teddy roosevelt and j.p. morgan -- 3/4/19

Today's selection -- from Land of Promise by Michael Lind. Ostensibly a "trust-buster," President Theodore Roosevelt had a complicated relationship with financier J.P. Morgan, a prominent aggregator of trusts:

"[President Theodore] Roosevelt [TR] condemned 'malefactors of great wealth.' He wrote: 'Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.'

"But TR did not believe that breaking up large corporations could re­store a golden age of equality among small farmers and small shopkeep­ers. He complained: 'Much of the legislation not only proposed but en­acted against trusts is not one whit more intelligent than the medieval [papal] bull against the comet, and has not been one particle more effective.' In his annual address to Congress in 1902, he wrote: 'These big aggregations are an inevitable development of modern industrialism, and the effort to destroy them would be futile. The line of demarcation we draw must al­ways be on conduct, not on wealth; our objection to any given corporation must be, not that it is big, but that it behaves badly.' In his 'New Nation­alism' speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, in 1910, Roosevelt observed: 'The effort at prohibiting all combination has substantially failed. The way out lies, not in attempting to prevent such combinations, but in completely controlling them in the interest of the public welfare.'

"Critics noted that when Roosevelt distinguished 'good trusts' from 'bad trusts,' the good trusts were often organized by J.P. Morgan, who funded his campaigns. For example, although his Justice Department successfully brought an antitrust suit against the Morgan-backed North­ern Securities railroad trust, TR saw US Steel as a good trust, and when a lawsuit against it was brought under the Sherman Act, a federal dis­trict court agreed, throwing out the suit in a 1915 decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 1920. The satirist Finley Peter Dunne, in Irish dia­lect, restated Roosevelt's distinction between good and bad trusts: '"The trusts," says [Roosevelt], "are heejous monsthers built up be th'inlightened intherprise iv th' men that have done so much to advance progress in our beloved country," he says. "On wan hand I wud stamp thim undher fut; on th 'other hand not so fast." '

"When in 1902, Roosevelt ordered Attorney General Philander Knox to prosecute Morgan's Northern Securities Corporation for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, Morgan visited the White House and told the president, 'If we have done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.' After Morgan departed, TR told Knox: 'Mr. Morgan could not help regarding me as a big rival operator, who either intended to ruin all his interests or else could be induced to come to an agreement to ruin none.' Their clashes did not prevent Morgan along with other major financiers and industrialists from contributing money to Roosevelt's 1904 election campaign, on the grounds that the agrarian populist Democrats were a greater threat than the patrician progressive. But Morgan never forgave Roosevelt. When he learned that the recently retired president had gone to Africa on a hunting expedition, Morgan told friends: 'I hope the first lion he meets does his duty.' "

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Michael Lind


Land of Promise 




Copyright 2012 Michael Lind


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