On this day 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt recorded his great speech, “The Right of the People to Rule.” The political circumstances surrounding the speech bear some resemblance to those of today: 1912 was a presidential election year, and the country was divided.
The Republican Party, though, was especially divided. Roosevelt had already served two terms as president under the Republican banner, but by 1912 he had become deeply disappointed in what he saw as the reactionary drift of his successor and one-time friend, William Howard Taft. He decided to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination. When Roosevelt lost at the convention he pressed ahead anyway, forming the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party.
Taft knew he was no match for the charismatic Roosevelt in a popular election, but he saw his role in the situation as being the guardian of the conservative character of the Republican Party. With only 24% of the vote, Taft came in third place in the November election, behind the Democrat Woodrow Wilson (41%) and Roosevelt (27%). It was an embarrassing outcome for a sitting president, but in one sense Taft won: The Republican party took a conservative turn, and stayed on that course.
Roosevelt’s speech was recorded on an Edison cylinder at his Sagamore Hill Estate in Oyster Bay, New York on August 16, 1912, during a brief lull in the campaign following the Progressive Party Convention. It was one of several campaign speeches that were recorded and then distributed around the country before the general election. It’s based partly on a speech he gave on March 20, 1912 at Carnegie Hall.
In the recorded version, Roosevelt speaks for the need to find a political middle ground, warning against the danger of ultra-conservatism. “It would be well,” he says, “if our people would study the history of a sister republic. All the woes of France for a century and a quarter have been due to the folly of her people in splitting into the two camps of unreasonable conservatism and unreasonable radicalism. Had pre-Revolutionary France listened to men like Turgot, and backed them up, all would have gone well. But the beneficiaries of privilege, the Bourbon reactionaries, the shortsighted ultra-conservatives, turned down Turgot; and found that instead of him they had obtained Robespierre.”
Near the end, Roosevelt sounds an impassioned call:
Friends, our task as Americans is to strive for social and industrial justice, achieved through the genuine rule of the people. This is our end, our purpose. The methods for achieving the end are merely expedients, to be finally accepted or rejected according as actual experience shows that they work well or ill. But in our hearts we must have this lofty purpose, and we must strive for it in all earnestness and sincerity, or our work will come to nothing. In order to succeed we need leaders of inspired idealism, leaders to whom are granted great visions, who dream greatly and strive to make their dreams come true; who can kindle the people with the fire from their own burning souls.
If you would like to read along as you listen to Roosevelt’s voice, click here to open the full text in a new window.