Democratic Ideals

Democratic Ideals  (1913) 
by Theodore Roosevelt

Taken from Outlook Editorials [1], (15 Nov 1913) The Outlook, vol. CV, pages 589–596.
You may be looking for Democratic Ideals (Brown), a pamphlet published by Olympia Brown in 1917.

This is the third of the more important addresses made by Mr. Roosevelt in South America. It was desivered at Buenos Aires on Friday, Movember 7, under the auspices of the Museo Social Argentino, and before a sarge audience. It will be remembered that it was an invitation from the Museo Social to visit the Argentine Republic for the purpose of delivering addresses on subjects of international interest that led to the more extended South American journey of which, in a sense, this address at Buenos Aires is the culminating point. Mr. Roosevelt arrived at Buenos Aires from Montevideo on the cruiser Uruguay on Movember 5. As the cruiser entered the harbor salutes were fired from war-ships and Mr. Roosevelt was met as he landed by a representative of President Pena and by many officials and heads of civic organizations. One newspaper states that on his way to the United States Legation he was cheered by two hundred thousand persons. He was the guest of the American colony at a banquet on November 5, and affended a more formal banquet the next night, following a reception by the Museo Social. During his stay he was the guest of the President of the Republic. - THE EDITORS

THE democratic movement is now, so far as concerns civilized nations, a well-nigh world-wide movement. I come from one of the great democracies of the present and the future. I am speaking to another of the great democracies of the present and the future. There are many striking similarities, oh, my hearers, between my own country and this great country of yours of which at the moment I am the guest. In both there is the same teeming fertility of the soil and variety of resources, and therefore of pursuits. In both there has been the same astounding growth of a virile and energetic population. In both there has been the same piling up of material prosperity. In both side by side with the material progress. we have seen the ominous development of those problems with which all of our latter-day industrial civilizations throughout the world are faced.

Of course each nation has its own peculiar characteristics for good and for evil, and therefore each nation has to face certain problems which are peculiarly its own. But, after all, our likenesses are more important than our differences, and the chief and the most numerous of the questions with which we are face to face are nearly the same, for all of us. This is especially true of your country and mine, both young, both of vast physical area, both growing by leaps and bounds, both in the flush of an enormous material development.

There are nations so backward that they are not as yet in any real sense fit for self-government. Self-government cannot be thrust upon nations from without. It must be developed from within. It cannot exist unless the people have a strong and sound character. Yet its non-existence may not indicate lack of character. It may mean merely that the people have been torpid. Many nations in which the very name self-government would have been meaningless within the memory of men now living are to-day preparing to achieve the actual fact. In Asia itself, the Asia which our fathers regarded as fixed and immovable, there is a stirring which looks as if even in that ancient continent the people in mass were awakening to a sense of their rights.

But we must never forget that the awakening to a demand for rights will mean nothing unless the awakening to a sense of duty goes with it. Self-government is the best of all governments, but it is also the most difficult. Only a very advanced people, a people of sound intelligence, and, above all, of robust character, is fit to govern itself. No gift of popular institutions will avail if the people who receive them do not possess certain great and masterful qualities, and, above all, the combination of two qualities—individual self-reliance and the power of combining for the common good. Similarly, they must possess both the quality that tells in favor of a high idealism and also the quality that gives sound practical common sense in the effort to realize this high ideal. The resolute insistence upon their own rights must go hand in hand with the ready acknowledgment of the rights of others. Above all, there must be in the people the power of self-control. There must always be government, there must always be control, somewhere. If the individual cannot control himself, if he cannot govern himself, then the lack must be supplied from outside. Exactly the same thing is true of nations. Only those peoples who to self-reliance and self-confidence add also self-control can permanently embark on the difficult course of molding their own destinies.

The people of the Argentine have achieved this high quality of citizenship, as the people of my own country have achieved it. But you and we alike must remember that we can never afford to forget the need of possessing this quality. If we surrender ourselves to be governed by our own passions and folly and ignorance, then surely in the end, from without the country or from within the country, a master will arise to dominate us. A strong people need never fear a strong man or a strong government; for a strong government is the most efficient instrument, and a strong man the most efficient servant, of a strong people. It is an admission of popular weakness to be afraid of strong public servants and of an efficient governmental system. But it is an even more culpable weakness for the people not to shape their governmental system so that they retain in their own hands absolute control over both their servants and their agencies of government. They must remain absolute masters of the constitution under which their government works, and of the human instruments through whom the work is done.

