Remarks at the Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Denver, Colorado
I want to say a word as to governmental policy in which I feel that this whole country ought to take a great interest, and which is itself but part of a general policy into which I think our government must go. I have spoken of the policy of extending the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission and of giving them particularly the power to fix rates and to have the rates that they fix go into effect practically at once. As I say, that represents in my mind part of what should be the general policy of this country.
The policy of giving not to the State but to the National government an increased supervisory and regulatory power over corporations is the first step, and to my mind the most important step. In the days of the fathers of the older among you the highways of commerce for civilized nations were what they had always been—that is, waterways and roadways. Therefore they were open to all who chose to travel upon them. Within the last two generations we have seen new systems grow up, and now the typical highway of commerce is the railroad.
Compared to the railroad, the ordinary road for wheeled vehicles and the waterways, whether natural or artificial, have lost all their importance. Here in Colorado, for instance, it is the railroads which are the only highways that you need take into account in dealing with the question of commerce in the State or outside of the State. Therefore under this changed system we see highways of commerce grow up, each of which is controlled by a single corporation or individual; some times several of them being controlled in combination by corporations, or by a few individuals. When such is the case, in my judgment, it is absolutely necessary that the nation, for the State cannot possibly do it, should assume a supervisory and regulatory function over the great corporations which practically control the highways of commerce.
As with everything else mundane, when you get that supervisory and regulatory power on behalf of the nation you will not have cured all the evils that existed and you will not equal the expectations of the amiable but ill-regulated enthusiast who thinks that you will have cured all those evils. A measure of good will come. Some good will be done, some injustice will have been prevented, but we shall be a long way from the millennium. Get that fact clear in your mind, or you will be laying up for yourselves a store of incalculable disappointment in the future. That is the first thing.
Now the second step: When you give a nation that power, remember, that harm and not good will come from giving unless you give it with the firm determination not only to get justice for yourselves but to do justice to others; that you will be as zealous to do justice to the railroads as to exact justice from them. We cannot afford in any shape or way in this country to encourage a feeling which would do injustice to a man of property any more than we would submit to injustice from a man of property. Whether the man owns the biggest railroad or the greatest outside corporations in the land, or whether he makes each day's bread by the sweat of that day's toil, he is entitled to justice and fair dealing, no more and no less.
It is perhaps unnecessary for me to say that I am perfectly aware that many most admirable gentlemen disagreed with me in my action toward the Panama Canal, but I am in an unrepentant frame of mind. The ethical conception upon which I acted was that I did not intend that Uncle Sam should be held up. But without regard to that, when the canal comes into operation, I think it will have a very important regulatory effect in connection with trans-continental commerce of the rail roads. I think when such is the case, these great railroads will have to revise their way of looking at the interests of certain inland cities.
As I say, gentlemen, don't misunderstand me, I understand thoroughly the argument from their standpoint and see that they can in all sincerity hold their position, and while I do not think that anything I can say could have any effect in making them alter that position, I have considerable hopes for the effect upon the Panama canal. Let me repeat. I have told you my views as to what I regard to be the most important matter of international legislation that in the immediate future will be before this people.
I wish to say again that important though that legislation is, it is nothing like as important as the spirit in which we approach it. If we approach it in the spirit of demagoguery, if we permit ourselves as a people to be deluded into the belief that permanent good will come to us as a mass, if we attack unjustly the proper rights of others because they are wealthy, we shall do ourselves just as much damage as if we permitted an attack upon those who are poor, because they are poor.
In times past republic after republic has existed in this world and has gone down to destruction sometimes because the republic was turned into a government of the poor who plundered the rich, sometimes be cause it was turned into a government of the rich who exploited the poor. It made no difference whatever to the fate of the republic which form its fall took. That fall was just as certain in one case as in the other. It was just as certain to follow the election of a class who plundered another class, whether the class thus given mastery was the poor who plundered the rich, or the class of the rich who exploited the poor.
The destruction was as inevitable in one instance as in the other.
We have the right to look forward with confident hope to the future of this republic because it will not and shall not become the republic of any class either poor or rich, because it will and shall remain as its founders intended it to be, and its rescuers under Abraham Lincoln intended it to be, a government where every man, rich or poor, so long as he did his duty to his neighbor, was given his full rights, was guaranteed justice and has had justice exacted from him in return.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Chamber of Commerce Banquet in Denver, Colorado Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343612