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Title: Address of President Roosevelt at the laying of the corner stone of the office building of the House of Representatives, Saturday, April 14, 1906
Author: Roosevelt, Theodore
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Address of President Roosevelt at the laying of the corner stone of the office building of the House of Representatives, Saturday, April 14, 1906" ***

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                      AT THE LAYING OF THE CORNER
                       SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 1906


                      GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE

Over a century ago Washington laid the corner stone of the Capitol
in what was then little more than a tract of wooded wilderness here
beside the Potomac. We now find it necessary to provide by great
additional buildings for the business of the Government. This growth
in the need for the housing of the Government is but a proof and
example of the way in which the nation has grown and the sphere of
action of the National Government has grown. We now administer the
affairs of a nation in which the extraordinary growth of population
has been outstripped by the growth of wealth and the growth in complex
interests. The material problems that face us to-day are not such as
they were in Washington’s time, but the underlying facts of human
nature are the same now as they were then. Under altered external
form we war with the same tendencies toward evil that were evident in
Washington’s time, and are helped by the same tendencies for good. It
is about some of these that I wish to say a word to-day.

In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the
Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward,
with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for
his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he
was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.

In Pilgrim’s Progress the Man with the Muck-rake is set forth as the
example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of on spiritual
things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently
refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn
intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very
necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and
debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with
the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the
most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who
never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of
his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society,
not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil.

There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave
evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them.
There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil
man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether
in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor
every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book,
magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack,
provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of
use only if it is absolutely truthful. The liar is no whit better than
the thief, and if his mendacity takes the form of slander, he may be
worse than most thieves. It puts a premium upon knavery untruthfully
to attack an honest man, or even with hysterical exaggeration to
assail a bad man with untruth. An epidemic of indiscriminate assault
upon character does not good, but very great harm. The soul of every
scoundrel is gladdened whenever an honest man is assailed, or even
when a scoundrel is untruthfully assailed.

Now, it is easy to twist out of shape what I have just said, easy to
affect to misunderstand it, and, if it is slurred over in repetition,
not difficult really to misunderstand it. Some persons are sincerely
incapable of understanding that to denounce mud slinging does not mean
the indorsement of whitewashing; and both the interested individuals
who need whitewashing, and those others who practice mud slinging,
like to encourage such confusion of ideas. One of the chief counts
against those who make indiscriminate assault upon men in business or
men in public life, is that they invite a reaction which is sure to
tell powerfully in favor of the unscrupulous scoundrel who really ought
to be attacked, who ought to be exposed, who ought, if possible, to
be put in the penitentiary. If Aristides is praised overmuch as just,
people get tired of hearing it; and overcensure of the unjust finally
and from similar reasons results in their favor.

Any excess is almost sure to invite a reaction; and, unfortunately, the
reaction, instead of taking the form of punishment of those guilty of
the excess, is very apt to take the form either of punishment of the
unoffending or of giving immunity, and even strength, to offenders. The
effort to make financial or political profit out of the destruction
of character can only result in public calamity. Gross and reckless
assaults on character, whether on the stump or in newspaper, magazine,
or book, create a morbid and vicious public sentiment, and at the same
time act as a profound deterrent to able men of normal sensitiveness
and tend to prevent them from entering the public service at any price.
As an instance in point, I may mention that one serious difficulty
encountered in getting the right type of men to dig the Panama Canal is
the certainty that they will be exposed, both without, and, I am sorry
to say, sometimes within, Congress, to utterly reckless assaults on
their character and capacity.

At the risk of repetition let me say again that my plea is, not for
immunity to but for the most unsparing exposure of the politician who
betrays his trust, of the big business men who makes or spends his
fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways. There should be a resolute
effort to hunt every such man out of the position he has disgraced.
Expose the crime, and hunt down the criminal; but remember that even
in the case of crime, if it is attacked in sensational, lurid, and
untruthful fashion, the attack may do more damage to the public mind
than the crime itself. It is because I feel that there should be no
rest in the endless war against the forces of evil that I ask that the
war be conducted with sanity as well as with resolution. The men with
the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society;
but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward
to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor.
There are beautiful things above and round about them; and if they
gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck, their
power of usefulness is gone. If the whole picture is painted black
there remains no hue whereby to single out the rascals for distinction
from their fellows. Such painting finally induces a kind of moral
color-blindness; and people affected by it come to the conclusion that
no man is really black, and no man really white, but they are all gray.
In other words, they neither believe in the truth of the attack, nor
in the honesty of the man who is attacked; they grow as suspicious of
the accusation as of the offense; it becomes well-nigh hopeless to stir
them either to wrath against wrongdoing or to enthusiasm for what is
right; and such a mental attitude in the public gives hope to every
knave, and is the despair of honest men.

