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Monday, August 30, 2010

The centennial of Theodore Roosevelt's “New Nationalism” speech at Osawatomie, Kansas

On August 31, 1910—one hundred years ago—at the dedication of the John Brown Memorial State Park in Osawatomie, Kansas, former president Theodore Roosevelt gave the most memorable speech of his political career. Roosevelt’s delivery, the speech’s content, the audience’s response and the reaction that followed made it the high point of the sixteen-state, three-week whistle-stop tour by private railway car across the trans-Mississippi West.

The tour was a smashing success. In 1908 Roosevelt decided to honor the pledge he made after he won re-election in 1904 and not seek a third term. He handpicked William Howard Taft, his secretary of defense, to succeed him, thinking Taft the best choice to carry on his policies. But twenty months into Taft’s term, Roosevelt was having second thoughts. Republican leaders complained that Taft was no Progressive. They needed Roosevelt to unite them again. He had agreed to this speaking tour while he was abroad and now it was snowballing into something larger than Roosevelt had planned or imagined.

In an extensive article posted online in the Kansas Historical Quarterly Robert S. La Forte describes the scene:
All through the 30th, when the festivities started, people poured into Osawatomie—“singly … in pairs, by the dozens and scores.” They came “on foot, bicycles, motors, buggies, wagons, trains and [in] every manner … possible.” Even though it was raining, the Graphic reported, “they had on their sunshine disposition … and were ready to hear 'Teddy' speak.” But as the great day dawned the rain diminished and then stopped. And, while acres of people, as one observer described them, waited at the Osawatomie station for his arrival, they sang Moody and Sankey hymns to keep their spirits dry. Then the colonel's train appeared. Pandemonium broke loose! The crown shrieked, whistled, cheered, and cried “hello Teddy!” Roosevelt stepped out onto the rear platform and just smiled, bowed, and looked like he enjoyed it immensely. It was a bully occasion!
At 2:15 P.M. Roosevelt was introduced by Kansas Governor Walter Roscoe Stubbs to approximately 30,000 people in the park. Here is a man, Stubbs said, “whose name is synonymous for liberty, justice and righteousness in private and public life and whose power and influence for good is greater than any … ruler in the world today.” Then “Teddy” mounted the kitchen table which picturesquely served as his podium at Osawatomie. High above a surging throng which continually cheered, he spoke for one and one-half hours. The set up, reported in the Daily Capital, was much like a country fair, with booths where sandwiches and drinks were being sold. All during the speech people continued to buy food at those stands and the vendors continued to hawk their wares. Not everyone could hear his high-falsettoed voice, but everyone cheered.
President Taft had recently dismissed the writer of the Osawatomie speech, Gifford Pinchot, from his post of chief of the Agriculture Department’s Division of Forestry for insubordination. And some credit the caustic Kansas journalist, William Allen White, for several of the speech’s more colorful passages. As Roosevelt biographer H. W. Brands has written: Roosevelt “had never stated his objectives so comprehensively or packaged them so concisely as a single approach to the country’s problems.”

The phrase “New Nationalism” did not originate with Roosevelt. It had been coined by the journalist and political philosopher Herbert Croly in his book, The Promise of American Life, which argued that a strong central government as envisioned by Alexander Hamilton could be used to serve Jeffersonian ideals better than Jefferson’s preference for a limited government. Roosevelt read and liked the book and adopted its ideas. As he described it in his speech:
This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people.
Upon hearing about Roosevelt’s attack on the judiciary, President Taft became so outraged he reportedly flung a golf club across the course.

At one point Roosevelt deviated from his prepared text to say:
[W]ords count for nothing except in so far as they represent acts. This is true everywhere; but, O my friends, it should be truest of all in political life. A broken promise is bad enough in private life. It is worse in the field of politics. No man is worth his salt in public life who makes on the stump a pledge which he does not keep after election; and, if he makes such a pledge and does not keep it, hunt him out of public life.
According to Roosevelt biographer Kathleen Dalton, his “audience thought he was saying President Taft needed to be ‘hunted out of public life’ and they cheered.”

Roosevelt would go on to call for directors of companies to be held personally liable for corporate actions, for the details of corporate affairs to be made completely public, for graduated income and inheritance taxes, a revamped financial system, a comprehensive workmen’s compensation law, a commission of experts to regulate the tariff, limitations on the political activities of corporations, stringent new conservation laws, and regulation of child labor.

Roosevelt had never before used phrases quite so radical: “The essense 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 by service to his or their fellows.” “The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare. . . .” And he quoted Lincoln, “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Westerners cheered the New Nationalism. Conservatives in the east attacked it, calling it socialism, anarchism, communism. Yet much of what Roosevelt outlined here would in effect become the platform for his candidacy as the Presidential nominee for the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party in the election of 1912. The divisiveness cost the Republicans the election, however, and from then on Progressivism became for Republicans the path not chosen.

Related LOA works:American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton; Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches


  1. What Roosevelt said seems still appropriate for today's world. Since Pres. Obama likes Lincoln so much he should quote Lincoln's quote: “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” That might help people get jobs.

  2. Teddy Roosevelt was an altruistic man of ideals and privileged upbringing. Others of similar circumstances must have become leaders of companies. These two, politics and capitalism, don't always jibe and much of American history is the story of business opportunity and regulation.

    100 years later is a good time to appreciate Teddy's ideals and yet, not forget, the voters common sense.


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