The first essential to settle is who shall speak with authority. In democracies our answer is, the people. This necessarily means the majority of the people. Majorities change, however. The shifting of a small percentage of votes may, and as a matter of fact continually does, reverse the position of majority and minority in almost all democracies. It is therefore essential to secure forms of government under which two purposes shall be served. First, the people shall have ample opportunity deliberately to make up their minds, so that the course of action decided upon will not be due merely to whim. Second, when once the people have thus deliberately made up their minds, their decision must be rendered really, and not nominally, effective, and this without undue delay. The people should have ample time to think over a matter before coming to a definite decision. Once they have reached their decision, their action should be real and effective, and their power complete.

The power should always be exercised with due regard to the rights of the minority. No democracy is worth calling such unless the majority possess the power; but no democracy will endure as a democracy unless that power is exercised with wisdom and self-restraint, and with consideration for the rights and the interests of minorities. One of the great tests of democracy is this willingness of those who possess the power to exercise it with moderation and with a proper regard for the rights of others.

This limitation upon the exercise of power by the majority should normally spring from their own trained consciences and intellects, from their own characters, rather than be artificially produced by outside devices. Above all, there should be no pretense to give power with one hand while in reality it is taken away with the other. Sham, pretense, hypocrisy, are public vices everywhere, but nowhere are they as destructive as in a democracy. To make believe to give a man a power or a right, and yet not really to give it to him, trains him to be a bad citizen, helpless to assert his own rights, and prompt to do wrong to others.

Therefore we hold that the people should possess in fact the power with which in theory they are supposed to be dowered. There should never be any provision, especially by any trick or device smacking of pretense and insincerity, which robs them of this power. I believe with all my heart in order and stability, but I hold that in a people fit for self-government both can best be produced by giving the people full power. If they exercise this power badly, then they show that they are not fit for self-government; and in the end fate will surely hold them to a strict accountability for the misuse of the power which they have shown themselves unfit to retain.

Too often in the past constitution-makers have sought to appear to give with one hand what with the other they in actual fact withheld. They have sought, while nominally leaving the people free, really to impose authority upon them from without. I would be the first not merely to admit but to insist that there is peculiar need of leadership in a democracy. The very fact that the work is so enormously difficult and complicated makes it imperative that there should be men of the right type, fit to lead, if the work is to be a success. But these men must be leaders and not drivers. They must come to the front, they must take the lead, because they have persuaded their fellow-citizens that they have in them the wisdom, the courage, and the disinterestedness which will make them leaders for good and not for evil. One product of our own governmental system in the United States, the boss, is not a leader at all, but a driver. The position of the boss depends not upon his winning to his support the hearts. and consciences of his countrymen, but upon his adroit management of political machinery. This sinister adroitness enables him either to thwart and override the expressed or unexpressed wish of the people, or else so to confuse them that they neither understand quite what they desire nor quite what the obstacles are that prevent their achieving their desires. The boss, the driver, is the antithesis of the leader. In my own country he has been developed largely because the governmental system has been ingeniously twisted so as to take away power from the Hoo give power to the man whom the people elect and can themselves hold accountable is one way of removing power from the boss whom the people do not elect and whom they cannot hold accountable.

When a nation has grown sufficiently advanced for democracy, it should fully accept both the power and the responsibility for the exercise of the power. I do not believe in a sham. I do not believe in asserting that the people rule unless we make the actual fact correspond with the assertion. The methods of achieving this purpose must differ according to the temperaments, inherited customs, and habits of thought of the several peoples. Each of the free nations can wisely profit by the experience of the others; each should borrow without hesitation from any one of the others which has something of good. But in borrowing we should adapt the thing borrowed to our own peculiar use and need. Even within my own country, the United States, we have found by actual experience that one State may prosper under one code of laws or constitution which another State finds undesirable. There is no need for insisting on uniformity in these matters. There must be uniformity in the ends sought. There must be free recognition of the possible need of diversity in the methods of attainment.

