Teddy Roosevelt Betrayed

Susan Dunn
August 9, 1999

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. – When Theodore Roosevelt demanded that Congress pass a steeply graduated inheritance tax in 1906, he was proposing the one bill that members of his own patrician class feared most. In attacking what they cherished - not just their money but also their sense of entitlement and superiority - he was challenging the class system, not the capitalist system, turning the upper-class world upside down. As far as these plutocrats were concerned, T.R. had betrayed his own class to the point of no return.

As Republicans today seek an end to the inheritance tax, they are
betraying the legacy of their great Republican President.

Roosevelt, the Oyster Bay patrician who used his inheritance to lead a
life of public service rather than a life of leisure, always believed that
the transmission of enormous wealth to young men ``does not do them any real service and is of great and genuine detriment to the community at large.''

What really mattered, he felt, was to have a national community based on citizens' political equality, relative economic equality and interdependence. For Roosevelt, the inheritance tax was a moral issue as well as an economic one.

``If ever our people become so sordid as to feel that all that counts is
moneyed prosperity, ignoble well-being, effortless ease and comfort,'' he warned, ``then this nation shall perish, as it will deserve to perish,
from the earth.'' Wealth, he declared, should only be ``the foundation on which to build the real life, the life of spiritual and moral effort and

T.R.'s proposals met with no immediate success. But in hammering out
his message in sermonizing speech after speech, he provoked a debate on inherited wealth and power and helped create a climate in which reform would eventually become possible. An inheritance tax became law in 1916, eight years after Roosevelt left office.

In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt took up the same crusade, striking out at
great fortunes, again for moral as well as economic reasons. ``The
transmission from generation to generation of vast fortunes by will,
inheritance or gift,'' declared F.D.R., ``is not consistent with the ideals
and sentiments of the American people.

``Inherited economic power,'' he continued, ``is as inconsistent with
the ideals of this generation as inherited political power was inconsistent with the ideals of the generation which established our Government.''

At the end of the century, we seem to be returning to the Gilded Age. And as Republicans in Congress seek to abolish the inheritance tax as well as weaken the progressive income tax, Americans are hearing no meaningful debate on taxing vast fortunes, no voices of moral outrage, no passionate reminders of the American ideal of equality.

Are there any politicians who can now honestly claim to follow the
Roosevelt brand of leadership?

• Susan Dunn is the co-author, with James MacGregor Burns, of the
forthcoming "Three Roosevelts: Class Betrayal and Moral Leadership."