On Abraham Lincoln's birthday (Feb. 12, 1809) in 1913, beloved former President Teddy Roosevelt delivered one of the great speeches in American history, a ringing declaration for a more expansive democracy and government, one that helped its own people succeed and did much more than protect the property of its wealthiest citizens.
As the party that once was Roosevelt's searches for its soul – and increasingly is wrenched toward de-legitimizing government and democracy itself – this is a time to reflect on the equality and humanism advanced by those two great Republican presidents on Mt. Rushmore. (Voters in Minnesota, distinctively progressive from statehood on, voted overwhelmingly for Abe and Tedddy, and Minnesota was one of only six states Roosevelt carried under his new banner in the 1912 election.)
At this point in history, Roosevelt was no longer president and had broken with conservatives in his own party who were opposed to his many progressive reforms, ranging from the progressive income tax to worker protections to food-and-safety regulation. In this speech at the Hotel Astor in New York City, Roosevelt reminded his audience that Lincoln was not a conservative but a radical equalizer who fought a war for human rights over property rights, and who once said that "labor is the superior of capital" and that "we are for the man before the dollar."
In his opening words, Roosevelt explained that the new Progressive Party was "a manifestation of the eternal forces of human growth, a manifestation of the God-given impulse implanted in mankind to make a better race and a better earth." And then he uttered these words, which I highly recommend for moderates and progressives today who search for inspiration in the fight against those who seek to return our nation to 19th Century rugged individualism.
We recognize that property has its rights; but they are only incident to, they come second to, the rights of humanity. We hold that the resources of the earth were placed here for the use of man in the mass, that they are to be developed for the common welfare of all, that they are not to be seized by a few for the purpose of oppression of the many, or even with disregard for the rights of the many. Yet we earnestly believe and insist that our policy, so far from being detrimental to property or to business, will be for the good of property and business, because our policy is to put both property and business in their proper relations with humanity.
At the close of the speech, Roosevelt called on Americans to "make this nation a real democracy; an economic as well as political democracy free from every taint of either sectional or sectarian hatred… a democracy of true brotherhood... a democracy which stands for each individual's performance of his own duty toward others even more than for his insistence upon his rights as against others.''
The two Roosevelt presidents, Republican Theodore and his even more influential Democratic fifth cousin, Franklin D., helped transform the United States over the last century in to a fairer and more civilized nation, and one that grew ever more powerful and rich as a result of that fairness and greater equality of opportunity and result.
Lincoln and the Roosevelts believed what most Americans actually still believe, that their own governments have a proper and fundamental role in improving their lives and providing fairness and greater equality of opportunity, and that this is good for business and profits in the long run. Or in the words of many of today's leading economists, equity is the superior growth model.