We must never hesitate to test each theory by experience, unless by such a test it is often impossible to tell how a theory will act, and we must ever combine high idealism with practical common sense in realizing the ideal. We must carefully avoid adhering to any practice merely because it is old. We must no less carefully avoid adopting any practice merely because it is new. hings that are good, that indeed are indisensable for one generation, may be exceedingly inadvisable under the changed conditions of a later generation. In such a case it is folly to permit ourselves to be bound by the dead hand of the past. It is at least as great folly to abandon what is working well unless there is a reasonable certainty that the change will be an improvement.

In my own country we are growing more and more to believe that the only safe rule in a democracy is to give the people themselves the right, after due deliberation, to decide finally on every subject which they deem of vital importance. The public servants—legislators, executives, and judges alike—must be in very fact the servants of the people. The people must have the right to make and unmake these public servants, in order to hold them strictly accountable for their stewardship. They must also have the right on their own initiative to pass upon laws which the legislature! has passed or which it has refused to pass, if the legislature does not correctly represent them. Finally, the people must not surrender to the judiciary, any more than to the executive or legislative branches of the government, the final decision as to what laws they are to be permitted to have. In my own country it often happens that vitally necessary and important laws, demanded in the interests of the people, are declared unconstitutional by a reactionary court. In such a case what really happens is that one agent of the people, the legis. lature, passes the law, and another agent of the people, the court, declares that it has not the power to pass it. The remedy in such a case is obvious. When two agents differ, the principal must decide between them. The people are the masters of all their governmental agents if there is any sincerity in our belief in democracy. Where their servants, their agents, disagree, the people themselves should have the right to step in and say which of their two servants, the court or the legislature, represents their deliberate and well-thought-out conviction.

There must be sovereignty somewhere. There are few evils greater than a divided sovereignty, where no one can say in whose hands the final power is lodged. There are few evils greater than an irresponsible sovereignty, where the final power is exercised by men who cannot be held accountable for its exercise. Men who fear and distrust the people, and yet dare not openly avow their fear and distrust, constantly endeavor, under the forms of democracy, to rob the people of all real power by one or the other of these two devices. They give the people the form of sovereignty, but they lodge the power of sovereignty elsewhere. This is a grave evil. Nominally to give the people the sovereignty, and at the same time covertly to withdraw it from them, means a weakening of the spring of responsibility in the people. In my own country this expedient is especially favored by certain great privileged interests, who for two generations have sought to place sovereignty in the courts and to give them a political and non-judicial power, in order to lodge this power in the hands of those who cannot be held accountable by the people for its exercise.

In the United States the courts have gradually assumed certain powers which are purely political. These powers are in no sense judicial. They are not such as courts in European countries exercise. In consequence it is necessary to provide for popular control over the exercise of these powers by the courts. Such control would be both unwise and unnecessary so far as purely judicial functions, the functions relating to justice as between one individual and another, are concerned. Such concern is not merely wise but indispensably necessary where the functions exercised are legislative and political. In the United States the courts have assumed To be the special interpreters of the Constitution. They have assumed the right to say what the people are, and what they are not, to be allowed to do in providing social and industrial justice; and this without appeal from the decision of the court, which is to be accepted as final. There was a time when this assertion of power by the Federal Court, made very cautiously and sparingly, represented a real governmental advance; for at that time we were still in the gristle, we had not hardened into a nation. There was only a very cumbrous provision for appealing to the people as such. The Court did not at that time usurp power that the people could exercise. It merely assumed power that no other agent of the people effectively exercised. Under the then conditions the Court by the action it took did in fact more nearly than any other governmental instrumentality embody the National ideal. But, as was probably inevitable, the power was by degrees greatly abused. This has been especially true during the past thirty or forty years. Nowadays many well-meaning and sincere judges have grown to regard themselves as having a God-given right to declare on their own responsibility what laws the people are to be allowed to enact. This is an intolerable position. The people must be in fact, and not merely nominally, the masters of their own destiny; and in our country we have found by actual experiment that they can be more safely intrusted with their destinies than can any group of outsiders.

The trouble which has been caused in the United States by the use of the courts in the interest of special privilege to block the cause of social and industrial justice is a problem almost exclusively of our own country. It is, however, of interest to all democracies as showing how important it is that the people shall not let the control of governmental matters slip out of their own hands. Moreover, it is of special interest to all other federal republics, such as the Argentine. I shall therefore briefly describe to you just what our problem is.

