Letter to Lincoln Steffens

Theodore Roosevelt

June 05, 1908

My dear Steffens:

In view of Mr. Cosgrave’s statement that I had read the proof of your very interesting article, I think I ought to leave it on record that I had not read the proof. I do this simply because the ordinary man would gather the impression — which I fear Cosgrave intended to convey — that as I had read the proof I endorsed all that you say. Now, as regards myself I am often interested in what you say; I sometimes agree with it and sometimes not; but I am always a hundred times more interested in some idea that you develop in the course of what you say about me than I am in what you thus say about me. You have an entire right to your opinion; and while I may or may not be interested in this opinion, I am a hundred-fold more interested in some idea which you apparently consider as incidental. Indeed, often I have been so wholly uninterested in your view of me, and so genuinely interested in your view of something else which you have developed in connection with the former, that I have simply forgot that you were expressing any view of me, and concentrated my attention on the other matter. It is a little difficult for me to express myself clearly without seeming to be slightly uncomplimentary. I know you will acquit me of any such intention. I merely wish to make it clear that I am not to be held as acquiescing in what you say because I do not express dissent from it. To me, for instance, it seems simply nonsense — a nonsense not much above the average spiritualistic séance type, or, to use another simile, not much above the average long-haired and wiled eyed violent socialist type, or the silly, self-advertising parlor socialist of the Robert Hunter type — to say that I am not interested in fighting the Evil or do not see the great underlying cause of it; whereas others, by which I suppose you mean La Follette, do see it. When you express this view either in conversation or writing I do not contradict you or comment upon it because it seems to me a mere foolish vagary on your part, and I pass it by to deal with the points where you really do expressed needed truths that have not been exprest as well. For instance, in this article, if I gather aright what you mean, you contend that Taft and I are good people of limited vision who fight against specific evils with no idea of fighting against the fundamental evil; whereas La Follette is engaged in a fight against the “fundamental” evil. Now, I am really flattered by your having as good an opinion of me as you have. I am pleased at it; and it would never enter my head to point out where I think it is erroneous, if it were not that apparently I am considered as having endorsed your views. Not only I do not endorse them, but I think them on this point childish. Your attitude is to my mind precisely the attitude of the man who patronizes a good country doctor because the latter admits that he cannot cure all disease nor give a specific remedy against all “Disease;” whereas when you prefer La Follette as a type, I feel just as if you held up as better than this country doctor the man who blazons out that he has a particular kind of vegetable pill which will cure old age, consumption, broken legs, and every other ill to which flesh is heir. You can say quite truthfully that the country doctor is fighting evils, not “the Evil;” you can also say that the other individual is showing real “leadership” and is going to put a stop not only to “evils” but to all “Evil;” but if you said this you would be saying something that was foolish. The same is absolutely as true of political life as of medical life. It is only the quack who will tell you that he has a cure for everything, whether in the world of medicine and surgery, in the world of politics, or in the world of social and industrial endeavor. For instance, you speak of La Follette as standing for the great principle of really representative government, and you seem to imply that the application of this principle would put a stop to all evils. It will do nothing of the kind, and if you proceed upon the assumption that it will, you will yourself work far-reaching harm and will work it in a foolish manner. I have made a pretty careful study of communities in which the initiative and referendum exist, as compared with communities which live under representative institutions, and the difference between them in point of average welfare is so small that I am unable to get up any special enthusiasm for one side or the other. The system of direct primaries under the law works a slight betterment over existing conditions. That is, it works, I think, on the whole a very slight improvement over the other system, but it is very slight and consists, on the whole, of a preponderance of slight betterments over slight hurts. An absolutely representative government in the Yazoo would bring about the condition of Haiti. You must have a pretty robust faith in names and theories if you think the conditions of Haiti satisfactory. Absolutely representative government in the city of New York would mean the very most trifling improvement over present conditions unless with it went hand in hand the uplifting of the conscience of the average man. I am trying, however feebly, to make men better, as well as to get better laws, better administration of the laws; and the first is by far the most important. Graft obtains in little things as well as in the big grafter; and I wish to fight against graft as such, and attack can never result in any real betterment. I am fighting evil in the mass the only in which it is possible to fight it, when I fight different evils in the concrete. When you speak of “the system” you use a word that has a certain convenience and that appeals more or less to the imagination; but when you begin practically to speak of fighting “the system,” as if it meant anything else than doing a man’s duty according to the old standards, you simply lapse back into the condition of those religious enthusiasts of the days of Cromwell who announced that they wisht to fight “principalities and powers” and that they were for the “fifth monarchy, the monarchy of Jesus,” and that it was useless to try to improve humanity unless by a radical change and the installation of the “fifth monarchy.” This kind of talk did not indicate advanced morality nearly as much as it indicated an unsound mind, and the same statement applies exactly to those who use large phrases to cover up utter vagueness of thought when they come to deal with the political and social evils of today. La Follette has been three years in the Senate. His “plan” which you quote in the article referred to consists so far as it is good of a string of platitudes, and, practically, to adopt it wouldn’t mean anything. He talks about the railroads; but as far as action goes, he has not helped at all, since he came to the Senate, in the great work we have actually done towards getting control over the railroads. He has rather hindered this work. Like Tillman he has made great personal gains by what he has done as Senator, because he has advertised himself so that both he and Tillman are very popular in chautauquas, where the people listen to them both, sometimes getting ideas that are right, more often getting ideas that are wrong, and on the whole not getting any ideas at all and simply feeling the kind of pleasurable excitement that they would at the sight of a two-headed calf, or of a trick performed on a spotted circus horse. I tried faithfully to work with La Follette, just as I tried faithfully to work with Aldrich. Neither has been of much use in public life during the last three years, each has often worked detriment. Now and then I have been able to work a little with one, and now and then to work with the other; but the deification of one is just as absurd as the deification of the other — I might add just as absurd as the diabolization of one or the other. The men who have done good in the twenty-five years have tried to realize them in plain, practical fashion, and who have tried to do each his duty as the day came, and to fight each evil as they found it arise without bothering their heads as to the “ultimate” evil. I believe in the men who take the next step; not those who theorize about the 200th step. Again my experience has been that might little good comes from the individual who is fighting “the system” in the abstract; just a mighty little good comes from the church member who is fighting Beelzebub in the abstract. I care nothing either for the reformer or the church member who does not try to do good in the concrete, and who is not ashamed to cover his deficiencies in particular concrete cases by vague mouthings about general abstract principles which are as nebulous in his mind as in the minds of others. It was Lincoln and Oliver P. Morton and the men like them who really saved the Union and abolished slavery, and relatively thereto the part was insignificant which was played by the Wendell Phillips and the Garrisons and the others who lied to think of themselves as “leaders,” and to construct an imaginary plan for the perfection of everything which could not even be defined, and which could not have worked in one smallest part if there had been any attempt to realize it.

If you will come down to see me I will go over all this more at length with you, and for once, instead of pasing by or brushing aside what you say about me or about anyone else with which I disagree, I will tell you just what I do disagree with. Sincerely yours

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