To assail the great and admitted evils of our political and industrial
life with such crude and sweeping generalizations as to include decent
men in the general condemnation means the searing of the public
conscience. There results a general attitude either of cynical belief
in and indifference to public corruption or else of a distrustful
inability to discriminate between the good and the bad. Either attitude
is fraught with untold damage to the country as a whole. The fool who
has not sense to discriminate between what is good and what is bad is
well-nigh as dangerous as the man who does discriminate and yet chooses
the bad. There is nothing more distressing to every good patriot, to
every good American, than the hard, scoffing spirit which treats the
allegation of dishonesty in a public man as a cause for laughter.
Such laughter is worse than the crackling of thorns under a pot, for
it denotes not merely the vacant mind, but the heart in which high
emotions have been choked before they could grow to fruition.

There is any amount of good in the world, and there never was a time
when loftier and more disinterested work for the betterment of mankind
was being done than now. The forces that tend for evil are great and
terrible, but the forces of truth and love and courage and honesty
and generosity and sympathy are also stronger than ever before. It
is a foolish and timid, no less than a wicked thing, to blink the
fact that the forces of evil are strong, but it is even worse to fail
to take into account the strength of the forces that tell for good.
Hysterical sensationalism is the very poorest weapon wherewith to fight
for lasting righteousness. The men who with stern sobriety and truth
assail the many evils of our time, whether in the public press, or in
magazines, or in books, are the leaders and allies of all engaged in
the work for social and political betterment. But if they give good
reason for distrust of what they say, if they chill the ardor of those
who demand truth as a primary virtue, they thereby betray the good
cause, and play into the hands of the very men against whom they are
nominally at war.

In his Ecclesiastical Polity that fine old Elizabethan divine, Bishop
Hooker, wrote:

    “He that goeth about to persuade a multitude that they are
    not so well governed as they ought to be, shall never want
    attentive and favorable hearers; because they know the manifold
    defects whereunto every kind of regimen is subject, but the
    secret lets and difficulties, which in public proceedings
    are innumerable and inevitable, they have not ordinarily the
    judgment to consider.”

This truth should be kept constantly in mind by every free people
desiring to preserve the sanity and poise indispensable to the
permanent success of self-government. Yet, on the other hand, it
is vital not to permit this spirit of sanity and self-command
to degenerate into mere mental stagnation. Bad though a state of
hysterical excitement is, and evil though the results are which come
from the violent oscillations such excitement invariably produces,
yet a sodden acquiescence in evil is even worse. At this moment we
are passing through a period of great unrest――social, political, and
industrial unrest. It is of the utmost importance for our future
that this should prove to be not the unrest of mere rebelliousness
against life, of mere dissatisfaction with the inevitable inequality
of conditions, but the unrest of a resolute and eager ambition to
secure the betterment of the individual and the nation. So far as this
movement of agitation throughout the country takes the form of a fierce
discontent with evil, of a determination to punish the authors of evil,
whether in industry or politics, the feeling is to be heartily welcomed
as a sign of healthy life.

If, on the other hand, it turns into a mere crusade of appetite
against appetite, of a contest between the brutal greed of the
“have-nots” and the brutal greed of the “haves,” then it has no
significance for good, but only for evil. If it seeks to establish a
line of cleavage, not along the line which divides good men from bad,
but along that other line, running at right angles thereto, which
divides those who are well off from those who are less well off, then
it will be fraught with immeasurable harm to the body politic.

We can no more and no less afford to condone evil in the man of capital
than evil in the man of no capital. The wealthy man who exults because
there is a failure of justice in the effort to bring some trust magnate
to an account for his misdeeds is as bad as, and no worse than, the
so-called labor leader who clamorously strives to excite a foul class
feeling on behalf of some other labor leader who is implicated in
murder. One attitude is as bad as the other, and no worse; in each case
the accused is entitled to exact justice; and in neither case is there
need of action by others which can be construed into an expression of
sympathy for crime.

It is a prime necessity that if the present unrest is to result in
permanent good the emotion shall be translated into action, and that
the action shall be marked by honesty, sanity, and self-restraint.
There is mighty little good in a mere spasm of reform. The reform that
counts is that which comes through steady, continuous growth; violent
emotionalism leads to exhaustion.

