not thinking of our government, which is a government by
the people themselves.
The only way in which our people can increase their power over the big corporation that
does wrong, the only way in which they can protect the working man in his conditions of
work and life, the only way in which the people can prevent children working in industry
or secure women an eight-hour day in industry, or secure compensation for men killed or
crippled in industry, is by extending, instead of limiting, the powers of government.
There is no analogy whatever from the standpoint of real liberty, and of real popular
need, between the limitations imposed by the people on the power of an irresponsible
monarch or a dominant aristocracy, and the limitations sought to be imposed by big
financiers, by big corporation lawyers, and by well-meaning students of a dead-and-gone
system of political economy on the power of the people to right social wrongs and limit
social abuses, and to secure for the humble what, unless there is an extension of the
powers of government, the arrogant and the powerful will certainly take from the
If Mr. Wilson really believes what he has said, then Mr. Wilson has no idea of our
government in its actual working. He is not thinking of modern American history or of
present day American needs. He is thinking of Magna Carta, which limited the power
of the English king, because his power over the people had before been absolute. He
is thinking of the Bill of Rights, which limited the power of the governing class in the
interest of the people, who could not control that governing class.
Our proposal is to increase the power of the people themselves and to make the people
in reality the governing class. Therefore Mr. Wilson's proposal is really to limit the
power of the people and thereby to leave unchecked the colossal embodied privileges of the
Now, you can adopt one philosophy or the other. You can adopt the philosophy of laissez-faire, of the limitation of governmental power, and turn the industrial life of this country
into a chaotic scramble of selfish interests, each bent on plundering the other and all
bent on oppressing the wage-worker. This is precisely and exactly what Mr. Wilson's
proposal means; and it can mean nothing else. Under such limitations of governmental power
as he praises, every railroad must be left unchecked, every great industrial concern can
do as it chooses with its employees and with the general public; women must be
permitted to work as many hours a day as their taskmasters bid them; great corporations
must be left unshackled to put down wages to a starvation limit and to raise the price of
their products as high as monopolistic control will permit.
The reverse policy means an extension, instead of a limitation, of governmental power;
and for that extension, we Progressives stand.
We propose to handle the colossal industrial concerns engaged in interstate business as
we are handling the great railways engaged in interstate business; and we propose to go
forward in the control of both, doing justice to each but exacting justice from each; and
we propose to work for justice to the farmer and the wage-worker in the same fashion.
Let me give you a concrete instance of what Mr. Wilson's policy, if applied, means as
compared with ours. The Stanley Committee, the Democratic committee of the Democratic
House of Representatives, has practically applied its interpretation of the Democratic
platform about trusts, which is substantially the Republican platform, the Wilson-Taft
platform. Some time previously under governmental suit the Standard Oil Trust was
dissolved. Under the decree of the court the Standard Oil Company was split up into a lot
of smaller companies, precisely as the Stanley Report proposes that similar trusts shall
be split up. What has been the actual result? All the companies are still under the same
control, or at least working in such close alliance that the effect is precisely the same.
The price of the stock has gone up over one hundred per cent, so that Mr. Rockefeller and
his associates have actually seen their fortunes doubled by the policy which Mr. Wilson
advocates and which Mr. Taft defends. At the same time the price of oil to the consumer
has gone up by leaps and bounds. No wonder that Wall Street's prayer now is: "Oh,
Merciful Providence, give us another dissolution."
In short, the Taft-Wilson plan has actually resulted in enormously benefiting Mr.
Rockefeller and his associates and in causing serious damage to all consumers.
The Progressive proposal is the direct reverse of all this. If we had our way. there
would be an administrative body to deal radically and thoroughly with such a case as that
of the Standard Oil Company. We would make any split-up of the company that was necessary
real and not nominal. We would step in in such a case as this where the value of the stock
was going up in such enormous proportion and forbid any increase of the price of the
product. We would examine thoroughly and searchingly the books of the company and put a
stop to every type of rebate and to every practice which would result in the
swindling either of investors or competitors or wage-workers or of the general public.
