Guest Essayist: James Legee, Graduate, Master of Arts in Political Science at Villanova University, Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good

Theodore Roosevelt left the office of the President in 1908, only to be drawn back into politics in 1912, disappointed with his predecessor’s defense of the Progressive cause.  He launched the “Bull Moose” Party with the zeal befitting a man who was photographed actually riding a bull moose.  Roosevelt pursued an agenda in 1912 that called for increasing popular participation in government and eroding the barriers between the people and government.  This is also an intentional blurring of the line between a republican form of government and a direct democracy of the kind that existed in antiquity.

President Roosevelt’s speech outlines several major proposals to, at least tacitly, put greater control directly into the hands of the people to save them from the tyranny of minorities (mostly the wealthy and corporations.)  The first is his “initiative and referendum,” whereby a legislature that “refuse[s] the will of the majority” may be taken over by the majority, meaning there should be a direct vote on legislation by the populace, as one would have seen in an Athenian democracy.  The idea of direct votes on legislation is parceled with the idea of recall elections, whereby an election may be held in the middle of an official’s term, to recall (and replace) that official, should he be “unfaithful” to the public.  A recent and contentious example of this came with the June 2012 recall vote on Governor Scott Walker, of Wisconsin.  Roosevelt’s final proposal involves enabling the people to vote on laws struck down by state supreme courts.  Roosevelt sought “that in a certain class of cases involving the police power, when a State court has set aside as unconstitutional a law passed by the legislature for the general welfare the question of the validity of the law…be submitted for final determination to a vote of the people…” In other words, if a law were deemed to benefit the general welfare according to the test of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (that the law be based “upon the prevailing morality or preponderant opinion”) it should be given to the people to vote on, even if had been declared unconstitutional.

Self-government requires a degree of restraint, caution and thought.  Recall elections, even direct primaries, make it easier for demagogues and rhetoricians to use the people, play on their emotions, and avoid appealing to their reason.  This fact was not lost of the Founders, and the Progressive proposals of Roosevelt are not new; in fact, they were thoroughly considered and rejected by the Founding Fathers.  Fisher Ames perhaps best articulated why such notions were rejected in his Speech at the Massachusetts Convention, given on January 15, 1788, where he confronted the issues of delegating power and the distance of the people from their leaders.  Ames wrote,

Much has been said about the people’s divesting themselves of power, when they delegate it to representatives; and that all representation is to their disadvantage, because it is but an image, a copy, fainter and more imperfect than the original, the people, in whom the light of power is primary and unborrowed, which is only reflected by their delegates. I cannot agree to either of these opinions. The representation of the people is something more than the people. … The people must govern by a majority, with whom all power resides. But how is the sense of this majority to be obtained? It has been said that a pure democracy is the best government for a small people who assemble in person. It is of small consequence to discuss it, as it would be inapplicable to the great country we inhabit. It may be of some use in this argument, however, to consider that it would be very burdensome, subject to faction and violence; decisions would often be made by surprise, in the precipitancy of passion, by men who either understand nothing, or care nothing about the subject; or by interested men, or those who vote for their own indemnity. It would be a government not by laws, but by men.

Representative government is imperfect, but it is not nearly as unwieldy as direct democracy.  Ames continues on to point out elections that are too frequent become meaningless to voters, and those in office do not have an opportunity to learn their jobs, to learn how to be a statesman.

Perhaps most importantly, some distance between what Holmes and Roosevelt would call the “prevailing morality or preponderant opinion” of the people and governance is necessary for wise decision-making.  Ames sought that “the sober, second thought of the people shall be law … To provide for popular liberty, we must take care that measures shall not be adopted without due deliberation.”  Some of the greatest follies have come from the will of the majority, such as when Stephen E. Douglas’ popular sovereignty of the 1850s prevailed; Americans in some states voted themselves the right to own slaves.  After the anguish and fear of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were placed in camps, with the approval of the federal government (though, it was later found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.)  In the case of slavery, there was years of debate and the peculiar institution predates the American Founding, but it was still the will of the majority.  In the case of Japanese internment, popular opinion, fear, and racism, got the best of justice and reasoned deliberation.  The Progressive contempt for the slow movement of republican government and desire for the “public good” to lack a long-term definition, but rather, be applicable only to the present, allows for policies based on the whim of the majority at a single and tumultuous time.

It is ironic that Theodore Roosevelt states in the beginning of his address that “the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men…will make in trying to govern them” to justify a political ideology that continuously broadens the role of the national government in the day to day lives of the citizens. The doctrine created a bureaucratic state disconnected from the people themselves and not answerable to a vote.  The real growth of the bureaucratic state would come in through the New Deal and Great Society, but its antecedents are firmly placed and credited to Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Republicans.  The people may have the right to rule, but little credence is given to the idea of self government in the most basic sense, running one’s own life and being responsible for one’s own choices, failures, and successes; this includes voting the wrong people into office and removing them when their term expires.

Read “The Right of the People to Rule,” by Theodore Roosevelt here:

James Legee recently completed his Master of Arts in Political Science at Villanova University, where he was a Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good. You can find him on twitter @JamesLegee.

Thursday, June 6, 2013 

2 replies
  1. Jason Raia
    Jason Raia says:

    I’m not sure about your conclusion that TR’s desire to achieve more direct democracy is some how the underpinning for the growth of democracy, that is neither representative of the people or the people themselves. It seems to come out of no where, as you do not discuss the bureaucracy anywhere else in the piece.

    As a point of fact, in Korematsu v. United States, SCOTUS found for the US, declaring Executive Order 9066 and the internment of Japanese-Americans to have been constitutional, which is why there has been no movement of reparations of any kind by the government.

    • Jason Raia
      Jason Raia says:

      In line two, please replace the word “democracy” with “bureaucracy” for the sentence to make sense.

      My natural inclination for the “growth of democracy” leapt from my fingers before my brain caught up.

      Mea culpa…


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