Teddy Roosevelt Betrayed
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
life of public service rather than a life of leisure, always believed
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
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
moneyed prosperity, ignoble well-being, effortless ease and comfort,''
he warned, ``then this nation shall perish, as it will deserve to
from the earth.'' Wealth, he declared, should only be ``the foundation
on which to build the real life, the life of spiritual and moral
T.R.'s proposals met with no immediate success. But in hammering
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
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
and sentiments of the American people.
``Inherited economic power,'' he continued, ``is as inconsistent
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
Are there any politicians who can now honestly claim to follow
Roosevelt brand of leadership?
• Susan Dunn is the co-author, with James MacGregor Burns,
forthcoming "Three Roosevelts: Class Betrayal and Moral Leadership."