It is important to this people to grapple with the problems connected
with the amassing of enormous fortunes, and the use of those fortunes,
both corporate and individual, in business. We should discriminate
in the sharpest way between fortunes well-won and fortunes ill-won;
between those gained as an incident to performing great services to the
community as a whole, and those gained in evil fashion by keeping just
within the limits of mere law-honesty. Of course no amount of charity
in spending such fortunes in any way compensates for misconduct in
making them. As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending
to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall
ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that
of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount, either
given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual――a
tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of
these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any
one individual; the tax, of course, to be imposed by the National and
not the State government. Such taxation should, of course, be aimed
merely at the inheritance or transmission in their entirety of those
fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits.

Again, the National Government must in some form exercise supervision
over corporations engaged in interstate business――and all large
corporations are engaged in interstate business――whether by license
or otherwise, so as to permit us to deal with the far-reaching evils
of over-capitalization. This year we are making a beginning in the
direction of serious effort to settle some of these economic problems
by the railway-rate legislation. Such legislation, if so framed, as
I am sure it will be, as to secure definite and tangible results,
will amount to something of itself; and it will amount to a great deal
more in so far as it is taken as a first step in the direction of a
policy of superintendence and control over corporate wealth engaged
in interstate commerce, this superintendence and control not to be
exercised in a spirit of malevolence toward the men who have created
the wealth, but with the firm purpose both to do justice to them and to
see that they in their turn do justice to the public at large.

The first requisite in the public servants who are to deal in this
shape with corporations, whether as legislators or as executives, is
honesty. This honesty can be no respecter of persons. There can be no
such thing as unilateral honesty. The danger is not really from corrupt
corporations; it springs from the corruption itself, whether exercised
for or against corporations.

The eighth commandment reads, “Thou shalt not steal.” It does not read,
“Thou shalt not steal from the rich man.” It does not read, “Thou
shalt not steal from the poor man.” It reads simply and plainly, “Thou
shalt not steal.” No good whatever will come from that warped and mock
morality which denounces the misdeeds of men of wealth and forgets
the misdeeds practiced at their expense; which denounces bribery, but
blinds itself to blackmail; which foams with rage if a corporation
secures favors by improper methods, and merely leers with hideous mirth
if the corporation is itself wronged. The only public servant who can
be trusted honestly to protect the rights of the public against the
misdeed of a corporation is that public man who will just as surely
protect the corporation itself from wrongful aggression. If a public
man is willing to yield to popular clamor and do wrong to the men of
wealth or to rich corporations, it may be set down as certain that if
the opportunity comes he will secretly and furtively do wrong to the
public in the interest of a corporation.

But, in addition to honesty, we need sanity. No honesty will make
a public man useful if that man is timid or foolish, if he is a
hot-headed zealot or an impracticable visionary. As we strive for
reform we find that it is not at all merely the case of a long uphill
pull. On the contrary, there is almost as much of breeching work as
of collar work; to depend only on traces means that there will soon
be a runaway and an upset. The men of wealth who to-day are trying to
prevent the regulation and control of their business in the interest of
the public by the proper Government authorities will not succeed, in
my judgment, in checking the progress of the movement. But if they did
succeed they would find that they had sown the wind and would surely
reap the whirlwind, for they would ultimately provoke the violent
excesses which accompany a reform coming by convulsion instead of by
steady and natural growth.

On the other hand, the wild preachers of unrest and discontent,
the wild agitators against the entire existing order, the men who
act crookedly, whether because of sinister design or from mere
puzzle-headedness, the men who preach destruction without proposing
any substitute for what they intend to destroy, or who propose a
substitute which would be far worse than the existing evils――all these
men are the most dangerous opponents of real reform. If they get their
way they will lead the people into a deeper pit than any into which
they could fall under the present system. If they fail to get their way
they will still do incalculable harm by provoking the kind of reaction,
which in its revolt against the senseless evil of their teaching, would
enthrone more securely than ever the very evils which their misguided
followers believe they are attacking.

More important than aught else is the development of the broadest
sympathy of man for man. The welfare of the wage-worker, the welfare
of the tiller of the soil, upon these depend the welfare of the entire
country; their good is not to be sought in pulling down others; but
their good must be the prime object of all our statesmanship.

Materially we must strive to secure a broader economic opportunity
for all men, so that each shall have a better chance to show the stuff
of which he is made. Spiritually and ethically we must strive to bring
about clean living and right thinking. We appreciate that the things of
the body are important; but we appreciate also that the things of the
soul are immeasurably more important. The foundation stone of national
life is, and ever must be, the high individual character of the average

                   *       *       *       *       *

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Address of President Roosevelt at the laying of the corner stone of the office building of the House of Representatives, Saturday, April 14, 1906" ***

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