Our planthe plan to which Mr. Archbold of the Standard Oil Trust so feelingly
objects as "Abyssinian treatment" would result in preventing any increase
of cost to the consumer and in exercising the kind of radical control over the corporation
itself, which would prevent the stock-gambling antics which result in enormous profits to
those on the inside, to those who, in the parlance of the street, know that "there is
a melon to be cut."
Now, I have stated as fairly as I know how what Mr. Wilson's plan is, if his
words mean anything, and what our plan is. And I ask every working man, every
farmer, every professional and business man, to say for themselves which is best.
The people of the United States have but one instrument which they can efficiently use
against the colossal combinations of businessand that instrument is the government
of the United States (and of course in the several States the governments of the States
where they can be utilized). Mr. Wilson's proposal is that the people of the United States
shall throw away this, the one great instrument, the one great weapon they have with which
to secure themselves against wrong. He proposes to limit the governmental action of the
people and therefore to leave unlimited and unchecked the action of the great corporations
whose enormous power constitutes so serious a problem in modern industrial life. Remember
that it is absolutely impossible to limit the power of these great corporations whose
enormous power constitutes so serious a problem in modern industrial life except by
extending the power of the government. All that these great corporations ask is that the
power of the government shall be limited. No wonder they are supporting Mr. Wilson, for he
is advocating for them what they hardly dare venture to advocate for themselves. These
great corporations rarely want anything from the government except to be let alone and to be permitted to work their will unchecked by the
government. All that they really want is that governmental action shall be limited. In
every great corporation suit the corporation lawyer will be found protesting against
extension of governmental power. Every court decision favoring a corporation takes the
form of declaring unconstitutional some extension of governmental power. Every corporation
magnate in the country who is not dealing honestly and fairly by his fellows asks nothing
better than that Mr. Wilson's programme be carried out and that there be stringent
limitations of governmental power.
There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant
increasing liberty for the people. In the present day the limitation of governmental power,
of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations, who
can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.
In another speech Mr. Wilson has taken his stand squarely on the Democratic platform
about the tariff. The Democratic platform says the tariff is unconstitutional in so far as
it gives protection and that therefore it must be entirely removed. Mr. Wilson states that
the protective tariff is "a malignant growth that requires a surgical
operation"; and he explicitly promises to be the surgeon "to cut out the deadly
thing." Here again, if language means anything, either in the platform or in Mr.
Wilson's speeches, there is a direct promise to destroy the protective tariff. This is not
a promise to reform it, to reduce it, to do away with it where it is excessive, to see
that the wage-worker is benefited by it, that it operates to the advantage of the producer
and at the same time benefits the consumer. These are the promises of the Progressive
platform. Mr. Wilson's promise is a tariff for destruction. If a protective tariff is
unconstitutional, if a protective tariff is "a malignant growth" which he
proposes to "cut out," then it is disingenuous to say that the operation shall
be done in slow and leisurely fashion so as not to damage the patient. A malignant growth
must be cut out at once; an unconstitutional law must be repealed at once.
The Republican proposal is a tariff for privilege; the Democratic proposal is a tariff
for destruction; the Progressive proposal is a tariff for labor, a tariff which
shall give to the American business man his fair show, both permitting and requiring him
to pay the American laborer the wages necessary to keep up the standard of living in this
Mr. Wilson's attitude toward the tariff is exactly in keeping with his attitude toward
social and industrial reforms. He is against the minimum wage for women exactly as he is
against a protective tariff. His principles would prevent us either effectually helping
labor or effectually regulating and controlling big business.
He is against using the power of the government to help the people to whom the
We take flat issue with him. We propose to use the government as the most efficient
instrument for the uplift of our people as a whole; we propose to give a fair chance to
the workers and strengthen their rights. We propose to use the whole power of the
government to protect all those who, under Mr. Wilson's laissez-faire system, are
trodden down in the ferocious, scrambling rush of an unregulated and purely