The republic of the United States was formed by the people of thirteen separate commonwealths. They decreed a union for specific purposes, which were either enumerated in the written Constitution under which the Government was started or else were necessarily implied in order to carry out those that were enumerated. The Constitution was framed, and the Nation was thereby given efficient form, a century and a quarter ago. It was the first experiment in organizing a republic on a scale as gigantic as that of any empire. It was therefore quite impossible even for the wise men who drew up and secured the adoption of the Constitution to foretell all the difficulties that would arise even as regards the governmental workings of the Nation as they knew it. Far less was it possible for them or any one else to foretell the problems that would arise after the marvelous industrial development of the next century had entered upon its full career. Although a federal republic, the United States differed completely from the impotent federal republics of the past, because the National Government within its own sphere

dealt directly with the citizens of the several States, and not with the States themselves. According to the theory of government then deemed wisest by the best thinkers, the powers were divided between the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches. The framers of the Constitution very wisely intrusted the executive powers into the hands of a president who owed his power to, and was to be held accountable by, the people and not the lawmaking branch of the Government. They unwisely sought to prevent his direct election by the people, but this error has since been remedied, and in actual practice the President is now elected by direct popular vote. The legislature possesses the functions that similar legislative bodies in other countries possess.

As originally founded, the judiciary was also intended to possess the powers that courts at that time held in the great civilized nationals of the Old World, England especially, and France and Germany. For a dozen years after the foundation of the Government the Federal Court of the United States confined itself substantially to the exercise of such functions as then were, and still are, exercised by the courts of England, France, Germany, and other European Powers. In one early case the decision ran counter to the strong general sentiment of the people of the Union, whereupon the promptly recalled the decision, passing a Constitutional amendment, the eleventh, specifically declaring that in such cases the Constitution was to be construed in a sense exactly the reverse of that in which the Supreme Court had just construed it. The term had not at that time been invented, and the proceeding was needlessly cumbrous even for those early and comparatively simple days, but the principle was precisely that which has since been styled the "recall of judicial decisions." The Supreme Court, in this given case, construed the Constitution as permitting a certain action; whereupon the people as a whole, by popular vote and through their representatives, reversed the decision, and directed that thereafter the Constitution should be construed in exactly the opposite way. Washington was President, and many of the other men who took part in framing the Constitution held high office, at the time that this recall of the decision of the Supreme Court by popular vote was carried through; and they either favored or acquiesced in the action. The doctrine that the people have not the right themselves, in orderly fashion and by whatever procedure they choose to provide, to change or construe the Constitution as they desire, would have seemed to Washington and his associates servile and the negation of true Democracy. At that time the Court never dreamed of asserting such a right as against the people. Indeed, at that time the Supreme Court did not sufficiently assert itself even against other Governmental agencies of the people. Congress passed laws which aroused violent antagonism in certain sections of the union, and two of the States declared that they had the right to nullify these laws. Of course the admission of any such right was equivalent to National suicide, and neither the Federal Court nor any other Federal Government authority would nowadays for a moment tolerate its attempted exercise; yet at that time no one thought of invoking the authority of the Federal Court in the matter.

It was not until a very great man, Marshall, became Chief Justice that the Federal Court began seriously to arrogate to itself the right, a negative but vitally important right, to say whether or not the legislature had the power to pass laws which the Court did not regard as proper under the Constitution. The assertion of this right at once overthrew the theory that each of the three different departments of government was supreme in itself. If the Supreme Court of the United States has the power to anul acts of congress, it is itself not merely a judicial but a lawmaking power of the first consequence, for it is the final, the sovereign, authority. This is a tremendous authority. The right to annul the law or to change it - as by judicial decision the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution has been vitally and, as I hold, lamentably changed - is the right to govern. The authority that is able to say by what laws the people shall be governed is the sovereign authority in the State. For sixty years the greatest Presidents - Jefferson, Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln - opposed this doctrine as laid down by the Supreme Court. It seems to me, however, that they never, any of them, not even Lincoln, formulated the right theory of opposition to the doctrine. Each of them fought against it on behalf of another branch of the Government, either the executive or the legislative. Their proper ground of opposition should have been, not that the court usurped power belonging to the executive or the legislative branch, but that it usurped Power belonging to the people.

My personal judgment is that Marshall rendered a great service at the time of his decision, because up to that time there had not been any really sovereign power. It was necessary that there should be somewhere established such a sovereign power. It was better that the Court should have the final say than that any other branch of government should have it, or that it should not exist anywhere. Moreover, at first the power was exercised with the greatest caution, and this continued for half a century. But as the power hardened into an almost unquestioned, and then into an unquestioned, right, the judges began to assert it more and more frequently. For a third of a century it has now been exercised with what I am forced to say, speaking gravely and deliberately, has been inexcusable and reckless wantonness, on behalf of privilege, and against the interests of the very people for whom it is most needful that the power of the Government should be invoked.

The Federal judges are appointed for life. In the different States various methods of election and appointment of their judges are followed. The judges are, on the whole, able and upright men, and public servants of a very high order. Some of them, in spite of their surroundings, retain an absolutely liberal mind, and these men render service such as no other public servants can or do render. But considering the judges as a whole, their necessary and inevitable tendency is to become over-conservative, and quite unconsciously to get out of touch with the needs and aspirations of the people as a whole. They are admirably fit to do justice under the law. But they have no special fitness to say what the laws shall be under which the average men and women of the Nation are to lead their lives of toil and happiness. Not only the Federal judges, but the judges of the various States, have assumed the right in hundreds of cases to set aside laws; and in scores of cases these laws have been the very laws that were vitally necessary in order that the conditions of life and of labor might be bettered as regards those of our people whose need was greatest.

I wish you to remember that in all this I am not speaking of any judicial function of the judge properly so called. I am not speaking of the judges' power to administer the law and to apply it and do justice as between man and man. I am speaking only of the function exercise by the judges of the United States, but not exercised by any judge in England or Germany or France or any similar great industrial European nation. I am speaking of the exercise by the judges of the United States of the political or legislative right to annul laws, and to declare that the people have no power to enact those laws which the judges do not think they ought to enact.

Let me illustrate just what I mean, in order to show you that I am speaking with exact and accurate reference to the facts. The people of the State of New York declared that bakers who worked under unhealthy conditions in underground factories should not labor over ten hours a day. The Supreme Court of the United States said that they had no power to pass such a law, and annulled it. Again, the people of the State of New York declared that in crowded tenement-houses the men, women, and children should not be allowed to work at the tobacco trade under unhealthy conditions. The highest State court said that the people had no power to pass such a law. Yet again, the people of the State of New York declared that compensation should be paid by their employers for men killed or crippled in dangerous industries; the highest State court said that the people had no power to enact such a law. In other cases various courts declared that the people had no power to limit the hours of labor of women, or to prevent them working under improper conditions at night; had no power to force employers to safeguard dangerous machinery around which women and children were employed; had no power to forbid the truck store or company store system ; and so on and so on. I could enumerate scores of such decisions in which various courts annulled law after law urgently demanded in the interest of humanity. In these cases the courts kept the law barbarous, kept it from being humanized, put property rights above human rights, and sanctioned almost every abuse in the interest of property no matter how great the damage it did to ho The judges who rendered these decisions were not bad men—they were well-meaning and honest men. But they had no idea how the great bulk of their fellow-countrymen lived and worked. They knew nothing of the life needs of the average man and average woman of their Nation. Quite unconsciously they zealously served the cause of a small privileged caste and exerted their great power in favor of those who least, and against those who most, needed it. I believe in property rights; I believe that normally the rights of property and of humanity coincide; but sometimes they conflict, and where this is so I put human rights above property rights. There are many of us in the United States who will never rest content while the condition against which I protest continues. We believe that the only wise government for a democracy is a government by the majority, changing easily as the deliberately expressed will of the majority itself changes. We believe that the Constitution of the United States is not a strait-jacket designed to restrain a disorderly and incompetent people from controlling its own affairs, but, on the contrary, an instrument wisely devised to help the orderly growth of the people toward a juster and fairer life system. Therefore we believe that it should be made readily possible to change this instrument in any particular where change is found necessary. We further believe that the administration of justice should be humanized. We believe that by some means quick and available to the people the incompetent or up.just judge should be removed from o We believe that the whole body of the electorate shall at all times and under all circumstances be the ones to say by what laws they shall be govo We deny the right of the courts to annul laws which the people desire because these laws do not accord with the economic ideas of the judiciary. We hold that the people have the right at all times and under all conditions to say by what laws they are to be governed, and that those who deny this theory are not loyal to the theory of republicanism. We hold that the democratic movement of to-day means that all the people must in some shape work together for the welfare of all in order to secure wider opportunity to all. We believe that only in this fashion will it prove possible to secure greater freedom to the average individual and a larger and juster distribution of the benefits of life.

When such are our deep convictions, we cannot and will not submit to the doctrine that laws to guarantee these benefits can, at their own pleasure, be annulled by public servants who are not responsible to the public and who have different economic ideas from the public. We have encountered violent opposition because we have provoked the unrelenting enmity of certain great financial interests. Some of these great interests are anxious improperly to exploit the people; others wish to deal honestly by the people, but distrust the people, and, although they desire to treat them fairly, desire to give this fair treatment from the standpoint of a benevolent despotism, which we regard as intolerable. These interests derive an immense advantage from the injection into our Government of reactionary governmental and economic ideas by well-meaning judges of over-conservative temperament, who unconsciously respond to arguments advanced by shrewd and able corporation lawyers.

We do not confine ourselves to mere scolding. We do not merely denounce what we do not like. We have a definite plan The courts are continuously by their decisions annulling laws which the people desire to have enacted. They are in effect continually amending the Constitution against the deliberate intent of the people who made the Constitution. Judicial amendment to the Constitution is fatally easy. Popular amendment is so difficult that at best it needs ten or fifteen years to put it through. The theory of the Constitution against which we protest takes away from the people as a whole their sovereign right to govern themselves. It deposits this right to govern the people in the hands of well-meaning men who either are not elected by the people, or at least are not elected for any such purpose, who cannot be removed by the people, and who too often perversely pride themselves on having no direct responsibility to the people. We propose to make the process of Constitutional amendment far easier, speedier, and simpler than at present. Furthermore, we propose that, in any specific case where the court declares unconstitutional a given law in the interest of social justice, the people themselves shall have the power to decide whether, notwithstanding such decision, the law in question shall become part of the law of the land.

Let me repeat once more, for it cannot too often be repeated, that I am not speaking of any judicial function of the courts. I am speaking of their lawmaking function, of their Constitution-making function. Even as regards this, we do not advocate taking away from them the power which they have assumed as regards the legislative and executive. We do not intend to reduce them to the position in which judges stand in England, France, Germany, and the other great civilized countries of the Old World, where the judges cannot control in even the smallest degree the lawmaking power of the legislature. But we do intend that in these matters of lawmaking and Constitution-making the people shall be made supreme over the courts, not merely nominally and theoretically, but practically and as a matter of actual fact. Our proposal is that the court shall continue to have the right to declare a given law of the legislature unconstitutional ; but that in such case the people shall have the right, by expeditious process, after taking time for deliberation, but without any improper or excessive delay, to say whether the legislature or the court shall be held best to have interpreted their wishes. Y. We do not wish to take away the power of the courts to pass on the constitutionality of a law. But where they thus declare a law unconstitutional, we wish to give to the people who made the Constitution, whose fathers died for it, who now live under it, and to whom it belongs, the right to say whether or not the law shall stand. We wish to make the people the supreme arbiters between their servants the court and the legislature when the court and the legislature differ as to the proper interpretation of the Constitution which the people made. We wish to give to the people the power finally to make their own Constitution, and to make it by declaring specifically what it is to be held to mean in any given case where the two servants of the people, the court and the legislature, disagree on some definite act in the interest of social and industrial injustice.

I have spoken at length of this matter because it is vital to the growth of democracy in my own country, and because the principle of the sovereignty of the people is vital to all democracy. If the people fail to exercise that sovereignty with justice, self-control, and practical good sense, then they show they are not fit for democracy. But if they are fit for democracy, then the sovereignty is and must be theirs, and theirs in fact and not merely in name. A free democracy fit for self-government must insist on governing itself and not being governed by others. Such a democracy can no more recognize the divine right of judges than the divine right of kings. It must itself declare what the laws and the constitution shall be.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.